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.