There was a time when you would walk into your neighborhood photo lab and hand them a roll of film. If they had questions for you, they asked. If you had questions for them, you asked. Life isn’t as simple these days. Digital photography and on-line shopping has led to a dramatic decline in the number of local camera shops and film processors. Most of us who love shooting film, and don’t have ready access to darkrooms or processing equipment, have to rely on mail-order film processing.
We (Old School Photo Lab) have been a retail photo lab for 31 years, but have been running our mail-order service for the past year, which has been a completely different experience. Today, I want to offer some suggestions for how you can get the best from your photo lab.
Exposed/Unprocessed Film Handling-
Rewind your film all the way. That’s it. It’s an easy, fool-proof way to know if your film has been through your camera...
|Unexposed 35mm film (or leader out)
|Exposed 35mm film
A lot of you may have Holgas that you shoot for fun, or you may have moved up to other medium format cameras for higher quality, but lack a couple of basic bits of knowledge that helps keep your film safe, and your photo lab happy.
Tip 1: Start your roll off tight and avoid “fat rolls”. All 120 film has what is referred to as a “Start Mark” on the backing paper - sometimes it will actually say “Start”, other times it will just be a double sided arrow.
After you have inserted the leader into the take-up spool, wind the backing paper around the spool at least once while keeping tension on the feed side. You can safely unwind the paper until the “Start Mark” comes around the unexposed roll, about 8-9 inches. By winding the paper like this, you greatly reduce the risk of having a loosely wound or “fat” roll, and will reduce light leaks.
Tip 2: Seal finished roll properly. Or… Fold, lick, and stick: When your roll is finished, keep winding until the backing paper is all the way on the take-up side of your camera. Remove your film and do three things:
2.Lick (or peel)
120 film comes with a little paper band that is meant to secure your film when the roll is finished. Sometimes it gets tucked away under the backing paper, but it is OK to unwind a little to grab it. The band usually has a moisture activated adhesive on it (like an envelope) that you need to lick before you secure it around the roll. (Except for Fuji film… they have a peel and stick band – don’t lick that, it tastes bad.) That’s it. Don’t put any extra tape on it. Just don’t. Your lab will thank you.
If you look at your film’s label it should be pretty clear what kind of process is required to yield images. Current films will be one of the following: C-41, E-6, or Black-and-White. Full service photo labs (like ours) should be able to handle any kind of film that is currently in production. What you want to watch out for are outdated chemical processes like: K-14, C-22, or E-4. There are a couple of small boutique labs that handle outdated film (like Film Rescue International), but the majority of photo processors won’t be able to do anything with them. One other thing to keep an eye out for is “Chromogenic” black-and-white film, or black-and-white film that is labeled C-41 (e.g. Kodak BW400CN and Ilford XP2). These films are processed in C-41 chemistry, not black-and-white chemistry, and can be handled by any lab that does color negative film.
(E-6 as C-41) has become incredibly popular over the past couple of years, but there was a time not long ago that processing E-6 film in C-41 chemistry was considered a mistake! There are still some labs that will flat out refuse to process film in the “wrong” chemistry, and those of us that will cross-process, want to make sure that you REALLY want it done. That’s one of the reasons why our order forms have a check box for “Cross-Processing”, so we know that you know what you’re getting yourself into. If your film is C-41 (color negative) film you can’t just say, “Cross-Process this,” and get those crazy colors and high contrast – you need to start with E-6 (slide) film. Processing C-41 film in E-6 chemistry is still considered a mistake by most of us, and we rarely do it for any of our customers. The results from what we call “Reverse Cross-Processing” are muddy and gross… you wouldn’t like it. Trust me.
Handling Processed Film/Re-ordering Prints or Scans-
Two things that should never be anywhere near your processed film and prints: staples and paperclips. Staples and paperclips have sharp and pointy parts that cause scratches. Scratches are bad – very bad.
35mm: Ordering from 35mm is incredibly easy, just remember a couple of things:
-Don’t mix negatives from multiple rolls in one envelope (avoids confusion with negative numbers).
-Order from the negative numbers, don’t write on the sleeve.
-Use the “A” numbers if the frame numbers don’t fall under the middle of the frame.
Most 35mm films have coding that tell the machine what frame number is being scanned/printed and some labs (us included) will give you prints that have the frame number printed right on the back of the paper. Sometimes it can take a little investigation to find it, but it will be there… this is what the back of our prints look like:
120: Ordering from 120 film follows a lot of the same rules as 35mm, but you will almost never have a frame number printed on the back of your prints. 120 film isn’t coded in the same way as 35mm and won’t give any information to the lab’s machines.
-Don’t mix negatives from multiple rolls in one envelope (avoids confusion).
-Choose the number at the edge of the film that is closest to the middle of your image.
All types of film:
-Never cut your film into single frames. Single frames are very difficult for any lab to handle. We recommend strips of 3 or more negatives for 35mm and 6x4.5. For 120 film formats like 6x6 and 6x7, 2 frames are OK.
-If you are shipping your film away to a mail-order lab, sandwich them with thin cardboard and put them in a sturdy envelope so they don’t get damaged in transit.
Expectations for print color matching: If you give sample prints from your roll to your lab, even if it is the same lab, there is no guarantee that your reprints/enlargements will be an exact match. Think of your original prints as guides or proofs. Print matching between different labs is nearly impossible -- different scanners and different printers, even if manufactured by the same company, can yield very different results depending on how they are calibrated and what the standards of the lab are. Any good lab will take some extra care when making enlargements from your negatives and can often improve the look of your image. All that having been said, it is helpful to have a guide when printing… just so that your lab knows what you got the first time through.
Talk to your lab-
In the end, good relationships come from good communication. If you let your lab know what you are looking for, they should be able to provide it. If your lab has questions, hopefully they will ask you. Before you get going in a new direction it is good to know what your lab can handle, or find a lab that can do what you want. Never be afraid to ask a question, I know we’re always happy to help someone along in the world of film photography.
Jake Bouchard got his start in photography as a teenager and attended the Hallmark Institute of Photography to pursue a career as a photographer. While attending school, he realized that working in the darkroom and making prints was where his talent really lay. After graduating in 1999, Jake worked as an occasional photographer and photo assistant, but always went back to lab work. He has been employed at a number of different photo labs in ME and NH, ranging from professional commercial labs to small neighborhood photo processors. He finally settled at Photosmith
in Dover, NH where he brings his photography and lab experience to the 31 year tradition of quality photo finishing. Jake's career in the photo industry has coincided with the decline of film photography and the rise of digital. Film photography is his passion and through his work with OldSchoolPhotoLab.com and 120processing.com, he hopes to help keep the world of film photography alive.