Tag Archives: film processing

Film And Burning Man…A Match Made In Heaven

If you look at the history or say the arc of Burning Man you will find some similarity to the arc of Photography and my business in particular. In and around 1990 I began to have employees asking for extended time off around the Labor Day weekend.  These were not mere requests, they were DEMANDS.  Like, “I’m going to Burning Man Dave, if my job is here when I get back that would be great, if not so be it.”   At this point I am already 30 years old and really not interested in what I saw as rolling around in the dirt on Ecstasy. I’ve never been a naked outdoor dude as I prefer to get naked in private.  I also hate hot weather.  However, as a person who attended hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts in my early twenties, I felt some empathy ( however ignorant!) for the event.  Time off granted. Go nuts.

The amazing thing about the early years of Burning Man is that it yielded thousands of rolls of film for me to develop and print. The event quickly became our biggest photo processing time of the year.  Bags upon bags of dusty rolls of film to process and print.  All the same photos really, almost like you could give the same set of pictures out and no one would really know the difference.

As the event grew to the epic scale it is today, photography began to change over to digital and we began to get a bit nervous.  Each year more people came to the desert, but we processed less film.  I remember going to a dinner party and some guy said to me that I should sell my business because everything was now “digies.”  I sort of took this as a wake up call, and we slowly made the plunge in to the new world, upgrading our equipment to deal with these freaking “digies”  I still hate that word and the whole vernacular associated with the event, but that’s my problem.

We always kept the the film thing going because it’s just who we are at heart.  Ironically, people soon realized that digital camera sensors do not take kindly to sandstorms.  Fast forward ten years if I may, and we are in an age of retro photography where film is once again cool. The phrase “film is not dead” can be seen on t shirts, and all the hipsters use toy cameras. And it’s not just the hipsters shooting film, it’s everywhere.  I’m selling Polaroid/Impossible Project film to a new generation of Burning Man Photographers.

Lomography is the corporate arm of toy film photography, and some have said that Burning Man has on some level developed a corporate structure. I have no facts here, I can only say that it costs money to attend so there must be someone fiscally responsible.   I say it’s a perfect match (sorry)…Alternative lifestyle if you will, meets alternative photography.   I know I will see plenty of Instagrams of you Burners doin’ your thing, but hope I see plenty of dusty film canisters too, and it goes without saying that if you work at Photoworks and want to attend the festival….time off is granted.

Hope there is some film down there. microlesia.com

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Burning Man Fire Sale

It’s a tradition here at Photoworks, trying to make a few bucks off the mayhem that is Burning Man.  In the early years of the festival, we’d process thousands of rolls of film after the event.  It was glorious to see all the dust covered film canisters.  Sadly, those days are long gone.  Now it’s all digital, or as they say on the playa, “digies.”  I think that’s what they say..Anyway, I often wonder about how many fancy camera sensors get wrecked in all that dust?  Which brings me to my pitch:  Shoot film in a Holga camera.  It’s the perfect Burner camera.  Plastic, weird focus, inherently psychedelic.  Have a Red Bull, jump on your bike, and shoot the moon with a holga.

Photoworks SF Burning Man Fire Sale:  10% off any Holga Camera and a free roll of expired film (looks better)


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That’s Not My Film

“That’s not my film.”  For a photo lab, this is the most dreaded statement that a customer can make.

I’ve been in this business for 22 years.  I can safely say that I have overseen the developing of some 800,000 rolls of film.  Of those almost one million rolls, I’d say we’ve had maybe 50-75 or so rolls get damaged and sometimes ruined by machine malfunction.  We try and treat film processing like we are flying an airplane because the consequences of failure can be pretty grim.  Now and then we’ll have an operator error, or shall I say pilot error, where the technician makes a mistake.  This may cause some film to get switched to the wrong customer.  So Mr. Smith winds up with Miss Johnson’s pictures.  Ooops!  That can be embarrassing, especially if one of the parties is say “adventurous.”

There is another scenario in which we follow all of our lab protocols, but the customer insists that they have been given “someone else’s film.”  Now it can happen, but it is rare.  This is sticky because as they say, the customer is always right.  But, is it possible that the customer could be mistaken?  What if that roll of film is from a friend, or maybe you just forgot what you shot?  Could there be tequila involved?   Then you have people who take a look at their photos and realize that they are crap, and suddenly insist that, “these are not mine.”

I’m dealing with a situation now where someone went to a far away place and shot some special photos.  They insist that what they have back from me are not images from this far away place.  The problem is that I think that they are.  I sure can’t come out and say that.

The other day I went to my dry cleaner and to my surprize one of my hipster vintage shirts was missing.  In it’s place was a tuxedo shirt that I most certainly do not own.  When I questioned the proprietor, he responded by saying that, “the tags all match up Sir, are you sure this is not your shirt?”  Then I got to thinking, I was in Las Vegas for a wedding recently, and there was most defintely tequila involved……….

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My Precious Negatives


In the summer of 2000 I had a bad fire at my then home in San Francisco. Among other things, all of my photos and negatives were destroyed. I had years of images carefully organized and stored in binders. I was pretty devastated at the time, but I got over it fine.

In my busines I deal with other people’s negatives every day, and these people are very particular about how we treat their precious babies. Say if we cut your film in strips of 6 instead of 5, or if we should not have cut the film at all, there can be hell to pay, not to mention if we by accident damage your film. Nowadays we can scan so it is like a backup system. You have your original negs, but you can also have a high res digital version which I now prefer. I find it liberating to be free of all the binders and filing. Some say a print from the neg looks better, but I can’t be bothered with a darkroom.

Lately I’ve been playing around with intentionally wrecking my film with detergent, salt, boiling water and various other chemicals. I like subverting the intergrity of the negative. Yeah, that’s pretentious, but it’s also cathartic for me as a photo lab owner to destroy film. When I think about how upset someone can get if I just put the slightest nick in their negs, I have to laugh as I annihilate by Tri X like a mad scientist.

So, do you still trust me to develop your film?? Don’t worry I only experiment on myself.

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Drugstore Film Developing is Cool

Yeah I’m bitter, but this really annoys me!  There is a growing contingent of people here and mainly online via discussions who have flocked to drugstores, walgreens, costco, target, and various other crap ass discount chains to get film processed.  I get why, cause we are all penniless now.  Believe me I understand.  They charge 2.00 bucks or 02 cents, or free, I charge more.

My problem is not with people needing a more affordable situation.  I do have a problem with this dork on a certain popular photo sharing site who has devoted his life to seeking out cheap places to process film.  He has an on going thread about “keeping it affordable.”  Like he’s some super sleuth, the capped crusader of film developing because he has found that if he asks for JimBob at the Wallmart in Peoria that he will get his film developed cheap and without scratches.

Why do I hate this so much?? Because if enough people go this route, there will be no more photo labs, and when Walgreens decides they can’t make enough money developing film for .99 cents then it’s over for all of us.  I like to consider myself a high end place, so many drugstore film developers are not my customers anyway, but I do need the students and hobbyists.  So if you are looking to save a few bucks, why not take advantage of my student discount, or better yet try negotiating with me or other lab owners, maybe gather your film in bulk for a better price.  Hey if you’re really hurtin’ then you gotta go where you it’s affordable for you, but please don’t go around broadcasting the fact like you are consumer advocate out to save us, you’re just making it worse for guys like me.

dh (selfish and bitter photo lab owner)

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The History Of Photoworks Part 2

My Partners Mike and Leslie Looking the Part

My Partners Mike and Leslie Looking the Part

Halloween circa 1993. Since we are on the border of the Castro district of San Francisco, I thought it would be a fun idea to crash the big costume party. The event had become a magnet for the bridge and tunnel crowd to come and photograph all the wild and crazies. And with the locals all bringing cameras as well, the event seemed worthy of capitalizing on. I decided that we would walk the streets as vendors selling film and disposable cameras. I called my Kodak rep and said we had this event that may draw 100,000 people, and it is a few blocks from our store. He agreed to provide disposable cameras and film. I did not realize just how much film and cameras until the truck arrived with the boxes. They had fronted us around 20 grand worth of stuff to sell so the pressure was on.

On the night of the event there were 6 of us armed with ridiculous Kodak aprons and hats as we prepared to hit the streets. A few hours earlier I began to have my doubts about this task, and I soon realized this may be a big mistake. Decided to have a few drinks for fortification. When we got to the big party it was packed with Halloween revelers. No one was selling anything except weed. We looked like complete dorks. People thought I was in costume. The few folks who asked to buy something were turned off by the price. One guy gave me a 100.00 bill for a 2.99 cent roll of film. Someone dumped a dacquiri on my head. This is pre cell phone so I had little idea how my fellow salesman were doing, but I decided I’d had enough abuse and slinked back to Photoworks. When I arrived I saw all of my people had bailed out and returned to base even before I had.

TOTAL SALES: $45.00 Not exactly Apprentice material. Let’s just say that if I were project manager I’d have been “fired.”

Next day I had to call the Kodak rep and explain the bad news. The unsold merchandise was picked up at my cost, and Kodak suspended my account. This was one of our lowest moments for sure, but not as bad as my attempt to capitalize on the Sf Gay Pride  Day Parade (pre pc renaming) I’ll share that sad story another time.

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One Hour Photo R.I.P.

When I started this business way back when, we opened our doors as a One Hour Photo lab.  We had Agfa lab coats and name tags.  When people walked in the door to develop film we would say,  “How about a second set of prints today.”  When customers picked up their orders, the prints would have little stickers on them saying, “suitable for enlargement.”  One Hour Photo soon became 50 minute photo, then 39 minute photo. and finally some nut job started doing 20 minute photo.  Around this time I realized that this was a race we did not want to enter, so we took down the neon sign and redefined ourselves as a more high end developing  shop.

Back then you had Fox Photo, Wolf  Camera, Express Photo, and bunch of Mom and Pop labs too.  Almost everyone is gone now, and just the other day the last Express Photo closed on Irving St here in San Francisco.  This shop was a real neighborhood place with a loyal local following.  I do not know the details of the closure, but I do know the store will be missed.  I’ve heard the staff were very cool photo geeks and that unlike other shops they put out a nice product.

On the other side of the coin we have Ritz Camera who has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  Don’t know if they are closing their doors, I doubt it.  I do know that I have little sympathy for a cut rate outfit like Ritz.  Hey guys, maybe doing digital prints for 6 cents was a bad idea!!!!!  Thanks for low balling and driving the price down while devaluing the product for everyone else.  Now I know why you can sell cameras for cheap.  It’s because you never pay your vendors back the mountain of credit you owe.  You owe Fuji Film 8 million bucks……..I’m a Fuji paper customer, if I pay my supply bill late, they stop delivering paper and I’m screwed.

I’m sure I’m over simplifying a complicated financial matter.  As a result of these developments, we have picked up a few displaced customers which is fine.  I hope I can help the Express Photo customer out, but if anyone rolls in here asking for 6 cents prints, I’ll throw them out, or refer them to Costco.  Don’t get me started on Costco…….


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Developing Character

Let me start by giving credit to Cynthia Wood for this photo.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/cynnersf/ and coming soon http://www.cynthiawoodphoto.com

I’ve been looking for inspiration for the first post of 2009.  I was going to talk about new year’s resolutions, and make a joke about dpi and the word “resolution,” but I realize that it’s not very funny.  At the of the day, no matter how hard I may try, I’m still a film guy at heart.  This is a dangerous thing to wear on your sleeve if you own a photo lab in 2009.  We’ll call it not against the grain, but with the grain, if you will.  Photoworks will always be a full service lab which means everything digital, but what we do best is print film.  It may or may not be bad business, but we’ll go on trying to keep this art form alive and well.

Going forward, I’ll be calling digital photography “electronic capture” because that is what it is to me, a moment frozen in time, except that the time is undefined.  Whereas a film image, or positive derived from a negative is more than a moment, it’s process and evolution, imperfect yet flawless……   So now that I’ve filled my pretentiousness quota for the whole year, let me just say Happy New Year.  I hope you all take a ton of photos this year, I hope you make prints because a computer is not a photo album.  And I hope we can debate the merits of both types of photography.  I’m around and ready to share my thoughts.



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Economic Photo Stimulus Package

Our President GWB in his infinite wisdom has decided to send the poor working citizens of this country checks in the amount of $600.00, $900.00 if you have a kid. It’s called the Economic Stimulus Package, and whether or not it’s a dumb idea can be discussed on a political blog. GWB says we should SPEND the money, but he doesn’t say how, so I have some suggestions. I would not buy a flat screen TV from Best Buy because Best Buy doesn’t need the money, and you’ll be buying something imported anyway which doesn’t help the good ‘ol USA economy much.

I know of a certain San francisco Photo Lab where you can blow some of that dough. How about a nice canvas print or a watercolor print of your favorite photos? There’s lots to buy at Photoworks: Holgas(import, but a cool country), film processing, prints, etc…

I would at least consider a new camera to take some great fresh pictures to bring to said Photo lab for developing. Am I making my point? Am I selfish to want your Stimulus checks? Hey, I don’t want it all, just some, and then I can go down to Best Buy and get a flat screen TV!

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