Love and Hate With a Film Lab Technician


Images courtesy of Chris Rohrer and Treehouse Photo Lab 

Going to a film lab for the first time is awful.

It’s intimidating. It’s disheartening. It feels a lot like when you go into a skate shop for the first time and everyone’s dressed better than you and the 20-year-old clerk asks what size you ride and you don’t know what that means. Everyone’s a dick and it’s all your fault.

A film lab is more stressful and high-pressure than working a normal gig—you’re responsible for handling and developing people’s work, and you’ve only got one shot to run it through that processor without fucking it up. We are a sad, stressed few that work at your local lab. We hate things, we love things, we talk shit about you after you leave. This is a guide to help you not piss off the lab people, written by some lab people.

HATE: When you call us about your scans. Don’t call us for your scans. Don’t call us at all. 

You’ve dropped off your film for processing and scanning. The lab told you it’d be ready Thursday at noon. It’s Wednesday morning. Don’t call and ask how it’s going. We know you are eager. Trust us. We know. The more time we have to spend on the phone explaining to you that your stuff isn’t ready, the less time we have to get your stuff ready, the longer it’ll take you to see your photos of the sunset. If these photos are vitally important or on a deadline, ask your lab about options for priority orders and pay the extra dollar. Otherwise, hit refresh on your email and put the phone down.

LOVE: When you have your film rewound and ready to go. 

As previously stated, so few labs, so many rolls of film. Time spent helping you is time not spent turning those rolls around. If you’re going to drop off, have all your rolls rewound, out of the camera, and organized by processor type (C-41 (color) vs D76 (B&W). It’ll save us a whole lot of time, and save you a whole lot of embarrassment as we watch you struggle to rewind your SLR. (Bonus points if you left a little bit of the film lead sticking out when you rewound so that we don’t have to pull it out ourselves. That’ll have us swooning.)

HATE: When you don’t pick up your fucking negatives.

Film labs are usually stinky, cramped, shithole type places with very little natural light and very poor storage. We are a processing house, not a storage unit for everyone’s negatives. I once worked at a lab where they had to use the bathroom floor to store the hundreds of yet-to-be-retrieved negatives. Just think of someone splashing on your cherished memories because you were too lazy to come back around for them. What if your computer explodes and the scan is gone? What if Dropbox goes out of business? That initial scan is tiny. What if you become a famous and absurdly wealthy fine artist and need to rescan your image to make a room-sized print for MoMa but you can’t because you didn’t come and get your negatives?

LOVE: When you bring your own formatted USB.

At most labs, when scanning your negatives, you are often presented with the option to have it emailed to you via a file-sharing platform, or have it scanned onto a CD/thumbdrive. From our experience, nothing is more efficient and pleasant than having someone hand in a batch of film and a formatted USB to scan onto. It is usually an easier option for the lab’s software, which was written long before the time of Dropbox, and is sort of like a hard copy of your digital copy.

HATE: When you ask for a discount or complain about pricing.

Customers will often comment to us, ‘Wow, film is so expensive! $10 for the roll and then $20 just to develop and scan it! That’s $30!’ While we are impressed by your ability to do math, we are unsympathetic. You know what else is expensive? A Nikon D500. Pick your poison. The profit margins for selling film/processing/scanning are so slim, we may as well be recycling bottles and cans instead. The cost of overheads, chemistry, skilled technicians, wholesale film purchase minimums, etc. do not make for an extraordinarily profitable business. A yacht is not in our future. Labs are largely doing it for the love, and so should you.

LOVE: When you actually fill out the envelope instead of making us ask you what you want. 

Most film labs will have you fill out an envelope questionnaire which will act as your order slip. This slip is for you to write down what you want us to do with the film inside. Please fill this form out. We don’t know what you want, and if we go through the steps and you get back a product that you didn’t want, you’ll blame us. If you’re new to processing, you may not know what these options mean and that is perfectly fine! Ask us.

HATE: When you force us to look at your portfolio.

We just work here, man. We aren’t talent agents. Unless we ask, we probably aren’t keen on a chat about what model you’re shooting at the moment, nor do we particularly want to see your Tumblr. Moreover, we see everyone’s photos when we scan them, including yours. Every nude, every out of focus photo, every blemish; the more you try to impress us, the more we will save your photos to a folder called ‘dickhead.’ Not saying you can’t have a talk with the folks behind the counter. Have a chat! Be friendly! I used to have a customer who was a concert photographer and would come in and talk to us about the bands we liked. That guy was great. I also had a customer who would come in with a Leica and tell me that the cameras we were selling were all shit. Be like the first guy.

LOVE: When you download your photos and remove them from your Dropbox/file sharing.

While your lab pays for a premium file-sharing account, you surely don’t. When your folder gets full, the lab is no longer able to share your photos with you. Then you get frustrated because your photos aren’t appearing in your box. By downloading your photos each time you receive them and removing them from your file-sharing platform, you ensure that you get your photos on time, and the lab can work more efficiently. This is a small gesture, sure, but we notice and we love you for it.

HATE: When you drop off one roll, every day. 

This may seem a little niche; perhaps even unreasonable given certain circumstances, but it is a lot nicer having someone drop off seven rolls once a week, than one roll seven times a week. Having a few large orders rather than many, very small orders creates a more efficient work environment, as the settings on the processors and scanners don’t need to be changed as often between orders, and there are less envelopes and roll numbers floating around.

LOVE: When you know what you want and don’t go for ‘the best.’

If you’ve ever been a waiter, then you’ll know there’s nothing better than going to a table that knows exactly what it wants to eat. No long pauses, no questions about gluten; they have a clear idea of what they’d like to eat and they ask for it. Film is a bit the same. Each film stock has its own, very individual characteristics; each one has nuance, gradient, and an intended application (check our guide to B&W film). Go look at some hashtags, Google some stuff, find your style and think about what you want your photos to look like. Having an idea of what you’re into makes the job much easier in recommending something you’ll love, and you benefit by being sold a worthwhile product. (This goes for processing, too.) Like anybody in customer service, lab techs don’t want to be talked at, but we are down to be talked with, especially if it’s with someone who’s excited about film. There’s a reason we work here, we love the stuff. We’d love to engage with someone who feels the same and help them achieve the results that they want.

LOVE: Please and thank you’s.

Please and thank you go a long way. It might even get you some free scans. We know you’re an artist or whatever, but keep in mind that you’re nothing without the lab you work with. Likewise, we are nothing without you, so thank you. Film is a special thing; an antiquated medium somewhere between dead and dying, chugging along against all odds, helped by the decrepit labs and the weird photographers that use them. Please, keep going, and thank you for doing so.

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