A Behind-the-Scenes Look At How 35mm Film is Developed and Printed at a Lab


If you have your 35mm film processed and printed at your local lab, have you ever wondered how it’s done? In this post, I’ll take you on a behind-the-scenes tour on the entire process.

To start, get your favourite old camera out. You know, that camera you found at an op shop or garage sale. The one that says Lomo on the side or Leica on the top?

Either way, it’s still around and you might as well put it to some use. Load your favourite film, and spend the morning or afternoon out photographing your favourite subject.

Once you have finished your shoot, the satisfying sound of the rewinding film should be music to your ears. With a smile, head into your local film lab to get your marvellous shots processed. At this point you should be smiling as you have captured images on the original camera sensor – film! ….and nothing beats the original, right?


So now your film has been dropped off. You can continue on your journey while the staff at the film lab go ahead and turn your art into memories. Your little favourite film’s journey is just about to begin.


The next part of this story is what happens when you leave. Enter the lab technician, in this case Derek from Fremantle Camera House.

The first step the lab technician will do is retrieve the end of the film out of the exposed canister using a film picker. This can sometimes be one of the hardest steps as some old cameras tend to bend the end of the film back on itself when rewinding.

At this point the film is still remains light sensitive so it’s not like the canister can be opened in daylight to overcome this bent film problem. The portable dark box was created for this very problem.

If the technician can’t get the end of the film out by using the film picker or special lab tape then the film is put in the dark box and the canister is opened by force to be rolled manually into a temporary 35mm canister. However, as you can see below, Derek had no trouble using the film picker.




Once the end has been removed the film canister is placed in a special holder which allows the end of the film to be cut square.


Once cut, the film is stuck to a leader card using special tape which won’t peel off during the developing process. As you can see in the below picture the leader card is made from a flexible transparent plastic.

Two films can be stuck to the outer sides of the leader card. It is important to apply tape to the both sides of the film and leader card to ensure no film falls off in the developing process. The leader card features small rectangle holes located down it’s centre. The holes catch onto sprockets which guide the leader card and film through the processing machine.


It’s very important that one customer’s films aren’t mixed with another customer’s. To stop this from happening a unique serial number called a twin check is stuck to the customer’s order and the corresponding film. The numbers can then be matched once the film has exited the processing machine.



Now the film is Ready for Processing.


The leader card is inserted centrally and the machine automatically moves the leader card forward. You can see here Derek has his hands under the film to stop them falling down and exposing the film to light.

At this point the door of the machine is open. Once the leader card is level with the horizontal silver metal plate the door can be shut and locked which will then make the machine light tight.


One of the scariest things that could happen at this point for any film lab is a power blackout. It’s happened to me countless times. During a power black out the machine shuts down and the undeveloped film gets stuck in one of the tanks/baths.

Fortunately, this Fujifilm machine has a manual crank winder on the side. So if a power blackout were to happen, all the technician would have to do is slowly wind the crank for the film to continue on its journey through the processor.


I should have mentioned this at the start… It is imperative that a well maintained photo lab run control strips at the start of every day or second day if they are a busy lab. This is VERY important. Once the control strip has been developed, it is measured by a densitometer. The results from the densitometer are then used to calibrate the the machines, ensuring that colour levels and chemistry are correct.


By now the film has well and truly entered the processing machine. The film will undergo a transformation from undeveloped to developed through a series of processing tanks (baths) found inside the machine (the inside of the processing machine is shown below).

The process is called a C-41 process. The steps the film will undergo as it travels through the machine are described below:

Process 1: Developer – The developer produces a silver image in the film emulsion layers from the latent image produced when the film is exposed. At the same time, the developer – which is locally oxidised by this reaction – combines with couplers incorporated in the emulsion and produces colour dyes. The quantity of dye produced is proportional to the amount of silver image produced.

Process 2: Bleaching – This bath converts the metallic silver image formed during development back into silver halide in order to make it possible for the fixer to remove the silver from the emulsion.

Process 3: Fixing – The fixer dissolves the bleached silver image and the unexposed and therefore undeveloped silver halide originally present in the film emulsion, which can then be washed out by the wash.

Process 4 and 5: Washing – A water wash as commonly found in larger processors, works by removing all processing chemicals and by-products from the film emulsion. Correct wash water rate and temperature are critical for long term dye stability.

Process 6: Stabilising – This contains a wetting agent and and other propriety chemicals featuring uniform drying of the film and long term stability.

Process 7: Drying – The film is heated to remove any water.


Once the film has finished going through the C-41 process, the technician then cuts the film off the leader cut and hangs them on a stand often referred to as a tree. The film is placed on the tree in time due order.




Once the lab technician has balanced a sample roll of photo paper (called a paper control strip) through the densitometer, then scanning and printing the roll of developed film can go ahead.


A roll of 6″ matte photo paper is loaded into the black paper cartridge. The light sensitive cartridge slides into the side of the Fujifilm Frontier 340 ready for printing.

Back when I worked for Fujifilm, a funny story happened (funny for me not the workers). A store (which will remain nameless) had a new warehouse worker. One day about 30 rolls of 6″ light-sensitive paper arrived in the store’s warehouse.

The new worker approached the photo lab and told the staff some boxes had arrived for them. The staff in the lab were terribly busy and asked the warehouse worker to bring the paper to them as they didn’t have a spare second to retrieve them.

Being keen to lend a hand the warehouse worker arrived with a full trolley of 30 rolls of paper. I was told the look on the lab managers face was priceless. You see, what had happened was the warehouse worker had keenly removed the paper from the boxes.

This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but the worker went a little too far: he had removed the paper from the light sensitive bags, therefore exposing the 30 odd rolls of paper to light, making them exposed and unusable. It cost the store approximately another $6000 to replace the paper. To this day I still laugh, though I really shouldn’t!


The developed film then goes through the 35mm scanning mask on the Fujifilm Frontier which then turns the negatives into positives.


Once the film has been scanned at a high-resolution, the negatives will show as colour positives on a screen (good photo labs will use a calibrated screen to ensure the colour and exposure are correct).

It is at this point a good lab technician adjusts each picture using a unique keyboard. Different amounts of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow can be added or subtracted to each photo to ensure colour is correct. Adjustments are also made for exposure to each individual photo. Printing from negatives is a skill, which is why you should always ensure the lab technician you use is highly trained in this area.



The roll of film photographed in this story ended up being developed, scanned and burned to CD.

So now you know the life of a roll of film, from being shot to being printed. The process does take some time to master for the new worker and if procedures aren’t followed things can go terribly wrong. In my time I have heard of some disasters with some labs losing film, negatives being incorrectly cut, or, even worse, films going to the wrong people.

I suppose as time flies by film is becoming a niche market. Photographic stores like Fremantle Camera House have been in the same location for over 50 years (not under the same business name) and are happy to print from a variety of film types. I am glad a store like this one still exists.

It is so nice to see a teenager holding a film camera and wanting to buy film. After all, isn’t that were photography started?

Imagine a world without film. There is something about film which digital can’t reproduce. Hey, I’ve tried — it’s just not the same. So to all the film users out there, I salute you. You are the photographers, the snappers, the image makers and the niche – keep up the great work.


Thanks to Blair Gauld for letting me use your film for this story. As you can see that the film above also included an index print, which is great for knowing which images are on the CD.

Thanks also to Fremantle Camera House and Derek (great lab technician and film buff) for letting me photograph this story. If you have 35mm, 120, 110, E-6 or C41 film that needs to be developed, printed or scanned then contact Fremantle Camera House to see how they can help.

About the author: Leigh Diprose is a photographer based in Perth, Western Australia. Visit his website here. This article was originally published here.

  • wut

    i wish other camerahouse stores wouldnt outsource their processing =[ cough*castletowers*cough

  • wez

    You missed out the bit where they drop it on the floor, or roll it round their fingers before slipping it into the envelopes

  • Joakim

    Now I want one on E-6.

  • Nicolae Mihai

    Very dirty this lab!

  • Alex

    Wow, the first lab I ever worked at had that exact same setup, Fujifilm SLP1000se/Frontier 430 and it was also at a chain store called Camera House (no relation to this one). even remember the cruddy rubber mat that was never flat on the top of it!

    Hell, I even remember that old urban legend story about the newbie who opened 30 bags of paper and ruined the lot. I’m sure this has done the rounds at every photo lab in the world for decades!

  • Jaco Maree

    very few places still do E-6 processing here in the UK… developing my own E-6 film at home now….

  • Joseph Bayot

    Thanks for this! I’ve always wondered how photo labs work.

  • Bilbo

    So Sauron knows how to develop film

  • Antonio Francisco Melão

    miss this days

  • Leigh Diprose

    I’m glad you enjoyed the it of insight I could offer.

  • Leigh Diprose


  • Leigh Diprose

    I’m sure your right about all labs experiencing the same thing. Good to hear you also worked in a lab. The other story I forgot to mention was all the customers coming into various labs with rectangular photos wanting the staff to somehow fit the photo into a square frame without losing any of the photo or image proportion. Impossible! Some people just don’t get shapes and sizes!

  • Leigh Diprose

    I forgot to clean the paper magazine in the photo! Well spotted.

  • Leigh Diprose

    That’s the worst! Fortunately I haven’t had that happen to me because I don’t shoot film ;) I have seen some horrid practices in labs when I used to work for though. This lab is one of the good ones that actually looks after film – a rarerty in today’s world.

  • Mansgame

    Just reminds me of why I hate film so much and how much better digital is :)

  • Huh

    And why might that be?

  • 3ric15

    Thanks for posting, good read.

  • Arnalpix

    Sure beats the way I used to have to do it. My first job at the lab (circa 1978) was sitting in a totally dark room, opening the cartridges (or medium film rolls) and taping them together using cinematic splicing tape (and afixing those little “twin check numbers”) as I wound them onto reels. Then the reels (still in total darkness) were fed into baths of the various chemicals and only saw light at the very end of the process. Similarly when I “graduated” from sitting for 8 hours in total darkness, I was on an enlarger setup where I would have to be able to evaluate the filter pack and exposure adjustment (by eye) and expose and send the print on a huge roll through the chemistry. It was only truly light when the final prints were evaluated and packaged. Daylight processors (as pictured) made the entire business a lot more friendly.

  • Johnny G

    Because there is no middle man and you don’t have to pay for Film and Processing and worry about damaging the original Negative. The positives out weigh the negatives on shooting digital versus film. The are many apps that will allow you to add film grain if you so desire.

  • Huh

    All good and true points, though I still can’t stand when people “hate” film. It just doesn’t seem fair to me to hate something that has literally no effect on your life whatsoever if you don’t want it to – it just shows a lot of displaced anger. I love digital and film both, the way I love steak and Skittles, both for different reasons in different ways.

    Besides, film has many positives, as its legions of devotees will tell you to this day. There’s fun in the unpredictability, it forces you to try harder and think more about each shot than spray-and-pray digital, and older cameras are just cool in an intangible way, like a well-worn old coat. Also, haven’t you ever heard of a memory card or a hard drive failure occur before you can back up your pictures elsewhere? I’ve had dud memory cards that lost far more than the 36 exposures a damaged negative roll would ruin. Digital cameras are also a lot more temperamental and hard to fix than many analogues.

  • Syuaip

    thanks for posting. Still shoot with film and have them processed as on this article. The result from each roll is a CDROM containing around 36 6kx4k pixels grainy JPG files. Love them.

  • Kodachrome64

    This ring cannot be destroyed, Bilbo, son of Belladonna, by any craft that we here possess. This ring was made in a knockoff factory. Only there can it be unmade. The ring must be taken deep into Taiwan and cast back
    into the fiery pot metal furnace from whence it came. One of you must do this.

  • fast eddie

    I had to go back through the photos to get this, but…bravo!

  • Mauricio Andres Ramirez Lozada

    I do know about a girl who bought some paper for class, she was supposed to get 6 sheets, and because in colombia you trust no one, she opened the bag to check if there were actually 6 sheets of paper inside. needless to say she got a pretty nice malevich.

  • lidocaineus

    If you learned to appreciate film techniques, processing, and development, you’d understand a lot of where digital concepts come from (almost all the Photoshop/Lightroom/Aperture controls have direct correlation to darkroom methods), thus improving your current techniques and practices. Of course your posting history is basically one long troll, so I’m not sure why I even bother.

  • Allen Arrick

    I worked in a lab with this same setup and it brings back tons of memories. The worst was when a new employee first started and ran a roll through the machine without taping both sides of the roll to the leader. The film was pealed off the leader and got stuck in the developer. Guess who had to deal with the customer.

  • Allen Arrick

    Changing out the rolls of paper was never fun in the dark. Those rolls are freaking heavy.

  • Sharon

    Yep, looks a lot like how I spend my days. I twin check film immediately after pulling the tongue though, even before cutting and taping. I’ve never had a film/bag mixup (knock on wood!)
    Why is he holding so far down on the film without a glove?!?! I sometimes cut it from the leader without gloves on, but ONLY holding it by the twin check/exposed area. Anywhere else will lead to fingerprints on the film.
    What’s with the orange around the fix? My fix tank is the one that gets the most buildup too but it’s never that color and not as thick as that looks. Is it maybe a difference in the water supply causing different buildup?

  • tiredofit123

    Several of your points are good, but largely out of date.

    The problem isn’t film, it’s the cost and hassle of developing and processing it.

    Unpredictability is only good for the Lomo/Holga crowd; when you need predictable results it’s not–and is why the later film cameras had much of the same metering/focus technology as today’s cameras.

    Digital is only “pray and spray” if you just have no idea what you’re doing; it is invaluable to be able to dial an image in for a difficult exposure rather than just hope for the best with film.

    I’ve had one (1) memory card actually fail in use, and I did lose a lot of pictures. Otherwise I have cards up to 7-10 years old that work fine.

    Digitals can be harder to fix–but only if comparing it to a simple film camera. Working on a Kiev-10 will give you a new appreciation for how they ever worked. And yes, old film cameras are cool.

    I completely don’t get the more temperamental part, my Nikon SLR’s have all been supremely reliable and easy to use, only balking at environments that would have already made most film cameras unreliable, like 0 degrees with a 25 mile an hour wind.

  • branden rio

    What a valuable and insightful discussion that is sure to help people further their photography

  • Amadeusz Leonardo Juskowiak

    Film Technician with a ring on their finger? No, thank you…

  • Huh

    Thanks for a good answer. I guess I should amend and restate where I’m coming from. You’re definitely right, many of my arguments are out of date, probably because my favorite film cameras are as well. Professional film cameras from the 90s are truly complex machines, and a lot harder to fix than my Nikon FM or my Argus C3, but that’s part of why I love those old geezers. Simple to use, easy to maintain, no dirty sensors or hot pixels or even dead batteries to get in the way of taking a good photograph, for a person who knows how to expose reasonably well (or carries a pocket exposure guide).

    I’m glad you’ve had such good luck with your memory devices. I have dropped a hard drive with hundreds of images and lost them forever, and had more than one card fail on me, especially while travelling through West Africa and unwittingly buying crappy 3rd party black-market brands, which could be my own poor planning, but I’ve never had “dud” film rolls.

    As for the digital spray-and-pray, I guess I don’t mean it literally. Action or street photographers don’t have the luxury of do-overs, but many landscape, portrait, etc. photographers do benefit from being able to shoot, review, adjust, reshoot, and so on until they nail it, without wasting much time or money. Not exactly spray-and-pray, I realize, but it sure isn’t how it used to be.

    Regarding cost and hassle of film processing, you have a good point there, but when I have a film lab do the work for me, it’s a lot easier than the sometimes hours I pour into developing RAW shots in Lightroom. Digital give me much more control over the images that mean the most to me, but like I said before, when I shoot film, I do it for the fun of it, not because I’m being a perfectionist. But that’s just me.

    Finally, again reiterating what I said, I love film and digital both for different reasons and I’d never accuse one of being “better.” I just can’t abide trolls like Mansgame who “hate” things for no good reason. And Branden Rio, it appears as if the people contributing to this thread are getting something out of it, even if you aren’t.

  • Mansgame

    No deadly chemicals, no waiting 3 days to get the pictures, no paying to buy the pictures and paying again to scan only to get a subpar picture that looks like it was scanned, having digital pictures that last for EVER in raw format so I can improve them as technology keeps on improving. I could go on…

    There is a reason why film is dead and just doesn’t know it.

  • Mansgame

    For a while, film could still say it had better dynamic range. That was actually true if you forgot that digital had much better ISO capabilities. That’s no longer the case. Film has about 12, the D600 has about 14. D7000 and other consumer cameras about 10-12.

  • Mansgame

    When your argument has no leg to stand on, you call me a troll. Your comparison about the process is much the same way as trying to defend a mechanical typewriter. As if one has to use a mechanical typewriter to fully utilize Microsoft Word. It makes no sense. There is a whole generation of great photographers who never shot film and they produce better results than those who claim film made them better photographers.

    I think I hate film users more than film itself.

  • Brandon De Jong

    I worked at a Ritz Camera that had one of the first Fuji Frontiers in the US. Sometimes the machine wouldn’t trim the paper to the right size and I’d have to trim each photo by hand.

  • DamianM

    Hey Mansgame,
    does Nikon pay you for all the free publicity?

    Raw images don’t last forever. how many times must you be told this.
    Technology improvement doesn’t mean digital is better.

    its just like drive thru compared to a steak dinner.

  • DamianM

    Sadly all those “better” results are almost all commercial shooters. nothing important really. Its all about profit.

  • lidocaineus

    Every single time I’ve made a point against you, you’ve had no actual valid points, so yes, you are a troll. Exactly how does my argument not make sense? The exposure slider comes from… an exposure in the darkroom directly related to how long the enlarger is shining light through a negative onto the paper. The dodge and burn tools are directly taken from dodging and burning with an enlarger. The color filters are taken directly from, wait for it… color filters you insert into the enlarger. Even pixel peeping is practically the same thing as using a real, physical loupe.

    The best part is when you make the facetious argument that using Word has some kind of requirement to understand typewriters. First of all, banging out a document in Word versus a typewriter brings no artistic or creative requirement into the mix. A more apt comparison would be someone who creates with a painting program and a painter. Can a person using the program design something great? Of course. Can they improve on their skills by understanding why certain brushes and colors, which are based on real life counterparts, react the way they do, or understand why a brush has different texture versus another? Definitely.

    I also love how you ‘hate film users’, as if that has anything to do with anything. Are you trying to lump me into that group? Because last time I checked, my 5dm3, which I enjoy using dearly and daily, is not a film camera. That doesn’t preclude me from understanding darkroom processes and how methods used there can be used in digital photography.

    There is almost nothing that’s not improved by understanding what came before – you’re always standing on the shoulders of those in the past. Instead of being so dismissive, you might want to figure out what they did right and see how it can improve your own techniques. But again, your OWN posting history speaks for itself.

  • Huh

    Yup, RAW will never become obsolete and useless, just like tape cassettes, Mac OS Classic, or my 4 year old LG cell phone which doesn’t support digital cell service.

  • WyoDan

    Nice overview of a standard ‘one hour’ lab, but doesn’t address custom dip-and-dunk or E-6 lab operations.

    I worked at a sizable one-hour lab while in college in the early-90s in Denver. Anyway, they used the Noritsu systems. This was print-to-paper analog, shortly before digital scanning and color correcting came into fashion. On the daylight printer we’d put in the correct lens and holder for the film (35mm, 110, and sometimes 126 and 35mm half-frame), dial in the ‘channel’ for the film emulsion and print away. The control pad had +/- for density and color balance. What button you’d push pretty much came from experience. After a while I’d learn what to push just by eyeing the neg as it came through the feeder. On newer systems (like the Fuji featured above) this all became more automated. I got pretty good and my redoes were pretty low after a while, but I could never match the productivity of a robot and computer.

    We also had a really big Noritsu daylight enlarger, which was a pretty darn impressive machine to make big prints up to 20×30 I believe.

    If you have a trained staff and well-maintained equipment, you should never ever lose a roll of film in production or delivery. Sadly, we often had neither and disasters were somewhat common. The C-41 machine could jam and wreck several rolls at a time. It once destroyed much of the film from a customer’s trip-of-a-lifetime to Africa. That was brutal. In return we gave them the same number of house brand film as compensation (cheap Agfa stuff). Careless employees would mismatch negatives on a very regular basis. Even my photos I had there often came back with the wrong negs.

    On the weird upside, we had a ‘smut file’. Some of the printers had developed a code if nudity was on the negs. Double print orders would automatically become triples and the guy packaging the photos knew to pull out the extra set and where to put it. I’m quite sure every lab had such a ‘system’. We also learned to recognize the regular customers who came in with the nudie pix, which helped streamline the operation!

    Like I said, a well operated lab is nothing to be scared of. But back then, if you didn’t want to pay for a profession lab a person was better off dropping film off at any grocery store that would then send it to Kodak (later Kodalux). The big lab factories were far better run than the average one-hour chain.

  • Darren M Gomes

    I’m surprised a lab like that wouldn’t use an automated film picker, all the labs I’ve worked in have and they’ve all been small high street ones. We’d only use a manual one if the automated one couldn’t pick up the film end to pull it out and if that couldn’t do it, then it’s into the dark room with the tin opener!

  • WyoDan

    Our digital toys use plenty of ‘deadly chemicals’ in manufacturing and disposal. This and the fact that we replace our digital equipment at a far greater rate than we did in the analog era means that our harmful footprint is only getting worse. The difference is you just can’t see it happening so you think you’re ‘greener. Any idea how much energy data farms use? Cell towers? All those endless pretty photos from phones and DSLR gotta go somewhere, right? The NYT did a brilliant (and terrifying) article on wasteful data farms recently, you should look it up.

    You say there’s a reason film is dead. I say there’s a reason many respect and use analog imaging. Not because it’s ‘better’, but because it has its very own beautiful and unique characteristics. No need to be so arrogant.

  • Zágros Os

    man i’m looking for a way to develop my kodak 400 black&white film, I used to develop some fujifilm color film rolls at Walgreens but they don’t develop professional black&white films and that’s really disappointing -_-

  • Pod

    I worked in a pro film lab on Miami Beach at the beginning of the last decade. I was their “digital guy” in the fact that I ran the Frontier printer, as well as a small scanning setup, since customers would often pay a premium for us to scan in via a Nikon 9000 (?) film scanner, do precise color corrections and retouch work in Photoshop, and then export to the Frontier system (ours had what was called a PIC controller which was basically just an image server/CD burning system) for printing. At the time we were on the cusp of the analog – digital transition. We could print from scanned negs or straight from a customer’s digital media. What killed us was internet printing like Snapfish and so on. Even pros went to them for printing since it was cheaper and easier.

    That being said, the one “rule” I was bought up with was that the roller transport film developers were terrible. Minute scratches on your film were a given. So, we had an enormous Refrema Olympic E6 dip-and-dunk processor, and a smaller Refrema C41 dip-and-dunk processor. The operators would actually have to go into special light-tight booths to load the machines. We actually had a pair of cheap Russian night-vision goggles in case someone dropped something.

    At all points (including the Frontier) we’d run control strips twice a day. Fuji actually supplied us with some nifty software that was designed to read the control strips from the X-Rite densitomiter, then send the results via email back to the home base in New York (we were part of a small family of pro labs), where the lead tech could see if something was out of whack at any point in the food chain. We could read our own numbers, but he had insights beyond our years. Like I said, we were on the cusp. I suppose if we integrated with a “print from home to lab” service, we could have survived, but it didn’t work out that way. Though chances are the building would have caught on fire or something (it was an old building on South Beach, and the landlord had a very unfair lease) and killed us all.

    Fun times though. I actually had a Canon 10D at the time and I would regularly take promo shots around town to show off our fancy Frontier printer and how well it could print from a properly-sized digital file. I miss being able to gun off a quick 8″ x 10″ print though just for the heck of it.

    The Frontiers are amazing machines though, and it’s interesting to see from the photos above that the interface has changed little in over ten years. Though the machine in this article could be an old one. From what I can tell, mini-lab RGB laser printers aren’t a big seller anymore. Most people are content with hassling with inkjets. I can understand the versatility of inkjets, especially with exotic materials, but for pure detail and print quality, nothing beats an RGB laser printer like a Frontier or a Durst.

  • James Robinson

    I use a C41 machine all the time at university, great process and worth all the time and effort you put into it :)

  • Jesse

    *rolls eyes* digikids

  • film27

    “…that camera you found at an op shop or garage sale. The one that says…Leica on the top.” If I ever find a functional Leica at a op shop or garage sale, that’d be a great day.

  • Federico

    Why cooking when you can buy ready meals at the supermarket right?

  • Jamie

    That’s cos your a twat. Digital sucks.