SteveFE 10:48am, 5 December 2007
Minilabs, cross-processing and scanning to CD.

For anybody who's confused by the many threads and discussions about what's possible and what isn't, why their slide films are refused by C41 processors, here's some insider info (for which I hope I don't get into trouble, but I don't see why I should as all this info is available on Fujifilm's corporate website).

First off, some background: I work in a Fuji Frontier based minilab. Everything about Frontier systems has been designed to make the process as automated and the results as consistent as possible, with minimal operator intervention, meaning that a complete newbie can be trained to run the system in about a day or two. They're now also designed to provide a neat interface between digital kiosks and traditional film processing services (prints from negs and reprints from prints), allowing the two processes to run side-by-side, feeding the same Frontier laser exposure print unit.

As I understand it, Fuji's major profit base is in producing as many prints (therefore selling as much Crystal Archive paper and chemistry to the retailer) as possible. So it's understandable that during training, employees are told to ignore oddball requests and anything "difficult" or likely to go wrong and give Fujifilm a bad name.

All that said, any minilab that tells you "we cannot/will not do cross-process" is either misinformed, can't be bothered or is just plain lying. Either try to educate them or take your custom elsewhere.

"E6 films damage the C41 chemistry": essentially false. I've had this rebuttal direct from the horse's mouth (Fuji training guy) and from lots of anecdotal reading, and from doing a roll of my own Kodak Elite Chrome 400 in the C41 chemistry then running a test strip afterwards (OK, to be truthful a slightly paranoid coworker did the test strip after attempting to bollock me for doing the forbidden and putting E6 film in the developer ;) Needless to say, the strip was perfect. Now a whole bunch of E6 films one after the other could possibly affect the chemistry, so if you can find a lab to do it for you, don't abuse the privilege. If you put say 20 rolls through in succession and the C41 DOES get messed up, that's the end of X-pro for that lab; they'll never touch it again. Chemicals are expensive enough for nobody to want to waste them. But the odd roll of E6 (and it will be only the odd roll as only anoraks like us know the beauty of X-pro) will not harm the chemistry.

By the way, don't bother asking them to process standard b/w film. That does damage the chemistry in pretty short order. Stick to CN (C41 process) b/w films or process your own.

"We can only process 135 film, not 120": well the equipment at my lab can process 120 film. Fuji supplied a 120 cartridge for the neg processor and one of the processing lanes (it'll do two films side-by-side) is wide enough to take 120. So it can be processed, but it's more fiddly as the cartridge has to be loaded in a dark tent unlike 135 which can be taped onto the leader card in daylight.

The real problem with 120 is that the Frontier tranny scanner we have will only take 135. The other part of the scanning equipment is an Epson 4990 which is mainly used for print-from-print (via the easy-to-use but rather blunt tool Frontier DIC interface), and while that comes with film carriers and can theoretically scan 120, it's so time-consuming that most minilabs aren't going to do it. You'd actually have to get outside of the Frontier software and run Photoshop or Epson's scanner software on the same printserver PC to do it, and it would require a fair degree of user skill to get good scans. So, 120 is possible but it's highly unlikely you'll get anybody to do it. Use a pro lab or get a job in the minilab yourself and do it after hours!

Scanning quality: most minilabs have a reputation for producing crappy quality low-res scans to CD from your negs. Why? The slide scanner costs about 4 times the price of a good quality home slide scanner.

The answer's in the workflow again, and certain assumptions that are made about the needs of the majority of customers (namely, that Joe Average punter only wants small JPGs that he can watch in a slideshow or email to his family). The slide scanner is a very fast unit with what's essentially a high-resolution DSLR sensor in the imaging unit. This is why it can scan a 36 exposure roll in about two minutes and produce excellent quality 8x12" 300 dpi prints from those scans. Do the maths and you'll see that the scans must be a minimum of 2400 x 3600 pixels, so why don't you get these on your CD? Well you can, if you put your foot down and demand it (politely of course ;) The trick is to know what to ask for in very specific terms. In Fuji Frontier labs, there are several export options for scanned files to CD, and the default one is Fuji FDi, which gives reasonable res scans in various sizes and some browser and slideshow software. But the one you want, and which you'll have to cajole out of the minilab staff because they may never have done it (because Fuji trainers tell them nobody will ever ask for it or know what to do with it) is free export JPG at highest quality. This will get you a CD with only the one size of JPGs, no other rubbish, at the maximum res of 2240 x 3360 pixels. Now they may want to charge you a bit more for this, so be nice and pay up as it does take a bit longer (although nothing like the nightmare scenario of tying the printserver PC up all afternoon like I was told during training; it generally takes a few minutes longer is all). It's worth it. The scans are sharp and detailed enough to reveal the grain in the film and have an excellent density range. Remember to ask the staff to turn off all the automatic image "enhancement" options while scanning, as these are blunt tools to fix crappy shots from disposables where granny forgot to turn the flash on, and your film is immaculately exposed, right? :-)

So, assuming you can get what you want armed with this information, what can you expect? Well, from my lab which has an LP500 printer, and starting with well-exposed Kodak Elite Chrome film (which works very nicely in the Fuji chemistry), you can theoretically get 36 beautiful, sharp, rich-toned, warm and colourful 8x12s plus a CD of very high quality scans, all in one hour.

Just don't come in and ask for it on a Saturday lunchtime ;)
Erroll Ozgencil 11 years ago
Thanks for giving us a look "behind the curtain."

There something I've been wondering about that you might know the answer to. When I use Sam's Club send out service, it's developed by a Fuji lab. I have the option of "standard" or "premium" service. One difference is that the negatives are sleeved in the premium service. I'm told that sleeving is done by the machine and that the negatives are untouched by human hands until after they've been sleeved. This is a big plus, I think, but I've always wondered if it was really true.

The negatives I get back aren't in conventional sleeves, but are covered on both sides with plastic strips that I can remove and (carefully) reapply. It looks like they cling almost like plastic wrap does. I've never seen this sort of treatment anywhere else, and I've never heard of "automatic sleeving" anywhere else. Do you know anything about this?
SteveFE 11 years ago
I haven't come across that. We do use a sleeving machine which is pretty accurate but human hands (in cotton gloves) are involved from the time the negs come out of the processor, through scanning on the roll, then feeding into the sleever. No plastic strips in our place. I'm pretty confident that with careful handling scratches aren't an issue though.
photosam 11 years ago
Great article!
courageous trees [deleted] 11 years ago
I worked in a lab, but used the Noritsu and Kodak paper. Your article is exactly how it is. I was a photography student at the time, so i would try anything with that machine: xpro, 120, special work w/ PS. Doing this for customers brought the corporation many repeat customers and in the end got us a huge Epson inkjet printer.
Know the limits of the machine you work on and push them. Don't ever take just one answer.
Brian Hudson 11 years ago
Thanks for posting this, Steve. I have a question about the process though. Does the Frontier machine normally do any auto adjustments or does the operator normally adjust images for what looks like bad exposure/color? I had a few digital prints come back from a local minilab with color inconsistencies among prints of the same image, and about a stop darker than the file I gave them.

It's been a while since I used a 1-hour lab (usually use MPix or my own printer) so I'm not sure if this is what I should normally expect.
SteveFE Posted 11 years ago. Edited by SteveFE (member) 11 years ago
You mean digital files? Ours handles digital files via customer-operated kiosks, and there are a couple of auto-levels type tools on those, which can easily be bypassed to render your files pretty much as you supplied them. We have no input on digital files (although we can print direct from file, bypassing the kiosks, but that's rarely ever done).

For film, the default is to apply an auto levels type correction (which is why badly underexposed shots will come back as lightened and very grainy prints), and that is only switched off at the operator's discretion. There are also frame-by-frame previews with blunt colour tone and brightness adjustments, usually used to back off on slightly overexposed shots. All this is useful enough for rescuing throwaway camera shots where the exposure's all over the place, but not that helpful for "real" camera work.

I'd always suggest attempting to communicate what you want or don't want in terms of adjustments.
Brian Hudson 11 years ago
@Steve: Gotcha. Yes, I ordered prints from pics on a CF card. I guess what got me intrigued was that two prints from the same file had different color skies--subtle, but one was noticeably warmer than the other.

Thanks for the info...good thing to keep in mind. I guess asking for the auto adjustments to be turned off is a valuable piece of knowledge for anyone still learning to shoot on film who's using a minilab!
epatsellis 9 years ago
we have an SP2000 at the studio with a Frontier, the 2000 can scan 6x4.5, 6x6 and 6x7 negs as well. For basic, run of the mill scans, it's quite good and tends to be better than what I get from the typical minilab.
Fotaki Posted 9 years ago. Edited by Fotaki (member) 9 years ago
Speaking from the manufacturers viewpoint - when I worked for Kodak ?? years ago - many minilabs used to delay any 'mixed film' processing until either at the end of a day's run or to just before when a chemical re-mix was imminent. It is true that E-6 film can affect a good C-41 process quite quickly but it does depend on 'volume'.

The problem was (and still is) that dye-couplers in reversal films tend to leach out and build up in the developer. This will start to show itself as a drop in chemical activity and a increased fog/stain on subsequent neg films processed. There used to be a 'formula' for calculating extra Dev Replenisher to somewhat compensate for this. Still most Labs didn't like doing it.

Of course, this is mostly all academic now as the volume of mixed film processing is relatively tiny now and most minilabs take a broader view but I believe Pro. Labs still use such practice.

On the other point about printing. Minilabs are concerned with high volume - that's their profit area. Pro Labs will obviously take a different attitude. Like in the 'old days', they will spend extra time in setting up a printer to optimise everything. Also, they may routinely correct for subtle differences in exposure and colour balance. But of course, that all comes at a price.
Sovay83 5 years ago
I usually go to a lab that works with a Noritsu Koki QSS-32_33.
The scans I get look saturated and with too much contrast. What are they doing wrong?
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