How To Deal with Problems from Your Film Lab

Recently, a fellow film photographer posted a hastily-taken snapshot of an envelope of loose negatives. They stated that a well-known and well regarded lab had scratched all their negatives. It wasn’t clear if the problem was just how the negatives were packaged, causing a potential for scratches or how bad the scratches, if any, were. But they vowed never to use the lab again and stated that the post should be considered a warning to others to stay away from them as well.

It goes without saying that when a lab damages ones work, it is an extremely frustrating situation. One that sadly, you’ll likely experience at some point if you shoot film with any regularity and use a lab, no matter their reputation. Before about ten years ago, film labs processed all my paid photography work so I am no stranger to dealing with them. When I had problems, it was usually on a much larger scale than this photographer; I was dropping off 20-40 rolls of 35mm a month. I didn’t have the luxury of simply changing labs in many cases and as a local business myself, it wouldn’t do any good to disparage anyone publicly.

So while I can certainly relate to this photographers’ sentiment, I replied to their post with a different approach. My response got a fair number of “likes” so I figured I said something right!

I have slightly edited and reposted my response below. I hope that readers find it useful as well.

I’m sorry to hear about this. However, [Photo Lab Name] has been one of the most reputable film labs that have supported our community for decades.

Rather than sound off about one instance of trouble (and it does look very bad) on social media without any context (which, trust me, I do understand but feel you might be acting out of anger), I would recommend contacting them and discussing the issue.

There are not nearly as many labs doing good work reliably as there was 10 or 20 years ago. The ones that are left are pretty much doing us a favor at this point and are probably struggling like many businesses.

Everyone has bad days too, and film labs are run by humans just like us.

Part of using labs is communicating with them and navigating issues. Many people just drop film with them and expect to love the results without discussion. But it doesn’t work that way. Specific expectations need to be communicated in order to get them, because, after all, different customers have different expectations.

I don’t recommend changing labs at the first sign of trouble. Often when a mistake occurs, it’s a one-time thing and people will be sure to take care of a customer who communicates about it. If you just go to another lab, you are bound to have some other issue. And eventually, all you do is lessen your own resources.

I’m sorry about your film and hope your next experiences are better. Best of luck!👍

I didn’t want to upset the photographer any further, but I also sort of wanted to point out that if they shot a reasonable amount of film, one roll that probably wasn’t entirely ruined, wouldn’t garner such anger. I see so many film photographers shooting just one or two rolls of film per month. Not only is this slack approach bad for film manufacturers, it’s bad for the odds of improving ones personal photography. Until you’re shooting at least ten rolls per month, how are you possibly going to improve your work or make it worth a lab’s time calibrating their methods for you? Would you cover an important event with a digital camera taking only 36 photos?

But yeah, that was my response. Most other responses were pitches for other labs that are personally preferred or encouragement for the OP to process their own film. The typical response for photographers to process their own film really bothers me.

As someone who made that move – ditching all my labs (I was using four simultaneously at one point) in order to process everything myself, I would not recommend this nuclear solution for every photographer. Firstly, it’s not beneficial to the film ecosystem to just cut out lab processing from the entire community’s resources and secondly, some situations really do necessitate the reliability and quality of working with a lab.

Notice that I said “working with a lab.” Using labs always depends on two way communication. Photographers need to work WITH their labs in order to turn out quality work. It’s a team thing. Embrace it and I have faith that you can still get quality lab processing and scanning. Doing it all oneself is better for curmudgeons like me! And hey, I still mail out my color.

Thanks for reading and happy shooting, and processing!

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11 thoughts on “How To Deal with Problems from Your Film Lab

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  1. Thank you for this. I’m guessing most of your readers, like me, are using digital cameras as their primary working system, and use film for personal work or as a secondary system. For us, ten rolls a month would be a lot. I have been shooting 5 or 6 rolls a month (including MF) in an average month. This still feels like a lot to me, but I get your points about lab management. Maybe it’s time to work up a little dark room at my studio.

    Tim Hyde

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    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I’m guessing most of your readers, like me, are using digital cameras as their primary working system, and use film for personal work or as a secondary system”

      I certainly hope not! But I don’t doubt there’s a fair number of you. In my eyes, this is a backwards way of working for a film enthusiast. But I also understand that we all have limiting practical concerns and different photographic goals/interests.

      If setting up your own darkroom would allow/encourage you to shoot more film and hone that craft, that’s fantastic!However, my point here was not to abandon our labs but to try to work with them so that everyones’ work is improved. I hope that perspective is coming through. But in order for film to survive, we’ll need diverse approaches.

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      1. Heavens no. I left film for digital medium format in about 2006 and begun seriously shooting film again in the past four or five years. 5 rolls a month is pushing $150/mo, which is a lot for the non-income producing portion of my work, plus I don’t have complete control. Doing it myself appeals.

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        Liked by 1 person

      2. Glad to have you dipping your toe back in film. I’m surprised that $150 a month is not doable for a digital medium format photographer but I do also enjoy complete control over my negatives. I’m just trying to point out the value of taking ones work to a lab and the need to communicate with them. Labs are still an important resource to the film ecosystem because they provide professional work for film photographers, consume professional film resources and of course provide those who can’t or do not want to process their work, a way to stay in film.

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      3. A couple of hundred bucks a month is doable, but it adds up to enough that doing it myself becomes viable. And when you add the control factor in, it becomes even more attractive. I work with 4 different labs (I’m in Richmond), including Richards, Indie, The Dark Room, and occasionally a local lab. I think your advice is good and I should focus on one (probably Richards) and drill down on the relationship. I shoot expired Tri-X for 90% of my film work (I have a LOT), so I always ask them for a fairly neutral scan as I spend a lot of time in post.

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        Liked by 1 person

      4. I process, scan and edit between around 20-60 rolls a month. All by hand, no JOBO, no minilab, no Noritsu. And as much as the lab fees add up, time is also money. When I had a reliable lab nearby, I certainly spent less in $$ than the cost of my time doing all this myself. Then there’s the chemical disposal end which is a PITA because my county only allows biohazard waste drop off twice a year. So I’m just stowing it the rest of the time. I am happy with my workflow but I’m just saying that it’s good to have options. I have never been comfortable with mailing important film out but those are all great labs. Best of luck!

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  2. Right there with you on your perspective on film labs. Minor bone to pick on the charge that the slack approach to film photography. I often shoot but one or two rolls in a month — because that’s all I have time for!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe ten is too high a yardstick – one seems crazy low to me though. But if you aren’t shooting stream of conscious work pretty much daily like I do, I get it. You can’t take a photowalk as I think you like to do every day! Your kids are in college though, right? I don’t know if that will increase or decrease how many photos I take per day!

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      1. I am Director of Engineering in a software company and that takes up 1/3 of my life. I love what I do but it doesn’t give a ton of time for daytime photography! My two sons are out of college now but two of my wife’s young-adult children still live with us and we’re helping them gain their independence. So, lots going on. I do as much photography as I can! Weekend before last I shot 8 rolls of film on a weekend trip to a historic Indiana town. That felt good!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m fortunate then to only be a shift engineer! I leave that work at the door when I leave and begin my photographic work for the rest of the week!

        Looking forward to the Indiana photos – I’m a James Dean fan and have always wanted to go!

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