Film Processing Should Be Profitable
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography” – George Eastman
We recently started a series of blogs entitled “Taking Care Of Business” to familiarize our customers with the business side of the photo lab, and to share our vision for the future of FotoTechnika. This particular blog deals with our oldest and only remaining analog service: film processing. We are of the firm belief that you just can’t be a good photographer without understanding light, and the best way to unlock the mysteries of light is by shooting film.
When the NY Times published an article about the last processing run of Kodachrome in 2010, it left the impression that all film is a relic of the past. Au contraire! Just because Kodachrome is no longer available does not mean film is dead. Today people are finding antique heirloom cameras, as well as old 35mm and medium format cameras, many of which are still operational. A lot of these discoveries come about as aging baby boomers sort out family estates or downsize for retirement. And there are a surprising number of Millenials who have discovered film, some even taking photography courses in high school or college for “alternative processes” – in other words, film. Some vintage film sizes like 110 and 127 have come back into vogue, and from some of the strangest vendors. (Urban Outfitters – really?) Even though the Great Yellow Father (Kodak) was broken apart and sold in pieces since its bankruptcy, Kodak formula films are still being produced. Fujifilm is still going strong, Agfa film is still out there and there are a host of small Eastern European and Asian film manufacturers that offer loads of product variety, although – at least in our region – it may be necessary to go to the internet to find it.
Since the “great recession” began there has been a great winnowing in the photofinishing industry. The independent labs that have survived are the ones that have been able to branch out with new technologies. By 2008 many of our analog processes (those that were dependent on chemicals at one stage or another) had been phased out. We had just closed our B&W printing department, so that only film processing remained. Concurrently, many of the independent labs were forced to stop processing film altogether because their machines were geared for large quantities of film, and chemicals would go bad if they were not replenished and activated regularly. Luckily, since we had low-volume/high-quality processors, none of our film departments suffered that fate, at least for a while.
The week that we opened our doors in 1987, we installed a small-volume Richcolor E6 machine, for processing slide and transparency film. That machine ran faithfully for 25 years, but we had to deactivate it in 2012 because it came to the point that there were many weeks when we didn’t even have two rolls to develop. Without regular replenishment, the chemicals could not be kept fresh, and mixing and replacing chemicals just to run a roll or so of film made E6 processing cost-prohibitive. And so, another analog department went by the wayside.
In the past we also maintained a high-volume dip’n’dunk machine for C41 processing for color negative film. We saw the handwriting on the wall when most of our processes started going digital, so we decided to purchase several used Richcolor C41 processors (which had not been manufactured in over a decade) since they handled less rolls of film and had given us such excellent service with E6. (The Richcolors could stay in balance by processing as few as 10 rolls a week.) We have always processed B&W film the really old-fashioned way – by hand. We started out by processing in small tanks, but moved to a sinkline in 1990 when we needed to process more rolls at a time, and Kodak invented T-Max RS film chemistry.
Just a little over a year ago the chain drug stores and big box stores gave us a gift that keeps on giving. They shut down all of their “wet” (chemical) processes and started sending their film out of town to be developed. That may not have been so bad for most of their customers except that they decided, in order to save money, they would have the out-of-town lab process and scan the film, then send the digital files back over the internet and once done, throw the film away. And most of the time, the files transmitted back to the drug stores are only usable for a snapshot size. This enraged many a film photographer. “Why shoot film if you don’t want the negatives back?” we’ve heard on more than one occasion. As a consequence, we are running as much or more color negative film than we ever have, because we develop it on-site, and we do give the customer’s negatives back to them. That is especially handy if they decide they want an enlargement, because the negative can be scanned at a higher resolution to fit the need.
Now for the “Profitable” part of this blog: we have always been a Fuji lab with respect to all of our color photographic products, and although we do get excellent service and prices on our Fuji printing materials, all of their chemical prices have risen over the last decade – at first incrementally, but lately geometrically. We can still get T-Max RS developer for our B&W film. It is great because it has a phenomenal shelf life and replenishing is incredibly simple, but we had sticker shock when we had to order it recently. In just over a year the price had risen over 27%. This caused us to reexamine our film processing prices. Much to our chagrin we found that we haven’t been pricing our processing profitably for – well – forever. In the past we considered film a gateway service. Most of our customers would order prints, and that made up the difference, but these days folks are either asking only for the initial film development, and maybe scans saved on a CD. Our scanning prices are very reasonable – in fact, so “reasonable” that they couldn’t cover the losses we incurred on film processing. A few customers go on and on about how cheap it used to be at the chain drug stores in the past. We usually remind them that many of their photo services were “loss leader” — a service sold below cost to get them into the store so they would in turn purchase diapers or cosmetics (which have incredible profit margins) while they waited for the one-hour processing service.
So, we have adjusted our pricing as shown on our rack card. The one consolation prize is that, if prints are ordered with the film processing, we only add the basic $5 charge to save all the images on a CD rather than charging for each individual scan, and one CD will usually cover all the scanned film in an order, unless there are more than 20 rolls.
We hope that these adjustments will be all the “Taking Care of Business” needed for film processing for some time. This is a service we plan to offer as long as the chemicals are available and our vintage processors are operational.
Oh, and don’t forget that we have a dropbox for film (and other orders) in front of the shop for your convenience.