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.
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…