The Problem With Minilabs

September 11, 2012

I’ve been teaching art and photography for about 15 years. I learned on film and started lecturing in the days when everyone used film. There were some difficulties associated with learning on film – most people would only expose one roll per week which meant they were limited to 36 images, and if they didn’t make notes about their metering and exposure decisions at the time they would have no idea as to why certain frames had come out well or not. Because everyone was using film there were many professional labs and a multitude of minilabs and the quality was generally very good.

I’ve seen the rise of digital in the classroom – it started around 2004 in Sydney with the release of the Canon 300D, the first digital SLR that sold for under $1,500 in Australia. Within a few months at least a third of the students were using one and these days practically everyone uses digital. There is a small percentage who use both film and digital and a tiny amount who only use film. Digital has made the learning process easier. Students can now take hundreds of photos a week; they get to see the results immediately which means they can make adjustments; and the camera records the exposure details for them. Of course this has had an impact on the labs, particularly when it comes to film processing. I heard about one busy minilab in Sydney where film only makes up 3% of their revenue these days. When the students who use digital cameras get prints made for class they generally use the cheap 9 cent per print places, however students who want to learn on film have to find a chemical lab.

The problem that I see too often these days is that many of the minilabs that process and print film turn out poor quality work. Either they don’t care, because film is a minor annoyance, or perhaps they deal with it so rarely that they no longer have the skills to create a good result. The unfortunate thing is that when film students bring their prints to class they look dreadful compared to the 9 cent prints from digital cameras and it is hard to critique the content of the image when the physical appearance is so obviously wrong.

Above is an example of what I am writing about, from a student who took a class with me in August 2012. From memory the film was Ilford Delta 100 that she had processed and printed at a CBD minilab. The print she brought to class is on the left and this is an accurate reproduction of what it looked like. It was extremely high contrast and had a blue cast. Every print looked like this. It meant that rather than being able to talk about her photography I had to talk about the bad printing, and how it was not a realistic depiction of what was in the negatives. She had the negs with her and I could see they were well exposed and, to be fair to the lab, looked well developed, (although they hadn’t bothered to sleeve them.) As I was explaining this it occurred to me that none of the students knew what I was talking about as they had no experience with printing from film. Therefore I asked to keep the prints and negatives for a week so that I could show what they could look like.

I was easily able to make good quality traditional B&W prints in the darkroom from two of the negs that I selected. I also scanned the same negs and got good results with minimal post production. The image from the scan is to the right of the minilab print above and shows what the photo should look like based on the exposure and the detail available within the negative. It looks like a good photo with the correct contrast and without the blue cast. The print I made looked very close to this. I did the same for another frame as shown below with the same result. You can also see how much they cropped the image when applying the white border.

I’m sure the lab is scanning the film and printing in a machine, so I don’t understand why they can’t produce better quality, considering how easily I got it. I suspect they push the jobs through as quickly as possible, don’t really care about giving the customer a good result, or just have no idea what they are doing. It’s a shame because film can look superb when handled properly and I worry that garbage like this is turning people off film, as it makes it look lower quality than digital. That means the students might turn completely to digital and miss out on the quality and creative possibilities available from film, such as the interesting looks possible from medium format and large format film. All I can say to these students is that they need to find a good lab to work with, and if they want to use black and white film they should do a course somewhere so they can control the quality. I regularly teach traditional darkroom courses and every week I see excellent results from students who follow this path. Film is still a more difficult path than digital and you have to put in the time and effort to get the best results.

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