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).
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.