I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but photo labs by the thousands have been disappearing across the country. There were 3 pro film labs here in Seattle 2 years ago. Now there are 2. Who knows how many will be here next year? Whenever I walk in the door of those 2 remaining labs, I’ve never seen a single customer, so soon there may be none.
But fear not, even if there are no professional film labs in your area there are still some large labs around the country that are absolutely thriving. (for non-USA readers, sorry I don’t know anything about any labs outside the US). And last time I checked, UPS, Fedex and the US mail were still working, so we’re good. I’m not sure why so many people are spazzing out over this. Many cities don’t have true professional photography stores either, but I wouldn’t really care as long as we have B&H and Adorama.
Two prominent labs (both in southern California) that have taken a big chunk of the portrait/wedding film business are Richard Photo Lab (RPL) and North Coast Photographic Services (NCPS). Here is a brief comparison:
develop + mid-resolution scans (approximately 3000 pixels on the long side)
35mm 20.50 10.99
120 18.50 10.99
220 37.00 18.98
develop + high-resolution scans (approx. 5000 pixels)
35mm 24.00 17.45
120 22.00 17.45
220 44.00 31.90
Note: NCPS calls their mid-rez scans “budget scans” and their hi-rez scans “enhanced”. In either option the scans are still individually corrected and spotted for dust, although they definitely give more love to the enhanced scans.
Okay, so RPL is MUCH more expensive than NCPS. Is that the end of the story? Of course not, because we know that price isn’t everything, which is why your clients hire you and not that $100 Craig’s List photographer.
RPL gives you more options than NCPS. For example, you can have your negs scanned on either a Fuji Frontier OR a Noritsu. (However, their Frontier is only available for color mid-rez scans. If you want b&w or high-rez then you’ll have to use their Noritsu). Some photographers swear by the Fuji, others like the Noritsu. You say tomayto, I say tomahto. NCPS uses only a Noritsu.
RPL will also bend over backwards to work with you to get just the look you’re seeking. They’ll keep a custom profile on file just for you with all of your preferences! For example, your desired level of saturation/contrast, etc. NCPS doesn’t proactively offer this, but they are willing to work with you if you ask. If you become a regular customer of theirs I’m sure their lab technicians will come to know your preferences. When I submit orders to either RPL or NCPS I specify -1 contrast.
Finally, RPL will also ftp your image files in addition to mailing you a cd. NCPS doesn’t offer ftp.
For color film: RPL and NCPS (with enhanced scans) both do a phenomenal job. I’d have to say that it’s just about a wash in my book. With either RPL or NCPS enhanced scans I have to do almost zero post processing. Skin tones come out perfect. I don’t have to spend any time in PS getting rid of dust spots. These are two phenomenal labs. [However, I can't say the same thing about the NCPS basic scans. These scans do require work in Lightroom to set white balance and some work spotting dust.]
RPL on the left, NCPS on the right. Both are great at developing and scanning color negs.
For black and white: RPL is the clear winner. There is clearly something wrong with NCPS’s b&w processing. Basically, their b&w processing adds at least 2 stops worth of grain. For example: Kodak Tmax 400 is basically a grain-free film. NCPS turns it into a grainy film like Tri-x or Neopan 400. And they turn Neopan 400 into Delta 3200. If you like super exaggerated b&w grain use them, but for normal b&w processing use RPL.
This is how NCPS processes TMAX400. TMAX400 is basically a grain-free film. Now there’s nothing wrong with grain, and I sometimes use grainier film when I’m going for that effect. But sometimes I want the look of TMAX400. In my opinion, this image looks more like Neopan 1600 or even Delta3200 than TMAX.
Now contrast that with this image, which is also TMAX400, but processed by RPL. Almost no grain. This is what TMAX is supposed to look like:
If for some reason you wanted extremely exaggerated grain, then go with NCPS, but for normal b&w processing use RPL.
NCPS kills RPL in this department. I mail the film on Monday and by Saturday I have my negs and CD in hand! If you’re using RPL you’ll have to add at least two weeks, sometimes more, to this timeline. During wedding season expect at least a 3 week turnaround from RPL.
- If you’re looking for the best value for your dollar, go with NCPS. They do great work at a great price.
- If you’re very picky and require a great deal of customization, use RPL.
- If you need a fast turnaround time use NCPS.
- If you’re a Fuji Frontier aficionado, use RPL. (only available on their mid-rez color scans. all of their hi-rez or b&w scans are done on a Noritsu)
- For b&w, use RPL.
- If you’ve got a really tight budget, use NCPS budget scans, but be willing to do a little work in Lightroom.
My primary film lab for color film going forward will be NCPS. The value/quality equation works in their favor, especially since I’d much rather have high-rez (5,000 pixel) files. For portrait jobs I prefer high resolution files because I want to sell big prints. Since both RPL and NCPS use the Noritsu for high rez scans there really isn’t that much difference between them. For b&w I am going to use my local lab Moon Photo, who are b&w specialists and do a great job.
If I did a much higher volume of film, then I’d probably use RPL for their customization capabilities. But since most of my photography is still digital, then NCPS is more than good enough.
That’s it. Two great labs. You’re good to go.
Business lesson take-away
I’ve spent a lot of time researching this. Looking at a dozen or more labs from around the country, RPL is one of the most expensive labs I’ve found. Yet they are absolutely thriving. They just moved into a bigger facility and their turnaround times are long because of the flood of business they have to handle. What does that say about pricing? Just think about it…….
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