Old School Film Hack

Bad Processing

Not processed correctly -- St. Anthony, Idaho (September 2014)Zeiss Ikon ZM film + Voigtländer 35/1.2 ASPH II

Not processed correctly — St. Anthony, Idaho (September 2014)
Zeiss Ikon ZM film + Voigtländer 35/1.2 ASPH II

This is an example of why I’m about to bring my silver-based black and white processing in-house.

All of my film from our recent trip out to the Western states — sixteen rolls of both C-41 and silver-based monochrome — was processed by Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas.  I chose Dwayne’s based upon the positive comments of several analog photographers that I communicated with online.  Dwayne’s Photo has the distinction of developing the very last roll of Kodachrome within the USA — which is some serious street cred — and they claim to have the experience and wherewithal to develop many forms of film that are no longer processed anywhere else.

I also choose Dwayne’s for my vacation photos because:

  • A) I didn’t want to take the risk of having my exposed film going through the x-ray machines at the airport for the return flight home (several times in the past I’ve had exposed film ruined by overzealous TSA guards that refused to hand inspect it and instead put the film through the x-ray machines under my extreme protests), and…
  • B) Dwayne’s Photo was less costly than the local film processors here around the Washington DC region (turnaround is about a week, but the prices are pretty reasonable; C-41 — $3.99, E-6 — $8.95, and B&W — $4.49 per roll; these prices are processing only, prints and/or scans are extra).

Stupid me.

Please keep in mind that I ran the graveyard shift on a large 24/7 E-6 dip-and-dunk processing line down on K Street in Washington, DC, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and several smaller E-6 rotary operations at a couple of locations down in Richmond, Virginia, prior to that.  I’ve also done black and white processing at home, so I’m very intimate with how delicate film is and how carefully it must be handled while it is being processed.

All of the C-41 film that came back from Dwayne’s — both color and monochrome — arrived looking fine, which is what I expected because color C-41 processing is very automated these days and pretty fool-proof (you have to be trying to really mess it up).  However, the silver-based black and white film was badly processed, and I lost about ten to fifteen percent of all the resulting images.  Initially I thought I had a light leak in my camera, and I went full-bore trying to find and fix it.  But I didn’t — because there wasn’t one.  After much careful analysis and looking more thoroughly at the ruined negatives, it became clear that the fault was with the processing.

I don’t know if I was simply unlucky and got the FNG (effing new guy) to develop my film, or whether someone was just having a bad day and inattentive and/or all thumbs.  Either way, it’s obvious from that image that the film wasn’t agitated correctly (see the unretouched image above, where ghost sprocket holes on the left side can be seen) and there were other frames where the film was stuck together during processing, which indicates that the film wasn’t threaded correctly on the processing spool.

However, this isn’t just a problem for Dwayne’s; it seems to be widespread with the last remaining commercial film processors.  This is what I’ve found in my film processing quest over the past twelve months:

  • Costco — Costco currently has film processing available at several of the local stores here in the DC area.  However, I learned that the local places may not offer film processing for much longer; apparently the current corporate policy is to support those film centers only until the equipment begins to need repair, then they will be permanently shut.  That may be immaterial, as I discovered during a recent visit to the closest location that they had some issues with the C-41 processor and the young tech on duty was attempting to adjust it with paper towels and scissors(!).  His liberal use of paper towels down in the guts of the processor introduces the very real prospect of chemical cross contamination, which can render your images worthless.  And I have no idea what he thought he was doing with a pair of scissors.  Costco only offers C-41 processing these days, though it is the fastest (1 hour) and the cheapest ($1.69 for processing only, prints and/or scans are extra).  If you like to live dangerously, Costco offers a great deal.  Me?  I took my business elsewhere.
  • Image Ace — This was my next stop after the Costco debacle.  The price was more costly here ($4.69) and the turnaround time was next day, no exceptions.  The owner of the place seemed friendly enough, but there were fingerprints(!) all over the film that I got back from him; also, my order was taken on a scrap of paper and no receipt was given, and the film was delivered back to me rolled in a 35mm plastic film container.  C-41 processing only, no silver-based processing.  The fingerprints and laissez-faire attitude were showstoppers for me, so I continued in my search.
  • Target / Walgreens / CVS — Some of these locations offer C-41 processing (which I’ve learned is no longer done on site; it’s all shipped elsewhere), but I’ve had film destroyed by them in the past (fingerprints, chemical burns, etc.), so I avoid them at all costs.
  • Dodge Chrome (http://www.dodgechrome.com/) — These guys are the long time film professionals of the region (and competition to me back in the day); I used to take film to them for processing over a decade ago and a lot has changed since then; Dodge Color merged with Chrome about 8 years ago, they consolidated operations and moved the main facility from Bethesda out to Columbia.  They still have a couple walk-up locations in DC and Bethesda, but the film processing is only done out in Columbia.  However, they offer C-41, E-6, and silver-based black and white processing — the only local film processing business I was able to find that still is able to do so.  They are the pros and price their services accordingly; C-41 — $8.75, E-6 — $10.30, and B&W — $10.45 per roll; these prices are processing only, prints and/or scans are extra.  E-6 and C-41 processing are next day service; B&W is only processed once per week, on Wednesdays.  These guys are a 62-mile round trip for me, so I proceeded on with my quest.
  • Pilot Imaging (http://www.pilotimaging.com/) — I was surprised to learn that Pilot Imaging in Rockville offers C-41 processing, and that they do it in-house (they farm out any E-6 and B&W processing orders to Dodge Chrome, but only do it at cost).  $7.50 for a 35mm roll (processing only, prints and/or scans are extra), and only processed on Wednesdays now.  These guys have gotten repeat business from me and the film has come back in *perfect* condition each time.

So that’s the thumbnail analysis of film processing in the DC region, at least for the places that are readily accessible to me.  I plan to begin doing my own silver-based processing in the coming weeks, once I have a few more rolls exposed.  And what about any C-41 or E-6 processing I might have?  At present I plan to continue using Pilot Imaging for all that.  I know from professional experience that color processing can be finicky and is quite temperature sensitive, something I would have a difficult time dealing with and maintaining in our tiny home.

19 thoughts on “Bad Processing

  1. suchled

    I remember when I worked for my mate during uni vac and winding the film onto the developing spool in the dark was so critical but it was fun to develop the skill. What a shame you lost even one frame through bad workmanship.


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Hah! UNIVAC has an entirely different meaning here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNIVAC), but I know what you’re referring to anyway.

      The film loss? It happens. I learned early on to accept it as a pretty standard risk of the medium and to just move on. Where it becomes a problem is if it repeats itself on a regular basis, which is why I dig deep and fast to determine what is happening as soon as I see something is amiss. The bad workmanship issue is easy to address — just don’t go back.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author


      I’ve liked doing it in the past myself, especially back in the days when I was doing large format 8×10 lith developing. This was when we would be creating the pin-registered rubylith artwork for complex slide animations, taking it into the darkroom, shooting it with pin-registered lith film on a huge horizontal copy camera (about 15 feet long), then begin processing it.

      Shooting the artwork alone could take an entire day, and the processing of the 8×10 lith negs could take even longer — up to a week, if the job was a big one. Very laborious and expensive. Some of our slide animations would require about 300 sheets of 8×10 lith film for an entire project, and the biggest of our presentations would come in at around $265,000 in early 1980s money.


  2. AnnetteM

    How disappointing for you. It sounds as if you have no choice but to do your own. I remember way back learning to wind film onto the developing spool in a dark bag. Gosh that takes me back. I think I will stick to digital now – I have enough to keep me learning with that medium.


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      It happens. I don’t dwell on it.

      I find digital to be a lot more frustrating, especially with chromatic aberrations and odd artifacting when pushing the boundaries of what the technology is capable of supporting. Film has a much more organic response when it’s pushed too far, which is why I’m really digging it again.


    2. AnnetteM

      It was interesting to hear how much you use film. I wonder how much longer they will keep producing it. It never used to have a very long shelf life either, but maybe it is better now? I am sorry to say that our photography is not close to pushing any boundaries so we are happy with digital, for now anyway.


  3. narami

    Very sorry for your inconvenience 😦 I don’t know much about the development processes but I know about quality photos and oh, what a disappointment when your work doesn’t come through in the end result! Hope you get to work it all out.
    Also, I’m curious, did you claimed a refund or compensation if some sort? It seems like they should have a warranty for their work.


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Nope. Unless the entire roll is destroyed or rendered useless, I’ve never claimed compensation. I know from doing E-6 processing for a decade — both for internal use and for external customers — that things can happen. In this case, I’ll just avoid them in the future. There weren’t enough frames lost for me to consider filing a claim, but there were enough different things amiss for me to consider it very sloppy work, and for that reason I won’t be returning as a customer.


    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      I’m surprised by all the comments like yours, as my intent was simply education and not sympathy. I appreciate the sentiments, though.

      According to their FAQ, Dwayne’s color processor runs at 37 feet per minute and it takes about 8 seconds per roll of film to be fed into it. I’ve never seen a commercial processor that moves at that speed, and — frankly — would not want to be anywhere around when it goes south. A processor of that size and speed would require extremely high levels of supervision, and when (not if) it went down it would likely take out 20+ rolls at once — something I would not want to be responsible for.


  4. kerbey

    I am a layperson so your words are above me. All I know is that your pic makes me want to sing “Dust in the Wind,” which makes me sad and ponder the futility of life, and is that what you want to do to me in the Christmas season? I take my little memory stick to Walgreen’s because there are 37 of them within a 3 mile radius and I hand it to the 4 ft checker who is the spitting image of Kristin Chenowith, squeaky voice and all, and in an hour, I have a stack of 200 pictures. But I have lots of horror stories, if that makes you feel any better. My entire last year’s trip to Galveston was processed in a dark hue of blue, which did not flatter my features at all.


  5. Jeanne

    Go Rockville! (My hometown). But– your processing experiences sound like they’ve sucked. (Although, good to know, because I always end up saving my film after trips home and taking them back to SF for processing). Have you thought of mailing your film to Richard Photo Lab or Photoworks SF? They’re both located in California (opposite coast, I know), but I have only had great experiences with Photoworks SF, and most of my friends who are professional photographers go with Richard Photo Lab. Good luck!


  6. Jeanne

    Go Rockville! (My hometown). But– your processing experiences sound like they’ve sucked. (Although, good to know, because I always end up saving my film after trips home and taking them back to SF for processing). Have you thought of mailing your film to Richard Photo Lab or Photoworks SF? They’re both located in California (opposite coast, I know), but I have only had great experiences with Photoworks SF, and most of my friends who are professional photographers go with Richard Photo Lab. Good luck!


  7. Francis.R.

    That happens in a country with many users of film. Imagine that in a country were it’s almost extinct. Simply the images carefully taken with tripods and release shutters ends coming from the lab with a quality inferior to my old cell phone with barely two megapixels.
    It’s pretty clear that we cannot trust much more in the services (new people that seldom process film) and film requires a revolution to survive. For example Kodak and Fujifilm could develop minimal packs to develop in home and affordable scanners or tubes tuned to use our digital cameras as scanners with software to process them to the real colors. But sadly the market is contracting I guess, except in the instax line I think, but that’s different to film I think.


  8. Rob Tobin

    I shot a wedding in the early ’90s with 120 Roll film.had it processed by a guy that did all my film, except Kodachrome.
    One roll , the one with the bride on the staircase, on the grand piano, under the Porte coche- you get the picture – streaked. He missed the rinse cycle.
    I’ll take the blame for poor shooting , but that was bad day for me.


  9. aldownie

    I confess I’ve been on the other side of this experience. When I was a student I once shot a whole evening of staged Taekwondo ‘moves’ for a book, as a special favour for a 7th Dan Master who was visiting our club from Korea – he was a very intimidating fellow, and very difficult to impress, so I was a bit anxious about the job. I processed both films and made contact sheets before going home that night, and in the morning I showed the two sheets to him. He peered at them through the magnifying glass for ten minutes, and eventually lifted his head, smiled, and proclaimed them to be the best shots he’d ever seen. I’d caught the key moments perfectly, well lit against a good background, and everything looked great! He wanted 8x10s of everything. Well… when I saw the first print in the dev tray my heart sank – there were drying marks on every single frame, and they were too diffuse to retouch. Every single frame was unusable! Entirely my mistake – I must have forgotten to take the surface water off before putting the films in the drying cabinet, or used too much drying agent or something. But all of a sudden my triumphant moment had turned into one of the worst days I’ve ever had – he didn’t take it well at all. It taught me a valuable lesson for sure. And I’d never trust anyone else to do my processing for me now! I’d rather take a chance with x-ray machines…


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