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Recently my girlfriend shot 2 rolls of color film and we had them developed + photos developed at a small local photolab. What surprised me was how the prints looked. They looked low-res, on some places I think I've seen the raster, and they had what looked like digital noise (ugly, ugly colorful digital noise) in the shadows. The photos looked like photos from a mobile phone. Not a high end one. An older one, in fact.

Since then I learned that everyone today uses a digital medium to print film, which was a disappointment to me, and the girl has since decided that she'll never have her photos printed like that again. But I can only develop b&w at home.

What I am asking: Should I forget about having color prints from film developed at all, or is it just a low-quality photolab? Would it be better to send the film to a big internet photolab company? We are located in Slovakia, so I guess mentioning your favorite labs won't help me, although it may help someone else reading this. Thank you.

  • How used is your girlfriend to photography+ What film and what developing technique are you using? Can you scan and post some results? – Hugo Nov 5 '14 at 7:41
  • Not used to. Film was Kodak something, but I don't think it's the film that is the problem, I think it's the prints. Developing technique well I have no idea, since it's done in the lab and I don't know much about color techniques. No scanner available now. – Radovan Bezak Nov 5 '14 at 10:36
  • Do the negatives themselves look good ? Are they correctly developed, correctly exposed ? Without a scanner, even with just an eye inspection you can get an idea. The noise on the prints could result from some automatic or manual corrections applied incorrectly. I don't know in Slovakia, but there are some labs that do the opposite : print digital images on silver paper. So maybe look for other labs and try them. – FredP Nov 5 '14 at 11:09
  • You say they look low-res, is the print pixelated and blocky? What speed film? – Dan Wolfgang Nov 5 '14 at 13:14
  • I'm sorry, I don't remember now - maybe in a few days I when I can put my hands on them. I think it was some Kodak film 200 or 400 iso. I will have a look at the negatives and maybe try to take a photo of them to inspect. @FredP Yes, they develop it to silver paper. Both film and digitals. But, apparently, they first scan the film and then develop it as if it was a digital photo. – Radovan Bezak Nov 5 '14 at 22:06
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Without example pictures, it's difficult to tell exactly what the problem (or constellation of problems) is, but what you are describing could easily be the result of extreme underexposure of the film (more than 2 stops) without any compensation in development (that is, the film was developed for the normal time). Colour noise happens in film as well as in digital, and it is also more prevalent in shadows (where very few photons are hitting the film emulsion, so the chances of having large error compared to statistical expectations are larger) than in highlights or midtones. Digital amplification of a scanned image may make the problem somewhat more apparent than an old-fashioned optical/chemical print, but even a good old darkroom print of a severely underexposed colour negative will have both a lot of total visible grain (the equivalent of digital luminance noise) and a lot of discernible colour grain (chrominance noise).

It is true that "corner store" film processing usually results in relatively low-resolution scans by default (adequate for a reasonable 4x6" print, or an 8x10 if you're not too fussy), but it's not very likely that it's going to be at "feature phone" resolution and quality. It may appear so if you have a severely underexposed negative (likely, especially with a simple point-and-shoot, failure to set the proper exposure on a manually-adjustable camera, or a complete miss on the camera's ISO setting) or if you are using a surveillance-quality high-speed film (unlikely to happen without your prior knowledge). Knowing that the process involves digital scanning and printing may make you more inclined to see raster effects that aren't actually there, especially if the final image is comparable in quality to a noisy cell phone picture for other reasons.

You should, though, have the negatives, and ought to be able to at least attempt a re-scan. (If the images are severely underexposed, you wouldn't need to scan to see a problem; the negative image itself would be a barely-discernible, ghostly image on the negative rather than something that's just weirdly coloured and reversed in tonality.)

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I guess your girlfriend was using 135 film (regular 35 mm frames) and that format is large enough to deliver amazing results. Search for the tag 135 film in flickr, 500px or alike and you will find results that I bet you'll find stunning. They will sport amazing resolution and color rendition that will without doubt beat camera the quality of photos from camera phones. Of course the results will depend on the film used. There are a few crappy alternatives but the vast majority delivers great results.

Note that all of the above only holds true as long as the photographer knows what he or she is doing. With film photography you don't get any second chances and you need to handle the unexposed and especially latent film with great care. The results can deteriorate greatly in high temperatures or if the film gets exposed to light.

It is true that medium format photography with film is still quite big in its niche. The reason to that is not that those would be the only film formats that can give you great results. In medium format photography the digital options are prohibitively expensive and the sensor sizes of even the most expensive commercially available cameras are nowhere near those of film alternatives.

I don't know anything about the lab where you developed the rolls. They could very well have made mistakes and messed up the results. If you post a picture w can maybe help to determine if that is what happened. From all of the rolls I have have developed in a lab I have never had that problem though.

What is the reason that your girlfriend shoots film? If she likes the process and the craft she could maybe join a photography club and learn the techniques and perhaps use their photo lab to develop her own film. As long as she knows the craft the results will be great and she might also find it very rewarding.

If she has no interest in any of that I would suggest switching to digital photography. That is way easier and the results are readily reviewable.

  • Well, I don't have easy access to a film scanner, not even a scanner for prints. (Old scanner, no drivers available). I know film can have great result, I shoot film myself. Also I don't think the problem will be in the FILM developing. I think the film is okay and it's just the prints that are horrible. B&W film and prints I'll be developing at home myself, but I am not printing color anytime soon for sure. – Radovan Bezak Nov 5 '14 at 10:33
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    @argentus You could always try photographing the prints and negatives using a digital camera. Tape the negatives to a window for a free light box. – David Richerby Nov 5 '14 at 11:34
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Over the past 20 years, I have grown to trust a photo Printing Manufacturer called Noritsu. Their prints have never failed me, with Film and Digital, colour or BW, with perfect results at different sizes. I notice that they have web presence in Slovakia - http://www.noritsu.sk/

If there is a photo lab near where you live and they have a Noritsu Photo Processing machine, I would recommend using them, it is worthwhile investigating this. However, do make sure that you instruct them to the quality of the print you require because they can easily print at low quality!

I hope it works out for you..

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