A Site for Photographers by Photographers

Recommended Labs

By Philip Greenspun

Home : Learn : One Section
(Illustrated mostly with pictures from my Sierra collection or my nudes gallery)
Venice Beach, California.
Contents:
  1. Top
  2. Ilfochromes (Cibachromes)
  3. Fuji Type R
  4. C prints
  5. Digital prints
  6. Black and White prints
  7. Processing and Proof printing
  8. PhotoCD Scanning
  9. PhotoCD Labs that I don't like
  10. Labs to Avoid
  11. In the Boston area
  12. The rest of the world


Reader's Comments

Before I put up my Q&A forum, I would get about three messages/day asking me for a recommendation of a "good and cheap" photo lab. What I look for in a lab is that they first do no harm. A lab must have superb dust control, careful neg/slide handling, and good systems for keeping track of originals. If a lab has all of those things and makes me a print that I don't like, at least the neg or slide will be in good enough shape that someone can try again.

Can a lab be really cheap and not trash your originals? Not in my experience. It costs money to hire someone to clean air filters. It costs money to watch the chemical concentrations in the developing machines. It costs money to associate a photographer's name with each item in the plant. It costs money to check and double check orders when they are delivered.

Of course, just because a lab is expensive doesn't mean that they will be good. But at least they have a chance of being good. Sometimes labs that are highly automated can be good and relatively cheap for certain things like E6 process and mount or C41 process and proof. Finally, you can get lucky. If you have an easy-to-print negative, you might get a machine print at a cheap lab for $2.50 that looks the same as a pro lab's $25.00 print. But if you liked the image well enough to enlarge and present, then I'll venture to say that you'll be fairly sorry when the cheap lab loses or scratches the negative. And it is only a matter of time.

Note: remember to help the Internet community by recording your own experiences with labs in the photo.net Neighbor to Neighbor service.

Ilfochromes (Cibachromes)
Alabama Hills.  Eastern Sierra. Prints from slides that won't fade for 500 years or more if stored in the dark, thus outlasting the original slide. The traditional Cibachrome material is plastic which makes for an incredibly glossy surface.

  • Portland Color, (800) 734-3230, FAX (207) 772-6378, 51 York St Portland, ME 04101

    Portland Color made its reputation printing for art museums so when they say "exhibition quality" they aren't kidding. They use high contrast paper for vibrant color and B&W contrast masks for contrast control, unlike cheap printers who like to use the low contrast Ilfochrome material which allows for more sloppiness in printing. Their printers are real artists. The cost is about $12.50 for the mask (one time) and then about $30 for the first 8x10 Ciba.

    All of the above is still true. It is what I used to say about Portland Color. However, now they have started making prints for people who make charitable donations to Angell Memorial Animal Hospital (see the gift shop section of Travels with Samantha). That makes them Good Internet Citizens in my opinion and thus even more deserving of business.

Cheap Cibas (i.e., < $20 for an 8x10) are terrible quality in my experience. I have tried several cheap mail-order Ciba labs and they all produced results worse than a $5 Fuji Type R print (see below).

The LightRoom offers some good factual information about Cibachromes but I've never tried their services.


Fuji Type R
Alabama Hills.  Eastern Sierra. Prints from slides. Nearly as long-lasting as Ilfochrome if displayed in the light. Slightly lower quality but possibly acceptable especially if the image is not too contrasty.

  • Slideprinter, P.O. Box 9506, Denver, CO 80209, (303) 698-2962; www.slideprinter.com. Inexpensive.
  • A&I (see below).



C prints
Bodie, California Prints from color negatives.
  • Portland Color, (800) 734 3230. Their standard service is comparable to "exhibition grade" at other pro labs. They are Good Internet Citizens because they donate prints so that dogs can get better health care. They aren't any more expensive than a regular pro lab.

  • FinePrint, 1306 Blue Spruce Drive, Unit E, Fort Collins, CO 80524. (800) 777-1141, email@fineprint.org. Tell them that Philip Greenspun sent you; they know me.

    FinePrint will make you five beautiful prints for about the same price as a Boston lab charges for one or two. And they will do a better job. What's the catch? The minimum order is five for 16x20 and larger, ten for smaller prints.

    FinePrint also will make internegatives from your slides and produce C prints that can be better than Cibachromes and Fuji Type R prints in some respects (e.g., shadow detail).

    If you intend to sell (or give away) your work, FinePrint is your best ally.

Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park My experience with Type C printers has been generally fairly bad. Pro labs charge a fortune because their costs are high. Unfortunately, they often don't do any better work than a machine. Large consumer labs are very careless with negatives and it is very difficult to control results. I think there are only two ways to get something for nothing in the Type C printing world. One is to take standard wedding pictures on standard wedding film and bring them to a standard wedding lab. They have established procedures for producing reasonably high quality prints at reasonably low cost. The other way is to find a serious photographer who has chucked the rat race and set up a 1-hour lab in a small town. I've gotten great prints made from 120 film on Martha's Vineyard in November (November!) and 50 copies of my fighting bears (at right) to send to friends as postcards from Homer, Alaska.

My most memorable experience of this kind was walking into a one-hour lab in Missoula, Montana. The grizzled owner had an E6 machine and claimed to be able to do 120. I was reluctant to entrust my film to a lab that didn't dip-and-dunk and that wasn't part of the Kodak Q-lab network. He said "Well, Galen Rowell thinks my service is good enough for him." I was delighted with the results, but the proprietor wasn't impressed by my photographs (below): "I'd be just as happy if I never saw a picture of Yellowstone or Glacier."



Digital prints
If you have an image that only exists digitally and you want a photograph-like physical copy, you can get a Light Jet print (up to 50x120 inches) from Portland Color. Alternatively, the Kodak Pegasus system at Boston Photo prints on conventional C-type paper up to 20x30" in size.

If you have an image that you think might look interesting as a watercolor-y painting, then try an Iris ink-jet print on watercolor paper from Portland Color. I did this with the double flower photo that decorates the list of people who use my images. The results were beautiful, as you can see for yourself if you donate a few dollars to a no-kill animal shelter.

Black and White prints
When you look for a color printer, you are mostly looking for a good technician. If your image includes a fire engine and it isn't bright red in the final print, then you need a technician to fix the problem. Suppose that you have the same fire engine in a B&W negative. What shade of gray should it be in the final print?

When you are looking for someone to print your B&W negatives, you are looking for a good partner. This person must respect your work enough to slave over it and must have a good enough rapport with you to understand what you want. Richard Avedon has several full-time printers. They make perhaps a dozen work prints from each negative. Avedon sits down with them and says "The face should have the contrast and density from work print #3, the arms the contrast and density from work print #7, the dress looks good in print #2, ..." Then the printers have to go back and figure out what combination of paper grade and dodging and burning will produce the combined result desired. This is the ideal working relationship. Because such a relationship is virtually impossible to achieve with a commercial lab, most serious B&W photographers print everything themselves.

Personally, I don't like to spend my days alone in the dark. So I let Portland Color print my B&W and try to communicate my needs as clearly as possible. Because I so seldom do my own printing, my darkroom skills are rusty and therefore the printers at Portland Color do a better job than I ever would.

Try to find a local lab where you can sit down and talk to the printer or at least drop by every day and look at work prints, circling problem areas with a grease pencil. A good B&W printer should be able to make archival prints on fiber-base paper with selenium toning. The selenium toning deepens the blacks and thus increases the image contrast.

Provincetown Dunes.  Cape Cod.  Massachusetts. Gay Head.  Martha's Vineyard.  Massachusetts.


Processing and Proof printing
"Process and proof" turns exposed film into something that can be evaluated by a human being. In the case of slide film, "Process and mount" is what you want. For 35mm film, these services are available as close as your nearest drugstore or 1-hour lab. Why consider a pro lab for basic processing? Pro labs are useful in the following cases: when you need 3 hour service, when you have 120 or sheet film, when you want your film pushed or pulled in 1/3 stop increments, when you want plastic slide mounts.

Mass market and 1-hour labs use roller transport processors. If a bit of grit gets into a roller, these processors can scratch every frame on a roll of film. Any pro lab worth its salt will have a dip-and-dunk processor. Film is pulled out of its cartridge or off its spool, clipped at both ends, and then hung on a rack that can dip the whole roll at once into a vat of chemistry tall enough to accomodate the length of the film. There is no part of a dip-and-dunk machine in which frames can be scratched en masse. Most good pro labs subscribe to a remote chemistry monitoring program in which data are periodically uploaded to Kodak or Fuji. Look for a "Kodak Q-Lab" or "Fuji Labnet" logo.

One worthwhile pro lab luxury is the ability to get enlarged proof sheets. The lab develops negatives or slides normally and then arranges them to fit into an 8x10 enlarger. Using this monstrous contraption, the entire roll is projected at once onto a 16x20 or 20x24" sheet of paper. Thus you have the advantages of a contact sheet, e.g., only one piece of paper to go with each roll and frame numbers clearly marked next to each proof, coupled with the advantages of proof prints, i.e., the image is large enough to evaluate without a magnifying loupe. This whole process can cost $30-40/roll but sometimes the results are so good that you can frame the end-result and hang it on your wall as an example of the "small multiples" espoused in Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information.

If you can't find a good local lab, consider using mailers. Adorama Pro Lab offers dip-and-dunk processing for both E6 and C41. A mailer for 36-exposure slide film is $6 (order), for 4x6 proof prints from 36-exposure negative film, the cost is $12 (order). A&I is one of the nation's best big labs and they offer mailers: www.aandi.com. If you're in the Los Angeles area, however, try to go in person. The main Highland Avenue location in Hollywood is an especially fun place to hang out because they have a huge slide sorting area where working photographers lay out their freshly processed work to pick the good shots before rushing over to the art director.

If you're on a tight budget, consider mailers for Kodak processing. These are about $4 for 36-exposure slides and around $9 for color or B&W prints. The black and white service is very nice indeed. Instead of squinting at a contact sheet you get a 3x5" proof print from each frame. For a mass-market operation, Kodak is remarkably reliable. However, when film is lost or scratched there is literally nobody to whom to complain. The main lab is at 16-31 Route 208, Fairlawn, NJ 07410, (201) 797-0600 [centralized customer service for Kodak labs is (800) 531-3029 or (800) 345-6973]. Note that Kodak is happy to process Fuji film.



PhotoCD Scanning
Desktop scanners such as the high-end Nikons produce very high quality results. However, you may find that using Kodak PhotoCD simplifies the management of large image libraries. A scanner in a lab is less likely to attract dust. A pro lab will have expensive machines capable of scanning unusually sized negatives and transparencies.

Most of the images on photo.net were scanned either by Advanced Digital Imaging (135 West Oak Street, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524; 1-800-888-3686) or Boston Photo (contact Dave Semperger at 617-450-4372 or dsemp@bostonphoto.com).

If you really don't want to pay a lot for this PhotoCD scan, consider WalMart. They are allegedly wicked cheap. Personally I am nervous any time one of my originals is out of my possession and the thought that an operator will be slamming it through a Kodak PIW attempting to do 100 images/hour does not make me sleep well. I haven't tried them. After you get your PhotoCD back, be sure to read my conversion tips.

If you have an original larger than 4x5" or very dark, you might want to get a drum scan made. has a drum scanner. I've had bad luck with Graphics Express (Boston).

Portland Color and Boston Photo both have SciTex Eversmart Pro flat-bed CCD scanners. These are easier for labs to operate than drum scanners but for my purposes (extremely high-res zoomable FlashPix images), I prefer the pixels from a drum scanner.

Labs to Avoid
Seattle FilmWorks has a bad history, from which they have been trying to escape with a name change to "PhotoWorks". Their original sin was pushing respooled movie film onto consumers. Movie film is lower quality than photographic film and it is also non-archival. Family memories on movie film fade very quickly unless processed negatives are stored in the kinds of freezers used by movie studios. With the advent of the consumer Internet age, Seattle PhotoWorks went in for spamming.

Duggal is a big lab in Manhattan with a reasonably clean E6 line. However, they ruined some of my best C41 with their dirty neg developing and enlarged contact production areas. At $40/roll, one would expect better. I had a bunch of PhotoCD scans done there and they were also remarkably dusty. Double the price of Boston Photo and then you get to spend a few weeks in PhotoShop repairing the dust and neg damage.

For my notes on Boston's Colortek, see below.

In the Boston area
Boston Photo Imaging on Newbury Street is good choice for a full service lab, with comprehensive traditional and digital facilities.

ZONA, 561 Windsor Street, Somerville, MA 02143, (617) 628-2545 is our best-known local Ilfochrome printer. They also have a dip-and-dunk black and white line.

Colortek is known to many local pros as "Colorwreck". I once gave them ten rolls of 120 film. They lost one. They returned two rolls of B&W so underdeveloped that even the frame numbers were barely visible. When I complained, they said "it is obviously an exposure problem". I pointed out that my E6 of the same subject was perfectly exposed. They were unconvinced. I asked them how likely they thought it was that Ilford (with the frame numbers) and I both had exposure problems on the same rolls. They were unconvinced.

The rest of the world
Use the full text search engine or browse by categories in
the photo.net Neighbor to Neighbor service, which contains recommendations from all over the Internet of various labs.

[ top ]

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Mike Siesel , February 03, 2005; 01:44 P.M.

Took some family photos at Christmas and went with WalMart's special on prints and Photo CD. The digital images were scanned at approximately 1800x1200--less than a 3MP camera--and cost $8.80 for 24 exposure roll. I didn't find this a particularly useful service.

Ming Li , February 16, 2006; 04:19 P.M.

Avoid those labs!

I once used the slide development service provided by Market Basket supermarket in Boston. The lab (actually it is Konica-Minolta's) ruined my film by developing the slide film (Fujifilm RVP) using B&W process.

I used Kodak mailer and they couldn't find my film for half a year and the slides were mailed half a year later!

The Kodak lab used by Costco is also bad. They stained my slides and I had the slides sent back for cleaning. Then they further lost my slides!

Sylvester Robbins , March 08, 2006; 01:04 P.M.

Actually, I have had decent success using Wal Mart. But I had to make a decision that if I was to be serious about my photography, that would mean being serious about all aspects of it. I need to make sure I use good film and use a good lab. I really lucked into the lab. They are the only lab now in this area that still does slide film.

John Whitling , May 17, 2006; 01:08 P.M.

If you're going to use film you're going to have to accept that you're going to have to scan it yourself unless you do no color correction and little to no cropping, much less advanced techniques like stiching, etc.

Even when I go to my quality labs in Cincinnati (we have a few good ones) they only produce 18 meg scans off 35 mm film. That simply leaves a lot to be desired for anything over 8x10. Who knows when you'll want to do more serious work off the same image?

Yes, it's a sizeable investment but you will get the results you want and you'll have the incredible flexibility of digital editing. I think you'll get better images than most digital cameras today.

Tom Schlatter , July 31, 2006; 09:10 P.M.

This could really use an update, especially for the Boston referrals. Good labs are a dying breed.

ZONA has closed its doors for good as of April 2006 or so.

Boston Photo Imaging no longer develops film.

Campus Camera/Colortek in Kenmore Square is gone. Two days before they closed for good I was trying to find some place to develop some medium format slides - they had already drained their chemicals and even they recommended against using the downtown Colortek lab.

Ferranti-Dege in Harvard Sq. is still there and did a decent job developing my slides.

My friend at the Museum School recommends Color Services in Needham and refers to them as "the pro lab for New England".

Amber B , September 08, 2006; 06:36 P.M.

I wouldn't recommend handing your film over to Wal Mart if you care how it ends up.

I have processed hundreds of rolls of film at Wal Mart (unfortunately because I can't afford to send it off right now). Every image I get back, every picture, every negative, is ruined somehow. From small pieces of dust to large strands of hair to outright destruction. I only drop off snapshots there, point-and-shoot images I don't really have a lot of stock in, and for which I'm not able to pay $20 for developing and scanning at a reputable place.

But if you are nervous about dropping your film off places, DON'T drop it off at Wal Mart. My dad, a professional photographer, actually used to work for them. He eventually quit, I think it partly might have been because he couldn't stand the stupidity of the people who worked there. They are usually minimum wage register regect teens who don't know the difference between RGB and CMYK, who don't know what "push" and "pull" means, who don't know what C41 processing is, who don't know not to touch wet negatives with their fingers after eating KFC, and who certainly don't know what DPI images are printed at.

I woudn't trust them. Unless you are certain you don't care about your negatives, or unless you (like me) can't afford anything else, I would be very, very careful.

John Shriver , October 18, 2006; 09:21 P.M.

Ferranti-Dege closed Friday, October 13, 2006.

shelia dennehy , July 10, 2007; 12:44 P.M.

I work for a CVS 1 hour lab and i admit the level of education we are alloted is minimal at best. I am a photo lab supervisor that had very little experience with 35 mm and no experience with digital 3 years ago. All the education i get comes from right here, at home on my computer and using my little kodak easy share camera as well as my fiance's canon rebel 35 mm. After alot of trial and error i feel a little more confident but i agree with the post above. Most 1 hour labs are staffed with teenagers who don't care and think it is all a game. But i speak for the few who work in labs for companies who are more interested in cosmetic dept.s and etc. that put photo at the bottom of the priority list as far as education,equipment and staffing...there are labs that do care. My lab is clean, my up time is very good and we produce some very good photos. I do work for some extremely good artists here on the outer banks and have a good reputation. But you can not imagine the frustration when there is an education, supply, technical or customer service issue. So i guess what i am trying to get at, is i am new, please give any advice and have mercy on those of us who want to learn and do not only a fast job for you but a really GOOD job for you.

Michael Chappell , January 16, 2008; 01:24 P.M.

North Carolina film processing

I am not certain if anyone has posted the information elsewhere on the site, but there are several options in North Carolina. Of course there are plenty of retail "chain" stores that do nice processing and printing, provided the chemicals receive proper maintenance/replacement. But for large reprints, or slide film processing, the options are fewer.

In Raleigh - J.W. Photo Lab (www.jwphotolabs.com) does an incredible job on all processing needs. The average turn around is 24 hours for processing. If you need it faster, you can drop it off with Jackie and they will have it ready in 2 hours (processing & contact sheet). As far as print go, I had 40X60 prints made a year ago for a project and they were phenomenal. The prices are unbelievable and the quality and customer satisfaction deserves 5-Stars.

Raleigh/Carrboro - Southeastern Camera (Color, Black & White, Digital, 35mm, 120/220). (http://www.southeasterncamerasupply.com/) Southeastern has 3 locations - Raleigh, Carrboro, and Wilmington. They just closed the store in Cary in January 2008. All their processing services are done at the Carrboro Store. If perhaps you are visiting the area from out of town, Carrboro and Chapel Hill are neighboring cities. It is about a mile from the downtown section of Chapel Hill to the Carrboro location.

Chapel Hill - The University used to send printing needs to hospital for processing and printing/enlargements. The results were fantastic. But now, as I was told, University Photo on Hwy 54 is now another business that provides processing and printing of print and slide film, 35/120/220, and digital services. I have not used them so I can not attest to their business, but I have never heard anything negative about them.

Raleigh/Garner - NC Tri-Color imaging (http://nctricolor.com) offers processing and printing, as well as digital. They have forms online to print and fill out, and then a drop slot in their front door to leave the film. Turn around used to be about 48 hours and the quality was great.

Burlington/Greensboro/Winston-Salem - I am not over in this part of the state much. (also called the Triad). The last few times I had any E6 processed, I used Chromex, on Battleground Ave. (336-273-0871). If you get the film in by 11am, you can have it back by 3pm. My film was beautiful.

Charlotte - Kenny Color Lab (S. Church Street) (704-377-9171) does a fantastic job. I shot some photos for a project, had them processed here, and was very pleased.

Charlotte - There is a place called "The Photo House" that I had some print film processed at, and the results were very nice. The also offer digital services, mounting, and other very creative/artistic services.

Charlotte - One of my colleagues at UNC-Charlotte says that she uses Positive Reactions on Winnifred Street. They offer E6, film, and digital services. She said they have a 2-3 hour turnaround.

John Castronovo , October 30, 2008; 11:37 A.M.

I just saw this post for the first time. With regard to your comments about Fineprint or any other lab, internegative film was discontinued eons ago and any lab that will charge you for one is probably ripping you off. I agree that a well made ineg was a beautiful thing in its day and every custom lab that knew how to make one was sad to see it go. Unfortunately, 98 percent of custom labs made awful inegs, even when the stuff was fresh, and any lab that 'has some in the freezer' is surely kidding you because the stuff didn't last a year even when frozen. If you really want a large format interneg made today, the best way is to buy a quality drum scan and then have it written back to film on a Kodak LVT fim recorder. This approach, while costly, is the best there ever was and it's still available at our lab and a handful of others.

Matt Sawyer , August 29, 2009; 04:01 P.M.

I'm spending a lot of effort (with very little success) trying to find an affordable lab that does 16-bit scanning. Any recommendations?

By the way - most of the information on this page (as well as most of the articles Phillip Greenspun has posted) is obsolete. Most of the labs recommended on this page are apparently out of business.


Add a comment



Notify me of comments