What To Look For In A Lab
So what do you look for in a lab? This is a question I think is important to answer because I think it can feel overwhelming when you are just trying out film and you don't necessarily know. How do you know if the lab that you're going to or you're looking at is a lab that's a good lab, or a good choice for you? So that's what we're gonna talk about. So, for starters, you wanna make sure that you are working with a lab that works with a high volume of film photographers. Because if they work with a high volume of film photographers, chances are that they're going to have properly maintained equipment and properly maintained and fresh chemicals. So remember all the way back at the beginning of the class when we were looking at those negatives, right? Again, that is what it's all about. To get a good film scan, to get a good film image, you need a good negative. So what goes into having a good negative? Well, it needs to be properly exposed. You want a good, dense negative. But you also ...
need to make sure that that negative has been properly handled and processed in chemicals that are balanced, that are fresh, that are good. All those things can really affect your images. So, you don't want to take it to a lab where they have technicians or a staff that don't know this and your negatives get scratched, or it's bad chemicals and it throws your colors. I mean, I've seen crazy things happen (laughs) with bad, you know, mistakes at different kinda labs. So you definitely want a lab that works with a lot of film photographers, who's used to handling film. You know that they're gonna have the proper equipment, and that they're gonna have good chemicals. You also know that they're gonna have a staff that is trained on how to handle film, and how to properly scan it. Which brings us to our next thing. You wanna make sure you're working with a lab that has properly trained scan technicians. Just like Photoshop is an art form, in and of itself, scanning is an art form in and of itself. If you have ever tried to scan yourself, I have and I am terrible at it. It's very, very nuanced. Because they don't have the control over things that you have, for example, in Photoshop. So in Photoshop, you have a lotta control. You can go in and you can just adjust one corner of your image. Or you can bring up the blacks here, or you can bring up your reds but leave everything else alone, right? You can't do that with scanning. It's an art form. And so you wanna make sure you have a lab that has a properly trained scan technician, who really knows how to use those machines and do a really good job with it. So remember this here? So this is exactly what I mean. So the one in the middle was scanned by somebody who didn't really understand how to control brightness of your image. That's a dark scan. It's not an underexposed negative. There is a difference. Can you see the difference? If this were underexposed, these shadows would be crunchy and muddy and it would look underexposed. This is a dark scan. So maybe the scan technician just didn't understand how to adjust those levels of brightness. Or maybe, this is just what they liked. Maybe this is a look that they liked. You don't know. Because it's a lot of, you know, whoever's behind that machine has that control so sometimes they'll just scan to what they like 'cause they don't know if you don't give them any kind of, any kind of direction. Whereas these two have proper brightness, but slightly different color tones. And slightly different contrast. It's kind of amazing, isn't it? Like, the control. Those still kinda blow me away. So what do scan technicians do? So I think that this is important too. I think that there is sometimes a lotta misinformation. People tend to think that you send your film in to get scanned and it's as if you're hiring somebody to do your post-production work. That they're taking your scans and they're going into Lightroom or Photoshopping and they're doctoring. Most cases that's not what's happening. A scan technician has control over basically two things. They're gonna control the overall color tone of your images. And what they call scan density, which is lightness and darkness. To an extent, contrast, but not as much. So this is basically what they can control. So again, they're not in there with Photoshop, controlling all your colors. When you look at a scanner or a scan machine, it's a series of just a few buttons that they can control. And one of the things that they can control is color hue. But ... When they make an adjustment to the color tone of a scan, that color adjustment affects the entire image. Because there's an interdependent link between the colors. So if they bring up the blues in an image, it's gonna bring down the yellows. And it's gonna do it across the entire image. So bring up the magentas, bring down the greens. Like it's all kinda balanced out. So again, not like going into Photoshop or Lightroom. Totally different thing. Most professional labs are going to do their best job to go in and scan for a pleasant skin tone. But again, this is subjective, right? Because they weren't with you at your shoot. They can't look at the color of the person's skin or the clothing that they wore, and know exactly what it's supposed to look like. And you'll see this, I see this on forums all the time where somebody'll be like, I shot this wedding and the bridesmaid dresses were periwinkle. But this one bridesmaid's dress looks like a different color and look at, this is the digital image and this is my scan, and the scanner must've done a horrible job because the dress color is off. Well what they don't realize is that the scan technician's going in and trying to make that bridesmaid's skin look good. And adjusting the color tones for the skin adjusts the colors for the entire image. Does that make sense? So it will throw it off. So here's an example. So these two images were shot on the exact same roll of Fuji and exact session. So, little tiny baby. Baby with brother. So the baby came in and she had a little bit of jaundice. Which is like a yellow tone that newborns get to their skin. It's actually super common with newborns. Happens all the time. So the lab could see the yellows, right? And so in this image, when she's by herself, they tried to bring down that yellow in the skin by bringing up the blues. And you can even see it. There's the bluish tint to the whites, right? So they're interdependent link. So that's how they adjusted for that skin tone. But then we have a picture of baby next to her brother. Brother's super duper pale, super white. So he already has a lot of blue in him. So if they were to adjust for her skin tones, to get her skin tones perfect, his skin tones were gonna be wonky and off. And so they had to find a balance. Which I actually think they did a really good job. This was a hard one. And you can see a different color in the whites, how it affects the whole overall image between those and those. Isn't that interesting? Another classic example of this and one that Richard Photo Lab uses on their blog when they talk about this is say you're at a wedding, and you have one person at the wedding who's been using spray tan, right? And they look orange. And then another person at the wedding who may be be like hittin' the sauce all morning and their skin's like pink 'cause they've been drinking. And then you get them together. So how do you balance a pink skin tone and an orange skin tone? Right, it's hard. 'Cause if you adjust for one person's skin tone, it's gonna throw off everything else, and same with the other. So it's really a balance with scanning to find that perfect midpoint so that it's acceptable level for everybody in the image. Which is what they did here. So her skin's a little more orange in this image than it is in this image. But that's because they were also balancing with his skin tone, which is super pale. And I think that they did a great job. But that's something you need to know. And I love pointing this out, I love talking to people about this because again, sometimes you get a scan back, and the colors are quite off or it's not how your eyes saw it. Just know that this is why. Your lab is trying to scan for that perfect skin tone. And then of course, your film stock plays into it. How you metered played into it. So it all starts kinda working together. The other thing that scan technicians can control is the brightness of your image. So remember way in the beginning, when we were talking about exposure, and I said people think that if they want a light and airy image, they need to just overexpose the heck out of their film. When in actuality that's not how it works. You can overexpose your film and still have it be dark and dramatic. The brightness of your image has more to do with the scan. So you can ask a lab, you can say, I just want in general, I want bright scans, and they can increase the brightness of those scans and give you bright scans. You can also go in and ask your lab to scan for certain details. So I want my image scanned for the highlights. Like this one on the left, scanned for the highlights. And you see how it makes a difference in the shadows. Or here, I want 'em scanned for the shadows. And then your shadows have detail, they're bright, and the overall image is brighter too. Again, this is why creating that really good dense negative with proper metering is so important. Because if you have a good dense negative and if you have detail in your shadows, you have flexibility that you can do this with. You're giving your lab something that they can work with. Whereas if you have a thin negative, you didn't meter properly and you have no detail in your shadows, then there's nothing your lab can do. So that part's really important. It all works together, it all plays together. You can really see a difference with this kind of a comparison for example, if let's say you're shooting a wedding, and you have a bride in front of a window, you know, and she's backlit, and there's light coming through her veil, and all of that. So you could have the lab scan for the highlights, scan for the window. And you're gonna have a darker image, right? You're gonna have more silhouette. Or you could have them scan for that shadow detail, so you get all that detail in the shadow and it's gonna blow out that window. It's gonna blow, your brighter parts are gonna be brighter. And it can really change the look of your image pretty dramatically. But again, it all starts with that good negative. So you wanna make sure that you're metering in a way that you have enough information in the both the highlights and the negatives so that you can make choices like this. Now earlier with black and white I said, you meter for where you want your detail to be. That's fine too. If you're in a situation where it's super bright, it's super contrasty and you wanted to do that, and so you metered for those highlights and you're like, I wonder if those shadows are gonna be, you know, look underexposed. If you were to meter for your highlights and then they went in and scanned for your shadows, then that image is gonna look underexposed. 'Cause those shadows are underexposed. So when you are metering for your highlights, that's something you need to tell your lab. Like this roll was metered for the highlights, you need to scan for the highlights. And that's how you get that dramatic look. It's all about communication. Yeah, kind of amazing, the difference. And there's like, it's such a nuance because then again, how it all comes into play, this also plays then again, with your film stocks, you know, well what do you know about your film stocks? What can it handle? What do you like about it? You know, how're you gonna use your metering to bring out the best in that film? And then how're you gonna communicate to your lab about what you want as far as color tones, preferences, scan preferences, lights and darks. Another thing that makes a huge difference in the look of your film is what kind of scanner it's scanned on. So the equipment. So when you're looking for labs, this is something definitely that you wanna research. What kind of equipment do they use? What kind of scanners are they using? There are basically two brands of scanners. There's Frontier and a Noritsu. And you talk to film photographers about this stuff, who've been shooting for a while, and I swear to you, each of these scanners have its own like, cult following. (laughing) People get very serious about what scanner to use. And there are very spirited debates, let's just say (laughs) about which is better. And you know, which isn't, whatever. But you do wanna check because some labs only have Frontier, some labs will have both. But let's just look at the differences. So again, this is about preferences. There's not one that's better than the other, but they are really different. And so the biggest difference you're gonna see between Noritsus and Frontiers are with your blacks, your contrasts, and your magenta. Noritsu tends to have more muted blacks. Which makes it look less contrasty. Whereas Frontier has kinda richer blacks, and I feel like you get more of a contrast, more contrasty images when using a Frontier. And you'll also notice some slight differences in the magentas. We'll look at that, you'll see one of those in just a second. It really just depends on the lighting situations you're working in. It depends on the film stock you're using. It depends on your metering, all of this works together. And honestly, it depends on a personal preference. I have shopped around with everything, I think it's fair to say that I am a researcher. Again, these were just done for me. 'Cause I wanted to see so I asked Richard Photo Lab to scan these negs on both because I was searching. For me, for my look, I'm a Noritsu girl. But there's no right or wrong, it's just what you like. Did you have a question?
So for someone who's never shot before, currently, let's be real here. How many rolls of film, realistically, did you go through, experiment, practice, different scanners, different labs, before you were like, that's what I like. And you could narrow it down. Because it seems like there's so many options, so many things like, how do you begin that path towards where you wanna be? Your end game.
To figure out what you like? I think that's a great question. I mean, for me, you guys are seeing you know, five years' worth of research here today. This is all stuff that I've been doing for a long time. So it started out even before I knew all the possibilities. So for me it started with trying to figure out a little bit more about photo labs. All right, so that was that first thing was when I sent out those negatives to test and I was trying to figure it out. And then I would learn more about, you know, color film stocks and I'm like oh! Well I gotta try it out. And part of that's my nature too. Like I shoulda been a scientist I guess. Because I love researching things, and I love exposure tests and I love things like this. I say don't get overwhelmed. I think my biggest piece of equipment is do some research. I mean this is a lot of information here today. So you already know a few things, right? You know a few of the differences between different color stock, color film stocks. So start with those three. Is there one, like you were saying, you're kinda more, you kinda like the color tone of Portra. Start there. And just start doing it. You don't have to spend all the time and all the money I have because I think I kinda take it to an extreme. (laughing) But yeah, it's definitely, you just kinda feel it out. And over time, you're gonna, like anything, you're gonna start to realize what your preferences are and what you like. I just think it's good to know that there are differences and there's all these things that will affect the way your film looks. Right, it's not just about, well I only shoot Portra and my film looks like this all the time. It's like, no. It's like, well how do you meter for it? What lab are you using? Which scanner are you using? What're your preferences? All of that comes into play. Yeah?
So just to add onto that. Question was, do you have to have everything scanned on, say one roll of film the same way? Or can different negatives be scanned differently?
Yeah, so, you pretty much stick to the roll. Like you can't take like, three frames from this roll and scan 'em on a Noritsu and then take four frames from this roll and scan 'em on a Frontier. That's not gonna work, that's hard. But what they do is that they take your negative and they run it through. And then the scan technician is there, watching on a screen as your film comes through, and making these adjustments. And again, it's not a lot of adjustments. They're doing that color wheel that I showed you. They're adjusting those hues, and they're adjusting lights and darks, pretty much. It's kind of amazing when you think of that. How we can get such beautiful results. Excuse me, most profession labs I know don't take your images into Photoshop or Lightroom afterwards. What you get, straight scan, is straight out of the scanner. But isn't this amazing? So like I said, I don't think that there's one scanner that's better than the other. It's kinda like Coke or Pepsi, right? Like which do you prefer? Take the taste test. So same thing, you know. Experiment a little. Just know that it really does affect the look of your film. Absolutely. Any other questions about that?
Somebody had asked about. So there's scanning and there's printing. So is the scan technician accommodating for what you might be printing it onto? The types of paper, or that type of thing?
Well they don't know any of that.
Unless you tell them. This is again why, unless you're doing your own printing, which is fun, this is why it's so important to have such a good lab. Because a good lab that's used to working with film photographers, who knows all of this, is going to be able to do all that in-house for you. So, once you get to know a good lab, and they know what your preferences are, then they know how to scan your images, and then you can print off of those scans and they're gonna look really good. But it's all about that consistency. I'm a stickler for consistency. So for me it was really important, right away. And also, you know, this is my business. So this is how I, you know, pay my bills. So I wanted to make sure that when I did make this switch to film, that I was giving my clients the best product they could possibly get, and so for me, that means I need super consistency. I can't have things look one way for one client, and one way for another client. I need to be able to ensure that when people see my images on Instagram or on my website, that then they come into my studio, and they're gonna get images that look like that. And so for me, nailing down like, okay this is my film, this is what I use. This is my lab, this is who I use. This is my scanner, like taking all those combinations and really nailing it down was important for me to get that look. But definitely play around. Yeah?
Did you narrow it down so much that you use a specific scanner, scanning tech at the lab? That there's a specific go-to person there that you work with versus you send it to the lab and you know everybody there is great?
Well, I work with Richard Photo Lab. And everybody there is great, no! (laughing) But really, okay, so this is how, this is how they do it at Richard Photo Lab. So I have what's called a color pack. And so when I finally narrowed this down and I was like, I always say I dated around with all the labs and I chose Richard for my boyfriend. So when I was like, Richard you're my boyfriend, we're gonna put a ring on it. Like when it was time, we sat down, and we put together what's called a color pack, where it's like a whole like, six month process where I'm like this is the film, by that point I knew this was the film that I shoot, this is how I shoot, this is my look. And we would sit together. So they print out a bunch of my work. And then their lab manager sits down with the prints, and I sit down with prints, and we go over and we talk about, okay well I love these colors, I don't like these colors. I like this contrast, I don't like this contrast. It's a really involved process, so it's really cool. And then what they do is once we come to, we've done all the back and forths and no I don't like this, yes I like this, no I don't like this, yes I like this, they take all those preferences, and they actually have a little Sandra Coan binder that has those example images. So when my film comes in there to scan, they can grab my binder. So whoever is there scanning, whoever that scan technician is, and they can sit down and they can see my preferences and they can scan to those preferences. And the result is like super consistent. My work is so consistent. It's insane, they do an amazing job. But it was a process of working towards that. And sometimes, you know, not getting it right, getting it right, kinda going back and forth. Yeah?
I have a follow up to that. So did you have them do a different color pack for different types of films as you used different films? Maybe you're using Fuji 400H mostly, but then you switch to Portra 400 for a shoot. Do they have a different color pack for that for you?
That's a really great question. Again, they're scanning for skin tones. So when you sit down to do your color pack, they're not necessarily saying, okay, you like Fuji, you like this. But I'm saying, I like these kinda tones, I like these kinda reds, I like these kinda, you know, getting that dialed in. So there are occasions where I'll shoot Portra 800, and I can send it in and they can use my color pack and they can still match those skin tones pretty closely. And I do still shoot Portra 400 sometimes if I'm outside. And again, it's about the skin tones. So they can get my skin tones to be pretty similar. Because of the different color palette with Portra, there might be some things that are slightly off, but that skin tone consistency is what's important to me. And so if you do go, you know, I keep saying Instagram, but that's like the most recent, ever-changing portfolio, right? So you can see everything back to back. And you'll see the skin tones are consistent. What changes sometimes is the color of the blanket, or the color of the wall. Because again, the lab is adjusting for those skin tones. And like we were talking about with that color wheel, those colors are interdependent. So sometimes to get the right kind of skin tone that I like that's my color pack and that looks good on that person. Right, like I'm not gonna change the way a person looks, but you know, getting a good clean skin tone will change the colors. So I didn't necessarily do it for you know, film stocks. But I did with skin tones. So when we're going over the color pack, it's like, let's look at Caucasian skin tones, let's look at you know, different hues. Let's look at some of my African American clients, some of my Asian clients, and look at the difference in skin tones, and kind of fit that in across the board, so. That's a really good question. It's really amazing. I'm always blown away by what labs can do. Especially after trying to scan my own work. Which isn't easy. (laughing)
Well somebody did ask about that. Andrea asked, do you ever scan your own negatives? And do you recommend this process? Maybe not for client work, but for personal work. Is that something that is--
Well, I think if you have the time to do it and you think it's fun, then totally for personal work. Part of my reason that I came back to film, which I shared at the beginning is 'cause I actually don't like sitting in front of computers. I don't like that. That's not where my skillset is. I'm really good at photographing people. (laughing) And that's what I wanna do, and then I wanna be done. So I just, honestly, I don't have the patience for it. So I don't scan my work. I have my boyfriend Richard. And they scan for me, so it works out.