The Design & Publishing Center and &FOTOgraphic is proud to present this essay
which is part of the
ACE Index FAQ. Information about camera equipment, photo equipment and digital imaging equipment.

Avoiding Problems
with Photo Labs

Even the best labs make mistakes. Here are several suggestions which will increase your chances of getting satisfactory results from all photo labs.

Underexposure . . . What's on the Film . . . Choosing a Lab . . . One Roll Please
Photo Lab Bad Days . . . Going On Vacation? . . . X-ray machines.

Even the best labs make mistakes. Here are several suggestions which will increase your chances of getting satisfactory results from all photo labs.

Make Sure You Expose the Film Correctly
The single greatest reason for bad prints is underexposure of film. If your prints are all muddy looking and bright colors are blah, you've probably underexposed the film. Look at the negatives. Are they easy to see through, real "thin" and almost transparent? You've underexposed the film! Here's some examples:


Correctly Exposed


There are several reasons underexposure happens:
Human error: You have an older camera which doesn't read the DX bar coding on the film canister. You forgot to change the film speed setting on the camera when you put in the last roll of film.
Backlighting: The light behind the subject was much brighter than the subject, fooling the light meter into giving a false meter reading. This happens most often when the sun is behind the subject, or where the background is predominantly snow, sand, water, or sky. Solutions? Set your camera on manual and get your meter reading up close before taking the picture, or you can deliberately overexpose the shot by one or two stops, or use fill flash the next time.
Batteries are failing
: Most camera light meter batteries should be changed annually. Low battery voltage will give an inaccurate meter reading. Always carry a fresh spare camera battery.
Your light meter needs recalibrating: If prints are consistently either too light or too dark, roll after roll, this indicates your camera needs to be checked by a camera repair technician. If you can manually adjust film speed, you can try to temporarily correct the problem by changing the film speed, i.e. for consistently underexposed print film, cut the film speed by half and see if this improves your prints. (Slide film requires much more subtle adjustments.)

Know Precisely What is on the Film
If a photo lab loses your photofinishing, chances are they still have the pictures and negatives somewhere, they just couldn't determine who sent them in. When you report a missing roll of film, the first thing they are going to ask you for is a description of the photos.

If you can't provide a precise description of what's on the roll of film, the photo lab will never be able to locate your processing.

Choosing a Lab
Where do you have your film processed? Many choose a photo lab for two reasons, low prices and convenience. They mistakenly assume all labs are alike. When you use a budget processor, the tradeoff for highly attractive prices is some sacrifice of quality control and reliability. This may be an acceptable risk; it depends on how important your photos are.

Mini-labs are appearing everywhere. People love the convenience and instant gratification from getting their photos back in an hour or the following day. Can mini-labs do good work? Absolutely! It all boils down to the human factor, the skill, training and color-sense of the person operating the equipment. Often, you can talk with the mini-lab operator, and request special cropping on an enlargement or ask that a reprint be made lighter or darker than the original.

35mm and medium format users should choose a lab which sleeves negatives for protection against dust and scratches.

For processing slide and black and white film, custom photo labs are usually your best choice. Custom labs can be expensive when prints and enlargements are needed. With negative films have them process your film and provide a contact sheet of the images. Using a loupe, examine the contact sheet and choose which images you want printed or enlarged. Most custom labs make light tables and loupes available for customer use. Determine the cost of machine prints before you ask them to print an entire roll. Slides are processed, mounted and are often ready for pickup in a few hours.

If you have irreplaceable photos, such as that once-in-a-lifetime photo of Elvis at the local Burger King or your best friend's wedding, a custom lab should be your choice. If you're budget-minded, you can always have reprints made elsewhere.

Custom photo labs offer all kinds of specialized services you can't find elsewhere, including copy negatives, slide duplicating, digital imaging services and much more. There are also mail order custom labs which cater to professionals, wedding and sports photographers.

The bottom line is to find a photo lab you have confidence in and stick with them. ACE has an excellent index of photo labs in the US, Canada and abroad.

One Roll of Film Per Envelope
One way to decrease problems with mail order photo labs is to put only one roll of film in each envelope. More than one roll of film per envelope greatly increases the likelihood of problems. Why? The post office is more likely to tear and damage bulky envelopes enroute to the lab, and the staff opening envelopes at the lab are more likely to improperly mark multiple rolls of film arriving in the same envelope. If this happens, at the end of the photofinishing chain they won't be able to match up your processed film and prints with the envelope they arrived in. Instant lost pictures!

It makes sense to follow this rule even when dropping off your film at the local grocery or drug store. Whether you choose the nearest convenient film drop-off or a mail order photofinisher, one roll of film per envelope means more work but aren't your memories worth it?

All Photo Labs Have Bad Days
Never send all your film to a photo lab on a single day. This applies to all labs. If a photo lab is having a "bad hair day" everything being processed can be ruined. Instead, trickle your film into a lab, one or two rolls at a time. This way, if a processing glitch occurs, all of your film will not be involved and possibly destroyed or lost.

Almost as bad, workers can sometimes get one roll out of sequence, stuffing each finished roll in the subsequent envelope - this means everyone will be getting someone else's photos. This nightmare can happen at any high volume photo lab. Someone we know got back pictures of a family celebrating their Native American heritage, posing solemnly for portraits in their ancestral graveyard; someone else got our friend's female nudes. How embarrassing!

Going On Vacation?
Whether you are taking the trip of a lifetime or your annual break, don't wait until it's over to find out your camera isn't working. Here are some tips for vacation photography:

Make sure your camera is working okay before you take the vacation. Never take along a brand new piece of equipment without testing it first and familiarizing yourself with its features before leaving town.

Avoid exposing your film to airport x-ray machines.
* put film in a clear plastic bag and ask for hand inspection, or
* wrap film in a protective lead foil bag found at most camera stores, or
* pack all exposed and unexposed film in your checked baggage.

Never leave your camera in a hot car for any length of time; the film will fog and the camera may be permanently damaged. Staying in one location for a few days? Find a local mini-lab to process your film. This way you'll know the camera is working fine, and you'll have a chance to reshoot any pictures which didn't meet your expectations.

Doug Clifford

The Design & Publishing Center _|_ &FOTOgraphic

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