The first thing to impress upon yourself about processing film is that it is a highly personal and individual activity. That is, the quality of your processed negatives (or positives) is directly related to the individual doing the processing--much more so than the store, lab, shop or what-have-you. That's why so many people eventually make the decision to process their own film themselves (yours truly being in between making said decision and actually implementing it as I write). The upshot of this is that the people are the most important thing to consider when choosing where and how to process your film, not the name of the shop or its location.
So, without further ado, here are some notes on getting your processing done for the 3 most common film types here in the A-T-L:
C-41 Process Film
The most common film any of you will use is regular old color negative film. We refer to this film as C-41 type film because that is the designation that the engineers at Kodak gave the specific film chemistry when they came up with it. It could just as well have been called "Bob", but they chose "C-41". Chances are any color film you have at home right now is C-41 film, and you can tell for sure by looking on the box or canister for the words "process C-41". This is the film that you can have processed almost anywhere in 60 minutes or less.
C-41 film is processed in an automated machine that takes care of developing the image, stopping the development and fixing the resultant image as well as making prints from the negative. So, you'd think that any C-41 processor should be able to give you the same results as any other C-41 processor, but such is not the case. The devil, as you've heard, is in the details, and differences in chemical temperature, machine upkeep and calibration and a number of other things affect the final output drastically. And, of course, these factors are all a direct result of the people who work at the lab.
Some things to keep in mind when processing your film are:
- Cost. Different places charge different rates, and if you're having prints made the cost will vary depending upon how happy you are with said prints. A great way to save money is to have the film developed "negatives only" (that is, no 4x6 prints). See below for how cheap that can be.
- Negative sleeving. I use plastic sheets to store my negatives in a 3-ring binder. Each page holds 6 strips of 6 negatives each. When the lab cuts the negatives apart for me, they typically cut them in 4-frame strips, so I usually have to specify that I don't want my negatives cut. Then I do it myself at home.
- Print compensation. If you do have prints made (and I sometimes do) keep in mind that the machine that makes them will compensate for varying exposures. This is to give the average snapshooter the most pleasing set of prints assuming s/he is a little haphazard with their exposures. For hobbyist or pro shooters who vary exposure on purpose it can be maddening to have bracketed a shot across 4 shutter speeds and get 4 prints that have the same EV. Some labs will disable that feature for your prints if you ask them ahead of time.
- Wal-Mart Supercenter Store #5390 210 Cobb Parkway South Marietta, GA 30060 (770) 429-9029 - Yep, good old Wal-Mart. I specify the exact store because, again, it's the people that matter. These guys know me, if not by name, at least by face. They're always very polite and helpful. They meet every single request I throw at them (including cross-processing E-6 film - see below) and I can get a roll of negs-only processing for about $1.50. Yes, I said a dollor and fifty cents.
- Wolf Camera Ultra 3141 Piedmont Road NE Atlanta, GA 30305-2516 (404) 869-1116 - Once the guys there and I ironed out a little negative-scratching issue, life has been great at the Buckhead Wolf. They're generally nice fellas and are always careful to make sure they double-check my special requests. Another plus is that there's a Chic-Fil-A within walking distance from here so you can have some nuggets while you wait for your film.
E-6 Process Film
E-6 is just another chemical process dreamed up by the geniuses at Kodak, just like C-41. It's a different name because it uses different chemicals and is typically how slide, or reversal film is processed. Slide film is called reversal because the image that results after processing is a positive image, but reversed as viewed from the base side of the film. Some examples of E-6 film would be Fuji Velvia and Kodak Ektachrome (the recently-in-the-news Kodachrome is another process entirely). In general, slide film is known for its intense color saturation and narrow exposure latitude (very similar to a modern digital SLR in fact).
The good news is, you are certainly able to take your E-6 film to the same place as your C-41. The bad news is, they're going to promptly put it in an envelope and mail it to a lab somewhere and it will be upwards of a week before you see your slides. The even better news is that since we live in and around Atlanta there's a great little lab in town that does E-6 film. Oddly enough, they're named E-6 labs at 678 10th St NW Atlanta, GA 30318 (404) 885-1293. Every roll of slide film I shoot goes there and the guys there have always been absolutely great to deal with. I've had no issues at all with their work and they're always very helpful. They'll also do your C-41 film if you want them to (albeit more expensively than other places) and they can handle film formats other than 35mm with no problem as well. If you have slide film processed somewhere else in Atlanta, chances are these guys are actually who's doing it, so it makes some sense to go straight to the source.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you process E-6 film:
- Mounted or unmounted? You can get your slides back mounted in plastic frames, ready to go into a slide projector or as just the film strip (cut or uncut) just like a negative strip. The choice is mostly a personal preference, however, keep in mind that if you choose to scan your slides into a computer for digital retouching or Internet upload that having the slides mounted makes this task somewhat easier with most consumer-grade scanners. Simply put, the thingy that holds the slide and the software that interpolates what the scanning device sees into what you see on-screen both expect the mount to be there and could be confused were it missing.
- Cost. Cost for a roll of slide film is going to be about $9-$10 depending on your choice of mounts and any other special instructions. That makes it not necessarily cost-prohibitive, but certainly more expensive than C-41 film processing, and should be considered.
- Cross processed? This is one case where you can take your slide film to Wal-Mart or Wolf. Cross-processing is when you process one kind of film in the chemicals meant for another kind. Typically people use the term to refer to processing slide film in C-41 chemicals, or vice-versa. The outcome is an image with (usually) odd and sometimes severe color and contrast shifts, depending on the specific film used. Be sure that you're very clear with the lab if you want to x-pro film so that they don't use the proper chemicals by mistake. I have done this at the aforementioned Wal-Mart, but I had to explain very clearly that yes, I did in fact want to put my film into the wrong chemicals.
There are a couple black and white films that are made to be processed in C-41 chemicals, and as such can be taken to exactly the same place you take your Kodak Gold or Fujicolor flim. However, normal black and white film such as Kodak T-Max or Ilford Delta has to be processed in different chemicals. B&W is typically what people start doing on their own because the chemicals are (relatively) safe to handle and dispose of, temperature requirements are a little more lax and the film itself has such a wide exposure latitude that it's kind of hard to mess up. However, if you would rather someone else do your b&w processing, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Push or pull? Black and white film is very easy to over- or under-develop simply by changing the time the film stays in the developing chemical. So, let's say, you have some T-Max film at ISO 400, but it's really dark and instead you expose the film as if it were ISO 1600. No problem, just tell the lab to push your film by 2 stops because you under-exposed it. On the other hand, if it's really bright you may over expose the film and ask the lab to then pull the film to compensate. Mind you that the more you push film the more noticable grain gets, but sometimes that might be just what you want.
- Printing. The paper used to print black and white images is different than the paper used to print color images. However, some places will put your B&W prints onto color paper. Occasionally this can lead to a noticable color cast and/or less-than-ideal tonal range. You can ask to have the images printed on actual black and white paper, though it may cost more.
(404) 325-7676) has done good work for me in the past, but they've recently had to reduce their staff so their turn-around times have gotten longer, and, in my opinion, the quality has taken a hit too. Your mileage may vary on that, though, and I don't feel bad about recommending that you give them a try.
A note on digitizing film
Just about anywhere that you get your film processed will usually be happy to scan the images from the negative for you and provide you with a CD of those scans. If you don't have a scanner yourself this can be really convenient. However, keep in mind that it will cost you extra, sometimes $5 - $10 extra, to have that done. Having the negatives scanned and burned to CD after the fact is even more expensive, as much as 50¢ per image expensive. The cost of a perfectly adequate, consumer-grade scanner that will scan negatives and slides is around $160 or so. If you think that over, it doesn't take many rolls of film before buying yourself a scanner is justified. Of course, then you've got some extra time involved scanning stuff in, but I can guarantee you it will be higher quality than you get from any lab (not counting special hi-res scan jobs that you pay through the nose for) and you'll always take more care with your own images than a relative stranger will.