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Know Your Film Lab

Lesson 25 from: Film Photography with Strobe Lighting

Sandra Coan

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Lesson Info

25. Know Your Film Lab

Lesson Info

Know Your Film Lab

If you watched, if you have seen the 101 class, I spent a lot of time talking about photo labs because my belief is that if you are going to be a great film photographer, if you're gonna create beautiful film images, you need to know three things. You need to know your light, you need to know your film, you need to know your lab. And today, we talked a lot about knowing your light. (laughs) So good for you. But this whole concept of photo labs and how important they are to film photographers is something that I'm actually really, really passionate about and I like to teach to teach people about. And so, even though I did talk about this in the interclass, I do wanna talk about it again, because I feel like it's so important. And what I like to say is that when you're a film photographer, the photo lab you choose is such an important decision. Your photo lab is more than just a vendor. They're your creative partner, and they have a tremendous influence over the final outcome of your ima...

ges, on how it looks. So here's an example of that. So, this is the same negative scanned by three different labs. And what I did is I just shot it, mailed it off to three different labs. And they look really different. Right? And again, same negative, scanned by three different labs. These three are all professional labs, but they look really, really different. So, this is what I mean. You could take a perfectly exposed beautifully lit image and send it off to a lab that maybe doesn't have a well-trained staff or a good technician, and get something hat looks like this, and think you're the worst film photographer ever, (laughs) when really it's just more about having a bad scan. So, I just wanna walk through a few things about what to look for in a lab. What do they do? How do you know if you have a good one? So that when you're spending all these time shooting film, film expensive, you're spending all this time learning about light, trusting the process, doing everything right, that, that final piece is also done right, so you're getting perfect beautiful scans every time. So what do you look for in a lab? Well, for starts, you need to look for a lab that works with film. (laughs) There are a lot of labs out there who say, "Oh yeah, we'll process your film too." The drug store by my house says, "Oh yeah, we'll process your film too." But that's not really what they do. And looking for a lab that specializes in film photograph is really, really important, because at the end of the day, when you're working with lighting and you're working with film, you're spending a lot of time and a lot of money to create a good negative. That's our goal, is to make a beautiful negative. And then often that negative, you can create fantastic scans, you can create fantastic prints. You have a lot of options. But it all starts with that negative. And so, you wanna be working with a lab that understands that, that knows how to process, who has good chemicals and all of that, so that you're getting a good quality scan. I mean, I'm sorry, a good quality negative every time. It's really, really important. So, one of the things to look for in a lab is, yes, they're used to working with film, that you want a lab that works with a high volume of film photographers. So, any lab can say, "Well process your film." but how many film photographers are they working with? If they're not working with a high volume, chances are they're not going to be checking those chemicals very often, chemicals aren't being tested or replaced. They might have older equipment. All that stuff could happen. When you are working with a lab that works with high volume of film photographers, then you have a better chance of making sure that you have a lab that has a well-trained staff, that has properly maintained chemicals, and that has a good equipment. And all of that makes a huge difference in that final outcome of your negative. So, you also want a lab that has really well-trained, or really, yeah, well-trained scan technicians. And this is so important, because scanning, just like digital processing, just like Photoshop, it really is an art form in it of itself. I know that I'm a good portrait photographer. I'm good at working with people, I have a gift for that. I'm good at seeing expressions. I'm good at seeing light. That's what I do really, really well, but I also know that I am not a good Photoshopper. Is that a word? (laughs) I'm not good at Photoshop. I don't have the patience for it. It frustrates me. I don't understand. That's a separate art form. I can be good photographer and be a really good photographer, and not be good at Photoshop. And I can know people who are really, really good at Photosohp who may not be great photographers. The same thing is with scan technicians. Scanning is an art form. They don't have everything at their disposal when we have when we are in Photosohp or in Lightroom. What they're doing, they do with very minimal controls, and so to get really good results really takes a lot of training and a good eye, and you want that when anybody is working with your film. So remember this, so that middle image was scanned by somebody who maybe didn't understand brightness, how to control brightness on a scan, so we got this really dark image. It's not underexposed, and you can tell it's not underexposed because the shadows aren't grainy and muddy. It's just dark, scan dark. It was a technician that maybe didn't understand that, or maybe it was a technician that honestly just really like that look. That's what they were goin for, because, again, it's all subjective. It's all about who's behind that scanner at the time. So, you want somebody who's well-trained, and this is why. Like I said earlier, the scanners, the people who are working the scans really don't have a lot to work with, a lot of control. They're basically controlling just a couple of things with your scan. They're controlling the overall color hue, and they're controlling brightness or what they call scan density, darkness, lightness. Okay? And all of that is interconnected. So when you're on a scanner and you're adjusting color, what you need to understand is that those color relationships are interconnected. So it's not like in Photosohp where you can go in, and just select your blues, and just adjust your blues, and nothing else is affected. If you change your blues on a scanner, it's also gonna change your yellows. If you change your magentas, it's gonna affect your greens. Those things are all worked together. So you kinda need to know that when you're working with a film scanner. Most lab technicians are trained to go in and scan for skin tone. And I know earlier in the day, we had a question, somebody talking about backdrop color, like, "Well, how do you light your backdrop "and how do you get that color?" And for me, as film shooter, actually, I don't worry really about that backdrop color. I have backdrop that is gray, storm gray I think it is. But sometimes, I shoot, and that backdrop looks a little blue. And sometimes I shoot, and it looks darker gray. The color of the backdrop can change a lot really based on the skin tones of the people I'm working with, and because of that. So, my lab technicians are coming in. They're adjusting for skin tones. They want a skin tone that looks good, because I shoot people. Shoot people, I photograph people. (laughs) So, sometimes to get those skin tones the right way, it's going to shift that color in the backdrop. Does that make sense? Because it's all interconnected. It's not like shooting with a digital camera. We can't think like digital shooters now. We need to think like film shooters. Okay, so you can see it here. So, these two images were taken on the same roll of Fuji, and same session obviously, same roll. So, baby came in, and baby had a little jaundice, which means that they come in and they're a little yellow. It's pretty common actually in newborns where you see it. And they get this yellow tone for their skin, and after a few weeks, it goes away. But I took the photo of the baby by herself, and the lab did a really good job of kind of reducing those yellow tones and the skin tone, because I said, "Hey, baby has jaundice." They were like, "Cool, we're on it." So the bring down that yellow, but it brings up the blues in the overall image. So if you notice, the whites of her diaper, the shadows, the bed have a bluer tint to them, right? But her skin tone looks really good. But then we put her here with her brother who's super pale, so he already has a lot of blue in his skin already. And they know have to match those skin tones. So they have to work with his pale and her yellow, and some how bring them to an acceptable level for each, which is this little wiggle room. So, her skin tone isn't the same as it is in this image, and his skin tone isn't the same as it is in real life. They had to kind of balance that out to make it work for both of them. And you can even see it in the whites. So, where she was on the white bed there, and it has a bluer tint to it, over here it's a little bit different. And same bed, I just put a pillow behind him, so he could hold his baby sister, but same bed. So, that's how that works as far as skin tones go. Now, we had a really interesting question come in during the intro to film photography class, where somebody asked, "Okay, we're talking about this "and this skin tone. "Well, what if I were to take a picture "of those little color checker cards?" Do you know what we're talking about? These are like little things and they have reds and greens, and grays and all that. And sent in with my film. And I was like, "I don't know, "I've never thought of that before." But it was such a good question. So, yesterday, I called Richard Photo Lab, and I was like, "Hey, Richard Photo Lab, "I have this really interesting question. "Help me out." And so, we end up having this really interesting conversation about, "I wonder how that would work." My gut answer was to say, "Well, if the lab is always "adjusting for skin tone. "So even that even that color checker card would be "all kind of relative." And then the lab technician I was speaking to was saying kind of the same thing. She was like, "If we had something like that, that came in, "it wold probably work, "it would be helpful as a frame of reference, "if you were shooting in studio, like we were today, "so you're like super consistent, "the light temperature isn't changing, "light color is not changing, "and you were shooting products, "or you were shooting flowers or something." Then it would probably be helpful, but she was like, "Then every time you changed your light, "you'd wanna redo it, "or if you change your film, you wanna redo it." So, anyway, I just thought that was really interesting. Learn something new every day. Life-long learner. The other thing that skin technicians have control over, like I said before, was in your scan density, so lights or darks. They can make an image look lighter. They can make an image look darker. And one way that you can control this is just by having them scan for the highlights or having them scan for the shadows. And so, when we are talking about metering, I was talking about how it's always important to make sure, especially with color film that that darkest part of your image is properly metered, because that's going to give you more information on your negative, and it's gonna give your scanner information to work with, with the scanning. With black and white, wherever you want your detail to be, you meter for, but then again, that's something you communicate to your lab, so that they can know, so that they can scan accordingly. So, for example, this is Ilford Delta 3200. I always shoot it at 1600. So, just that by default over exposes it a stop, and then I'm metering for the mid-tones. So what that means, shooting it that way is that I have plenty of detail in both the highlights, and then the shadows. So then I can talk to my lab, and I can be like, "Hey, friend, I would love these scan for the highlights." and it's going to make the overall image look a little richer, a little darker. So it's one way to bring up the richness and the darkness in your shadows. Or you can say, "Hey, friends, "I actually really want these scanned for the shadows." and then that's going to... They're gonna try to bring out as much detail as they in the shadows, which is why it's so important that you have detail in your negative to allow them to do that. And it's going to shift the overall brightness of the whole image. And that's something that you can work with your lab with. So, most labs, I think if you send in, for example, any image, but certainly black and white. I think most labs tend to scan for the shadow detail just in general. But if it's something, if you like, a more dark and moody image, you don't want things that are light and airy. You want collapsed blocks, that's what you're going for, and that's something you communicate with your lab. And you say, "Hey, this is how I'm doing this. "I'm metering for my shadows. "I have a good negative that I'm sending you, "but I really do want a little more contrast, "a little more drama, "so I want you to scan for those highlights." And it's a way to communicate. Another way that your lab can affect the look of your photos is actually by the scanner that they use. So, the two most common scanners are the Frontier or Noritsu. These are both professional grade scanners. And most professional grade labs have both, but some labs do just have one or the other, so that's something to check. But they're slightly different. So, there is a side by side. So Noritsu tends to produce images with more muted blacks, which makes it look less contrasty. Frontier tends to have richer blacks, so it looks like it adds a little more contrast. You can also see there's a slight difference in the magentas. They both produce beautiful images. It's really just a matter of preference, what you like. So, what I recommend is send your lab in a roll and say, "Hey, would you mind? "I'm doing a test roll. "I'm trying to figure this out "if I'm a Frontier or if I'm a Noritsu. "Scan them both. "Scan them on both and just let me see." And most labs will do that for you, and then you can see what works for your work. I like, like I've been saying all day, I like soft shadows. I like that kind of softer looking, less contrasty image. So, I'm a Noritsu girl. I love my Noritsu. But there are plenty of people whose work I admire, film photographers, who I think do amazing work, and they scan on Frontier. So it really is just about what you like, what you want, but definitely try them both out.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Discount Codes from Richard Photo Lab
Studio Gear List
Color Film Stock Exposure Tests
Black & White Film Stock Exposure Tests
Great Photo Labs
Noritsu Frontier Comparison

Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

Wow! with a lot of online stuff out there one can become rather overcome with too much information, however, the way Sandra presents her courses is just perfect! Her honest and simple and easy to understand approach was just what I needed. Not once did I think she was just going through the motions, she really loves what she does and it shows. To be able to rewatch and rewatch was also a key for me. Since I have dyslexia I have to take things one half step at a. time. After completion of the class I had a new found confidence when using strobes. A must have.

Micah Hewett Images

Out of all the classes I own on Creative Live, Strobe Lighting with Sandra is my FAVORITE! She is an incredibly kind and gifted teacher. She explains everything on a simple level and then gradually build to more complex issues. I am 100% happy with this course. Thank you Sandra!!


Do you own a film camera? Then you NEED this class. I knew I *kind of* wanted to try shooting with a strobe, so I bought this class as some encouragement. But honestly, I half expected to do the class and not actually buy the strobe (because strobes are scary!). But as soon as I finished this class I IMMEDIATELY bought a strobe, umbrella modifier, a backdrop, and seamless paper (in Storm Grey because I basically want to be Sandra.) I felt so empowered to shoot with strobes and film and suddenly what had seemed terrifying now seemed doable. My very first test roll turned out great after following Sandra's easy tips. Now that we're in the winter months, I can shoot indoors with my film camera and strobe! Thank you, Sandra, for so generously sharing your knowledge with us and for being such a great teacher! And to anyone even remotely considering this class, DO IT. There's no way you'll regret it.

Student Work