it's hard to find a lab that do optical print. Also most labs don't do digital prints on RA-4 paper any more. Most of them now are inkjet.
all the "major" labs here in LA still do the majority of their printing via Lightjet/chromira or digital minilabs that use RA-4 chems. I'm not talking about your wal-mart's or CVS's. I'm talking "PRO" labs that cater to higher-end clientele/professional photographers, but also charge a higher cost/print.
However, many of them are also offering inkjet services as a standard service. Not that its a "bad" thing, its just a personal preference on the part of the customer depending on what "look" they're going for.
Personally, MY preference is for GLOSSY paper(actually the "Pearl"(similar to Kodak's metallic) paper from Fuji is really beautiful)) exposed via lightjet/chromira.
I still make optical color proofsheets though. I gang up all my best rolls(not all, only the ones I deem suitable/worthy of a contact sheet) 1X/yr, and make proofsheets.
I drum scan color work, b/w gets optically/contact printed, and the subsequent prints get scanned if intended for web/display/etc...
Lee(OP), don't let some of these people talk you down about "hybrid" prints. When done well throughout the entire workflow(good scan, good lab, good printer/technique), the results will be vastly better than going to Wal-Mart or Costco(not that Costco's "bad", but IMO, they aren't a pro-lab by a loooooooooooong shot) for your printing needs.
Are labs now scanning and digitally printing?
Yes they are, and I can look back and confidently say it's been this way since 2002 when a noticeable drop off of traditional (colour) printing occurred. D printing is not a patch at all on the now-defunct and much lamented Ilfochrome and probably never will be, but the way we are going is the only way we have. Wise to skill-up on hybridising work to understand what is involved and assist the labs in getting the very best out of the image — and this is definitely not a job for Walmart or any other high street shop, only a pro lab. Input is either home-scan or drum scan (often at horrendous cost, proportional to Mb and print size). Output is on a bewildering array of papers from silk fibre to traditional very heavy way art media or film and the results are very, very good indeed. You think I'm easy to please? Na-da!! To dateI'm very happy with what I'm doing but I do miss Ilfochrome, but have saved a fortune in prints on it.
In Australia we have both wet and dry labs..
The most popular lab is the Fuji Frontier, which is a wet lan using RA chemistry printing on conventional color photo paper - but using a laser to print scanned negs/digital files.
It's actually funny how often I hear local photographers comment they are "traditionalists" or "go old school" as they shoot film, but they don't realise that their films are not printed optically.
I've been involved in the photographic industry for nearly 30 years, and was a lab printer for over 15 years, and have used both typoes of lab - optical and digital. Digital labs are quicker because film scanners are much better now than they were say 5 or 8 years ago. If a lab has a older scanner where each image needs to be adjusted for exposure/color etc then it would take about the same amount of time for an experienced printer to print the same film.
However there aren't many experienced printeres left, at least those that have printed color on optical labs and can read negatives. It's relativly easy to teach someone to read color on a screen and adjust color so it looks right. I can remember about 12-14 years ago it was one of the biggest selling points with labs - now that they had built in color screens (think old fashioned CRT/tv screens) anyone with basic training and average color vision (normal eyesight) could make acceptable prints quickly..
I would love to find someone who has a optical mini lab to do printing for me, as I think the prints look better, probably because the color/density/contrast rely on having good negatives.
Plus, optical labs were set up to print almost any sized neg from 110 to 120 - you could even print minox negs in a 110 carier with care...
To be honest I usually chose to get HP inkjet prints made when I get prints done - the black and whites are far better than on conventional paper, and the color is at least as good as it is from the Frontier....
The scary part of this is whether or not the future will be with "dry-labs" for consumer and professional alike. Fuji has the inkjet Frontier minlab and Kodak has their APEX.
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It'll be a sad day when all the drug stores/labs/shutterfly drop ra-4 printing all together. Fuji will no longer make the paper so chromiras, lightjets, enlargers won't have anything to eat. Then I'll be forced to buy a $4k epson that will last less than ten (realistically 5) years. I won't be able to continue this as a hobby any longer. Just check the price of a lightjet vs. Inkj*t.
I've gleamed a lot of information here on this topic and hope we can find ways to uphold our personal calling, hobby, art creation and more. I've been blessed with some insightful PM in my inbox too that have me thinking and forming up some replies.
Personally I am not looking forward to a large cash outlay for a inkjet printer of any kind. I think a crack addiction would be cheaper than all those $ 5,000 a gallon ink cartridges. Like $ 40.00 a cartridge for 1.2 ounces of black ink is not an addiction issues.
I have a conversation recently with Fuji Ireland regarding wet and dry labs. It all boils down to economics. A dry lab is cheaper to install but the comsumables are higher, the ink being the most expensive. A dry lab print can cost up to three times more to produce than cost of a wet RA4 print. So a dry lab is suitable for a low volumn operation.
If the lab has any bigger volumn then a wet lab is the way to go. I know of one lab owner who was tempted to change to a dry lab but after further research and cost evulations he decided to invest in a new wet RA4 Frontier printer. So I think the future for RA4 is safe for the moment.
When the big chain stored decided to enter the one hour lab market in the 1990's, they did so thinking that this was another money earner, which it was. But they didn't think that more knowledge and experience was needed to operate these machines. That was one of the reasons that you hear comments on the web about how poor some of their results were and poor film handling etc. The chains began to manopolise the market, driving out the smaller stores. Now that the film processing market has shrank these chain stores are now ditching their wet labs.
For the smaller operator this should lead to an increase in their portion of the market, if they can provide a good service for a good price. I have often read about $1.00 process only. In my opinion it would be uneconomical for a lab to continue at that price. I operate a minilab in Ireland and we charge Euro 4.50 process only or dev and print (4x6"/10x15cm) for 7.99. We don't rely on film processing to maintain our buisness, digital printing camera sales etc do that for us. BUT because I like and enjoy film photography and processing I try to be active in promoting film and its uses. Yes it does time and effort to train staff and have them enthusiastic about film, but it is worth it. We have seen our film sales increase, our film processing volumn increase and our second hand film camera sales take off.
I think it will come down to the survival of the fittest. Home inkjet printers havw been around for a long time and I don't think they are a threat to minilabs. Remember when Pc's first came into use, we were told we would have a paperless office? When digital cameras came in we were told that we wouldn't have to print another photo again?
I own/run/sweepup at a boutique fine art lab in NYC and have done so for almost 25years. While the business has changed a lot in that time, we still do analogue prints when that is the best working method. Mostly though the prints are done digitally as both silver halide (ra-4) and pigment prints. Analogue prints are beautiful but many people have gotten used to the control possible with the digital front end and prefer a finely crafted digital print done either on a chromira or an inkjet printer. The controls on a color enlarger are linear and the non linear aspects of color correction done digitally are sometimes needed to make the best possible print. I can go in and make color correction masks for an analogue print but the costs start to go up very quickly and will surpass the cost of a pmt drum scan and digitally exposed print. I still believe that the best print is made from a film original. I can even take a straight digital file and turn it into a neg to print analogue but this is usually saved for a case where retouching a damaged negative is needed or an original is lost and all that exists is a print to work from.
About 30% of the print work is RA4, 30% is Pigment and then the last 30% is split between gelatin, platinum, gum bichromate, salt, albumen and polyplate gravure (leaning towards the plat and silver) There are clients that for conceptual reasons still insist on a color coupler print and will for a some time to come, either because they prefer it aesthically or they have images with outstanding numbers in their print editions. Luckily we still have enough call for the color coupler print that the chemistry stays alive. If costs is an overriding issue the coupler print costs a bit less than a pigment print due to material costs and the extremely delicate nature of pigment prints. Getting and keeping the surface perfect on oversize pigment print can be challenging and can eat up paper and ink in pursuit of it......anyway, I'm rambling.
That's good to know Foc! Let's keep the RA-4 coming!
Helping to save analog photography one exposure at a time