Why are so many labs incompetent?

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Let me first say that I know that there must be high-quality labs out there. In fact, some of you probably own/operate them. If you run or know of one those labs that cares as much about my images as I do, I'd very much appreciate it if you'd post the name and location of the lab.

My experience of late has been primarily with labs that don't care about my photographs, and I'm tired of ruined images and service personnel who couldn't care less about their jobs.

My most recent experience:

I took some 4x5 Velvia in at around noon one day. The lab's advertised turn-around time for E6 was three hours. They told me that it would be ready by 4:00p.m. I returned a bit before that time and waited in the car until it was about 4:00p.m. I went in, and the woman told me that they had called me to let me know that it would take a bit longer. I hadn't received the message, but I didn't mind the delay. She told me that it would take about 20 more minutes. I left, went somewhere else, and returned 35-40 minutes later. She told me that they were drying and that it would be a few more minutes. I went somewhere else, then returned about ten minutes later. She said that it would be just another minute. She said something about it being movie day. By this time I was already late for an appointment. I waited outside for a couple of minutes (there wasn't really any place to wait inside), then went back in. She went into the back room and I waited. And waited. After a couple of minutes I got so fed up with the rudeness that I left. During the experience I had received only the slimmest hint of an apology. I won't be visiting that place again unless it's an extreme rush (ironic).

The really pathetic part of this is that I had driven a long way to get there because a closer lab had previously scratched my slides. I told a friend (also a photographer) about it and she said that the person in charge would want to know. The lab examined the slides when I brought them back, admitted that I probably hadn't done it (the film was scratched under the mount, too) and didn't acknowledge any fault of theirs (I'm glad that those were only test rolls). Also, the other part of my initial order had been about a day late.

Both of those labs are so-called "pro" labs (when I had one of the "consumer" labs develop some snapshots they overcharged me).

I'm sure that there are lab experiences that have been more disastrous (that would be a thread), but this is enough for me to want to find a lab that I can trust.

Again, if you know of a lab that consistently has high-quality processing (E6) and customer service, please post the name and location.

Thank you.

-- Matthew Runde (actorm@hotmail.com), January 30, 2002


I use a lab called Photobition in Seattle. It used to be called Ivey Seright. They have always been great, on time, and the quality is perfect. The only problem that I ever had was one fingerprint on a 35mm slide. They washed it and had it back in my hands within a half hour. (In hindsight however, it may have been my thumbprint.)

Now that I'm living in New Hampshire, I still send my film back to Seattle for processing. They also do great type R prints.

-- Nathaniel Paust (paustne@whitties.org), January 30, 2002.

these guys are as good as it gets...

www.chromatics.com/ nashville tn

-- mark lindsey (mark@mark-lindsey.com), January 30, 2002.

I've had good luck with - and heard nothing but good about - Hance Partners, 435 S. San Francisco St., Flagstaff, AZ 86001, 928- 773-9926 and Photographic Works, 460 N. Switzer Canyon Dr., Flagstaff, AZ 86001, 928-213-8086.


-- Anthony J. Kohler (arbitrator@uneedspeed.net), January 30, 2002.

If you ever need a good b&w lab call Labwork in Cleveland, Ohio: 216/621-7567

-- Jeffrey Scott (jscott@datavoice.net), January 30, 2002.

Finding a lab that consistently produces good results is not an easy task. In fact, itís one of the reasons I now use digital with perspective correction in Photoshop for the majority of my commercial work.

Sooner or later your lab WILL screw up - Iíve had film lost, received the wrong film back, had processing errors of every conceivable variety Ö. Iíve even had 120 film back with frames being scissor cut well into the image.

Why does this happen ? Several reasons come to mind Ö. High staff turnover, poor employee training and motivation, large volume of work, and low wages. Iím sure you could find other reasons.

The problem you describe is a minor one - wait until they lose work that you absolutely have to receive because your income and livelihood depend on it. At that point you say ď No more ď.

I just completed a job with over 400 frames, the majority of which have been stitched 20 to 30 at a time into a series of panoramic movies for a clients web site. If even one of the frames is screwed up you have to reshoot all 20 or 30 for that pano. Would I trust a lab with that when I have a digital / Photoshop perspective control alternative ? Not on your life. Not to mention the time and money saved by shooting digital.

The best lab is your own - get a digital back for your LF camera, or use computer perspective control with a digital SLR. Or explore doing your own E6 - the sooner you can no longer depend on a lab, the better.

-- Michael Mahoney (mike.mahoney@nf.sympatico.ca), January 31, 2002.


You mention that you still send work out to Seattle. Have you tried Slide Specialists in Lebanon, NH at all?

I'm just getting started with 4x5, and love Provia in smaller formats, but haven't found anyone other than them locally that is able to do E6 4x5. I have not yet had them do anything for me. I still need to get to the point where my 4x5 B&Ws are within my standards of focus before I start exposing Provia. I have always been leary of mailing film to be processed. I know tons of people do it all the time, but I take comfort in the (feeling of) accountablity that in-person contact brings.

-- Tundra Slosek (tundras@draconis.com), January 31, 2002.

I have always used (after trying others) Dorian Color Lab in Arlington, MA. 24 Mill St. 781-648-8040. Never a mistake, never a ruined roll and I have used them since 1986!

-- Scott Walton (scotlynn@shore.net), January 31, 2002.

I've always had consistent and professional results as well as friendly service from Modernage in New York. Contact info at www.modernage.com. They handle sheet films up to 11x14" and probably can do panoramic and banquet formats by quote.

-- David Goldfarb (dgoldfarb@barnard.edu), January 31, 2002.

M - I can feel your pain, but in all fairness, you have to understand that the folks actually doing the work are probably making little only a few bucks more than than minimum wage. I think it's unrealistic to expect top quality and prompr service under those conditions. With what they're making, they can't even afford to shoot 4x5, let along empathize with your need for quality service (or even care). They probably spend most of the shift worrying about how their going to make the rent, car payment, and buy groceries all in the same month, and are not 100% focused on your film. So I think it's a case of getting what you pay for.

Maybe you should consider doing your own E-6. It's not impossible or unreasonably expensive. The savings on your gas for trips ot the lab and the processing costs would pay for a processor in a year or two. There's nothing like doing it yourself, and having nobody else to blame when things go wrong.


-- Hyperfocal (hyperfocal@attbi.com), January 31, 2002.

I've had my own bad luck with so called pro labs. Bought myself a Jobo processor on Ebay and never looked back. Doing it yourself is fun,easy,and if you screw it up, you learn something about photography or at least no one to blame but yourself.

-- Wil Hinds (Ytb@aol.com), January 31, 2002.

The Imagery Group 28032-J Industrial Blvd. Hayward, CA 94545


The same friendly, cheerful, competent 3 folks have been processing my E6 for around 5 years. Never a problem. Everything up to 8X10. Kodak Q-lab. Standard 4 hour turnaround on E6. (not if you have to mail it though)

-- Gary Frost (gary.frost@onemain.com), January 31, 2002.

Matthew, People(I hope) interview their doctors, lawyers, dentists, mechanics, and accountants before they engage their services, why not labs? With LF film,especially color, you've got a lot of money invested in time and materials, not to mention deadlines if you're fortunate enough to get paid for your work. If you plan on being a regular customer I suggest getting to know who your dealing with on a first name basis and learning what sort of commitment they have for their LF customers. This might be difficult if you have to send your film to another town, but would be well worth the effort(LF seems to take a great deal of effort anyway!) Since LF, I believe, isn't really a massed produced assembly line process like 35mm, especially since digital, ask for a tour of their facility and see what the conditions are and see the work they've recently processed as well as talking to the people who do the processing. It couldn't hurt!

-- John Kasaian (www.kasai9@aol.com), February 01, 2002.

Having worked in the pro lab business I may enlighten the panel on the "behind the scenes" goings on while your film is processed. We all know that photography is quite an exact science and small mistakes can have terrible repurcussions.Everyone has had problems even with the best labs.There are careless employees to be sure.Nevertheless problems can come from many directions, eg power failures whilst your film is in the first dev,dropped rolls that roll open,carelessness with the sheet numbers in their boxes etc. Scratches are unfortunately easy to make on most emulsions and even photographers cause them. Whilst I aggree that bad service and poor or no excuses usually means a shoddy operation with underpaid, underqualified staff I think most of the old pro photographers I've known over the years understand that little errors occur, just as they make them occasionally themselves no matter how experienced. A good pro lab will do everything possible to minimise such errors and will not give an excuse when something does happen but will come clean. This is wholly dependent on experienced staff who know what their clients need and when. Poor service with no smiles or apologies even for a fingerprint to me would point to an unprofessionally run operation which it would be wise to stay away from. But don't be too hasty to lump all labs in the same basket. Many of them are looking at their client as the most important thing in the world, whether pro or amateur, and operate to very exacting standards. Staff are paid properly and trained. Many of their staff are photographers themselves, and many of those could teach the pros a thing or too. They also need to be very up to date with their knowledge. If you have problems continuously with a lab that couldn't give you the time of day or compensate you for your film/time/job then leave them. If you occasionbally have small issues with them then tell the owner/manager and see what response you get. If film is vitally important then may I suggest exposing back-up rolls/sheets...you never know it may be YOU who will screw it up! In a good lab you will find the best e6/ c41 processing, excellent advice on film materials and their processing, unrivalled knowledge of digital techniques, very experienced printers, and usually a smile. Look around the lab yourself, check it for cleanliness and order; watch the staff at work, see if they work systematically. The best film processors are made by a Danish company called Refrema and are a sign that the lab has invested (considerable) money and values reliability. I have operated one of these which could hold 400 units of film (e6 dip and dunk), was switched off one day a year (x-mas...it is a 24 hour lab) and consistently developped perfect film. That is alot of chemistry to manage, and is monitored by incredibly experienced technicians every 2 hours for colour balance, speed and d-max/ d-min. Labs rely on you to exist and turn a profit...if they are crap then drop them, but don't lump all labs in the same boat. Often you could learn a thing or too from a good technician that you won't learn anywhere else, because they have the experience and knowledge earned through constant repetition and refnemant of technique. Good luck.

-- Andrey Belopopsky (sabaca10@hotmail.com), February 01, 2002.

The above is good advice.....having been on both sides of the counter, i.e. the customer and the worker, I'll say that you're not helping yourself with the attitutde that you, the customer is somehow above ever making an error or a mistake in your life...or that all lab workers are low paid slobs who cannot "cut it" in the photography so they must slave away in the lab....now there is some truth that in some pro labs, the occasional LF shooter with one or two sheets, *may* get pushed aside to deal with high-volume commercial clients...I have seen this done, and while I don't exactly approve of unbalanced treatment of cutomers, I understand it from the lab's point of view...

But accidents happen....to every lab, to every person who's ever worked in a darkroom whether at home or in some high-volume, high dollar setting....the good labs in my book, are the ones willing to admit a problem up front and work with you in correcting it, or just admittimg it...but that doesn't include you--the customer--being unrealistic about the business. The best lab we've ever used dropped a rack in an E6 run once, and the film from a very important location interior--that took half a day just to light--was ruined...luckily we shoot 2 of everything important and only run half....so we were okay in the end....they called us...the job was late, but that's better than ruined. Now, we still use this lab every week practically...s*** happens...I've done it on the job--burned film, had it fall off leader cards into the abyss of 25 gallon tanks, had the power go out, the backup batteries poop out, you name it...the fire alarm goes off during a deeptank run--do I stay & die, or get fined by the fire dept.?? This kind of crap happens....but oh no, not ever to any of you.....oh, on that note: these are MY opinions only.

-- DK Thompson (kthompson@moh.dcr.state.nc.us), February 01, 2002.

Years ago I worked at a pro lab. Now I'm just an occassional customer. As a customer, I've have varying luck with pro labs. I think it depends on who's working there and what the working conditions are like, what their quality control is like, etc. I have had Photobition make 16x20 enlargments from slides that came out backwards (slide upside down). Other times the prints made were stellar. So, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not for a variety of reasons. Don't forget that there are situations when the customer can unknowingly contribute to the problems by not communicating clearly what they want, etc.

I've also encountered clerks behind the counter that were somewhat less than professional. Once I was told "What am I supposed to do with this?" when I gave him some Kodak T-pan to develop, with attitude like "What, are you some kind of idiot, don't you know that we don't process this film?" This happened to me at Photobition in Chicago. Then he told me it would cost over $50 if I really wanted them to do it....per roll. I ended up doing it myself, but still the rudeness with which I was handled as a customer left me with a negative impression that didn't have to happen.

-- Roger Urban (roger_urban@yahoo.com), February 01, 2002.

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