: One Section
(Illustrated mostly with pictures from
my Sierra collection
or my nudes gallery
Before I put up my Q&A
, 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
Note: remember to help the Internet community by recording your own
experiences with labs in the photo.net Neighbor to
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
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
Fuji Type R
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell them that Philip Greenspun sent you; they know
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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"
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
If you can't find a good local lab, consider using mailers.
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
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
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.
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
(135 West Oak Street, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524;
Photo (contact Dave Semperger at 617-450-4372
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
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
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
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.