Today you may think everything is digital these days, and for the most part, you would be correct. Digital phones, digital TV, digital movies and music. However sometimes it’s fun to look back and do things “the old way”. Not for greater convenience or for a cheaper cost, but just for fun.
Recently my friend and I have gotten into using 35mm film cameras. Earlier this year on a trip to Europe I brought along a Sears KS Super II 35mm film camera. It had a manual focus ring so before every shot you had to stop, think, focus, and be steady before taking a photo. This required me to re-wire the photo-taking part of my brain. See, my current digital camera is a nice Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, it boasts a 35x zoom and the ability to record 1080p videos. But one of my favorite features of this camera, and my previous digital cameras, was the burst mode. I love holding down the shutter button and taking a continuous burst of photos. Why? Well sometimes I want to capture a moment and try not to miss something. Or I may be trying to capture something in motion very quickly.
But, on the digital camera I have a massive memory card where I can take an endless stream of photos. On my 35mm camera? I have just 24 exposures (photos) that I can take before I need to use up another roll of film. So I have to be more careful, more selective, it makes me more conscious of what I’m photographing. With an analog film camera I am much less prone to taking a photo just for the sake of taking a photo. So because of this, I have taken some interesting shots and have had a lot of fun so far.
So after all the fun of shooting photos now comes the slow part… the waiting game. Today less and less stores offer on-site 35mm film development. Most pharmacy stores will process film for you at a relatively cheap price. However, just in the past few months, two CVS Pharmacy locations have removed their photo machines. Their reasoning being, the chemicals used in developing photos usually ends up going to waste due to not a lot of customers using their machine. This of course is wasted money on their end.
It’s kind of a shame really. For months I’ve been going to two local CVS stores, one was a 24 hour location and one was not. However rarely were my film rolls actually developed within the quoted ‘1 hour’ period. I would often wait a day or so for it to be processed. Thankfully the processing fee is standard, and you aren’t paying for a 1 hour rush service. Still, it seemed that whoever was working at the store at the time didn’t feel the need to rush. I turned to Walgreens to see if I could get a better photo experience, unfortunately my first roll of film was forgotten about and when I finally received my film the negative was scratched from improper handling and the photo CD was useless due to a bad job on part of the scanner.
The bright side? This forced me to look into alternatives. CVS charged me about $6 and change to have one 35mm film roll developed and to have JPEG scans put on a CD. Not bad really. Walgreens was a bit more expensive at about $8 to have the same 1 roll and 1 CD service. There are tons of mail-in and online processing services today. Thankfully you have plenty of options. So far I have tried Mpix, Lomography and TheDarkroom.com
Developing film with Mpix (www.mpix.com)
Mpix seems to offer a lot of photo products, meaning they will slap any photo on a mug, t-shirt, card, calendar, frame, etc. In fact, when visiting their site, you may be confused as to if they actually offer film developing. They do, but the ‘Film’ link is hidden on the bottom of their website under ‘Products’.
Mpix offers film processing and development by mail. To start, go to the Mpix website and create a free account with your email address. You can request free film mailers directly on your website. These are special pre-paid envelopes that will mailed out to you. You’ll receive a welcome envelope from Mpix in a few days, enclosed are the special film envelopes and some instructions. You can place up to 4 rolls of 35mm film inside each envelope. (They mail you 3 or 4 envelopes so you don’t have plenty to start with). The envelopes are pre-paid so when you drop in your film, simply seal the envelop and drop it off at the post office (or have it collected at your home). In a few days they will arrive at the Mpix offices and you’ll get an email notification once your photo thumbnails are ready to be reviewed and “unlocked”.
Unfortunately their film processing webpage is limited to one single page with not a lot of detailed pricing information on it. I wouldn’t call it misleading, but it’s a bit hard to figure out exactly how much you’re going to pay. Is it worth the price? Let’s see.
For example, under film pricing it mentions that you are charged $0.19 per exposure (this would be $4.56 for a roll of 35mm film with 24 exposures), not bad, that’s fine. However under ‘Scanning’ it only lists the resolution and size of the scanned files. Afterwards it mentions that full resolution scans are available to purchase via an archive DVD. That’s fine, but it reads as if the lower-resolution (72dpi) scans are available at no charge or at a different rate. Here they also fail to mention that the DVD archive disc has a hefty shipping charge (it was $8 for me at the lowest rate), not including the $10 charge to house 50 photos on the DVD (a 100 photo DVD is $15).
So let’s add this up… If you had one roll of film mailed in that would be $4.56 for development of 24 exposures, $10 for a DVD disc for housing up to 50 photos, and $8 for shipping. That’s a whopping $22.56 to have one roll developed and have the negatives and DVD mailed back to you.
Now this isn’t as bad if you have multiple rolls processed at the same time, or if you saved up your good photos to put on a DVD later on. If you had four film rolls sent in that would be, $23 for a DVD with 96 photos (from the 4 rolls) isn’t too bad, but that’s not counting the processing (another $18.24). For a total just under $42.
Thankfully nobody is forcing you to buy the DVD. However Mpix currently doesn’t offer a digital download of your scanned in film either. To me it seems like they’re missing out on a market. While I wouldn’t gladly pay another $10 to download my scanned in photos, at least I would save on the $8 shipping charge, and if the download fee was reasonable, I’d probably go ahead and buy it. It would save me plenty of time and trouble scanning in the negatives myself at home.
Included in the development cost you can see a thumbnail preview of your processed photos and they will mail back your negatives to you at no additional cost. Since I’m located in New Jersey and Mpix is located in New York, I didn’t have to wait long for my negatives to be returned to me. The negatives were returned double-boxed, inside the 2nd box was a spiral of two rolls of film protected in plastic negative sleeves. The negatives weren’t cut, but they were clean and unwound.
The photos themselves came out great. They did a wonderful job on the processing of the photos. I enjoyed seeing the thumbnails on their website, and the negatives arrived in great shape. I then proceeded to scan in the negatives myself, since I did not purchase a DVD from their website.
However, it’s interesting to note that the Mpix website states that to avoid damage the DVD is mailed separately from the negatives. However I can easily fit in a plastic jewel case, with a DVD, inside the box I received. Now maybe they did tests and found out the DVD would arrive damaged, but to me (at least when only returning one roll and one DVD) it could have fit in just fine.
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Summary: While their photo DVD price is a bit high and they don’t offer digital downloads of your photos, they do process the film nicely and affordably. They offer free mailer envelops to send your film rolls in, and they send the negatives back for free in a protective sleeve. Mpix could be a bit better, I would like to see the developing part of their website have a few more details added to it. But at least least the quality of their developing seems pretty good.
Developing film with Lomography (shop.lomography.com)
If you’re into 35mm film you have probably heard of Lomography. They offer a large selection of not only film, but cameras, accessories and much more. They even offer fun services like a film subscription plan, including a random assortment if you’re feeing lucky. So right off the bat Lomography’s website differs from Mpix’s greatly. It’s clear that here at Lomography it’s all about analog film. ThLomography also has a set of shops around the globe. These Lomography Gallery Stores offer a place to buy cameras, film and accessories, some of the shops even offer film processing or film drop off centers.
The one thing I noticed right away was a bit confusing. Lomography has two websites, it’s main site, and it’s Store site. Each have a very similar navigation menu and setup, however it can be a bit confusing at first.
Lomography.com is more of a community site where you can join in discussions or events and share photos. Lomography’s store site is where you can purchase cameras, film, or film processing. So to get things started you have to visit shop.lomography.com and click on ‘Services’ and then select ‘LomoLAB Development Service – USA’. Once you find your way there you’ll have a selection of services that Lomography offers. If you are using some of their special film or products they have you covered. However for me I simply chose the ‘Standard Photo Development’ and selected the ‘Create Bundle’ button.
On the next screen you are given quite a lot of options and information. This package includes development, prints and a CD of your photos. So right away it seems like you’re getting quite a good package. On this page simply select the Film Format and Development options. You should visit their website to look at their piecing, print sizes and other important features & details, but it’s pretty easy to understand. For example if I select 35mm as my film format I can then choose my development type. If you have special film or requirements (like Slide Film or Black & White processing) you can select the option here. There are additional charges, for example Slide Film is an extra $4 to process.
In my case however things were a bit strange. I found a roll of 110 film at my parents house that must have been used in 1998. So I was working with a 15 year old roll of film. Thankfully via the Standard Photo Development plan they support 35mm, 110 and 120 film formats. The latter two carrying a $1 additional fee. So for one roll of my special 110 film at standard color negative film processing my total was $13. It may seem expensive, however you get quite a lot, development, prints, and a CD of your photos.
When you continue through checkout you are brought to a page of shipping methods. Keep in mind, this is the return shipping cost. FedEx was the cheapest a a mere $3. You are responsible for shipping your film to Lomography separately on your own. In my experience this was another $5 via USPS online (I already had a mailing envelope handy).
So the total cost for sending in one roll of film (including processing, prints, a CD, and shipping both ways) comes to a grand total of: $21 (subtract $1 for plain 35mm film). You can not deselect prints and a CD to make the package cheaper however.
So I packaged up and mailed in my special 110 film. Then I waited… and waited… and waited. Due to USPS screwing up, my confirmation number said “Out for Delivery” and then “Unknown”. Basically USPS had no idea where my package was. Thankfully I called the Lomography Store in NY, and they confirmed that my film had arrived safe and sound, this was May 1st. Now the serious waiting began. The original estimate was that my film would be processed within 2-3 days. Maybe this was a mistake, because my film would not be ready until 2-3 weeks! I started to question if my film even arrived. I tried reaching out to Lomography via the phone, but unlike my previous attempts I would only end up leaving a message on voicemail. Nobody returned my call and I tried to reach out via Twitter as well, once again hearing no response.
Thankfully on May 20th I gave them another call and FINALLY got through! I was transferred to the lab to say they just received the film on May 16th. (My guess is that the NY Lomography store shipped them to the Lab? Or maybe there was just a huge amount of photos to process) I was then disconnected and I had to call back. They noted my film should be done in 2-3 days. Thankfully on the evening of the 21st I received an email from Lomography (note this was the FIRST email I ever received about my film processing). It said my photos were ready to view online.
So I logged in and there I saw my photos! What was left of them. For whatever reason there were only 13 photos online. I’m pretty sure the roll I sent in was for 24 exposures. However due to the age of the film there are numerous things that could have gone wrong. Or the remaining photos could have simply been too poor quality to process. Whatever the reason I may find out when my negatives are returned to me soon.
Anyway despite the hiccup of the long wait, Lomography’s online photo website is quite nice. Via email you are given a link to review your photos. You can click on each thumbnail for a large version. Since you already paid for everything, this is all free and you don’t have to “unlock” any thumbnails to view them. You even get a nice option to create one .Zip archive of your photos (they email you a link to download this).
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5
Overall Lomography seemed pretty good. I was worried for a bit, and things took much longer than I expected. But the quality of the photos were nice. The only downside is if you don’t want prints and a CD you should look elsewhere, as you’re paying for them no matter what.
So I received Lomography’s package not long ago. The package I received was a white bubble mailer envelope sent via USPS first class. Inside there was a standard photography envelope you may have seen if you went to pickup your photos in the mid-1990’s. I was pleased with the quality of prints, printed on Fujifilm photo paper, along with a handy index (thumbnail) sheet. I can only describe prints as semi-glossy (at best), but still good quality, especially for the price. The photos taken weren’t the best but that was the fault of the photographer (me at the age of 12 or so). Inside the negatives were cut well and were protected in a nice clear plastic sleeve. Since the negatives were cut, the sleeve was folded nicely, allowing you to take a quick look at the photos without unrolling a massive roll of film (unlike Mpix). I was satisfied with the overall quality of the product.
Note: I don’t see a CD in the package of photos I received, however I most likely removed it and misplaced it.
Developing film with The Dark Room (www.thedarkroom.com)
I found the Dark Room through an internet search when I was looking up other film processing places. On their website I requested film mailers to be sent to me, like Mpix they will mail you some special pre-paid envelopes. Alternatively, The Dark Room gives you an option to use your home printer to print out a pre-paid postage label, and then you just supply your own envelope.
Either way the process is pretty simple. You can either go through the checkout process online and select your film type and your options, then print out a confirmation page to include with your mail in order. Or you can fill out the paper form, select your film type, your other options, and write down your credit card number. It depends on how legible you think your handwriting is. Either way you can include multiple film rolls per envelope, which is handy.
For me I chose their ‘Enhanced Scan’ development service. This includes a nice higher-res scan of your photos, a CD of your photos, a web upload of them (to allow you to download them), and your original negatives back. I opted for the better (enhanced) scan for $5 more than the standard scan. I figure the $5 per roll is worth it, I’ve scanned in my own negatives before and it’s very time consuming. They have samples and comparisons online of their standard, enhanced and super scan (professional grade) scans. For me, I liked the quality of the enhanced.
The Dark Room is located in California and they boast that they are very close to the local post office and that they make multiple trips a day. I’m a bit impatient when it comes to my film, so this made me happy. I mailed my photos out on June 24th 2013 via First Class Mail though the U.S.P.S. To my surprise, at about 3:30 pm on the 26th I got an email saying they have received my order. They mention it could take another 1-3 days for them to start processing my order.
Even further to my surprise, on the 27th at around 12:30 pm I get another email from them with a login ID and password to access their website. Maybe it was a slow processing week, but I didn’t mind! It didn’t mention anything about my photos being ready… but since they setup my account I decided to login and look anyway. Sure enough as soon as I log in I see two photos. A few minutes later I refresh the page… 5 photos! It seems that slowly but surely they were being updated on the website. How exciting! It was very fun to be able to preview the photos as they were being upload live (again I’m impatient, so this was great).
While waiting I decided to poke around the website, the website is LifePics.com, the Dark Room uses their services to host photos. While the website has some nice features, it is a bit confusing to navigate. I ended up using the Live Chat feature for some help, as I couldn’t find out how to download the hi-res versions of my photos. It turns out the website is only fully functional on Internet Explorer (for Windows). As I’m on a Mac, this doesn’t help me. I vented my frustration to the poor Live Chat lady and she said she agreed, and that they are aware of the problem and hope to have a new version of their site later this year. Thankfully I could still get my photos, but only 1 photo at a time. While I was talking to her I asked if she knew if these photo downloads (simply labeled ‘small’ and ‘large’) were the Enhanced scan quality images I paid for. She didn’t know and pointed me to the Dark Room’s email address to ask them. Fair enough, but just another example of how outsourcing part of your service to another site can prove problematic or confusing for your customers. (As of July 2014 this has gotten a bit better for Mac users, but there is still no way to mass-download all the photos)
Anyway I fired up a virtual machine of Windows XP, opened Internet Explorer and quickly downloaded all of my photos. One annoying issue is that all of my photos (from my two film rolls) were dumped into one folder. As new photos were uploaded the photos also shifted around. I thought I was missing photos and having them disappear until I noticed the Page # and ‘Show All’ options on the bottom of the page.
Overall I am happy with the picture quality of my photos. I’m not 100% sure if these are the enhance scanned files I paid for. But they look pretty good. If they had sorted the photos into folders (by roll) and if there was a non-IE / Mac friendly option to download all the photos, I would be happier. But still, no huge problems, just inconveniences.
I expect to receive my photo negatives and CD in a few days. But I’m very happy to be able to login and view my photos instantly. That is a great feature that I wish the Mpix website would have.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Darkroom was exactly what I was looking for. If it wasn’t for their website which tends to be a bit incompatible with non-Windows systems at times, they would have earned a perfect score. Their results were fantastic, their prices were affordable, and their service was top-notch. They are truly film fanatics and I feel very safe sending my film off to them for developing.
The Darkroom wins!
In some areas it could be closer to a draw, each service offers some great features, but some aren’t as convenient as others. Mpix, Lomography and The Dark Room do great processing. I had minor issues with each service. Mpix didn’t offer online downloads of your prints and only offered a pricey DVD option. While Lomography didn’t allow you to not choose prints and a CD and took much longer to process the film than I thought (however this may have been due to the special type of the film or due to their popularity). The Dark Room seems pretty great, but their online photo website could use an upgrade (which apparently is coming in late 2013). All are fine choices and depending on your needs, you should be happy with your results. But for me, I think The Darkroom comes out as a winner.
So in the end, while CVS and Walgreens may continue to offer budget photo processing options, you get what you pay for. Sometimes you’ll get great results, and sometimes you’ll get back a disappointing product. Both pharmacies seem to touch-up their photos (when they put them on a CD), often auto-sharpening the photos instead of leaving them how they appear on the original negative. I’d say they’re good in a pinch, but unless you have a friend working at one of these stores, I’d wait the extra few days and get it professionally done. Also, both stores seem to be phasing out their photo processing services.
So online development may be your best bet. Yes it will cost more, but if your photos are important to you – it’s well worth it. So unless you have to have it by the next day (and can handle the risk of a non-photo-savvy person developing your film) I’d strongly consider online film development. Short of doing it yourself in your own darkroom, they offer the best value and services.
Note: I will try and upload photo samples soon. Post was last updated on July 10th, 2014.