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Film Developing and Printing Options

Differences Between Types of Labs

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For those of you shooting film there are many choices for getting the negatives developed. Some vendors offer negative development and printing for one price while others allow you the choice of only having the development done.

Developing Negatives

Today's film is either polyester or cellulose acetate covered in silver salts and gelatin. When the film is exposed to light, it records an image. For that image to be usable, the film must be developed in chemicals.
  • Do It Yourself
    You can build your own darkroom and develop your own negatives. This can be expensive and you will have to work with potentially hazardous chemicals.

  • Drug Stores and Discount Stores
    Many drug and discount stores have their own self-contained photograph development equipment. Most of these machines and their operators can handle developing your negatives without any quality problems. Be sure they have the equipment needed to open your film in complete darkness or you can get cloudy streaks of light across your negatives. If your drug store does not have a one-hour processing option, or you chose the cheaper two-day option, they most likely send the film off to a local photography lab for processing. Ask for the lab's name and check them out with the Better Business Bureau or view several samples of their work before trusting your film to them. While these stores are likely the cheapest option, most do not have any guarantee on their work but have a clause in their terms that they are not responsible if they ruin your film.

  • Photography Store Lab
    Photography specialty stores fall somewhere between discount stores and professional labs. They often use the same equipment as discount stores but generally rely on better-trained employees to try to produce better quality. Their prices can be higher than some professional labs.

  • Professional Labs
    Professional labs specialize in photographic printing and developing. These labs will offer many more options for your negatives than drug or discount stores. These labs may be local in a large city or they may offer mail-in services. While the cost may be a bit higher with these labs, many will send you free special mailing containers to protect your film in the mail. While professional labs generally do not guarantee their work either, many will at least replace any damaged film with a like amount of unexposed film.

Printing Photographs

Once your film is exposed, it must be printed onto another surface.
  • Do It Yourself
    The process for printing photographs at home still involves creating a darkroom and working with potentially hazardous chemicals. However, it does give you complete control over how your images are printed.

  • Drug Stores and Discount Stores
    The self-contained photograph development equipment at these stores works only as well as the operator. Each type of film has its own color profile and if the operator does not set the machine for the right brand and type of film your blues may come out orange. Also, these machines print your images based off an average of the amount of the brightness of each image. This usually leads to many of your images looking underexposed or overexposed. These stores can still produce excellent results if they have skilled employees running the machine. It is a good idea to have them reprint several images from some of your older negatives to test their quality before giving them a large order. If your drug store does not have a one-hour processing option, or you chose the cheaper two-day option, they most likely send the film off to a local photography lab for processing. As will developing your negatives, check out the lab before trusting your images to them. These stores may actually not be the cheapest option for printing your images. Many of these stores will be very cheap when you want 4x6 standard prints made but will be very expensive for enlargements.

  • Photography Store Lab
    For photographic prints, specialty stores are often the best bet for high quality prints in a hurry. Because they are competing with discount stores, they generally offer one-hour service. Be aware that their prices are considerably higher than the discount stores. In some cases, they can charge more than three times the price of a discount store and can actually charge more than some professional level labs.

  • Professional Labs
    Professional labs have more printing options and generally have better trained technicians. Whether these labs are local to you or available via mail-in services, the quality is usually better than discount or drug stores. The cost for standard 4x6 prints may be higher with these labs but if you order a large quantity or need enlargements the cost may be equal to or better than discount or drug store pricing. However, they generally do not offer one-hour turnaround times.
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