Sometimes nothing gets across the gritty feel of a hard-battle won than a 24 x 36mm piece of Kodak Tri-X film.
Today, as always, there are substantial numbers of photographers who still shoot with film. Some shoot film only, others shoot film and digital, but it’s safe to say that as long as film and processing is still available there will be photographers who use it. This doesn’t change the fact that the number of available films is shrinking and, along with it, the variety of high-quality and convenient processing options.
That’s the catch, you see: high-quality and convenient. For example, I’m certainly capable of processing my own film. All it takes is the chemicals, a sink, a tank and reels, and a light-tight place to load them. My problem is that once the film is dry I have no convenient way to proof it. My Nikon Coolscan V does an excellent job of scanning individual frames. Scanning all or even half a roll of 36-exposure film is time-prohibitive. Also, the Coolscan IV accepts only 35mm format, so 120 isn’t even an option.
The next option is a pro lab. Most large metropolitan areas still have one or two or two left. How convenient they are depends on how close one is to where you live or work and how quickly it can turn-around its processing. Here in Philadelphia the only remaining lab in the city itself is Philadelphia Photographics, which is a 45-minute drive (or a $7.00 regional rail ride) from my home and takes an average of 2 days to process and proof negative films. That wouldn’t be so bad if I were processing a lot of film at one time, but for one or two rolls it's time- and cost-prohibitive. Compare this to Los Angeles and New York, where pro labs are still easy to find. In smaller towns custom labs have disappeared altogether, assuming there were any to begin with. If you want pro-quality processing you have to mail your film away to a remote lab and wait days if not weeks to see your results. I suppose that by comparison to this, my Philadelphia situation might seem like heaven.
I imagine some of you reading this can’t wait to point out that major drugstore chains and mass merchandisers such as Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, Costco, etc. operate mini-labs that can process C-41 films, scan them, print them, and copy the scans to a CD. That’s certainly convenient. As for being high-quality, let’s just say my experience has been hit-or-miss, with a lot more misses than hits. Walking up to a counter staffed by a sullen twenty-something isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring either.
Being the adventurous sort, I’ve even tried using a lab in Pittsburg, Kansas that provides free film mailers. Here’s what you’ll find prominently printed on the back of the mailer: “Simply mail your film today. We process it tomorrow. Your images are posted online within 24 hours.” That certainly sounds fast and convenient doesn’t it?
The reality is that it took three weeks for them to process the film and upload the scans. They claim the delay was because of the U.S. Postal Service. Regardless, the scans were so high in contrast, low in resolution, and over-sharpened that I had little confidence in ordering anything from them. Worse yet, although it cost me only $6.27 to get the film processed and sent back, a few of the frames were scratched, which adds injury to insult.
No doubt some of you film shooters are feeling my pain. My question for you is, what do you find to be the most convenient, high-quality way to process your film? I’m willing to process it myself if there’s a convenient way to proof it without setting up a darkroom. I’m willing to send it to a lab if there’s some assurance they will process and proof it quickly yet carefully. If you’ve got suggestions that work for you I’d be glad to hear them.