How (and Where) to Develop Film in the Digital Age

The world is hard on those of us who sometimes, or primarily, still like to work with film.

“Pro” labs handle lower and lower volumes of film, which in some cases results in chemicals that are refreshed less frequently and technicians who lack training, particularly with slide film.

I’ve gotten back negatives from “pro” labs that look like they were processed in seawater, with a handful of sand thrown in for good measure. I’ve received E6 slides with almost irreparable color casts. I’ve had negative film accidentally processed as slide film and seen lab employees mistreat film to a terrible degree, running ungloved fingers across it and even counting frames by touching them with their thumbs, one at a time, leaving a lovely, greasy print on each one.

There are a number of ways to get around this — but you’ll have to use your people skills, learn to do things yourself, and probably forget about transparency film altogether. There’s always the option of retiring your film cameras, of course. But though I shoot both film and digital, I don’t picture myself abandoning film anytime soon.

The C41 Solution

The first and best step toward getting well-processed film back from any lab is to use C41-process emulsions. They are more or less idiot-proof, and because most of the film processed today is C41 color, even the cheapest labs are pretty good at running the negatives.

For black and white work, I use any of a number of chromogenic C41 films. They are better than many people think, and to my eyes, look “analog,” unlike converted digital camera files.

A lot of people still want to use Velvia and other transparency films, which is fine. I can only advise shipping those out to truly professional labs that know what they’re doing, possibly paying a premium, and crossing your fingers.

Going with C41 film allows you to get your film processed at almost any drugstore — and this is where the people skills come into play. Get to know the guy or gal who runs the machine. Treat him well. Give him precise instructions on handling your film. Chances are it will come out of the machine in good shape. (The damage usually comes later — if you make the mistake of allowing the person to cut your negatives, for example.)

I had a guy at a corner drugstore, who knew nothing about photography, trained to gently take the film by the end, lead it out of the machine so that it would not touch anything on the way out, and stick it to a relatively clean, glass display case using the single piece of tape already attached to the leader. When I arrived, my negatives were always in perfect condition. Drug store labs are also cheap.

Scanning Your Film

Given that we want labs handling our film as little as possible, I never have them make prints. Instead, I use a six-year-old Canon film scanner to make 20 megapixel, 16-bit TIFF files, which I prepare for printing using Photoshop, stick on any kind of memory device, and print later on any of a number of fine machines, such as Fuji’s Frontier.

While new film scanners are getting harder to come by, second-hand scanners are all over the place. But buyer beware. Scanners are delicate, precision instruments and need to be working perfectly to produce the best results. With that caveat, you can make wonderful, massive and rich digital files from film with a scanner that costs less than $500. I’ve seen used Nikon scanners on sale for less than $200.

Back to the Darkroom

If you want to shoot anything but C41, you may want to consider going back to working in a darkroom, particularly for film. You’re welcome to go on making optical prints as well, as many people love spending hours in the darkroom, but in terms of final product quality, I don’t think the rewards are worth the trouble.

For me, the best solution for working with traditional films, for example 3200 asa TMAX, has been to develop the film in tanks, which doesn’t require a lot of space, and scan the negatives later. Color negative and even transparency films can be dealt with the same way.

Time to Embrace the Digital Age?

I’ve already said that I’m not personally interested in scrapping film just yet. I enjoy working with my old manual-focus Nikons, and there are millions of Leica users out there who feel the same way. But it is an option.

Professional or “prosumer” DSLRs are getting better and cheaper all the time. Even budget Nikon and Canon small-sensor DSLRs are capable of producing amazing images. For color work, this may be the best solution.

But black and white aficionados, particularly those who cut their teeth before digital cameras came around, may not like the results of monochrome conversions from digital files. I know I don’t. So I work the way I’ve described above.

While photography is now clearly dominated by digital cameras, and film shooters must deal with an increasing number of hassles, it’s still possible to develop quality film in the Digital Age. You just have to put in a little more time and effort to make it happen.

17 Responses to “How (and Where) to Develop Film in the Digital Age”

  1. While I share the passion for some of the film based cameras and their technical qualities - they were great tools - I think it the question now should be: WHY Develop Film in the Digital Age?

    I think we are past the point were you can't get great prints from digital files. Perhaps it is a reluctance to learn new tools rather than the new tools themselves that are the problem of "black and white aficionados"?

    Perhaps they could learn a few tricks from Jean Miele or others that have emabraced the new technology? (

  2. We just lost another Pro Lab in the Boston area not too long ago. Photographers are finding it harder and harder to get their films processed. We are fortunate to have a lab in our area called The Image Inn, run by Christine Ofria. She is still offering hand processing for black & white films and does an outstanding job. She is a purely analog lab and still offers optical printing on both RC & Fiber silver papers.
    We have sent a number of our clients to her who want to have film processed but then scanned and printed large. We want to be sure that labs like The Image Inn survive, so that those of us who like shooting film for purely aesthetic reasons, have an option. So, put down the 20 meagpixel camera for a day, grab your nearest film camera and a roll of Ilford FP4+ and go out and shoot! It's a great way to slow things down a bit and enjoy shooting. It's not about which is better, it's about learning to slow down and think more about your exposure and the image you're making, not just capturing.

  3. Same problems here in South Africa. 5 Years ago any old lab did a good job, but lately even the good ones are quite crap. C41 and home scanning is the way to go with film for sure.

  4. When we got this apartment I didn't know how lucky we were but the only pro-lab for 50 miles is a block away.

    Pompano Pro lab is the best place around Fort Lauderdale for sure.

  5. There may be a handful interested in film that may not know this. So, my comments are for you.

    You don't need a darkroom to process 35mm and 120 film in tanks. Just get a "dark tent" , basically an elaborate "changing bag" to spool your film onto the reels. Once the films are on the reels and placed in the tank with the cap on, all the rest is done in the light anyway. I got my dark tent at Calumet years ago and it works perfect, takes up no space since it folds flat and you don't need an extra room. You can now scan the negs/chromes and print digitally or send the film of to a lab for prints. You can even load sheet film holders in the dark tents and there may be some sheet film processing tanks still around so you can process sheet film also.

  6. agreed -- my hands live in a big changing bag these days.

  7. Digital far surpasses film. With training you can diminish the quality and get film look if you want. They even have plug-ins you can buy that will do all the steps for you if you choose.

    I hear this wining all the time and rarely is it coming from someone who knows how to use digital and chooses to shoot film. It most all the time is someone who refuses to learn about digital.

    Go take some classes and find out how much you can achieve. The dynamic range alone with digital is reason enough to switch. You can also easily shoot multiple exposures and increase the dynamic range beyond your imagination. Cameras will do this in the camera or you can bring it into PhotoShop and use HDR.

    Another great reason film should die is how bad it is for the environment. The chemicals get into our water supply and take a lot to filter out the harmful parts.

    Kodak continues to shut down their plants from making film and processing.

    I agree with Fredrik's comment "WHY Develop Film in the Digital Age? "

  8. ...well, I rather like black and white, and I really can't see screens very well in bright sunlight outside... so why not use the 35mm and 120mm and 5x7 every so often? I still use digital, but there are times when I LIKE to use an old, close to the ground system. It's not actually a criminal offence, you know...

  9. "I really can't see screens very well in bright sunlight outside..."

    And how does film help with this? Nothing to see.

  10. after recently getting back to film, just got an f100 I'm curious to see how the labs are now a days.

  11. Thanks for reading and for all your comments. This was not meant to spark a film vs. digital debate, which is a pretty tired subject by now. Some people like film. Some like digital. Some, like me, use both. Questions as to "why" anyone would shoot film vary from photographer to photographer. Film looks different. Not better. Not worse. Just different. It reacts to light differently, needs to be handled differently, and may bring a certain joy to some of us who don't feel the same shooting digital (and I do use both). I say, to each his/her own. Best to everyone.

  12. I need to develop 3 rolls of B&W film 35 mm ,could you advise me where to take this rolls in Miami,

    Thank you ,


  13. Why are some of these people so ugly in their attitudes towards artistic freedom? Yes, do we remember that a real artist is allowed to choose their medium. And regardless of what any of you digital people say, IT cannot duplicate the qualities of a fine silver print no matter how hard you try. We have one of the foremost digital printing companies in the US here in Denver, and hsi prints still look like digital prints, NOT silver prints. Why can't everyone just respect a person's RIGHT to use the camera of their choice.

  14. I agree with Kathleen. There is a certain aesthetic quality achieved through film. Do some online investigation and look into a camera called a Holga. You can't get photos like that unless you photoshop, and even then its not the same.

  15. April 2010,
    Florida State Certified Archival black & white
    film processing and printing.

  16. "you may want to consider going back to working in a darkroom, particularly for film"

    Yes - you can often get better quality images this way 🙂

  17. The only film cameras I DON'T miss are the Polaroid
    instant cameras. Those pictures were usually lousy!
    Digital does surpass them by a long shot!

    I still love the feel of a traditional 35mm SLR and the closest I could come to those qualities is the Olympus OM-D, though it is mirrorless. And the price isn't all that bad. I am not impressed with the DSLR's that are not full-frame. The viewfinders are terrible! I use a super-zoom point-and-shoot for now and it does a decent job for what I paid for it. But I still like to get out my Pentax ME to shoot an occasional roll of film and reflect on the simpler, better good old days. Now if they could make a digital version of the Pentax ME along with its big beautiful viewfinder plus a hi-res OLED monitor, I'll be happy.
    I'll still challenge digital to compete with my old Kodachromes!

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