Film processing: It might be easier to find an alchemist

It's still in great shape -- but it uses this stuff called FILM...

It’s still in great shape — but it uses this stuff called FILM…

Anybody out there still shooting film? If so, what are you doing with it?

Yeah, I know it’s an odd question in the Year of Our Lord 2021. Our phones long ago started shooting pictures with resolution that greatly exceed the quality we got from most 35 mm film. My mother, who’s 90, still prefers prints on paper, while I run in the opposite direction — I’m constantly borrowing those prints from her so I can digitize them, and use them on the family tree.

But here’s the thing: Back in the 90s, about a decade before anyone saw digital photography as anything other than a low-quality thing to play with, I made the greatest investment I’ve ever made in a long career as a photo hobbyist and semi-pro (ever since I was a reporter more than 40 years ago, I was as likely to shoot my own art as to take a photog along). I bought a Nikon N8008s, the best 35 mm SLR you could buy short of the F professional series. In fact, some of the full-time pros I knew used 8008s because they were lighter and more convenient.

And up to about, oh, 2005, I used that almost exclusively. That, or under circumstances in which a heavy camera (yes, lighter than than the F series, but if you’re used to digital cameras, I’ll warn you before handing you this, because you’ll be shocked at the weight) would be awkward, a little rangefinder job. For instance, I borrowed my wife’s little sureshot to take with me to New York when I covered the 2004 GOP Convention there, and shot several rolls just in case the paper wanted art with something I wrote. I even offered what I shot to the newsroom (an unusual case) in case they wanted it — we had little room for photos on our pages.

Here’s how that worked, just to remind you. Wherever I’d been — Madison Square Garden or wherever — on the way back I’d drop the film off at a Duane Reade drug store near my hotel. (It was one of Leona Helmsley’s places, on the Park. In fact, she lived in the top of this one.) As you may know, like Starbucks, Duane Reade pretty much has a location on every block — or did back then. Anyway, I’d go back an hour later and pick up my negatives and a disc with my scanned images on it. Very, very convenient.

But a year after that, I’d pretty much shifted to using a digital Canon because of my blog — both for stills and video. (Which was great in 2005, but it was pretty lame compared to what my iPhone can do now.)

Anyway, my 8008, still in beautiful condition because I’d always been so careful with it, went into a drawer and has mostly stayed there.

And while there are many things I used to do with that that I can’t do with my phone, I’ve never seriously considered buying a good digital SLR. The reason is — I already have a perfectly good camera, and I’m attached to it, and I can’t see spending all that money on another.

So… three or four years ago, I put some film on my Amazon wish list — some Tri-X, and also some color negative film. And my kids gave it to me, and every once in awhile — Christmas, or another big family occasion — I take a roll out of the refrigerator and shoot away. And then I take the exposed roll out of the camera and put it back in the fridge for safekeeping. The idea is that I’ll buy some chemicals to process the Tri-X at home once it’s all shot — as I’ve always done —  and I’ll send the color stuff off… somewhere.

But I don’t know where.

All I want is a deal like what was always available at Duane Reade — and loads of places closer to home, such as CVS and Walgreen’s and Walmart. Drop it off and get my developed negatives back with some scanned jpg files. I used to also get prints, but I don’t care about that. I don’t care all that much about the jpgs, either, but my good scanner that scans film has crapped out on me, and until I invest in a new one it’s nice to have the jpgs.

But the main thing is, I want my developed film back.

And I’ve discovered a shocking thing: Some of these places that will still process film won’t give you back your negatives. I suppose they throw them away, as horrifying as that sounds (to me, anyway). I guess they’re catering to folks who think of a print as the finished product, as all they’ll ever want. Which I can’t imagine.

Anyway, this evening I tried to send off one 36-exposure roll of the color film at Walmart. Here’s how it went:

I went to the electronics department where they used to have that desk set up just for dropping off film. Finding nothing of the kind, I did that thing I seldom get desperate enough to try at Walmart — I asked a clerk.

She didn’t even try to decipher what I was asking, but called out to a young man who looked like he’d be comfortable working on the Geek Squad at another big-box. I nodded at her decision, because based on stereotyping alone, I’d have asked him first if I’d seen him.

As he approached with a questioning look, I held up the roll, and said, “Do y’all still handle film processing?” Hearing only “film” I suppose, he led me to an aisle where such anachronisms were to be found — several rolls of Fuji that I assume had been there for years and not refrigerated.

The roll I took to Walmart.

The roll I took to Walmart.

I tried to set him straight, and had some success: I held up the roll again, and explained that I was seeking a service rather than a product: film processing. Then, I decided to use a more mainstream word for the arcane art: “I want to get it developed…”

He nodded with understanding, and beckoned me to the back wall of the store, and led me to the other side of that wall, toward the back restrooms. And there, sitting looking very forlorn in that abandoned place, was a table with a box on it. And the box had a slot in it for inserting envelopes with your film in it.

This is where it gets good. The young man told me that I had missed this month’s shipment, but at some point in September they’ll be sending off another batch, and the developed pictures will come back 10 days or so after that. So I should be sure to put my info on the envelope so they can let me know when it’s ready.

There was no pen on the table, so I asked for one. He went behind a nearby counter to find one, and as he did I asked when in September the film would be set off. He pulled a thick, tattered ring binder from behind the counter and looked it up before telling me, “September 5th.”

I thanked him and told him I’d like to just take the envelope with me and see if I could find a quicker deal before I sent it off. He said that was fine.

Oh, yeah. Having heard the horrible news that another chain didn’t send back your negatives, I asked about that. He said it was his understanding that I would be get my negatives back.

After I got home and dropped everything on the kitchen table, my wife asked what was up with the envelope. I explained, and said if I didn’t find a better deal somewhere else, I’d send the roll — just one roll, until I saw how it went — off through Walmart. I said all I really wanted was my negatives back and the digitized images.

She said, “They don’t give you your negatives back.” I said, “Oh yes, they do…” She pointed to the envelope, where it said, quite clearly in decent-sized type, “Your negatives will NOT be returned.” Yeah, they had even put the “NOT” in all caps.

So… I’m Googling around, looking for some esoteric, discrete professional organization to run this roll through the C-41 process and give me back my frickin’ negatives.

Yeah, I know people don’t shoot film any more. Hey, I don’t shoot film anymore, either. But I have this great camera, and I just want to use it once in awhile. Get some nice old-school pics of my grandchildren, just so I could say I did it.

But I’m beginning to think it would be easier to persuade Walter White to cook me up some meth. Or find someone schooled in alchemy to turn my film into gold.

And I thought I’d ask whether any of y’all do film, and see if you have any suggestions…

See? They even put the "NOT" in all caps...

See? They even put the “NOT” in all caps…

21 thoughts on “Film processing: It might be easier to find an alchemist

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    The last time I got out the old camera was on Father’s Day. Since we had everybody together, my older son and I both used a tripod to take some group shots.

    After I shot mine, my grandson ran over behind the camera and asked to see the picture. I don’t think he understood why I couldn’t show it to him. I felt bad about that. I don’t know how he COULD have understood it.

    I’m TRYING to get it to where I can show it to him. But by the time I do, he’ll probably have forgotten posing for it…

  2. Barry

    I am ordering my high school student’s senior pictures.

    Every possible package includes a minimum of 24 wallet sized pictures- to the detriment of enough 5x7s and 8 x10s.

    When is the last time someone gave you a wallet picture? Years ago I use to get a few for the grandparents but they stopped carrying pictures around in a wallet or purse at least a decade ago.

    And even then, the grandparents didn’t need 24 wallet pictures. They might want 1-2 but when they got smartphones, there was no longer any need. (One of the packages had 48 wallet pictures included- what the heck??????)

    The photo developers and portrait business folks need to update their offerings.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      I’m thinking the rationale for wallet pictures, once upon a time, was to share them with your friends. But I assume kids’ friends would have absolutely no interest in such an anachronism…

      1. Barry

        We had a friend give us a graduation announcement of their son. We put it up on the fridge for about 2-3 months because it was a nice picture.

        But does anyone carry 10 wallet pictures of the children of friends around in their wallet or purse?

        I can understand a nephew or niece- maybe- but why would anyone do that if they have a phone that can hold hundreds of pictures?

        and I don’t understand why a graduation photo company has packages that have dozens of wallet pictures as a choice but only 1 or 2 5x7s. . (The wallets are not for a graduation announcement because they sell those separately).

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Look at that envelope. After telling me, “Your negatives will NOT be returned,” it tells me in even larger type, “Your images will be on a CD at no extra charge.”

    Like it’s a bonus. Like they’re doing something special for me.

    Let’s run through that again…

    I entrust to you my irreplaceable film — with pictures of my family that can’t be recreated (especially since I’ve been saving up these rolls for years, and my grandchildren will never be those ages again) — and you process it, and don’t give it back to me.

    But you give me some scans, and don’t tell me the resolution level, so I don’t know how good they’ll be.

    But I don’t have the thing I started with — my film. Because you’ve thrown it away or something.

    So tell me — what am I paying you for, since the scans will be at “no extra charge?”

    Some lousy prints that I didn’t want to begin with…?

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    You may ask, “Since you’re such a hotshot at processing your black-and-white film, why don’t you do the color, too?”

    I processed some color in one of my photography classes when I was in college. They wanted us to know how, so we did it. It was UNBELIEVABLY complicated, and delicate — each of the many chemicals had to be kept perfectly at a certain temperature. Way more sensitive than the B/W stuff.

    I never wanted to try that again. Black-and-white film processing is an attractive thing to someone who enjoys photography. Color processing struck me as an attractive thing to masochists.

    I hear that the newer processes are simpler. But I expect it would still be expensive to buy the chemicals and associated gear and still pretty tricky, easy to mess up. (Even the two chemicals I would really need for B/W aren’t cheap, much less the bits of equipment I might need to replace.)

    So I’m going to try a little longer to find someone who can run it through a machine that will do it for me.

  5. Mark Stewart

    Did you try the internet? Film processing is going the way of the DoDo in everyday life, but it will remain a passionate hobbyist pursuit. With all the surplus processing equipment around someone’s bound to make a niche serving those who want their negatives returned with the prints.

    Try ABC Photo Lab in Mystic, CT. Their website doesn’t say one way or the other, but I suspect they might be able to accommodate your request.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ll check it out.

      I was just starting a search for such services. For instance, I had studied the website of Old School Photo Lab, which is in New Hampshire (I had to poke around a bit to find its actual location in Meat World). I ended up having crucial questions, and realizing it would likely be impossible to get quick answers (from this or any other such lab) on a Sunday evening, I wrote this post instead, to see if y’all had some suggestions.

      So thanks…

  6. Bob Amundson

    I have a Canon M-50. Wow. I have so much content; I need a You Tube Channel! Seriously Brad, do you know someone that might help me edit and post content on a You Tube Channel?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, maybe. I mean, I could probably find someone with the skills who would give you a rate for helping you do that, but you might be able to do it yourself.

      Posting on YouTube is easy. The trickiest thing would be editing the video before you posted it. Well, that, and shooting the raw footage properly first.

      I haven’t used a camera in so long — after all, I can shoot HD on my phone — that I don’t know much about working with a file shot that way. But if you’re on, say, an iPhone, you already have the software to edit to a certain extent. And I imagine Canon produces similar software.

      The easiest way to edit properly, though, is on a laptop. I’m pretty sure you can get free software for that whether you’re on a Mac or PC. Then when you’re done, you just upload it to YouTube.

      Or, if you want to go without editing, you could always try an option such as Facebook live. I don’t use that personally, but from what I’ve seen it’s designed for amateurs to use. We used it some during the campaign in 2018, but James’ body man, who was always on the scene, handled it from his end. I just let people know about it…

      1. Bob Amundson

        I agree editing on laptops is best – I wish Facebook and Instagram agreed. They focus on smart phone apps.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, they want you to stay on their apps.

          I particularly despise Instagram, which won’t even let you grab the file, even with a right-click on a laptop…

          1. Bob Amundson

            All about using their crappy cameras. What I can do on my M-50 just destroys any stupid phone ability.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        As some of y’all may remember, I used to post video quite a bit on the blog. I had a lot of fun playing with it. You’ll find interviews — or partial interviews, since the camera I used in the middle of the century’s first decade only shot three minutes of low-res video at a time — with Joe Biden, Barack Obama, John McCain and many others. Those were pretty easy, since I was talking with them for the paper anyway, and I didn’t mind the extra work editing and posting, because I always enjoyed learning to do new things.

        Later, I experimented with video commentary, and briefly there was “The Brad Show.”

        And I would probably still do it if I had a camera crew and a studio full of people to do the editing, so that all I had to do was talk, then move on to the next thing.

        But since I don’t, and the novelty of doing those things myself has worn off, I find it’s much easier, and faster, to go ahead and write what I have to say.

        And as you know, these days I have trouble finding the time to do even that…

  7. Scout

    I used to have a Pentax and a Cannon. I think I still do somewhere but haven’t used them in a long long time. I even had a film loader and would buy bulk film and load my own cartridges for awhile. That is a sad state of affairs though. I can’t believe they would not give you your own negatives back.

    I just googled and found this:

    I’ve used this company for other photo services and been happy. They say they send you your negatives back and put scans online that you can download and you get to pick the resolution of the scans, if I’m understanding it right.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “I even had a film loader and would buy bulk film and load my own cartridges for awhile.”

      Now, that’s hard-core! I salute you…

      I might try that service as well. I’ve got several rolls; I might send one each to different places and see what I like best.

      And I need to look into ordering some chemicals so I can do some black-and-white. See how much it costs. And search the house for my tanks and reels and other equipment…

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