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The right lab – a look at film companies

Choosing the right lab – what a difficult one. From my beginnings with film photography I have always used labs for the development of my negatives. I thought it was time to write why it’s important to consider the right lab.  To be clear I am not paid by anyone or do not receive commissions in any way. All words are my own personal opinion.

I can still remember going to my local high street handing over the film and being nervous.  Having never shot film I was reliant on things I had heard online.  I wanted to keep this experience true to the old days so ordered prints too.  They came in the flap pack envelope just like the 80+90’s when my dad shot the occasional roll (just snaps no photography talent).

Prints & scans from 3 different labs (b&w first ever roll)

Can you guess what happened?  Absolute crap – nope not at all, they were okay.  Obviously, at the time they were amazing and got me hooked on film!  Seeing the fruits of your labor is really exciting but nerve-racking too!

Choosing

Choosing the right lab is simple really and it’s worth considering the following points:

  • Recommendations
  • File sizes
  • Response times
  • Price

At the end of the day you have to do a little bit of research as not all labs are the same!

Recommendations

Like choosing any shop that requires a special service you really should consider recommendations first.  The reason I say this is simple, you could try someone new and risk your hard-earned work.  There are many places to look for recommendations, obviously friends, but Facebook groups or even TrustPilot or Google reviews.

right lab article - google review of filmdev
My google review from 3 years ago

File sizes

Remember scanning is a labor-intensive process and hence why it adds to your developing bill (how long would it take you to scan them?)

If you look at most companies literature most are using similar scanners Frontier or Noritsu anyway so it should be easy to compare.  For instance Kirklees quote 2100×3100 pixels as standard, whereas Zone Imaging use 6 megapixels as medium res.  Just think about this, to ensure your computer can handle the images.

For instance, I’ve just worked on a scan from Filmdev and its 100meg file at pixel size 4824×3533!  That takes up a lot of disk space and requires the computer to cope with this.

screenshot of file developed by filmdev
Screenshot of image file information scanned by Filmdev

Response times

Response times is a difficult one, during the lockdown and COVID every business has suffered.  Film labs are seeing a lot of requests so lead times would not be normal and in the hands of the gods.  Obviously, if you are a professional photographer lead times are going to be important for you, but for us amateurs, I consider this the least important.

For me I’m happy with a week to 10 days, some labs like AG are returning within days and notify updates via email too.

screenshot of email notificaiton from a.g.
Example communication from AG lab

Price

There is a massive disparity in prices too – so you need to consider what you want from your lab.  If you are only uploading to social media, you may as well go with low res scans and save yourself the money.  Want to make some digital prints or doing something creative then yes you will need those large tiffs.

Here is a rough idea of cost – all information taken directly from their websites.

Service/LabFilmdevKirkleesZoneA.G.
c41+low res£4n/a£10.50£8.49
c41+high res TIFF£8£5£15.50£15.49
bw+low resn/an/a£10.50£8.99
bw+high resn/a£7.99£15.50£15.99
Prices as of Nov 2020

Please remember you have to pay to get your film sent to the lab and back again. This can add many pounds to your cost (£1.50 per film with Kirklees, £3.50 total with AG.

(Filmdev don’t charge to return and AG have a freepost service to send in)

When it can go wrong

As a film shooter using antiqued equipment and mechanical devices from the past, you will get used to some failures.  Sometimes it’s a shutter, aperture blades, a broken button, or simply your own skill.  For instance, I have underexposed shots heavily in the past. The first time I shot colour film I metered differently as I didn’t know most labs wouldn’t push/pull c41 film! Therefore, my entire roll was well underexposed and grainy.

Lincoln xmas market under exposed (first roll of colour film)

Film labs are just as capable of errors as yourself, so think about this, how much risk as you are comfortable with.   One other thing I noticed is the different ways they can return your negatives. Most labs send in sleeves and some do contact sheets. An example of something not to do is send rolled up like below – this took me weeks to straighten under some heavy books.

Returned negatives rolled up by lab

Crofton

During the first UK lockdown in March 2020 I was looking for someone to process black and white as Filmdev was too busy.  I came across a company that had setup called Crofton, run by a student.  Interesting approach and being students they entered the market at a low price – £3.99. After checking their website and seeing a few results I decided to be conservative and only send off 2 rolls.  These were personal shots of family etc, so I call these my playing around images. 

I’m sure many of you will have heard of Crofton by now on the forums and Facebook groups due to the negative press.  It’s fully deserved too, as the guy (student) behind it made a large mistake.  Being so low cost he kept taking orders until of course, he couldn’t cope.

screenshot of email from crofton lab
One of many emails from Crofton

Crofton summary

I don’t want to dwell on the situation too much but here is a brief summary:

  1. Crofton setup various emails for us to use (which didn’t work or were not responded to)
  2. Promised response times (that constantly slipped each week)
  3. Emailed to say results had been posted back (all fictional)
  4. He made himself ill and couldn’t cope (even drafted in family)
  5. Broke data protection by including all customers in emails (multiple times)
  6. Film was not labelled (therefore no idea whose belonged to who)
  7. A member of the public had to visit to assess what had gone on (complete mess)
  8. A group of people decided to collect everything and sort it
  9. Volunteers then mass emailed everybody breaking data protection
  10. Everyone then started emailing everybody (so we had tens of emails each day)
  11. The group created spreadsheets and forms to collate what they found 
  12. Someone then took over and dealt with returning film to owners that claimed them
  13. Discord app was used to chat to people (besides google drive/text/whats app)
  14. Some people completed forms to invoke legal proceedings against the student
  15. Various new google drive folders exist with scanned images awaiting owners
  16. The saga is still going on + all undeveloped film has been sent to a lab
My film returned from Crofton

So bearing in mind I sent the films off on 4 June 2020 and it’s now late November 2020!   I am very grateful for people intervening and sorting this mess.  From my perspective, it has been confusing going through finding and claiming my film back.  Personally, I have written off my last film and I will not pursue the owner – he’s learned a big lesson in life.

The other stuff

You might want to try other companies and I don’t blame you, the good thing is we have choice.  I have purposely left off another element to the end – the extras.  If all you want is a development lab then yes thats fine but you may require push/pull of film too.  Not all labs can handle that or may charge. 

There are other unique demands you want, like labelling of files, contact sheets and prints.

Digital contact sheet by filmdev

Here is a brief summary of a few companies and why you should consider them:

Filmdev – has provided me with guidance on issues with my camera and directed me to a repair specialist.

Foto factory – this is my original lab when I first started with 35mm (I found them through ebay). Lovely staff and great prices

Kirklees – another low priced c41 service + they are now scanning the rest of the Crofton negatives!  He also offers professional scanning equipment (Noritsu ring a bell?) and 2nd hand cameras too.

Zone imaging lab –  The interesting thing about James Lane’s lab is he offers a range of developers!  Something very unique and explained on his site, so you can choose the developer that is relevant to your needs.  James is also very active on social media and runs his own Facebook group so definitely worth checking out (links at bottom of the article).

A.G. – offer prints, push/pull services, slide processing too.  AG also retailers too, so stock film,paper etc.

Conclusion

I hope that helps you think about your lab choices next time, it’s not always clear cut.  Yes sometimes it’s literally down to money and I appreciate that.  Over the years I started life by shooting 35mm Agfa £1 film which got me hooked on colour shooting.

side of harley davidson motorbike
Harley Davidson shot on Agfa film (dev by Foto Factory)

For me building up a relationship with my lab is important, as you get used to the services they offer.  Filmdev has been great with me, never had a bad scan or negative yet (except my bad shooting!).  I included Kirklees because Taimoor has been superb with c41, always speedy replies.  He also is active in the community (check out his Instagram) so another great option for you.  James at Zone imaging is a photochemist, so has a lot of knowledge and doesn’t mind helping you learn how to do it all at home.  After speaking with James and getting him on the podcast I’m buying some chemicals off him!

This small list just gives you a couple of companies I have come across, but if you search for c41 or 35mm development you will get many options.  Just listen to people you trust, get some examples from them, and do your research.  If the lab is cheaper than anyone else, there could be a reason to do your homework.

I hope this article helps and you give these companies a try and mention my name!


Links

A.G website – https://www.ag-photolab.co.uk/colour-processing-c41-10-c.asp

Filmdev website – https://filmdev.co.uk/

Foto Factory – https://www.ebay.co.uk/usr/fotofactory123?_trksid=p2047675.l2559

Kirklees website – https://www.kirkleesphotographic.com/scan-sizes

Zone Imaging website – https://www.zoneimaginglab.co.uk/services

James Lane’s Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/filmphotographyuk