Color Developing and You.

Color Developing and You; or Color Film In the Golden Age of Digital.

Here’s my conclusion (my Tl;dr, if you will):

For best price-performance results, and for a more healthy film-developing market, my recommendation is to send your C-41 and E-6 film to a smaller local or regional lab with a decent reputation and well maintained machines. Supporting smaller labs also increases the demand for color processing machine chemicals which shows the major film/photochemical manufacturers that the market is still viable on a larger scale. DIY color processing at home is totally doable and somewhat affordable, but is significantly more error prone and difficult to get the right starting conditions. Even if you do develop successfully at home, you’re still stuck doing your own scanning and color correcting, which is more time consuming than it’s really worth.

The Argument:

Film is expensive. This is a universal truth. Developing and scanning, are also significant expenses. As an aspiring professional fine art photographer, I shoot a lot of photos, and develop a lot of film. Because of this I’ve tried to find the cheapest most reliable method of developing my film, so that I continue to have fresh material to either post on my website, on my instagram, or build printable projects either for a potential exhibition or for another book or zine.

Now entering my third year of developing black and white film at home, I can honestly say that the results you’ll get developing and scanning black and white film at home will largely outperform most labs (assuming you’re at least passably decent at cleaning your film negatives), especially given the price. Spending maybe a dollar per roll on chemistry, and then amortize +/- 260 dollars of equipment (Developing Tank, Reels, Changing Bag, 2-3 beakers, Scanner) against however many rolls of film you’ve developed with it. Consistency is key for black and white film (I mean any film), and there are a bunch of variables, but it’s not wildly uncontrollable, and for the most part you’re going to get a fairly usable result that looks more or less right, even if you don’t control your variables down to the smallest minutiae.

Color Negative or C-41 Chemistry is unforgiving (and apparently E-6 is even worse). I’ve had people (who sell chemistry, or make their own -- I’m not naming names here, on this, as this basically amounts to hearsay -- or I don’t think anyone else was privy to those conversations) tell me otherwise -- and some of them have gotten really amazing results, I have one friend who even does his own C-prints, hand processed. But when asked, I’ve had a professional color printer tell me that DIY processing often (not always) leads to color casting that’s really difficult to get out in the printing process, or at least scanning, or is impossible to get out in the actual c-printing process -- and I know now from experience that it’s also not fun to get out of a scan either.

And to that end, I feel like it’s worth noting that Kodak was the inventor of the modern c-41 process (Old Kodak, the Kodak that could afford to develop and manufacture hundreds of millions of rolls of film per year). The whole core conceit of C-41 was that it was supposed to be done with/by machines, and allow a stoned teenager at a Walgreens or something like it to crank out 36 prints in like an hour, so that it would be as error free as possible. Add to that that Kodak was a booming business back in the 1972, and could afford to run or build machines to manufacture or run massive amounts of film (because again, remember that film used to be what everyone shot, not just devoted hobbyists and a small cadre of professionals).

I’ve now burnt through a liter of good or decent color chemistry (Tetenal Colortec) trying to develop and scan my own color film. I’ve used mostly the same film as a control (Fuji Superia 800). 1 220 Roll of Fuji 400HG, 1 220 Roll of Portra 800 (ironically, despite being x-ray damaged, this was probably one of the only rolls that I’m actually happy with). I’m not going use the 220 film as an accurate benchmark or example -- It’s expired, and shot overexposed by 2 stops, so it’s gonna be weird by default. But the Fuji 800 and superia was fresh, and after having the same film developed and scanned at my usual lab, I can honestly say the results I’ve gotten at home are vastly inferior. Even corrected, the film has an annoying blue cast (like beyond that of the orange film mask when inverted) -- which it doesn’t have from the lab. It’s almost unusably grainy, to my eye at least, and the amount of time that it took to scan and correct was ridiculous.  

So before the home dev crowd rips me a new asshole for “doing it wrong”: I use the standard Epson V-600 Scanner system, standard data-tainer containers, Tetenal Colortec chemistry, and an Anova standard sous-vide and mercury thermometer, and begrudgingly, a paterson tank. I followed the exact recipe and procedure listed in the booklet that comes with the chemistry. I’m going to use the remainder of the chemistry to test myself, and if I’m wrong I’ll issue a retraction. That being said, I don’t shoot film to spend my time fixing images in post. I shoot film to get the look I want more or less as soon as I get the scans back from the lab, or off the scanner (for black and white). I’m not a tinkerer, unless I absolutely *have* to be, and I don’t think most people are tinkerers, or that any solution that’s inconsistent, finicky, or difficult to set up properly, is really a viable option in the long term for most people, including myself.

My reasonable compromise at this point, is to continue using smaller local labs, and more or less eat the extra cost as “time I don’t have to spend working on a menial task, to replicate results that someone else could get for me much more quickly.”

Support your local lab, or at least a local lab.

(check out this handy cheat sheet for a guide to mail order labs) — Created by Film Objektiv/ Adam Ottke

Surprisingly, given the advent of digital and the subsequent crash of widespread film use (like as an every-day method of picture taking that normal, non-hobbyists use), there are still quite a few local labs, or at least more than one would initially suspect. I personally believe it’s important to support local business, as both a means of supporting a local, non centralized economy, and forcing some level of price or quality competition. I find that a local lab is going to be about 12 dollars for scans of a decent social-media shareable size, and that when you use an old one hour photo places, you’re usually going to get pretty well corrected photos (provided they do a decent volume of business), as the techs have likely been processing for a long time, and have the correction process down to a science.  

I haven’t used that many different labs, but to me the key factors are three, and they all kinda go hand in hand:

  1. Check to see if the lab does a reasonable volume of processing -- the chemistry can go bad if they don’t run enough film through the chemistry during a day.

  2. Make sure the machines are well maintained. This one is a little difficult if you’re ordering online, but if the shop has a significant volume of customers, they’re probably taking the time to maintain the machine. If you’re there in person, just give the machine a once over, if it looks dirty and poorly taken care of, there’s a pretty good chance it is on the inside too.

  3. If you can see on the site’s website, or in person, check to see if it’s a minilab or a dip and dunk system. Both should produce identical results (for standard processing) but the dip and dunk is generally favored by professional labs. Given that, the dip and dunk machine is also likely to be better maintained and less error prone, also the dip and dunk machine can do push and pull processing more easily, where minilabs tend to have a hard time with that.

We need to talk about Fuji:

Fuji’s price correction should scare you, and not for the surface reason of “no more Fujifilm” -- if Fuji’s actually really pulling out of the film game, that also means that they’ll stop manufacturing their C-41 process chemicals used in a bunch of minilabs, world wide. If we stop supporting those labs, and continuing to show with our wallets that the roll/negative film market still exists and is growing, a large portion of the market will cease to exist, and we’ll be stuck sending our film to the handful of large or expensive boutiques that can otherwise afford to keep having the C-41 chemicals made -- if there’s anyone that can make them. On top of that, if you also consider that Kodak (the only other large chemical manufacturer in the United States) is in a fairly precarious situation, and if they don’t find a buyer who wants to support them or can finance the purchase (I believe they will, per Kodak Alaris, that division has been or is supposed to be profitable -- and they report to have a buyer pretty far down the road with them.) They will shut down, and there ostensibly will be nobody manufacturing color film at all, nor will there be anyone manufacturing, or with the capability to manufacture C-41 chemistry for minilabs.

If you’re crying or upset about the film, I get that, I love fujifilm too -- I’m Pro400h/Pro 160ns/Provia/Acros all day erry day, or like I was. But at the same time, you have to remember Fuji is a large, and I mean huge, publicly traded company, worth approximately 3.5 billion dollars in total assets as of 2017. If you stop and think that they’re probably still growing and that the total film market is worth maybe 10-20 million (rough estimate), that’s almost nothing to Fuji, especially considering that they don’t even account for all 10-20 million of that business. Fuji may still be profitable on paper, but that miniscule part of their budget still costs them man-hours and resources, which anybody who took Economics 101 could tell you is a basic opportunity cost calculation. The 30% increase is more than likely them valuing what the difference is, add to that cost of storage and distribution, and then subsequently charging for it to continue to keep their film division open rather than liquidating or destroying their remaining facilities and merchandise.

At this point you may also be saying “but Kodak --” and I’ll stop you right there. Kodak (modern Kodak) essentially has to make film and chemistry to stay open at this point. I’d wager that business is really the main thing keeping them afloat, so in addition to it being a necessity, because they flat out hedged their bets wrong during digital’s rise -- see this article here about that -- they had to learn to scale back a large post-war industrial manufacturing facility to create profitable film too, in a way that Fuji never really had to, or at least never had to in the same capacity.

At any rate, Fuji’s price increase isn’t about you, it isn’t about them telling the film community to go fuck itself, it isn’t to sell more digital cameras. It’s nothing more than a small correction to them so they can be more profitable. Fuji owes us nothing.

Stop Supporting the Bigger Labs

Don’t support Large Labs, especially those that market themselves as the only game in town. I don’t think they’re intrinsically malicious or bad people, but I definitely think they’re better promoters and marketers than they are film developing and scan technicians, and their positioning of themselves in the marketplace puts a bad taste in my mouth.

Continuing to support the big name labs as “the only game in town” -- search “film developing,” or any variant of it, see who pops up first -- is a bad idea, because the more of a foothold they have the more they can continue to vastly overcharge, and subsequently monopolize the market for developing and scanning. It’s really easy to get sucked in by them, because they have really great marketing, they produce content on a regular basis, and they’re great at making unsubstantiated claims that can easily pull in anyone who hasn’t gone and done the research -- ie their technicians are “masters” (there’s only one way to properly develop c-41 or E-6 film -- and it’s not like pushing a few buttons to push or pull takes that much mastery) or that they specialize in “old or expired film.” I will say, one lab’s owner *has* flat out lied before -- he’s stated that his lab *does not* provide discounts on bulk, when I’ve actually been offered 10% off from them after asking for a discount.

At any rate, they often overcharge, provide substandard product given the price, and essentially position themselves to be the only game in town (look at how they’ve essentially networked themselves in with a lot of the bigger names in film photography), so that as, or if, analog photography continues to increase in market share (ie that 5% per year growth keeps compounding), they’ll have a controlling stake in the market, more than they already do. If we, as a community, or really a dedicated user base, want to continue to support the growth and sustained presence of color film photography beyond a few centralized labs, into a healthy, more communal system, we need more small labs to sustain and continue to grow the general analog photography market on every level, not just in the dichotomy of DIY vs Large Lab.

And on the back end, my TL;DR:

For best price-performance results, and for a more healthy film-developing market, my recommendation is to send your C-41 and E-6 film to a smaller local or regional lab with a decent reputation and well maintained machines. Supporting smaller labs also increases the demand for color processing machine chemicals which shows the major film/photochemical manufacturers that the market is still viable on a larger scale. DIY color processing at home is totally doable and somewhat affordable, but is significantly more error prone and difficult to get the right starting conditions. Even if you do develop successfully at home, you’re still stuck doing your own scanning and color correcting, which is more time consuming than it’s really worth.

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed this please buy a zine in the shop. I like writing content like this (as generally disquieting as it can be), and selling zines actually helps a ton in keeping the lights on here.