Before the takeover of digital photography, I was almost never without a darkroom. There was one at my high school, in the basement of my college dorm, and even in the warehouse of one of my employers. I set up ad hoc black and white darkrooms in the bathrooms of the various apartments and houses I’ve lived in. If I needed to develop color film or make color prints there were literally hundreds of labs at my disposal, from drug store minilabs to high-end custom labs and everything in-between.
Today, even though I still have all of my original darkroom equipment, I’ve set it up no more than twice. It’s just too inconvenient and tiring to have to wait until after the kids are asleep, set everything up, then have only an hour or two to print before I have to take everything down again. Although there are still one or two custom labs here in Philadelphia, it would take almost two hours round-trip just to drop film off and return home; a journey I would have to repeat when the film was ready for pick-up. This is not my idea of convenience either. Yes, I can and sometimes do process the film at home and scan it. (I still own a Nikon Coolscan V ED; worth it’s weight it gold, at least to me.) The problem with this is that it’s too time-consuming to scan every frame, yet it’s often hard to tell just from looking at the negatives which images are winners and which aren’t.
For those of you who care, this was shot on Kodak Tri-X. This allowed me to keep the shutter speed high and the aperture small, so I could preset the focus for roughly 12 feet and shoot at will. Using a 28mm lens helped too.
I mention all of this up-front so that the well-intentioned-advice-givers among you will understand my rationale for seeing if a mail-order lab might be the solution to my desire to find a low-hassle way to keep shooting film. My solution, at least for the time-being, is a lab that is literally called The Darkroom. Let me also state up-front that I have no affiliation or business interest with them. I’m just another customer to them and derive no benefit from telling you about them other than the pleasure of sharing my experience; that and having a decent topic to write about. I am also not advocating for a return to film photography. I just want to have it available as a reasonably convenient option.
So here’s how it works: When I’m ready to have film processed, I go onto The Darkroom’s website, tell them how many rolls I’m sending, what type, what processing options I want. My standard choice is film processing (B&W or color) with medium-resolution scans of each image onto a CD-ROM and also onto their web server. There are two benefits to having the scans available on their server: First, I can see them without having to wait for the CD-ROM to arrive; second, I can order prints from the files they already have rather than wait to upload them later. Film processing + scan + upload costs $10.00 per roll, which I pre-pay by credit card online. The Darkroom then links me to a postage-paid mailing label that I can tape onto a heavy duty envelope and use to mail the film to them.
So far I’m sent them seven rolls of film and all seven have been returned within a week, using regular U.S. mail. Better yet, they e-mail progress reports at each step of the process. You’ll know when they receive your film, when the scans are available online, and when the film, CD, and/or prints are on their way.
One of the charms of color negative film is subtle color like this. One of the unfortunate side-effects is a green color shift in the shadows, which is obvious in the example above. This was also partly caused by the overcast day.
A medium-res, 1024x1536 pixel scan is large enough to produce a 5x7-inch print at 300 dpi. For an extra $5.00 you can upgrade to an “enhanced scan,” which measures 2048x3072 pixels and is large enough for prints up to 12x18-inches. I haven’t opted for the enhanced scans yet because if I need something larger I have the original film and can simply scan it myself. From my perspective this gives me the best of both worlds: I get good utility scans of each shot to use for previews, blog posts, and small prints and I can easily tell which shots merit scanning at 4000 ppi on my Coolscan. By “utility scans” I mean that they are of better than average sharpness and quality, with no more than a few occasional dust spots per image. That said, you have to provide them with reasonably well-exposed images. You can’t expect heroic rescue measures for $10.00 per roll nor will you receive them.
One final thing you B&W shooters should keep in mind is
that although The Darkroom states that they offer “true black and white”
prints, they neglect to mention that these are available only when they are
printing from negatives, not from scans. If you order B&W prints from scans
they will be printed on color paper. The results on color paper are reasonably neutral; fine
for proofs and snapshots, but probably not what you’d want to frame and
exhibit. I haven't seen any of their true black and white prints yet.
The photos that accompany this post are all resized JPEGs, direct from The Darkroom’s scans and with minimal tweaks on my part. If some look grainy or you think the color looks a bit unusual it’s because they were shot on ISO 400 film. That’s how it looks. Believe it or not, some folks like this look so much they even buy special software that allows their digital images to mimic it. Go figure.
By the way, if any of you reading this are still shooting film yourselves and have found your own ways to cope with the reducted processing options, I'd love to hear about them. We film addicts have got to stick together.