With a handful of big-city exceptions, the mom-and-pop 1-hour film processing lab is dead. The price of film continues to rise as more emulsions are discontinued, and, one by one, the once-ubiquitous labs dotting the landscape for the last several decades have either gone all-digital, or shut their doors. Even AdoramaPix, Adorama’s outstanding lab, stopped developing film a couple of years ago because the demand had dropped, and concentrated instead on perfecting its digital service. (I figured out a way to take advantage of AdoramaPix's outstanding printing services even when I'm shooting film...more on that later!)
But despite the paucity of processors, film photographers are still out there. I know, because there are over 100 varieties of color print film still availale and selling well at Adorama. All of that film has to be developed somewhere!
I sometimes like to take my Leica M3 35mm rangefinder camera out for a spin, and recently realized the difficult situation we're in when I shot 16 rolls of 35mm Fujicolor 800 film with it, and couldn't find any 1-hour labs within a reasonable drive of my Central New Jersey home. The two labs that used to be in my town are long gone, and the local supermarket's send-away service has gone digital.
So, my choices were to get mailers and send my film to an online lab that does film, or bring them to a "big box" mass merchandise retail chain. I divided the film into two groups of eight rolls, and sent one batch to MPIX, which offers mailers and online proofing, and I brought another batch to Costco, the “big box” located 10 minutes from home, because they offered 1-hour processing.
The difference was dramatic: The Mpix prints seemed to show more accurate color, and had more realistic contrast than the overly contrasty prints I got back from Costco, which also seemed to have an overall blue color cast. But the cost difference was also astounding: Developing 8 rolls of film and printing less than half of the images through Mpix cost me around $100; at Costco, 8 rolls--including all prints--cost less than $45.
The stark differences in quality and price intrigued me. I decided to conduct an informal but controlled comparison test. This would be helpful not just for my own purposes, but for other film photographers trying to navigate this increasingly digital world. I shot identical test photos on four rolls of film under identical conditions. I had two processed at local mass merchant stores (one at Costco, another at Target), and sent two to online labs that handle color print film (MPIX and Snapfish).
For the test shot (see setup, above), I used my 2-flash Adorama Flashpoint 1220 monolight kit, and chose for my subject an old film test mannequin head that some old-timers might recognize (we used to call her “Patient Patricia” back in the day). I included a GretagMacbeth Colorchecker Color Rendition Chart (now made by X-Rite) to show color accuracy, and a couple of my daughters’ stuffed animals—one dark brown, and one white—to show details in the far ends of the dynamic range. I placed the entire setup on a 53-inch wide Adorama Seamless White Backdrop.
I ran four rolls of Fujifilm Fujicolor Press 400 film through my trusty old Nikon FM2, using a 35-105mm NIKKOR zoom lens, mounted on a Velbon El Carmagne 630 Carbon Fiber Tripod.
The user experience
First, let’s look at the user experience for each service.
Ordering mailers through Mpix was a challenge; the button is not very obvious. Go to the Print Prices & Products page, scroll all the way to the bottom, and there on the left is a “Shoot Film?” box. Click on “learn more” and fill out the “request mailers” form. They said to expect mailers in 2-7 days. I got mine in three, with my name and address already printed on the return address. Just put the film in and seal the envelope, no forms to fill out. Up to four rolls per mailer are allowed.
I sent my roll in on Thursday and by Monday I got an e-mail infoming me that my film scans were ready. The email instructed me to log into the site and click “purchase your scans” to open the album and view them. Easier said than done. I logged in, and landed on a “Sizes & Quantities page showing some older portfolios, but could not find a “purchase your scans” option. After some unnecessary trial and error, I found it by clicking on the “My Albums” tab.
One of the three options was “purchase your scans.” I had four options, from scans only ($3.95 per 24-exposure roll), scans and 4x6 prints at 20 cents per print, a CD (add $10 per 50 images) and scan, proof and archive (no price given). I chose to have all prints made, but I could have simply selected a few and just ordered those.
I could have gone into each image and adjusted color, cropped, converted to black-and-white or done some other things. I also could have ordered larger prints, and multiple prints if I so desired.
The nice thing about this process is that you are able to do your proofing online. For pros, at a relatively high 29 cents per 4x6-inch print this can be a big money-saver, although I don’t know if it saves much time, especially for first timers who may get lost in the less-than-ideal navigation tools.
For print surfaces, I had the option of matte finish, metallic, or black-and-white. Unfortunately, there was no glossy option. I checked matte finish, and completed the checkout option. Total price: $18.10 including USPS delivery.
Although they said images should be ready in 3-4 days, they were ready in 3 days.
While it’s a small link, the Snapfish “send film” link for requesting mailers and film processing is on the homepage. Scroll to the bottom, and it’s on the lower right, under the “add photos” heading. Expect a 3-7 day wait for the mailers to arrive. However, if you don’t want to wait Snapfish has a printable label and order form, which you can attach to your own envelope.
But it’s not as simple as just dropping the film in the envelope; first you have to fill in the order form, and choose glossy or matte, print size, and whether you want double prints, photos written to CD, buying extra film, or getting a “super-saver” which includes two sets of prints, photos on CD, and a replacement roll of Kodak 200-speed film. Decisions, decisions!
I sent my roll out to Snapfish on a Thursday. On Monday, I received an email stating that they’ve received my film and will post your photos online within 1-2 business days, and my prints should arrive 5-8 days after that. They exceeded expectations, with photos arriving in 3 days. Total price: $2.99 including USPS delivery.
Both Snapfish and Mpix orders were sent out at the same time, and arrived on the same day. Total elapsed time for both, from ordering mailers through receipt of prints was 7 days.
To take advantage of Costco’s low pricing, you need to be a member, and to be a member you need to own a business, or have an employer, friend or relative who is a member so you have some connection. And, you’ve gotta pay $50 a year. And, you have to buy most products in large quanities. But their prices are good and (at least as far as the produce goes) quality is excellent; if you buy enough quantity, you’ll save more than the annual fee.
As with other processors, Costco’s lab offers several options that include your photos on a CD, duplicate prints, larger prints, and the first time filling out the processing envelope you may need to spend a minute or two deciding on the options. Seal the envelope (1 roll only) and drop it in the red box, and the processed film and prints should be ready in an hour. When I dropped 8 rolls initially in the red box the first go-round, it took them about an hour and a half, but when I dropped off the single test roll and followed this procedure, one hour later I picked up the film, no problems. Total price: $3.99 plus the cost of about a third of a gallon of gas. (At over $4 a gallon, the cost of gas is a factor when determining the overall cost!)
Target is a mass-merchandiser that does not require any membership fees. Prices are somewhat higher than Costco but you can buy in smaller quantities. Target’s lab handles film and offers two levels of quality: Basic and Kodak PerfectTouch premium processing. Premium processing costs almost twice that of basic processing. Next-day processing is approximately $1 per roll less than 1-hour processing. Double prints, photos on CD, enlargements, and B&W and Sepia printing options are available on the envelope.
The experience was old-school and familiar. I filled out my name and phone number, made my processing choices, put the film in the pouch and handed it to the tech. “1 hour,” was all he said as he whisked it away. And exactly 1 hour later, it was ready. Total price: $8.99 plus about a half gallon of petroleum to get there.
Comparing the results
Finally, we’ve come to the part you’ve been waiting for: How did the prints turn out?
The short answer is, you get what you pay for. Mpix and Target, both of which offered premium processing (a default for Mpix and a higher-priced option for Target) generally did better than the lower-cost processing.
First, let’s look at a digitally-captured version of our setup:
Control shot: Taken with a Canon EOS-40D and 18-55mm lens, then adjusted in Adobe Photoshop to reproduce the scene as faithfully and accurately as possible.
Caveat: I’ve done my best to reproduce the relative qualities of the different prints here visually using my print scanner and calibrated monitor, and referring to the actual prints under neutral light. However, since your monitor may display these images differently from how they look on my screen, I suggest relying on the comments below as they most accurately reflect the actual results.
Now, let’s look at the four test shots as processed by the four different labs:
I broke print quality down into the following: Color balance (overall color cast of the print), contrast (range of tonality captured in the printing), and saturation (how intensely the colors in the scene are rendered). I also evaluated prints based on the condition of the prints and packaging (loose negatives can shift around and scratch each other, for instance).
Mpix: Excellent color balance, with very accurate rendering of all but light green in the GretagMacbeth color chart. Skin tones were accurate, neutrals were slightly warm.
Target: Very good color balance, with fairly accurate color although all colors were a bit washed-out. Skin tones were accurate.
Snapfish: Very good color balance. Colors were saturated but showed a subtle shift favoring blue-green. Nevertheless, skin tones were fairly accurate.
Costco: Poor color balance. Overall blue color cast causes washed out warmtone colors on GretagMacbeth color chart. Skin tones looked blue and unhealthy, scarf on model’s head looked dirty.
Best in category: Mpix
Target: Prints showed the most detail in light and dark subject matter in the same picture, but darker hues appeared a bit muddy.
Snapfish: Good contrast overall while still maintaining highlight detail. Some shadow details disappeared.
Mpix: Contrastier overall, with details falling off equally from shadow and highlight areas.
Costco: Average contrast, although some loss highlight detail and lots of missing shadow detail.
Best in category: Mpix
Target: Saturation seemed lower, perhaps a bit too low. Combined with the low contrast, the overall effect was relatively muddy.
Snapfish: Moderately high saturation. Colors pop off the ColorChecker chart.
Mpix: Good saturation with accurate reproduction of the ColorChecker, and accurate skintones.
Costco: Average saturation, with pale skintones that might also be due to overall blue hue.
Best in category: Mpix
Packaging/Condition of negatives
Target: Boxy packaging is a bit thicker than typical, and therefore more protective. Negatives cut in 4-shot strips and stowed separately in sleeves in a separate pocket of box.
Snapfish: Typical 1-hour lab type packing, with negatives stowed loose in separate pocket of pouch. This packaging risks negs rubbing against each other and getting scratched.
Mpix: Extremely protective packing, with negatives delivered rolled and uncut in a separate box from the prints. Overkill? Perhaps for the typical consumer, but pros who live and die by the quality of their work should appreciate Mpix’s extra efforts to protect their negs.
Costco: Packing was average, what you’d expect from a 1-hour lab. Negatives were stowed together loose in separate pocket of pouch—same problem as Snapfish.
Best in category: Target
Runner-up: Mpix (Best in category if you’re a pro)
And now for something completely different
Just for fun, I scanned one of the negs I got back from Target (I chose that one because it was in excellent condition) using my trusty Nikon Coolscan V-ED 35mm film scanner, uploaded it to AdoramaPix, and ordered a print. The result was a fine print with neutral tones, good contrast, and realistic skin tones. See for yourself!
Best of both worlds? Compare this print from a scanned negative file that I sent from AdoramaPix to the control print above--it's a pretty close match!
If these tests prove anything, its that the weakest link in the film photography world continues to be inconsistent print processing. As great as film can be, a calibrated, profiled digital system will produce perfect prints--and no surprises. But there are nonetheless advantages to film and, as we know based on sales, a lot of people still buying and using the stuff, and they will benefit from this knowledge.
While Mpix is the clear winner here on quality and is the better of the two choices for creative options when placing an order, that doesn’t tell the whole story, because Mpix is clearly geared towards the high-end and is priced accordingly. What about those of us who just want good, affordable prints of snapshots?
For the typical snapshooter, based on overall quality above I recommend Snapfish for online film processing and printing. If you prefer the 1-hour route, Target’s the better-quality option of the two tested. I would only recommend Costco if you’re a member, are looking for the lowest cost, and aren’t too picky about color and contrast.
What about the best of all worlds? Use either online or walk-in processing just so you can get the negatives, proof either on screen or with the cheap prints (just make sure the negs are stored properly), then scan the negatives you really care about. Upload the files to AdoramaPix, as I did above, and choose the “it-doesn’t-leave-until-we-love-it” option to be assured it's looked at and manually adjusted by a trained digital darkroom technician rather than an automated machine, and order your best-quality prints that way.
Of course, there are other labs both online and in various mass merchant chains including some drug store chains and supermarkets. This article is just a snapshot of some of the options available now. If you are looking for that balance between price and quality, do some test shooting of your own (keep your subject matter and lighting consistent) and test out some labs yourself.
If you find a lab that delivers what you want, or you already have a lab you are happy with, stick with ’em. And pray they don’t stop developing film.
Mason Resnick would like to thank Patient Patricia for coming out of retirement to pose for one more film test.