How To Deal with Problems from Your Film Lab

Recently, a fellow film photographer posted a hastily-taken snapshot of an envelope of loose negatives. They stated that a well-known and well regarded lab had scratched all their negatives. It wasn’t clear if the problem was just how the negatives were packaged, causing a potential for scratches or how bad the scratches, if any, were. But they vowed never to use the lab again and stated that the post should be considered a warning to others to stay away from them as well.

It goes without saying that when a lab damages ones work, it is an extremely frustrating situation. One that sadly, you’ll likely experience at some point if you shoot a film with any regularity and use a lab, no matter their reputation. Before about ten years ago, film labs processed all my paid photography work so I am no stranger to dealing with them. When I had problems, it was usually on a much larger scale than this photographer; I was dropping off 20-40 rolls of 35mm a month. I didn’t have the luxury of simply changing labs in many cases and as a local business myself, it wouldn’t do any good to disparage anyone publicly.

So while I can certainly relate to this photographers’ sentiment, I replied to their post with a different approach. My response got a fair number of “likes” so I figured I said something right!

I have slightly edited and reposted my response below. I hope that readers find it useful as well.

I’m sorry to hear about this. However, [Photo Lab Name] has been one of the most reputable film labs that have supported our community for decades.

Rather than sound off about one instance of trouble (and it does look very bad) on social media without any context (which, trust me, I do understand but feel you might be acting out of anger), I would recommend contacting them and discussing the issue.

There are not nearly as many labs doing good work reliably as there was 10 or 20 years ago. The ones that are left are pretty much doing us a favor at this point and are probably struggling like many businesses.

Everyone has bad days too, and film labs are run by humans just like us.

Part of using labs is communicating with them and navigating issues. Many people just drop film with them and expect to love the results without discussion. But it doesn’t work that way. Specific expectations need to be communicated in order to get them, because, after all, different customers have different expectations.

I don’t recommend changing labs at the first sign of trouble. Often when a mistake occurs, it’s a one-time thing and people will be sure to take care of a customer who communicates about it. If you just go to another lab, you are bound to have some other issue. And eventually, all you do is lessen your own resources.

I’m sorry about your film and hope your next experiences are better. Best of luck!👍

I didn’t want to upset the photographer any further, but I also sort of wanted to point out that if they shot a reasonable amount of film, one roll that probably wasn’t entirely ruined, wouldn’t garner such anger. I see so many film photographers shooting just one or two rolls of film per month. Not only is this slack approach bad for film manufacturers, it’s bad for the odds of improving ones personal photography. Until you’re shooting at least ten rolls per month, how are you possibly going to improve your work or make it worth a lab’s time calibrating their methods for you? Would you cover an important event with a digital camera taking only 36 photos?

But yeah, that was my response. Most other responses were pitches for other labs that are personally preferred or encouragement for the OP to process their own film. The typical response for photographers to process their own film really bothers me.

As someone who made that move – ditching all my labs (I was using four simultaneously at one point) in order to process everything myself, I would not recommend this nuclear solution for every photographer. First, it’s not beneficial to the film ecosystem to just cut out lab processing from the entire community’s resources and secondly, some situations really do necessitate the reliability and quality of working with a lab.

Notice that I said “working with a lab.” Using labs always depends on two way communication. Photographers need to work WITH their labs in order to turn out quality work. It’s a team thing. Embrace it and I have faith that you can still get quality lab processing and scanning. Doing it all oneself is better for curmudgeons like me! And hey, I still mail out my color.

Thanks for reading and happy shooting, and processing!

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