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The Heartbreaking Love Story of Losing a Film Lab

“We’re closing up shop,” is what they told me. Behind my face mask, my jaw dropped. And the rest of my body language communicated complete shock and heartbreak. I moved back to Queens in 2020 and 37th Ave Photo had been my local film lab since coming back. But they’re gone now, and the knowledge of the old man, his son, and their incredible work has disappeared. In over 12 years of running The Phoblographer, the ongoing love story involving film labs has surely had its share of heartbreaks.

When people want to find a film lab, they often ask friends. Every analog photographer has one they use and like. In New York City, lots of folks like CRC. I prefer Luster. A bunch of folks in North Brooklyn adore Kubus. But quality tends to change sometimes. Kubus might be great at one point of the year and awful at another while selling expired film that isn’t refrigerated. CRC might scan your black and whites and have dust all over them. Luster will do a consistently great job but they’ll be incredibly expensive. Duggal will do a great job but cost you an arm and a leg. There’s always something with film labs. But, finding the one for you is sometimes more heartbreaking than relationship-based heartbreaks.

The problem with the film lab industry in NYC is huge. Some of them send your film to another developer at times. Turnover is also pretty vast. The profit margins are slim because film is still a niche product. It’s grown over the years; Fujifilm has cited that Millenials and Gen Z use it. It’s unfortunate, as I’ve heard of some wages paid are minimum wage. I don’t think this is the case with bigger labs, but at the smaller ones, it’s part of what’s wrong with them.

This is a compound problem that I think is going to get worse. Manufacturers have raised prices, and I hope the profit will go back into developing new film that can’t be duplicated with a digital preset. But when film prices rise, people usually buy less. When people buy and shoot less film, less are developed. So the film labs get squeezed with a big problem. 

Have you ever tried scanning your film? It can be an incredibly annoying process and can take a really long time to get them right. Believe it or not, I don’t think film labs charge enough. But if prices went up, people would complain.

I’m sure some of you saying “Just shoot digital.” But no. Digital is a great experience, but film is a completely different type of ceremony. I’ll liken it to vinyl. When you’re listening to vinyl, it makes sense that you’d sit around and do nothing else but listen to the music. After a while, you’re going to need to get up and flip the record. You obviously don’t have that issue with digital music. Similarly, with film, you have to experience the ceremony of being more careful with your shots. Sure, you can do that with digital, but most people don’t. I’ve seen photographers shoot in burst mode and end up with 500 images of one look. You’re not going to do that with film. And a lot of digital photographers don’t shoot digital in the same way they do film. 

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