RPL vs. ncps

posted in film, potpourri, strictly business at August 08, 2011

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:

Price

develop + mid-resolution scans (approximately 3000 pixels on the long side)

              RPL  NCPS

35mm  20.50  10.99

120       18.50   10.99

220       37.00  18.98

develop + high-resolution scans (approx. 5000 pixels)

             RPL  NCPS

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.

Customization

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.

Quality

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.

Turnaround time

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.

Recommendations

  • 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 plan

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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  • Michael Sebastian
    Twitter: mikeseb

    For now I'm doing my own B&W and C-41 in a Jobo. But I can see the day arriving when I won't be able to do the color work any longer: I can no longer source the chemistry in small amounts cost-effectively, or the Jobo dies. So this is good information. I don't think I've ever seen a head-to-head comparison between the two. Thanks for posting. (August 08, 2011 | 03:31pm)

  • melody

    Is the shipping cost factored into these numbers? I really appreciate this comparison. (August 08, 2011 | 04:01pm)

  • admin

    @Melody: numbers do not include shipping. both labs charge a similar amount. (August 08, 2011 | 04:21pm)

  • Isaiah
    Twitter: ihaynes05

    Great informative post as always Mr Kim. I am new to film, and have been following you for a lil bit. But I wonder. What's your opinion on the local labs here in Seattle like Moon Photo, Capitol Hill photo, Panda Lab... Are they no better than Fred Meyer? Are they not even worth your time. Would you not even use them in an emergency situation? The fans want to the know! (August 09, 2011 | 12:11am)

  • admin

    @Isaiah: You need a pro lab that does dip-and-dunk processing. Moon and Panda are fine, don't know Capitol Hill. But why bother when RPL and NCPS are better? And don't even think of Fred Meyer or Walgreens. If you're going to go through the time, effort and expense to shoot film, getting ultra-cheap processing/scanning doesn't make sense. I'm either going to use a real pro lab or shoot digital. My 5D will give me much better results than Walgreens-processed film. (August 09, 2011 | 06:57am)

  • NL

    Bingo on NCPS and BW grain. I sent them a few rolls of Tri-X 400 about a year ago and loved the result. This year, I sent them about ten rolls of Tri-X or similar (HP5, Arista Premium 400), and got back a MUCH grainier result. It makes me think about home processing, but instead I think I will standardize on Portra 160 and 400 and do BW conversion in digital PP. (August 09, 2011 | 09:59am)

  • NL

    RPL pricing: Pro photographers have always had monster processing bills. If the job covers the cost, no problem, otherwise use digital. NCPS is catering to more of the amateur market which is much more price sensitive. BTW, head over to rangefinderforum.com for discussions on color processing+scanning. (August 09, 2011 | 10:04am)

  • JF

    on the NCPS website, it says (for a 35mm roll of film) develop only: $5.75 and enhanced scan: $11.95. I emailed them and they said develop and scanning are separate charges, therefore the total price for a roll of $17.70. At that point, I'll jump for the $3 extra for RPL.... (August 20, 2011 | 06:43am)

  • admin

    @jf: my chart is accurate. you're comparing rpl's 6 megapixel scans with ncps' 16 megapixel scans. ncps charges $10.99 for developing plus 6mp scans, about 1/2 what rpl charges. (August 20, 2011 | 08:12pm)

  • Isaiah
    Twitter: ihaynes05

    Ok so I bucked up and sent my film to RPL and couldn't be any happier with the decision! Customer service and work is great. Thanks for all of your informative post on film and inspiring us all. http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150379241106416.402357.500571415&l=078e59a892&type=1 (September 17, 2011 | 11:39am)

  • Henry

    NCPS's response (via email): I have read the article and did some investigating of my own. We were mixing our b&w developer at a stronger strength than RPL, we did not think the grain was excessive , however in light of that article we have diluted our developer to a strength that more replicates RPL's grain structure . Hope this help. In both cases the grain was more present on the monitor than on the prints. (March 02, 2012 | 08:27am)

  • Gordon Lonsdale

    Wow I am so glad I found your website today, I am just shooting some T-max 400 and had NCPS do my last processing and grain was so hi I had decided not to shoot it. Taking your advice I will send this roll to RPL. Thank you. (April 02, 2012 | 12:01am)

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  • Benjamin

    In Europe, carmencitafilmlab.com, in Spain, is also doing a great job for film lovers. (February 22, 2014 | 01:37am)