Surprisingly this isn't the worst frame .. the worst frame was unscannable most of the emulsion is gone.

Whats the difference in film processing between labs?

A couple of days ago I got an email from a photography student asking me a couple of really big questions about development and film quality. I’ve decided to answer it here so that you can all get the “answer”.

She writes: 


I’m new to film and processing, and was wondering what the process you use to develop 35mm film is and how the quality varies between labs. 


Would love if you could let me know more! :) So far I’ve heard the terms “dip and dunk”, which seems to be a different process to normal kodak 1 hour labs?


What is the difference between all the processes? Do they vary in quality? What process do you use?


Also, I was really pleased with the way my 35mm colour turned out last week! Do you have any film recommendations for 35mm colour?- Do they vary that differently?- I scanned them in at uni myself and adjusted the colours so does it really make a difference what film I use since I’m adjusting the tones? At the moment I’m just using the cheapest film I can get my hands on off trade me.


Ok great questions! Firstly I will answer these over two blog posts because they are pretty big and secondly I’m not going to answer these with lots of technical mumbo jumbo but from my working experience of developing and shooting film. “Quality” can be such a subjective thing and in all reality the differences in measurable quality with different developing techniques are not so big and can only be measured by people who want to get into the ins and outs of measurable density and tonal ranges etc. Which really is of little consequence to most people, there is however some big differences between labs and the care that they take so here goes.
Developing can be done to a high quality using any of the developing methods. There are advantages and pitfalls to each one but it is all just chemistry, so long as the process is correct and consistent and the equipment well looked after then you will get well processed high quality negatives what ever method is used.


Dip and Dunk
Dip and dunk machines do exactly that, your film is dipped in the chemicals and when they are done they are then dried at a lower temp to the autolab style machines. All of this means less chance of scratches during developing and dust stuck to your film during drying. These machines are used by highend labs and take longer than an autolab mostly due to the longer time needed for drying. They are very gentle on your film, the biggest risk with these is contamination between chemicals but your lab should run regular test strips to check for this so it shouldn’t be an issue.


Autolabs are the most common machine and what you will find in every one hour developing shop. Autolabs run your film through on rollers, the film is fed through the chemicals and then dried quickly with a warm drier. There is no issue with an autolab when it is properly maintained. The problem is that they often aren’t. Then stuff gets stuck to the rollers and there is far higher chance of your film becoming scratched. Also the feeding mechanism is very titchy about hand rolled film. If your tape is too long your film will get stuck in the machine, scrunched and the emulsion ripped off, I’ve had this happen it was very annoying but they do get stuck for other reasons and if someone else has a dodgy roll thats going to get stuck and yours is behind it then yours will get scrunched too. (This is what happened on the 120 roll of the picture above. This was not the worst frame either.) Then there is the faster drying time which means a greater chance of dust stuck on your film.


The Marvin method
Ok that’s not actually the name of any method but this is how I develop film in my Marvin. Marvin is an old lab machine he’s a Jobo Alt 3 and the method this machine uses you wont find in labs anymore because its an outdated machine with more fiddling around. I think there are advantages to the older machine. Marvin develops film more like you do for hand processing. He is a Rotary lab machine. This means the film is hand spooled onto reels and then put into tanks which are loaded into the machine, each chemical is then pumped into the tank which rotates to agitate the film in the chemicals. I then remove the film from the spools and hang them to dry naturally, I don’t use a drier. This method means that nothing touches the emulsion of your film so there is less chance of scratches, there is however the small chance that I may get a jam when hand rolling and put a crink in your film. This is very very rare however especially as the Jobo spools are so easy to load. The natural drying also means there is little chance of dust getting stuck to your film.


What to look for in a lab
Ok the truth is no lab can guarantee you that there will be no issues but there are things they can do to minimise them. For the best quality your lab should run test strips regularly to check for inconsistencies and chemical contamination. Machines should be well maintained and cleaned. Chemicals should be changed regularly. Now this is the biggest issue with labs especially 1 hour ones and the main reason I decided to start my own.


In an effort to save money many labs keep chemicals in their machines too long. The only time you can get perfect development is on the first run of the chemical, after that you have to adjust times to allow for exhaustion. These adjustments are only ever best case they can never be perfect. I find its perfectly satisfactory to run the chemical through twice even though the chemicals can technically go through four times I currently keep the third run for my own non critical film and then discard them. When chemicals are becoming exhausted you will get inconsistencies in density and colour not to mention the crap that is now floating around in them. I have seen some pretty dirty film come back from labs which is usually from overused dirty chemicals.


I hope this helps you understand the different methods and the pros and cons of each. Mostly it comes down to finding a good lab who understands film processing and looks after their machines and chemicals. Tomorrow I will answer the question regarding film colour and quality.