Use One Hour Labs “Yes” or “No”?!


One hour labs are here to stay. Whether or not you get good work from the average one hour mini lab is pretty much a crap shoot. It depends totally on who manages the place and what that manager’s level of expertise is. It also depends on who the operator is. Some are good, some are really good but, unfortunately, most are not. There’s usually no employment incentives for them to become good.

There are thousands upon thousands of horror stories about experiences gained in one hour labs all over the continent.

Keep in mind that these places are usually put in place for reasons of profit and profit alone. When a box store invests around a million bucks in a photo lab, they want to see a decent profit. In these days of cut-throat pricing this usually means minumum, untrained staff. Customer service is generally not a major priority in spite of the advertising hype.

We had this sign on the wall of a one-hour lab I used to work in…

We do work that’s

perfect, fast and cheap.


If you want it perfect and fastit ain’t cheap.

If you want it fast and cheap, it ain’t perfect.

If you want it perfect and cheap, it ain’t fast.

…and that’s pretty much the the way it is.

As a paying customer, you have the right to expect reasonably good work from even a one hour lab. You may have to send it back once or maybe twice but one-make-over usually does the trick.

Here’s a chuckle for you…

It you know the buzz-words, the techno-babble as it were, you’re gonna be a whole lot further ahead. To start with, you’ll have to know a little bit about color and color ‘balance’. I’m gonna teach you more in the next few minutes than most one-hour lab operators ever learn. Sorry but I’m going to get a wee bit technical here so please bear with me. If you pay attention it will all come clear – promise!

Here’s a chart that will help our discussion. Have a good look at it and I’ll explain a little better what it’s all about after you’ve done that.

To make this simple, the one hour lab operator needs to find a “balance” between the “additive” (red, green, blue) colors and the “subtractive” (cyan, magenta, yellow) colors. Note the color opposites – cyan/red; magenta/green; yellow/blue. If the lab’s photo chemistry is “in control” and your exposures are within one or two stops your pictures should look fine if the operator is any good.

If a print is too red for instance, ask the lab to add a ‘button’ of cyan. Be careful not to confuse cyan with blue or magenta with red. If you do, you’ll simply look foolish. Do your homework. Remember you’re looking for the best possible ‘balance’ between the six colors.If they don’t, here are some things you might want to do.

There’s a lot of advertising hype surrounding a very famous name in the photo industry. Kodak’s name and trademarks are bandied about by companies which claim to adhere to national “standards” but you have to take these claims with a grain of salt. The typical one hour lab is not really great at following the ‘rules’.

You can ask the lab personnel to look at their chemistry control charts. One hour lab people won’t generally like you for asking but if you’re going to entrust your valuable pictures to them you should have the right to know if their quality control is any good. If they’ve nothing to hide there won’t be a problem. Any good lab will be proud of their controls.

It won’t mean much to you if you do get to see them but there are some things that even a lay person can readily tell. If the lab operator-drawn red, green, blue and black lines on the chart are fairly consistent and if they don’t run outside of the control limits (which you can readily see) and if they appear to plot control strips every day or so, you’re pretty safe in assuming somebody is doing something right.

If not, run, don’t walk to the nearest exit and don’t go back – ever!

It’s absolutely critical that the “C-41” chemistry that processes your color negatives is both in good chemical and temperature control. Kodak temperature tolerances are plus or minus one half of one degree on the Fahrenheit scale. Anything outside this will damage your negatives and that can’t be fixed. Bad printing can be fixed so that’s not as critical.

If your prints are simply out of ‘balance’, a makeover is usually sufficient to correct the situation.

This was really funny…

I haven’t touched on too light or too dark photos (density). This is purely subjective and it’s up to you whether or not you like any picture either darker or lighter. All printing the equipment in use today have almost infinite control over density. Don’t accept something you don’t like. It isn’t necessary.

For example, a lot of one hour lab printer operators don’t have a clue how to print a good sunrise, sunset or mountain shot. Most inexperienced operators print them far, far too light. Be aware of this.

The one hour lab industry as a general rule has, over the years, educated customers to accept whatever comes off the printing equipment as the very best that can be done. However, in spite of this, unless it really IS really good stuff, the odds are very, very good that it can be improved if you know what to ask for.

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