The Secrets of Richard Photo Lab

Posted by on Jan 9, 2014 in Tutorial | 63 Comments
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?

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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.

Exposure
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.

7029
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 Exposure Braket
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:

Density Correction
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400, overexposed by 2 stops, density corrected for 0 to 4 stops)

Communication
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.

0207
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.

8415
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.

9506
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

Scanning variations
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.

0110
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.

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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

Digital emulation
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.

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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.

2013
Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (Lightroom 4)

Conclusion
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.

Questions
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.
 
 
Update, 21.03.2014
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!

63 Comments

  1. Shawn Hoke
    9. 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!

    Shawn

  2. Johnny
    9. 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.

  3. George Greenlee
    9. 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.

  4. Richard Photo Lab - Elan Cohen
    9. 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.

  5. Raymond Larose
    9. 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!

  6. Johnny
    9. 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! :)

  7. Jakob
    10. 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! :)

  8. Johnny
    10. 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!

  9. Exodes
    10. 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.

  10. Johnny
    10. 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.

  11. Marco
    10. 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. ;)

  12. Johnny
    10. 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.

  13. Victor Bezrukov
    10. 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.

  14. Johnny
    10. 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.

  15. Dave Lam
    10. 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.

  16. Johnny
    10. 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. :)

  17. Cliff
    10. 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.

  18. Johnny
    10. 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.

  19. Gustavo Lucena
    11. January 2014

    Fantastic article! Thank you.

  20. Heath
    11. January 2014

    Excellent post.

    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.

  21. Johnny
    11. 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.

  22. Tom
    12. 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.

    Thanks.

  23. Johnny
    12. January 2014

    Thank you, Tom.

    I’m happy you enjoyed the blog post. Looking forward to seeing your results!

  24. Mario
    12. 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,

    Mario

  25. Johnny
    12. 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.

  26. Bill McCarroll
    12. 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.

  27. Johnny
    12. 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! :)

  28. Robert
    15. 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!

  29. Johnny
    16. 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!

  30. One Year without a DSLR | Ray Larose
    16. 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 […]

  31. Hernando
    19. 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.

  32. Johnny
    19. 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.

  33. Adam Fedrau
    19. 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?

    Adam

  34. Johnny
    20. 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.

  35. Eric Schwanke
    29. January 2014

    Great words, Johnny!

  36. Johnny
    30. January 2014

    Thank you, Eric! I’m happy you enjoyed this post! :)

  37. Andrew Areoff
    31. 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.

  38. Johnny
    31. 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.

  39. Kodak Porta 800 – Roll#1 | Permundum
    2. 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/ […]

  40. Andrew Areoff
    8. 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?

  41. Johnny
    10. 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.

  42. KC Chan
    11. 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.

  43. Johnny
    11. 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! :)

  44. Andrew Areoff
    12. 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!

  45. Johnny
    12. 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.

  46. Eric
    20. 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?

  47. Johnny
    20. 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.

  48. Tim
    20. 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.

  49. Johnny
    21. 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! :)

  50. My Post-production Workflow for Film | Ray Larose
    24. March 2014

    […] Want to know more on what they do with my film? Read this amazing post by Johnny Patience. […]

  51. Rockport
    21. 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. […]

  52. Steve
    22. April 2014

    Johnny,

    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?

    Thanks!

  53. Johnny
    22. 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).

  54. Kurtz Orpia
    1. May 2014

    Hey Johnny,

    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.

  55. Johnny
    2. 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.

  56. Tapley Johnson
    7. May 2014

    Johnny,

    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?

  57. Johnny
    7. 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.

  58. John
    9. May 2014

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I found it extremely beneficial to me!

  59. Johnny
    10. May 2014

    Thanks very much for your feedback, John. I’m glad you found this post helpful!

  60. Stian
    15. May 2014

    Hi Johnny!

    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?

  61. Johnny
    16. 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.

  62. David
    2. 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!

  63. Johnny
    3. 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. :)

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