Film Processing Voodoo

Starting to use film has opened a whole new photographic opportunity horizon, but also a pandora’s box in technical terms. Film processing used to be one of those omnipresent skills and retail services in the days of analog snapshot. That seems to have changed, along with so many other things in photography.

Just back from a great vacation trip from the shores of North Carolina, looking over some of the rolls I had developed at a local camera store, the realization kicked in. Only places that have sufficient volume of film processing are able to deliver consistency in handling and developing film. To a degree, despite all the good intentions and enthusiasm for film photography, it not realistic expectation from today’s photography shop to offer solid film processing services. Simply put, there is not enough volume to maintain technology and skill.

I purposely do not want to name this store as it is one of the two that I have seen the same type of issue with. Uneven application of chemicals (smudges on negatives), scratches on film (rushed handling) and number of other defects that cannot be fixed easily or at all in our very capable digital darkrooms.

The only place that seems to develop film is a local Toronto high-end professional film and printing shop that charges premium (about 30% more than other places) for film development. More important, they seem to have sufficient volume, by the looks of it of mostly medium format, traffic to keep their skills up on mixing the chemicals, development process and film handling.

So, the easy route would be to blame shoddy craftmanship, lack of attention to detail and all the other usual aspects of a bad retail experience. BUT – one needs to stop and consider a few things. First, offering film processing to a broad base of clients is not a realistic business for most. It is a niche, and at todays (fairly assessed) labour rates, it is hard to justify full time expertise. Financials by far eliminate the consumer or enthusiast (at close to $10/role of 35mm film – it adds up) from the market. Digital, printing and photo gifts, as well as GAS pandering is where the business seems to be, love it or hate it. So, stands to reason that a film enthusiast needs to master film processing as a basic photography skill.

There, then, is my conclusion. Despite all of digital-borne trepidation over film processing, it may be time to transcend that D/A pond again and build a small set up and start processing film, experimenting with different techniques and get that different look, feel, that only film exposure can produce.

The time has come to dive into this, read up from Langford, log in to B&H, and clean out the basement to make room for the mini lab. Let’s see how that works out. At least, it will be very clear who to blame for scratches and development screw-ups. For motivation, I can always turn to these two images and think of photographs that could have been…

Battleship North Carolina on Cape Fear River, Wilmington, NC, September 2015
Battleship North Carolina on Cape Fear River, Wilmington, NC, September 2015

Leave a Reply