Professional photo lab equipment

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Posted by on Jan 9, 2014 in | 131 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, 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 , 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 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.

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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.

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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 0 and is payable up front. If you do .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.

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Contax 645 + Carl Zeiss Planar T 2/80 (Fujifilm Pro 400H, overexposed by 4 stops, image by )
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.

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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, 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.

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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, 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 ). 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!



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