The Secrets of Richard Photo Lab
If you shoot film you will inevitably come across one of the most reputable photo labs in the world, Richard Photo Lab in California. They are famous for two things: having the most renowned film photographers around the globe trusting them with their work and also for having a look to their results, especially their color work, that is second to none.
One of RPL’s most well known clients is José Villa, who was one of the first wedding photographers that re-discovered film and who had a tremendously huge influence on the whole wedding industry and the general revival of film photography. His excellent eye, unique style and beautiful bright pastel color palette define the term Fine Art Wedding Photography.
Ever since I published my blog post about how to achieve José Villa’s Colors with a digital camera, I wanted to share an in-depth follow up article for fellow film photographers. I’m getting a lot of questions from people who shoot film, who use the same exposure technique, shoot the same camera and film stock and who still cannot get anything from their local lab that is halfway comparable to the work RPL delivers for their clients. Most of them are interested in one simple question:
How do they do it?
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 2 stops)
The level of curiosity about the workflow at Richard Photo Lab is legendary. This topic is fueling the rumor mills for a long time and I’ve heard a lot of interesting theories, one of them being that they have a complete post production team outsourced to India that retouches every single image before an order is released to their clients. A second rumor is that RPL is using special re-touching software that’s not available for the public market. Without wanting to disillusion anyone too quickly, I can already share that both isn’t the case.
Ever since I started working with RPL, communication has always been extremely open, kind and very helpful. I was still really surprised and very humbled when they offered for me to ask them anything about their workflow and share all their “secrets” openly on my website. I think I spent a total of three hours on the phone with Elan Cohen from RPL, who was kind enough to take the time to walk me through every little detail of their process, answer all of my questions patiently and double check the technical background with their production team if necessary.
The intention of this blog post isn’t to praise my favorite photo lab, it’s to share information that I find invaluable for every film photographer. I think shooting film can be a lot easier than shooting digital, but it requires a different skill set and a professional photo lab that you can trust. The artistic eye of the person scanning your film is as important as your own creative process. It’s also important to understand which variables affect the look of your film results, as these parameters are very different from shooting digital and independent from the lab you decide to work with.
The correct exposure is critical when shooting film and it can drastically affect your results. That’s why it’s important to be as consistent as possible and to understand how exactly your exposure affects your images. You can control the look of your images by shooting different film stocks, and each film stock will give you completely different results based on the light you’re shooting in and your exposure preference. Portra 400 can look very earthy and neutral if exposed at box speed, but it can also look warm, bright and saturated when it’s overexposed.
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 1 stop)
More exposure, for example, doesn’t make your pictures look any brighter. It makes your negatives more dense. As long as you stay within a certain range (about -2 to +6 stops with Portra 400), your results will look almost identical as most mini labs auto correct your exposure and bring it back to zero to help you even out exposure mistakes (even if they are intentional).
A film scanner usually tries to define absolute black and absolute white within each frame. If the operator doesn’t lock the exposure you won’t be able to tell the difference as long as you’re within the latitude of the film. That’s also one of the reasons why most drugstore scans don’t look good, your film will very likely be scanned with auto settings that won’t take your personal preferences into account.
The following two examples make this a bit more transparent. The first example is an exposure bracket I shot with the Contax 645 from “0” to “+4”. The image on the very left is metered at box speed and the image on the very right is overexposed by four full stops. These images are straight uncorrected scans from a Fuji Frontier SP-3000, and while they are exposed completely differently within the latitude of the film, they look almost identical in terms of brightness. What you do see is that the results show more contrast and saturation as exposure increases:
Contax 645 + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2/80 (Fujifilm Pro 400H, overexposed by 0 to 4 stops)
The results below all show the very same picture, not five different frames like the example above. These images have been density corrected from “0” to “+4” stops during scanning. This demonstrates what you would normally expect from the exposure bracket. The results look completely different even though they’re not exposed differently. The pictures also get a distinct “pastel look” from the third image onwards, which matches how I originally exposed in camera:
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 2 stops, density corrected for 0 to 4 stops)
The above example makes it clear how important it is to work with a pro lab that has experienced operators who know what they are doing and who understand you. It also makes very clear how important communication is if you build a professional relationship with your lab. I’m not a huge fan of trying to shuffle through too many different labs to find the perfect match. Results from the same lab can vary visibly based on who is scanning your results and I think it’s a much better idea to communicate your preferences, which is usually an ongoing process.
If you’re not happy with your results, be verbal and talk with your lab. Try to help them understand you better, see if they are really listening and how hard they are trying to achieve the look that you are going for. If there is room for improvement, tell them and also ask for an honest feedback about your own technical foundation. I had an instant rapport from day one working with Richard Photo Lab after I could not get consistently good results with any local lab. They made very clear that it’s their top priority to deliver the exact results I was hoping to achieve. And that’s what they did.
The very first order was already spot on perfect, I could barely believe it when I started downloading my results. For the first time ever I felt that the people working on my film know exactly what they’re doing, take the time to look at my photography, understand my style and read my negatives. It’s a myth that RPL has a preference for bright wedding photography while you need to work with a different lab if you like your results dark and moody. I don’t like bright black and whites while I like my color work bright. I also prefer my film to be scanned on a Fuji Frontier over a Noritsu. That’s just personal preference.
Hasselblad 503CW + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 2 stops)
RPL Color PAC
Just like myself, many film photographers usually have specific preferences about the choices that a photo lab makes in their image processing. A Color PAC defines these preferences and makes sure that all of your subsequent results match your preferences with every job. These preferences include the scanner you prefer, the settings you prefer for the scanning process and color adjustments based on the film stock you like to shoot. It’s designed for photographers who need to deliver consistent results that carry their personal handwriting over a very broad variety of lighting situations and locations. RPL’s Color PACs are available for anyone, not only for photographers with a big name.
PAC stands for “Personal Account Consultation” and consists of a series of conversations with Bill, RPL’s production manager, to help their team understand your vision and get your scans looking exactly how you like them. It also includes a one hour conversation with Brian, the owner of Richard Photo Lab, to discuss your business work flow, goals, etc. You will be required to submit a questionnaire, samples of work, samples of other work that you like, and a few other documents that will help RPL to get an idea of exactly the type of work you would like to see from them. It also involves a few back and forth conversations and effort on both parties to build the exact profile. The process usually takes one month to complete as long as both parties are fully committed and available to work on it. RPL only works with a small group of clients at a time on these profiles as the process requires a lot of attention to detail.
The price for the RPL Color PAC is $450 and is payable up front. If you do $5.000 worth of work with RPL within a 12 month period of starting the process, they will give you a lab credit for the full amount payed for the color PAC.
Contax 645 + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2/80 (Fujifilm Pro 400H, overexposed by 4 stops, image by Rebecca Lily)
Scanning Variation: Fuji Frontier without PAC, Fuji Frontier with José Villa’s PAC, Noritsu with José Villa’s PAC
I wondered how Richard Photo Lab realizes these Color PAC profiles technically. I knew that professional lab scanners like the Fuji Frontier offer custom scanning settings that can be saved as presets, but I could never figure out how RPL would be able to apply specific color profiles over a variety of film stock, different scanners and also different operators. I assumed that the Color PAC would be a part of a workflow that is applied after the scanning process as the Frontier and Noritsu scanners don’t run the same software. That’s not the case.
Richard Photo Lab does all of their color work within the scanning process. Surprisingly there is no post-production stage in their workflow that includes any kind of color work. RPL develops the film, scans it and delivers their results to the client. The Color PAC is not a software tool or a color preset. It’s a tangible mood board that contains printed examples of the client’s work and written notes about the color preferences and the scanner settings. This mood board helps the individual operators remember the preferences of the photographer with every job. That’s it. RPL’s secret ingredient is simply the craftsmanship of a very talented team with many years of experience in the photography industry.
Hasselblad 503CW + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 2 stops)
Scanning Variation: Fuji Frontier without PAC, Fuji Frontier with José Villa’s PAC, Noritsu with José Villa’s PAC
I don’t have a Color PAC with RPL and I don’t use anyone else’s Color PAC for my own work. All of my results are straight scans done on the Fuji Frontier SP-3000 with color and density corrections applied if necessary. I like my results to show the true film colors and carry the individual mood of every scene, which is often very different from location to location.
I feel that what helps many other photographers a lot would actually take from my own pictures. The straight scans from RPL are so consistent and predictable that I can completely trust them with my work and solely rely on being able to control the colors and the mood with my choice of film and my exposure preference.
The example below shows how much of the look of a picture can actually be controlled by the exposure. The image on the left is my result without a profile, the image on the right shows a scan with José’s profile. The main differences are that the result with the Color PAC shows more warmth and slightly lighter blacks.
I found it very interesting how much warmer José’s profile looks on my favorite film, Kodak Portra 400, while it looks perfectly balanced on his preferred film, Fuji Pro 400H. The reason is that Portra 400 is already warm, especially when overexposed. Fuji 400H has a much cooler color palette and José’s Color PAC adds warmth in the upper mid tone range, which is where Caucasian skin tones usually fall.
Hasselblad 503CW + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 2 stops)
Scanning Variation: Fuji Frontier without PAC, Fuji Frontier with José Villa’s PAC
Part of the motivation for this blog post was to share an impression of the different possible scanning variations. This topic alone would be enough for a separate write-up, but I wanted to show Frontier scans next to scans from a Noritsu and give a few examples of how both scanners look like with a Color PAC applied compared to a straight scan.
The Noritsu is probably a good choice if you start out with film or are in the process of switching over from digital. RPL offers faster turnaround times for Noritsu scans (3-5 business days vs. 8-10 business days on the Frontier) which might be relevant for someone who is used to getting instant results from digital. Files from the Noritsu also show less grain and offer a much higher resolution, which can be important for larger prints.
For me personally, the Noritsu scans look a little flatter. I love the depth, the typical glow and the texture that I get from the Frontier. I also prefer the colors from the Frontier.
Hasselblad 503CW + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 2 stops)
Scanning Variation: Fuji Frontier without PAC, Noritsu without PAC
No matter how much you tweak a digital picture, you simply cannot replicate the non-linear tonal response of film. That means digital images always look somewhat flatter and artificial in direct comparison. Film gives an image more depth, texture and the results look more pleasing and natural to the eye. These are subtle differences but they are noticeable, especially if you are used to shooting with both mediums.
As more and more post processing products are hitting the market that claim to provide perfect film emulation based on scientific results, I wanted to share a word of caution. I have invested a lot of time getting my own digital files to look more comparable with my film work (I shared some of my thoughts in a tutorial). For digital shooters who don’t have much experience shooting film this might sound very tempting, but for film photographers or people who know both mediums equally well it doesn’t really make sense.
It’s already a very bold statement to say a product looks exactly like a certain film stock. But to claim that a certain product can replicate the exact look of your film images scanned on a Noritsu or a Frontier is simply misleading from my perspective. Even the exact same film looks very different based on light and exposure as I’ve demonstrated above.
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400) vs. Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (Lightroom 4)
Film gives you a basic color palette – but the look of the final result is much more determined by the photo lab than it is by the scanner or the film stock. Also exposure, the quality of light, the colors of the environment and the gear you’re using have a huge influence on the final image. I get much different results from the Hasselblad than I get from a Contax 645, because the lenses render differently.
It’s technically impossible that a digital product would give consistently comparable results, just for the reason alone that every digital camera has its own color palette (just like each film does). A general mood can be replicated, but not a certain film stock scanned with a certain scanner. People or companies who make these claims seem to either have very little experience with how film really looks, or they are trying to take advantage of the fact that many digital shooters don’t know what an authentic result should look like. A film scan requires so much attention to detail and the results are influenced by so many different factors, that they cannot be easily replicated.
Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (Lightroom 4)
My goal for this blog post was to demonstrate how important it is to understand the technical foundation of a certain look in film photography, and also to give a detailed insight on how this look is exactly achieved in camera and by the lab. How you shoot and what gear you use is important, but it’s only half of your results unless you develop and scan your own work. The other half depends on a good photo lab.
While film fixes most color related problems if you choose the right film for the right situation, it is vital to work with a good lab that uses professional grade equipment and skilled operators. It’s important to understand that the artistic eye of the person scanning your film will become as important as your own creative eye, and therefore the operator has to be experienced and understand your vision.
Shooting film requires finding a lab that is willing to work with you on understanding your preferences, and help you to consistently get the results you are looking for. Instead of spending hours in post work with a digital image, you will have to pay someone to get your results right and also let go of part of the creative control.
Shooting film really isn’t difficult, finding a lab you can trust is. But it’s worth it to invest the effort so that nothing stands between your vision and the end result.
The team from Richard Photo Lab kindly offered to answer any questions in regards to their process, workflow and Color PAC. Please feel free to ask them anything you would like to know by leaving a comment below.
I have a Color PAC with RPL now that incorporates all of my scanning preferences. It does not change the colors of the original film and it works with all available film stocks including B&W. Feel free to use it for your own work if you like!
Shawn Hoke9. January 2014
Have always been curious about RPL. Happy that you made the plunge for the rest of us. This is a heck of an endorsement: “For the first time ever I felt that the people working on my film know exactly what they’re doing, take the time to look at my photography, understand my style and read my negatives.”
Glad you’ve found a reliable partner in your process!
Johnny9. January 2014
Thank you for your kind feedback, Shawn.
You are right, and I usually don’t say something like that every day. I’m very happy to have found a reliable lab that gives me consistent results and that is also such a pleasure to work with. It’s wonderful to just be able to shoot and trust them with taking care of the rest.
George Greenlee9. January 2014
Way off topic I know but I am curious on the way labs use MB instead of DPI and bit depth to measure scans.
For a given file size large negs must use a lower DPI than smaller negs. This is fine in that it saves having super large files but below a certain DPI it must result in a loss of resolution. Alternatively if you fix the DPI at say 2800 then smaller negs will have smaller files. Yet all labs quote file size independently of negative size.
I have never received a satisfactory answer to this question, perhaps you have a view.
Personally I tend to scan at 2800 DPI for 35mm and 120 film on my Coolscan and V750 as I do not tend to see much extra detail beyond that.
Richard Photo Lab - Elan Cohen9. January 2014
Thank you for your feedback, George.
Whenever I am checking on or talking about scans I use the pixel dimensions because this doesn’t change. I don’t think we advertise these dimensions because the Nortisu and the Frontier scanners both have different preset sizes that we cannot change, and a lot of people have problems understanding pixel dimensions. They like to talk about resolution – DPI/PPI – but PPI/DPI is a shared relationship with the document size. Without stating the document size PPI/DPI is meaningless.
Here is an example for a scan with a pixel dimension of 4997×3649:
@2800ppi the image size is 1.8″ x 1.3″
@300ppi the image size is 16.7″ x 12.1″
@72ppi the image size is 69.4″ x 50.7″
They all are the same file.
That said both the Noritsu and the Frontier leave the resolution at 72ppi. This really confuses people, so again I say always use the pixel dimension (that doesn’t change at any resolution).
Megabyte seems to be the most universal way to let someone know the size of the scan, but because we mostly scan JPEG files the compressed file size will confuse the client because it will always be smaller then what we advertise, until the file is opened in a program like Photoshop that shows the actual MB size of the file. So it can get quite confusing how to promote film scans, and that is not getting into different film sizes.
Raymond Larose9. January 2014
This was such an amazing and timely article, Johnny. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to RPL to really dig into what goes on when I send them my rolls of film (I had no idea!).
You have been an invaluable resource for me as I return to film, and my number one inspiration, not to mention the friendship that has blossomed over the last few years. I truly cherish that!
Now, I look forward to getting together to shoot, eat, drink and tap your brain!
Johnny9. January 2014
Ray, thank you so much for your kind feedback.
I’m very happy that you found this article insightful. I tried to condense many questions I got over the last couple of months in one blog post and combine them with what goes on behind the scenes in a professional photo lab.
I’m really looking forward to meeting up with you this year! :)
Jakob10. January 2014
Thanks so much for such an in depth look at this process. I am really surprised to learn how forgiving (or flattering) film is when overexposing. The color PAC does seem like a sound investment if you have the volume but you clearly show that you can control your “look” by exposure and film choice. Very interesting.
So next up is a comparison of various films? Would love to see that! :)
Johnny10. January 2014
Thanks you very much, Jakob.
Yes, film is usually very flattering when overexposed but every film responds a little different. Fuji 400H looks best between 2-3 stops over in my view, while Portra 400 looks very good across the whole range. I prefer Portra 160 at box speed because it gets very contrasty when overexposed too much.
It would be fun to show this in a separate post, thank you very much for your suggestion!
Exodes10. January 2014
Thank you for sharing the secrets of RPL. Althought I watched a clip from Youtube regarding the scanning process before, but this is truly amazing. Now I can able to grap what they meant by Color PAC when scanning.
Johnny10. January 2014
Exodes, thanks for your feedback.
I agree, it’s really interesting to learn how the Color PAC really works. I think it’s amazing how much craftsmanship is involved in the process and how little of the process is automated.
Marco10. January 2014
Thank you so much for your effort in shedding some light on film processing and lab developing! I was always confused about the similar results that I got back on differently exposed frames. It looked as if the exposure was always the same although I had 2-3 stops difference between those shots.
Mystery solved! Thank you! :)
And 4 stops exposure compensation latitude while keeping almost all image information. Try that with a digital sensor. ;)
Johnny10. January 2014
Thank you, Marco. I completely agree with you.
You could extend the exposure bracket and add another two stops and you wouldn’t be able to notice a big difference. The latitude of film is incredible, especially with medium format. That’s also a good reason to use a good pro film like Portra 400 if you’re starting out over a less expensive consumer film. It simply helps getting better results, in terms of color and in terms of exposure.
I’m happy you found the exposure bracket helpful. This is a very important foundational point that most mini labs are not aware of as I’ve learned. It can be very confusing, especially if you are used to the polar opposite with shooting digital.
Victor Bezrukov10. January 2014
Thank you very much for this informational post.
Actually I love to learn whole process and to be the only one who is responsible for the quality of the source and results.
Johnny10. January 2014
Victor, thanks for your feedback.
I’m happy you found the post interesting and I agree, there are very many interesting aspects about developing and scanning film. It’s also very helpful to understand the whole process. But developing and scanning every roll yourself can be a very time consuming process that isn’t realistic if you shoot a high volume of film professionally. It’s also impossible to get consistent results without a dedicated professional grade lab scanner like the Frontier. A flatbed scanner is not the best choice for scanning color negative film.
Dave Lam10. January 2014
What a great and very informative article Johnny, the most alarming I get out of this is how much communication and care goes into the work that RPL and yourself share.
It’s things like this which make the “film photography” continuing education, very rewarding AND fun. Many times you see photographers send their negatives in blindly, or even worse don’t try to work at all with the lab, this is such a huge mistake as you’ve clearly distinguished here.
If anyone takes anything from this article, it should be that if you *truly* care about your work, it’ll show.
Johnny10. January 2014
Thank you so much for your kind feedback, Dave.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it’s so important to care about every single step of the process and it surely does require a lot of attention. You need to identify which gear really resonates with you and which lens gives you the best results – this has nothing to do with which is the best choice technically. It’s also important which film stock you shoot and how you expose it based on the mood you would like to create. And then all of this needs to be understood by the lab and translate correctly into the final result.
All of this requires work – but it can be very rewarding if it works out. :)
Cliff10. January 2014
Johnny, thank you for such an informative post.
I have just started shooting film and have only sent the few rolls I have shot to RPL. So far I am very impressed with the scans and prints that I have received back from them, and will continue using them. I am still trying to decide which film stock to use as my main stock (Fuji 400H or Portra 400). Also, thank you for showing that you can control the look and feel of your photos based on how you expose your film.
Johnny10. January 2014
Thank you for your feedback, Cliff.
I’m really happy for you that you are working with a great lab from the very start. I wish I had done that too. It can be very frustrating if you don’t know what’s causing a problem.
Finding the right film stock is fun. I love Kodak Portra 400 and Tri-X 400, but for certain situations 400H and Portra 160 are really beautiful too. Over time you’ll start to see the differences more distinctly and it also becomes more predictable how the results will turn out with which film.
Gustavo Lucena11. January 2014
Fantastic article! Thank you.
Heath11. January 2014
I’m a Noritsu fan myself, but think you give a compelling argument for the Frontier. I suppose I’m a bit of a tweaker, and believe the Noritsu gives a better, cleaner starting point, a more ‘RAW’ file which has more in it. Then at a later date I can give the image a different look if deemed necessary.
My lab gives ‘standard’ scans with no tweaking, but I can see why if you want zero computer editing time a place like RPL and the Frontier make a lot of sense. Thank you for this article.
Johnny11. January 2014
Heath, thank you very much.
I think you’re making a very good point here and I see what you’re saying about the Noritsu. The results from the Noritsu look a little bit more balanced and neutral to me too. If you like to apply post processing or tweak your results, it’s probably the better choice to start with a straight Noritsu scan.
I enjoy color work too, but I prefer doing it with my digital files only. With film, I love to get my results back and be done. The results that RPL delivers from the Frontier are usually spot on like how I like them and don’t require any further work. I enjoy that a lot.
Tom12. January 2014
This is an awesome article… and it came at the perfect time. I just sent three rolls off to them and asked for Jose’s color PAC, just to try it out.
Johnny12. January 2014
Thank you, Tom.
I’m happy you enjoyed the blog post. Looking forward to seeing your results!
Mario12. January 2014
I really enjoyed getting introduced to RPL’s work. I have a question regarding exposure. But what exactly is density correction?
If I send a roll to RPL and told them nothing specific, would my results turn out quite like yours since you stated all your scans are straight Frontier scans? Or is density correction included?
Is the exposure bracket (almost same) like it looks on the negative or like the corrected one if I overexpose? And how do I know how much correction will be right? Do I have do get density correction if I overexpose? I like the pastel-ish tone the pictures get. The third one seems to fit nicely.
And the last one, by two stops overexposed do you mean two over plus metered for shadows or two over due to shadow metering?
Sorry for asking so many questions, your work is very inspiring.
All the best,
Johnny12. January 2014
Mario, thanks very much for your feedback and your questions.
Film negatives have a different density based on exposure (and development). Overexposed negatives are very “thick” and dark, underexposed images are very “thin” and light. This is usually corrected during the scanning process.
If you didn’t tell RPL anything specific, your images would turn out very neutral and the operator would apply density and color correction for your work based on his experience and personal preference. RPL always scans for the subject and will optimize your scans based on that. If you don’t know your preferences yet you can either just trust them or refer to someone else’s work and tell your lab that that’s how you would like your results to look like.
The exposure bracket does show the different exposure exactly how you described it, but you don’t see it in the scans unless density correction is applied properly. If you overexpose and use a mini lab, your results will not show the overexposure. If you work with a pro lab, they will look at your negatives, realize that you intended to overexpose and density correct your images accordingly.
The third image shows how I exposed in camera. Two stops over means two stops over box speed. In this case I rated the film at 200 and metered for the shadows.
Bill McCarroll12. January 2014
Great article, I think I learned more about the latitude I have in film that I never realized was there. Just getting back into film in a big way. I’m eager to experiment and see what I can do with RPL’s services. Thanks for writing this, added to my evernote account.
Johnny12. January 2014
Thanks very much, Bill.
I’m happy you found this post helpful. Film really has an amazing latitude and that makes shooting it so enjoyable. I read your thoughts about shooting film a few days ago and I found your post very interesting.
I’m sure you’ll love working with RPL! :)
Robert15. January 2014
An interesting and useful article, thanks. Now it’s time to put my (father’s) Rolleiflex and my recently acquired Zeiss Super Ikonta to work!
Johnny16. January 2014
Robert, thank you very much.
I’m very happy you enjoyed this post and found it helpful. Have fun with your Rollei and your new Zeiss!
One Year without a DSLR | Ray Larose16. January 2014
[…] have a couple rolls out to RPL right now (a place recommended by fellow film junkie, Johnny Patience) and am anxiously awaiting the scans. It’s better than Christmas when they come […]
Hernando19. January 2014
As always, you write so simple and clearly to illustrate your points. You have such a gift for it (and for capturing beautifully emotive images, too). I come back to your blog again and again to feast on your images and your words, and to get inspired.
I’ve recently returned to shooting film, glad to have been right in keeping my Nikon F-series and Olympus cameras around for no reason except love. Working with my F2A and F4 give me the same pleasure that you’ve described you get out of crafting an image with your Hasselblad. In fact, I recently acquired a very nice Mamiya 645 1000s with 80mm f/2.8, which I absolutely love!
I’ve been scanning my own film with a new Epson V600 and haven’t come near to mastering the process. I am left with too much post processing and even then, I still don’t get the colors that you do. My next step is to give RPL a try though I cannot afford to do that too often, just to compare scan outputs for myself.
Thanks for your blog and for taking the time to craft your writing the way you do. To be able to write this, so understandably and engagingly, is very rare.
Johnny19. January 2014
Thank you so much for your kind feedback, Hernando.
It makes me really happy to read that you’re getting so much inspiration out of my blog for your own photography. It’s also very encouraging to read you found this post simple and engaging. :)
I’m happy that you kept your film cameras around and are now returning to film and adding a medium format camera. I’m sure you’ll love the results, the Mamiya 645 is a beautiful camera.
I have not been able to get decent results from any flatbed scanner and I’m sure you’ll love your results from RPL as much as I do. Dedicated professional lab scanners work very differently and therefore it’s impossible to replicate this look, even with a lot of effort in post processing.
Adam Fedrau19. January 2014
Very informative article Johnny. I love the clarification. I finally understand why overexposing is not working for me! It’s my lab… I hope. :)
Just a couple questions. Does your talented wife use a Color PAC? Which scanner does she prefer?
Johnny20. January 2014
Thanks very much, Adam.
If you are metering correctly and you’re getting results that don’t match your exposure, it’s very likely your lab.
Rebecca and I have the exact same settings on the Frontier, she doesn’t use a Color PAC either. Her results look different because she exposes differently and she shoots a different camera. Rebecca also prefers Fuji 400H over Portra 400, which has a different color palette and a softer less contrasty look.
Eric Schwanke29. January 2014
Great words, Johnny!
Johnny30. January 2014
Thank you, Eric! I’m happy you enjoyed this post! :)
Andrew Areoff31. January 2014
Great post, but I can’t help thinking it must be hugely expensive shipping your films to the US from Europe and ensuring they don’t get lost in transit etc.
Johnny31. January 2014
Andrew, thanks for your feedback.
Richard Photo Lab offers $50 off on every international order above $300, this covers the shipping costs. Additionally the currency conversion makes orders in the US much more affordable.
Even if shipping was an issue, there simply is no alternative in Europe. I haven’t seen any work from a European lab that is comparable to the results RPL delivers.
Kodak Porta 800 – Roll#1 | Permundum2. February 2014
[…] Developed and scanned by Richard Photo Lab (www.richardphotolab.com). To find out more about RPL, check out Johnny Patience’s blog and detailed post: http://www.johnnypatience.com/richard-photo-lab/ […]
Andrew Areoff8. February 2014
Thank for the heads up on Richard Photo Lab, Johnny – hear with regarding currency conversion and I guess that probably mops up most of the shipping cost too if costs are the same for dev, scanning and printing in the UK.
One other thing I’d like to ask is a more philosophical one. As I ponder the return the film photography and am flicking through the hundreds of rolls of slide film I did in the past (with varying degrees of success) I am left wondering if I will end up with the same issue I did with digital photography – namely taking hundreds, even thousands of shots and virtually all of them just staying stuck in a digital form on the computer – I’m sure you’ll agree a good shot always looks best printed, whether on photographic paper or giclee.
So what is your process? Of course, when you’re doing a commercial shoot, you have to deliver the images in the way required either digitally or as prints depending on the job and the client. But what about your own personal stuff. Do you print everything, just a few select shots, is it enough for you just to add those wonder Kodak Portra film shot images to your website/blog and for them to be ever seen digitally on a screen only.
What do you do, Johnny?
Johnny10. February 2014
Thanks very much, Andrew.
I agree that photography looks best when it’s printed, but the only time when I print any of my photographs is usually for other people, not myself.
KC Chan11. February 2014
Thank you so much for this amazing post, it solved a lot of my puzzles. I can’t wait to pick up film again and to apply that to my workflow.
Johnny11. February 2014
KC, thank you very much for your kind feedback.
I’m very happy you enjoyed this post and found it helpful. I’m excited that you decided to pick up film again for yourself! :)
Andrew Areoff12. February 2014
Interesting response Johnny – the idea of not printing any of my images leaves me cold as it feels like they don’t exist if I don’t. Almost like it’s an edit of all the 1000’s of shots I’ve taken, most of which should go in the bin – but a few which I think look good and like.
Thanks for the response though, much appreciated!
Johnny12. February 2014
Andrew, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I think your practice of printing your favorite photographs is a very good one. I love having prints from other photographers too.
Eric20. February 2014
Fantastic information. I would love to get scans of this quality with my flatbed but we all know that is impossible. I’m looking forward to relying on this lab with future work. Great article by the way Johnny, I’m spending all my time rereading all your articles because it’s right up my alley.
Question! Does the lab charge more if you say you want someone’s color PAC done on your film, and is the film mailed back?
Johnny20. February 2014
Thanks very much for your feedback, Eric. I’m happy that you’re enjoying my posts! :)
I completely agree with you. Even getting this level of quality and consistency out of pro grade lab equipment requires a lot of skill and experience. Most professional labs are using the exact same equipment and cannot get results close to what RPL delivers.
Richard Photo Lab doesn’t charge more for using a PAC. You can either ask them to mail the film back to you right away or they offer to store the negatives for you over several orders.
Tim20. February 2014
Hey Johnny. Thanks to your blog posts (and others) I’ve definitely saved myself some headaches in my return to 35mm film. In trying Fuji 400, Portra 160 and Portra 400… I’ve pretty much landed on Portra 400 +2 stops, give or take.
That said, with all this talk of color, would love your advice on B&W film exposure. I’ve shot some Tri-X 400 rated at box speed… but I wonder if you can tell me what impact under/overexposing Tri-X 400 has on the final image. More vs. less contrast? Deeper blacks? More grain? Etc.
Would love a little advice. And RPL, if you have thoughts on B&W film looks, please chime in.
Thanks so much. Cheers from Boston.
Johnny21. February 2014
Tim, thanks very much.
How black and white film behaves depends on the film and how it’s developed. If you overexpose true black and white film, you usually get more contrast, less highlight detail and more grain. If you underexpose it, you get muddy blacks and no shadow and/or highlight detail.
To answer this in depth would probably require a separate blog post. There’s also a difference between C-41 B&W film and true B&W film. In general, black and white film has less latitude than color negative film (I rate Tri-X 400 at box speed too).
I’m happy you’re finding my blog posts helpful! :)
My Post-production Workflow for Film | Ray Larose24. March 2014
[…] Want to know more on what they do with my film? Read this amazing post by Johnny Patience. […]
Rockport21. April 2014
[…] Their tale tell colors and tone have been popularized by a number of different photographers, primarily in the wedding/portrait market, and they also offer a service that allows you to tailor your scan results to fit your needs. For an exhaustive look into the company and their scanning have a look here at this thorough piece by Johnny Patience. […]
Steve22. April 2014
This is the first time I have visited your blog, and I want to thank you for such a helpful post. I have sent a few rolls to RPL and I am just getting reoriented to shooting film. I really love my film cameras and the results I get from film.
I am interested in whether or not you ever use Portra 800 and, if so, if you have done a similar analysis of how it handles overexposure. It seems to me that if it handles overexposure as well as Portra 400 it could be, in some ways, the most versatile film for me. When I need higher ISO for low light work I could shoot it at 800, or with sufficient light could overexpose it 1-3 stops. Any experience with this film?
Johnny22. April 2014
Thanks very much for your kind feedback, Steve.
I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying my blog and that you’re interested to shoot more film for your own work.
I have shot Portra 800 before but I’m not overly thrilled about the color palette and therefore don’t shoot it very often. It’s also about 50% more expensive than Portra 400. While Portra 400 is extremely versatile and can be exposed from about ISO 1600 to ISO 25 in 120 (without pushing or pulling), Portra 800 seems to be a bit more touchy. I wouldn’t overexpose it more than 2-3 stops.
I feel the same about Portra 160, it really needs to be exposed properly to look pretty. I don’t like the strong contrast and the overall color palette if it’s shot too bright, so I don’t overexpose it more than 1-2 stops. But that’s just my personal preference.
I think Portra 400 is the more versatile film and personally I would shoot that over Portra 800. You can also always push Portra 400 (2-3 stops).
Kurtz Orpia1. May 2014
Thanks for the great reads, I recently bought a Mamiya 645 Pro with a 80mm f1.9. I’m fairly new to film but I’m a big fan of Jose Villa’s work and yours. I’m looking forward to making great photos, but I’m just not used to manual exposure and manual focusing.
Do you actually meter from in camera metering or you rely on the Sekonic meter? How do I overexpose my shots, do I use the exposure compensation, should I lower the box ISO rating from 400 to 200 or do I have to lower my shutter speed? Sorry, I’m very new to film.
Johnny2. May 2014
Thanks very much, Kurtz.
Manual focus and manual exposure take a bit to get used to, but neither is difficult to do once you have a bit more practice. I find medium format cameras a bit easier to focus than 35mm. The Contax 645 with the 80mm for example has really shallow depth of field, but you’re still focusing at f2.0 (vs. f1.2 or f1.4 on a 50mm with 35mm).
Manual exposure is really important with shooting film. I recommend using an external light meter. It doesn’t matter how you approach overexposure (ISO, aperture or shutter speed) – I usually rate the film at half box speed and expose for the shadows.
Tapley Johnson7. May 2014
I’ve got a question. I’ve got a few rolls that I’m about to send off to RPL (Provia 100, Ektar 100, Delta 3200 and XP2 400), and this will be my first time working with them.
In the past when I’ve mailed film off to other photo labs, I asked the photo lab not to make any corrections to the film scans. Once I received the scans I made all the corrections I wanted in PS on my own.
If you did expose at a speed different from the box speed, would you indicate this to RPL? I see there is a box on the form that states “Pull/Normal/Push”?
All of the rolls I’m about to send them were exposed at box speed, what kind of results would I expect if I asked them to over develop the the film by a stop or two? Or would you recommend developing these rolls “normal” and attempting the techniques you covered in “exposure” on the next roll?
Johnny7. May 2014
Tapley, thank you very much.
RPL processes my film as normal, without pushing or pulling. If you don’t say anything specific they will process your film as normal too and apply color and density corrections to your scans (which should ideally be done by the lab, not in PS or LR).
If you exposed at box speed, I would assume that your results will come out great. I usually shoot Portra 160 close to box speed and I prefer overexposing Portra 400 and Fuji 400H.
I wouldn’t push or pull your film unless there is a reason (for example you accidentally over- or underexposed by a mile). Just see how the results come back and then you’ll know for your next batch if you would like to expose differently.
John9. May 2014
Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I found it extremely beneficial to me!
Johnny10. May 2014
Thanks very much for your feedback, John. I’m glad you found this post helpful!
Stian15. May 2014
Thank you so much for your inspiring and educational posts. I have recently started shooting film and have not been too impressed with the results from my local lab. Your posts about exposing film and Richard Photo Lab have truly given me “faith” in film. I now have several rolls of both medium format and 35mm film on its way to RPL.
One question, do you know how large I can print the medium scans from RPL without losing any quality?
Johnny16. May 2014
Stian, thank you very much for your kind feedback.
I’m very happy to hear that you find my posts helpful. I’m sure you’ll love your results from RPL! The medium size scans can be printed up to 8×10.
David2. August 2014
This was an extremely interesting read from a primarily digital wedding shooter who is toying with the idea of shooting some film at weddings. Thank you!
Johnny3. August 2014
Thank you very much, David.
I’m glad to hear that you found this post interesting. I’m sure you would enjoy shooting film. I shot film and digital together for a long time and learned a lot from both worlds. :)
Jarrod21. August 2014
Very interesting article!
I am young so I started on digital but I occasionally shoot a little film (Pentax 67). I just bought a Fuji GSW690III and was curious what you thought of Ektar 100 or maybe Porta 160? I mostly shoot airplanes in daylight or in the evenings/mornings and occasionally landscapes so I figured it would be best to go with a film with less grain than Porta 400.
Johnny21. August 2014
Jarrod, thank you for your feedback and your question.
Your film of choice is really just personal taste. Portra 400 shows virtually no grain with medium format, especially when you overexpose it a little bit. As discussed above, I like Portra 160 too in certain situations. I’m not a huge fan of Ektar – but again, that’s just my preference.
Vadim Uvazhny19. September 2014
Johnny, this article is great! Thanks a lot for this big work!
Johnny19. September 2014
Thanks very much, Vadim. I’m happy you found it helpful!
Paul12. October 2014
Thanks for the interesting article.
I’ve just got hold of a Contax 645 and want to use Richard Photo Lab.
Regarding the photos of the Vespa, which scanner do you think gave the most accurate colour reproduction? There’s quite a variance in the scans, which is fine as far as I am concerned artistically, however, when fidelity to the colour of an object is more of an issue it would help to know which scanner is more appropriate, or is it down to the person operating the scanner?
I would very much appreciate your thoughts.
Johnny13. October 2014
Paul, thanks very much for your question.
Every film stock is color graded and therefore an artistic choice. That’s why a straight scan looks so much more pleasing in comparison to an unprocessed RAW file from a digital camera. Film is not meant to reproduce colors accurately.
The same applies to the scanner model (neither one is more accurate), the operator, color- and density correction, chemicals, method of processing, exposure, lens choice etc. – everything has a significant influence on the final result.
Larry12. December 2014
So when I overexpose by 2 stops, what does “density corrected for 0 to 4 stops” mean? Does zero mean something like set the black and white point to make a balanced scan? What’s the point of overexposing by 2 stops and density correcting for 4 stops?
Johnny13. December 2014
Thanks for your question, Larry.
With film, your in-camera exposure doesn’t automatically go hand in hand with your results. No matter how you expose your film, the scanner usually tries to auto-correct and bring your exposure down to zero with an even histogram. As opposed to digital, overexposure doesn’t make your pictures look any brighter. It makes your negatives more dense.
Overexposure and density correction can be used to control the look of your images. Overexposing +2 stops and density correcting for +3 stops would give you a very bright and airy result with a lot of saturation, a look that’s very popular among wedding photographers.
Tim Jones3. February 2015
Very informative blog entry Johnny, many thanks for posting. Although, I have a question which kind of follows on from Larry’s.
If I overexpose in camera but the lab zeroes my images during scanning can I still achieve the desired look in post. For example, would adding 2 stops of exposure to the image in Lightroom achieve the same result as if the lab were adding 2 stops of density correction during the scanning process?
Johnny5. February 2015
Tim, thank you very much for your kind feedback.
With film this should definitely be done in camera and in scanning, not in post production. If you overexpose in camera and your lab brings your exposure back to zero, just talk to them and ask them to please density correct your images accordingly. Otherwise you would have to post process your images. Film is already color graded and will give you beautiful results straight from the negative.
Benjamin17. February 2015
Thanks for the post Johnny, it’s very informative.
I found it when googling to find out whatever I did wrong with my rolls I just got scanned by RPL. They are two rolls of Portra 400 shot on a Pentax 6×7 with a 105/2.4 attached. I shot them at box speed which I realize now maybe was a mistake if I was after the look I had in mind.
My images look like the “0” picture in the exposure bracket above with the woman. But I prefer the look in “+2”, the third image of the door and the square one below of the tree. Pastel-y in just the right amounts. To get results similar to that, should I overexpose by two stops in the future AND tell RPL to density correct +2? Or have I misunderstood?
Thanks in advance.
Johnny17. February 2015
Thanks for your feedback and your question, Benjamin.
With film there are mainly two factors that determine the look of your final result, the in-camera exposure and how the film is scanned.
It’s no problem to shoot at box speed and density correct for “+2”, but it looks a lot more pleasing if the film was also overexposed (which partly compensates for the enhanced brightness with more contrast and saturation, have a look here for a more detailed write-up).
But the film stock, the surrounding colors and most importantly the light also have a huge influence on the look of your image. You won’t see a pastel color palette in a setting that doesn’t naturally contain these colors (for example Provence vs. Ireland). RPL also scans for the subject, particularly the skin tones if you shoot a portrait. All other colors will always fall in relation to that.
My best advice would be to contact RPL, reference a result that you like and see which of these factors might have been causing the problem. It might also be helpful to reference a Color PAC.
Vova19. March 2015
Hi Johnny and thanks for informational post.
I have one question, I use a Canon 9000F Mark II and a Nikon LS-8000ED and never can get the same colour tones as the Frontier or Noritsu.
Johnny20. March 2015
Vova, thanks very much for your feedback.
You are right, it’s not possible to achieve the same look without professional grade scanning equipment and skilled operators. The Fuji Frontier has a very distinct look which cannot be easily reproduced.
Richard15. April 2015
great Article, thanks for that!
I do have a (maybe silly) question (hope you didn’t answer it already above). Lets say I have loaded my Camera with Portra 400. Then I want to overexpose the film but process it correctly. Am I right that I dial in the camera ISO speed 200 instead of 400 and take also a ISO 200 reading in my light meter?
Johnny16. April 2015
Richard, thanks for your question (which wasn’t silly at all).
I recommend shooting in manual and using an external light meter only, not using both an in-camera meter and a handheld meter. You can then disregard your camera settings. Have a look here.
Jorge Gonzalez27. April 2015
first of all thank you for the time taken to write up such an informative blog post. I have been looking into using RPL and this post plus the video done about them on the Framed show has really closed the deal.
I have question on your technique when you are shooting. Do you shoot in manual and overexpose every image or do you shoot in another setting such as Aperture Priority and set the bracket to overexpose two stops? Thank You.
Johnny28. April 2015
Thanks for your kind feedback, Jorge. I’m happy to hear that!
I shoot in manual and use an external light meter. You will find more information in this blog post if you are interested.
Fabian4. May 2015
Thank you for this thorough post on Richard Photo Lab and for the numerous side-by-side examples.
I’ve been having troubles finding a good lab and getting satisfying results myself, so I might spend a little extra money and try out RPL in the future.
Johnny5. May 2015
Thanks very much for your feedback, Fabian.
I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this post. The quality and the consistency of the results that RPL delivers are unparalleled. I’m sure you’ll be very happy working with them!
Constantin7. May 2015
I sent two rolls to RPL even I am a beginner in film as you know! I just have to test their work after all the stories I heard about them… sounds too interesting and I can’t wait to get the results back. :-)
And everything is true: I really had A LOT of questions first, but I got such kind answers back, everything explained in detail, and you get this great feeling and trust that someone on the other side of the world cares about your work and will make you happy!!
I AM HAPPY even before I saw the first results! ;-)
Great article!! Thanks!
Johnny7. May 2015
Constantin, that’s so great to hear! Thank you for sharing your experience.
That’s exactly how it felt for me too. From day one working with RPL, I felt they cared about my work as much as I do and really put effort into getting every order just right.
Looking back, working with Richard was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in regards to my photography. I’ve recently met their team in the United States and they’re all really wonderful and passionate people.
Paul Langereis26. July 2015
I have been following your blog posts since I just got back into shooting film. I recently purchased a Mamiya RB 67 Pro SD, and I love it. Your posts are so positive, and your descriptions of the processes you use and share with us are awesome, and easy to understand.
I totally agree with you about outsourcing processing film and scanning. I keep reading so many mixed reviews related to flatbed scans. Do you get high res scans right away, or do you get low res scans, choose the best pics, and then have them re-scanned at high res? I am just trying to figure out the most affordable workflow that is possible.
Do you use incident readings, or reflected readings (with a spot meter)?
Keep up the great work on your blog, and thanks again for another great article, and for sharing your views and processes. Take care.
Johnny27. July 2015
Thanks so much for your comment and your question, Paul. It makes me really happy to hear that you’re enjoying my blog and shooting film yourself. :)
I usually get medium resolution scans and ask RPL to re-scan if I need to print bigger than 12×12. For everything else, the medium scans work great for me.
I wrote a blog post about metering for film a while back, have a look if you’re interested.
Crystal4. August 2015
This is a great article, I love the examples. I feel I’m going to be lost in this blog for a while. I’ve played around with film a bit in the last few years, but am ready to really make an effort to add it to my regular shooting. All of this is so overwhelming and confusing… but you’re breaking it down nicely. Thank you!
Johnny4. August 2015
Thank you, Crystal! That’s really great to hear. :)
Bo18. August 2015
Thank you for this great article, Johnny. I just recently got into film. I love the look of film and I agree it’s impossible to replicate on the digital medium. I am in NYC and I don’t know any labs that are as reputable as RPL. If I cover a wedding with film I’m rather hesitant to let just any lab handle my film. Do you or maybe Elan have any pointers? Thanks!
Johnny19. August 2015
Bo, thanks very much for your comment.
It’s great to hear that you’re getting back into film! I would assume that Elan will tell you the very same that I would suggest: just ship your film to RPL. That’s what I do from the first day I work with them and I never had a problem. :)
Christian20. August 2015
Thanks for your article.
Even though I understand what density is in regards to the processed negative I still don’t get how density correction is actually done.
Same as gamma correction using a curves layer in Photoshop? Changing exposure time by the light source in the scanning software? Choosing a black point that is not actually black but dark gray?
Johnny21. August 2015
Thank you for your question, Christian.
How density correction works depends on the scanner. Some just shine the light through the negative brighter, others do software corrections on the RAW scan. It’s comparable with changing the exposure in Lightroom with a digital RAW file.
Taylor Parker29. September 2015
Great article! Thanks for sharing!
Although I don’t shoot film, this article was very helpful for the future. I’m curious as to what the cost is like for sending your film to a lab like RPL, especially if you are a wedding photographer and have 30 something rolls of film.
Johnny30. September 2015
Thanks very much, Taylor.
RPL currently charges $21 per roll of medium format film for developing & scanning.
Andre12. November 2015
Great website and very useful information.
I just wanted to ask you in regards to scanning: do you usually request your negatives to be scanned as JPG or TIFF? I tried both to compare (scanned at 4800dpi) and I don’t see much of a difference in regards to the quality. The only huge difference is in how much disk space a TIFF takes up. I simply plan to scan, do minor adjustments in LR and print the best ones.
I would appreciate if you could give me some input on this.
Johnny14. November 2015
Andre, thanks for your question.
My scans are delivered as JPG files. I’ve never had a problem, neither with a digital file nor with a print (even if I had to make adjustments).
I usually don’t change the files I receive from RPL but I have to dust spot my B&Ws sometimes. If that’s the case I just save the new file as a PSD. That way I don’t have loss through JPG compression in case I missed a spot and need to open it again.
Jordan Amos15. May 2016
Super helpful for my photography assignment, thank you so much.
Johnny17. May 2016
I’m glad to hear that, Jordan. Thank you too!
Jismarie20. May 2016
Thank you for sharing all this amazing information, it’s so valuable for beginner film photographers like myself. I’m grateful for your time composing this post, it’s spectacular.
Thank you for sharing the wisdom. :)
Johnny21. May 2016
Thank you for your kind feedback, Jismarie. Glad you found this post helpful!
Otto Haring20. June 2016
Have you tried to compare results of pictures taken in overcast, gloomy or rainy days?
I am just wondering how the pastel colors uphold when you have strong grey and blue shadows due to weather conditions. I live in Miami and gloomy days are usually filled with grey and blues tones…
Johnny21. June 2016
Otto, thanks for your comment and your question.
You are exactly right. As mentioned above, the surrounding colors and most importantly the light have a tremendous influence on the final look of your image.
You won’t be able to post process a pastel color palette in a setting that doesn’t naturally contain these colors. But that’s not different with film either, have a look if you’re interested.
Brent21. July 2016
Hi Johnny, I’m curious what exactly your Color PAC with RPL does to an image. You mentioned that it doesn’t change the colors. I really enjoy your work and am curious what it adds to images in contrast to a straight scan. Thanks!
Johnny22. July 2016
Thank you very much for your question and your kind words, Brent.
My Color PAC incorporates all of my scanning preferences on the Fuji Frontier. This includes brightness, contrast, white balance, color temperature etc. It also makes sure the images are scanned correctly according to the subject matter (a portrait will be scanned for the skin tones, a landscape for the overall scene etc.). My preferences for color are very different to how I like my B&Ws scanned.
My Color PAC doesn’t change the original colors of the film stock. Nothing is added, subtracted or changed. This gives me the freedom to control the look of my images in camera with the exposure.
Feel free to try my PAC for your own work if you like!
Morgane10. August 2016
Thought I would write here since I have always been relying on your blog posts for any questions I might have about processing and scanning.
I’ve finally taken the plunge myself and started sending my work in to RPL. I also switched from Noritsu (my previous lab only had the one) to Frontier after pouring over countless comparisons. I have to say that I think I am happy I changed to Frontier. Overall, the slightly more contrasty and vibrant tones suit my work.
However (and I mentioned it to the lab), I have had problems on two to three images (over 35 rolls, so not a real issue) with a pinkish tint in my skies. It is especially in flat light shots (not really in snow or very white sand though).
Lab says it can be explained by significant overexposure compensated by the Frontier by that shift in magenta.
However, it mostly happened with 400H (shot overexposed by a couple of stops as usual – or so I thought -, neither pushed or pulled) and I am honestly trying to understand what went wrong and how I could ever have “badly” overexposed a shot on a film with such latitude.
Is this something you have ever encountered?
Thank you so much for your input,
Johnny10. August 2016
Thanks very much for your feedback, Morgane.
What RPL told you is correct, Fuji 400H has a lot of pink in the highlights and the Frontier definitely has a blue/magenta tint over the Noritsu being more yellow/green (one of the reasons why I don’t like the Noritsu). Both can be corrected during scanning.
But how the scans come out also heavily depends on your exposure too as that affects your tone curve and the colors, contrast and saturation of your film. Even different lighting situations will bring out different colors.
That’s why it’s invaluable to invest time in learning how a certain film stock responds to exposure in different situations and how the scanner responds to that. It’s not hard to do, but it requires a lot of practice and patience.
If you have a particular frame that you’re not happy with, feel free to send me an email and share the picture. I’d be more than happy to have a look and let you know what you could do to improve your results.
Brandon3. September 2016
Another great article, thank you.
I am getting ready to send in 3 rolls of Tri-X + HP5 and one roll of Portra 400, all 120 to RPL. I am trying to decide if I should use a PAC, like yours, or see what everything looks like as is. Do you have any comparisons with and without your PAC available? Thanks so much.
Johnny4. September 2016
Brandon, thanks for your question.
The operator at RPL will scan to their own personal preference if you don’t specify how you would like your film scanned. My scans are always straight scans without color tweaks, but they are scanned to my preference (and color and density corrected).
Jay20. September 2016
After reading your blog I realized how beautiful film photos are. And then I started trying to shoot some portraits on film. I have already done a couple of them and got them developed by another film lab (not RPL), and I found that the photos are just a bit too bright and warmer than I expected in terms of the skin tone.
I generally follow your method and exposed 2 stops over. Is this simply because the lab didn’t correct the density for me or any other reason?
As you mentioned, no matter how much the film is over-exposed as long as it’s within the film latitude brightness should not be different. Is this true only for RPL but not some other film labs? How does RPL exactly know what brightness I would like to apply to each frame especially for those photos taken in a high light contrast scene?
I sent my film to RPL last weekend for the first time and hopefully I can get some good results.
Thanks in advance!
Johnny22. September 2016
Thanks for your comment, Jay.
If your pictures are too bright and too warm, tell your lab that you would like them to scan your work a little less bright and more neutral. Ideally ask them to re-scan a roll that you are not happy with so that they see what you would like to change.
What I shared is true for all labs.
RPL has very experienced operators and they can judge your work very well, that’s what you don’t find with most other labs. You also have the option to reference the Color PAC of a photographer you like and RPL will scan your own work accordingly.
Jay25. October 2016
Thanks so much for your reply, I have been busy with weddings here in Australia.
You are right, I just got the scans back from RPL and the results are just amazing and exceeding my expectation. Can’t wait to shoot wedding with film for my clients soon.
Johnny25. October 2016
Jay, thanks for your feedback. That’s great to hear, I’m glad you’re happy with your results! :)
Bubba Jones4. January 2017
Happy New Year,
My question is about the two Vespa images. Which image is more true to the color of that Vespa? Knowing will help me chose the scanner best suited to my needs.
Johnny4. January 2017
Thanks for your question, Bubba. A happy New Year to you too! :)
The answer is neither one. The film stock is color graded and both scanners just interpret color differently based on the preferences and how you expose.
My recommendation would be to invest a little time and effort in testing and ask RPL to scan a few rolls with both scanners. This will give you a great reference for comparison based on your own work. I prefer the Fuji Frontier, but I know a lot of people that love the Noritsu (and the faster turnaround times that come with using it).
Nathan22. January 2017
I like your photos so much!
I live in France and I don’t have access to RPL, but I have access to a different European pro photo lab. The thing is that I would like to have very natural scans, with the natural look of stock films. Like you.
I don’t know what ask them to get this look. What about the color and density? You said “My scans are always straight scans without color tweaks, but they are scanned to my preference (and color and density corrected).”
Is it possible to know what do you ask for in regards to “color and density correction”?
Johnny22. January 2017
Nathan, thank you so much for your kind words.
My scanning preferences are all neutral, especially in regards to color- and white balance. Density correction isn’t a fixed scanner setting. It means adjusting the brightness of your scans based on the your exposure and is based on the eye and the experience of the operator scanning your work.
The problem with European film labs is often the lack of consistency. Some of the labs have gotten better over the past few years but they are still a million miles away from the experience that RPL puts into every job. I also often see other labs go way overboard with their color work or apply digital post processing products to take a shortcut.
I lived in Europe when I first started working with RPL and I would recommend to just send your film to Richard. The shipping will take a few more days, but RPL can hold your negatives for you and ship them back to you after a few orders. You would also be able to use my Color PAC on your own work instead of having a different lab guess how it’s done.
Fabian9. March 2017
I really had a blast reading your blog posts about metering for film and the secrets of RPL. So much useful information in there and probably the reason I opted for a film camera (again). I literally spent dozens of hours trying to fine tune my scanning on an Epson flatbed.
However, one thing led to another and I finally bought a Fuji Frontier SP-3000 for my colour work, mostly because I don’t have a proper lab nearby. Believe it or not, your article on RPL helped me a lot to achieve better scans on this lab grade machine. I’ve read your blog post a couple of times and what I initially thought of as a side note now appears to be the most essential part.
While I now think it’s true when RPL states they are not editing film scans in post, some (if not most) other labs do. The truth is, there is not much you can do on the scanner, apart from filtering colours, density correction and applying tone profiles. The scanner most often nails colours by default, thus leaving only a couple of reasonable editing choices. This is where Color PACs come into play. The actual scenery draws the line for any editing choice on the SP-3000. Period. In other words, an image taken in North America looks different than an image taken in, let’s say, Germany. That’s the way it is, the beauty of film. I learnt it the hard way, trying to compensate for natural colour casts and so on.
As I said, there are some labs that tweak every scan to your desired look, leaving you with the idea that everything can be done on the scanner – accompanied by a common misconception about density correction. Yes, it controls the amount of light shining through the negative but it only works in a few scenarios. It really got me frustrated at first, because it doesn’t behave the way one would think and by far isn’t a cure-all. Now and then a scan just turns out too flat or colourwise way off despite correct exposure. Hence, I strongly believe that in some rare occasions even RPL will tweak images in post.
So, what’s the secret of RPL? I believe it’s their customers who know what they are doing thanks to the approach of not editing film scans. Consistency is key, right?
I don’t want to go into greater detail here as you anyway described it very accurately. At least I have the feeling that some parts would benefit from a little emphasis on what really impacts the final output. I hope this little insight is helpful as well.
All the best,
Johnny9. March 2017
Thanks very much for your detailed feedback, Fabian.
You are absolutely right with most things you mentioned. I have worked with a Frontier and I know for a fact that RPL does not edit their scans. You are also right about the fact that most other labs do. That’s why so many film scans look so completely overdone now, but people often don’t realize it. I also agree with you about forcing unnatural colors into film scans that were not in the original scene.
RPL’s secret is good communication, experience and quality obsession. They diligently educate every employee before they let them scan client work, while most other labs just post process their film scans to get an acceptable result.
But even that doesn’t fix mistakes people make in camera, that’s why I try to explain the background and how exposure/density affects your scans. Everything makes a difference and you need to learn and understand your film stock if you would like to achieve a certain look and not just blindly apply a Color PAC. If you don’t understand how in-camera exposure and density correction work together, you won’t be able to get a consistent look.
This is also the reason why my Color PAC often doesn’t look like at all how I shoot – even though the film choice and the lab are the same, the exposure is not. And even the lens you shoot makes a huge difference.
The main reason most labs prefer the Noritsu over the Frontier has nothing to do with speed or colors by the way, it’s about not being able to salvage mistakes as easily on the Frontier. The Noritsu is a completely different story and it’s often the better choice when you first start out shooting film.
Thanks again, this was a really great contribution!
Angela18. September 2017
I see that you exposed only 1 stop over for the photo of the sunflower and the magazine basket, and made a note about exposing at box speed. Does that mean in reality you rated your film at ISO 400 and metered for the shadows, or rated it at ISO 200 and metered the scene normally?
If the latter is the case, my real question is which part of the scene did you take the light reading at? :)
Johnny20. September 2017
Angela, many thanks for your question.
If I state an image is overexposed by one stop, it’s always one stop over box speed. I always meter the exact same way.
In a scene like that it can happen that rating the film at half box speed and metering for the shadows (2-3 stops over) brings your shutter speed down too much.
Please have a look here, this article explains in detail how I meter and expose (the comments are really helpful too).
Angela23. October 2017
Thank you! You clarified what I wasn’t getting from the comments or the metering article. :-)
Bringing the shutter speed down too much was definitely one of my concerns.
Johnny23. October 2017
Many thanks, Angela. Glad you found it helpful!
Dan Freeman2. November 2017
Thanks for another great article, Johnny. Since I bought my Hasselblad 500C/M, I’ve been a frequent visitor to your site for inspiration and tips. Really looking forward to getting the scans back from my first rolls too.
Coming from digital, and even my 35mm with a max shutter of 1/2000th, do you struggle shooting wide open with the Zeiss 80mm in very sunny conditions? If even your meter would suggest a shutter of 1/2000th for example, I guess you would shoot at 2.8 rely on film to cope with the 3-4 stop overexposure?
Do you ever rely on ND filters, or is it just a case of just deal with it and overexpose?
Johnny3. November 2017
Many thanks for your feedback and your kind words, Dan.
I’m really happy to hear that you’re enjoying my blog and it’s great that you’re shooting a Hasselblad too! It’s definitely my favorite medium format camera ever made. I’m sure you’ll love the scans! :)
I don’t use ND filters. I just meter for the shadows and let the highlights fall where they will. I’m sharing more detailed information about my approach here if you’re interested.
Dan Pinder30. November 2017
I’ve just done a bracketed test with RPL with four 35mm film stocks and their service — and the results have been a revelation. I haven’t shot medium format, but hope to start by the new year. I’m one of these people who need to talk through everything so I think it’ll be a great match. They scanned everything with the Frontier, then took a couple of the color frames and I had them redo it on the Noritsu. What a fascinating test, as the results couldn’t be more different.
Did you find in your tests that the Frontier came out looking somewhat sharpened compared to the Noritsu scans? I found that I couldn’t really judge the two side by side (in Lightroom’s compare mode) until I’d applied about 45 of sharpening to the Noritsu scans. Once I did, the details and the texture became a bit more comparable. Like you, however, my goal is not to need to do any post processing — one of the things which led me back to film in the first place.
I also realize now that the quality of the light might be affecting my overall opinion of the test shots. Perhaps another test in brighter light, at a different time of day could help me confirm (or confuse) my convictions about which film stock/scanner I’m preferring. Thanks for taking the time to put all your thoughts down for the benefit of others.
Johnny30. November 2017
Dan, many thanks for your feedback.
Bracketing is really fun with negative film, isn’t it? In very many situations you’d be hard-pressed to see any difference at all. But testing is important to learn and find your own sweet spot. Medium format film will be revelation number two when in comes to color negative film, the gradients are just so much nicer. It’s hard to believe until you experience it yourself.
Frontier vs. Noritsu is as much a personal preference in my view as Kodak vs. Fuji. While I agree with RPL that the Noritsu has a lot of advantages over the slower and older Frontier, I don’t like the color balance and the look nearly as much. To my eye Noritu scans always have a yellow/green hue (even when white balanced correctly) vs. magenta on the Frontier. And while the resolution and dynamic range of the Noritsu is better and the Frontier is harder to get right in difficult light, I way prefer the Frontier. Noritsu scans always look somewhat plasticky to my eye. That’s why I have all of my work scanned on the Frontier.
My Frontier scans never looked too sharp, but I have a color PAC and there’s no sharpening applied to the scans. The quality of light is a big deal, film emphasizes light and the Frontier brings that out even more.
Good luck on your journey! Sounds like you’re on a good path. :)
Jamie King11. December 2017
I am an amateur shooter. I shoot Minolta 35mm, Pentax 645, and a 6×9 folder with a Zeiss 105mm lens. Currently I just drop my film off at the local drugstore. My focus seems good as well as my composition.
I am currently researching different photo labs. As of now it takes up to a month to get my 120 film back. I cannot afford to buy a Color PAC from a place like RPL. I have no plans on ever becoming a pro.
My question is, when I decide on a lab, how should I request my film to be processed? Should I just request they density correct without color correction? I presently don’t even know how my film is processed. I like to bracket my exposures. I’m not unhappy with most of my results. I’d just like to have a better idea of what is going on. I live in PA and there are some labs that are not too far from me that I am reading up on.
It’s great that you share what you know! It’s made me stop and think about what I do with my film once it’s out of the camera. Any advice?
Thanks and best wishes,
Johnny12. December 2017
Thank you for your comment and your question, Jamie.
You don’t need to buy a Color PAC from RPL in order to send your film there. I didn’t have my own PAC for a long time and just had them scan according to my preferences (density and color correction).
My Color PAC is very neutral and it doesn’t include any changes in regards to colors, just my scanning preferences in relation to how I expose. That’s usually a good starting point if you like how my work looks. If you prefer the look from someone else, you can just use their profile as a starting point. Communicate with the lab afterwards and verbalize what you liked about your scans or what you think needs to be changed. My advice would be to send a few test rolls before you send your best work to a new lab. There’s usually a learning curve on both sides.
If you decide to work with a different lab, just send them a few image examples of how you would like your work to be scanned and the end result you’re looking for. Just make sure that you take into account that most professional photographers stick to one film stock to achieve a high level of consistency. If you use someone’s Color PAC but you meter differently or prefer a different film, the results won’t look the same.
Marie11. January 2018
This is a wonderful blog – thank you for doing it.
When you make prints, 8×10 or larger, do you use your scanned file and an inkjet, or darkroom prints from the neg?
Johnny15. January 2018
Marie, many thanks for your question.
I prefer printing my work in the darkroom. But it depends on the size, I have a digital process for smaller and very large prints.