Guide to Developing Film by Mail/Online (Best Labs & Tips)
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Normally, we include every lab possible when writing about where to develop film near you. But with 99% of photolabs accepting film by mail and options all across the country, there are more choices than anyone could ever need.
After logging info for over 500 labs on this site, we’ve narrowed down the places that stand out the most.
All of these labs offer service for a wide variety of film formats, multiple scanning options, and some way to order film developing by mail. It could be as simple as a phone number and an address, or as complex as a custom web platform for placing orders, downloading scans, and managing files.
They also share a loyal following and overwhelmingly positive reception from their customers.
We talked to photographers around the country, read online reviews (with a grain of salt), and lurked on Reddit threads and social media to see which labs were being mentioned the most.
And just as important as choosing the right lab, we’ve included some tips to ensure your film makes it to its destination safely. If you’ve never developed disposable cameras or film by mail, this should be everything you need to get up to speed.
- Best Places for Film Developing by Mail
- Is Developing Film by Mail Safe?
- What to Look for When Choosing a Lab
- Tips for Great Results from Every Roll
- Final Thoughts
Best Places for Film Developing by Mail
While we can’t guarantee that each of these labs will be perfect for everyone, we feel confident that at least one of them will fit your needs.
Check out our 11 favorite places for film developing by mail, listed in alphabetical order, below.
For over 75 years, Citizen’s Photo has been one of the go-to photo labs in Portland, OR. This remains true today, although now they’re also one of the best places to develop film by mail.
All types and sizes of film are accepted – 35mm, 120, and large format sheet film can all be developed for C-41 color, black and white, and E-6 slide film.
There are two standard sizes of scans available, though Citizen’s has the equipment to produce much larger files if needed.
This is definitely one of the cheaper online film developing options on this list – especially if you scan your own film and only need developing.
Dissatisfied with the quality of the photo labs in Tampa, a local photographer set out to create a solution – in 2016, Coastal Film Lab opened.
Coastal can develop 35mm and 120 medium format, for color, black and white, and slide film. E-6 isn’t processed very frequently, so it’ll be a much longer wait than the other film types.
There are two options for scans, which should cover the bases of the majority of photographers.
If you give them an idea how you like your photos to look, they’ll try to to customize the scans to your liking with color and density correction done according to your preferences.
They also run an online shop for film cameras that is known to have a pretty great selection.
The lab is just one aspect of FLATS, a Houston organization dedicated to promoting photographic art in their community. They run an accessible darkroom and frequently host exhibitions of local artists.
That said, the FLATS Film Lab is also one of our favorite places to develop film by mail.
They accept all types of film – 35mm, 120, and 4×5 can all be developed in any chemistry (color, B&W, or slide).
There are three sizes of scans available with your choice of scanner. A unique offering that we’ve hardly ever seen is the option to scan the borders or even the sprocket holes on 35mm color film.
Family owned by two generations of film photographers, Gelatin Labs has already grown quite a bit since opening in 2018.
This New Jersey photo lab can develop 35mm and medium format film – C-41, black and white, and E-6.
You’ll have two sizes of scans available, and Gelatin has a slick website that lets you customize the look of your photos when placing your order. They offer flat, untouched scans and if you’d rather receive edited photos, you can control the contrast and color temperature.
Additional options include contact sheets, prints, and rush-service on scans, even for online orders.
Gelatin Labs recently started a new environmental initiative where they plant a tree for every order they receive.
Indie Film Lab provides plenty of options so that you can get exactly what you need out of your film developing by mail.
If you’re getting scans with developing, you’ll have four different options – the cheapest offers no corrections, which seems to be a popular request from photographers these days.
We appreciate that indie Film Lab offers rush-processing, even for online developing orders.
You can order prints along with your scans through their secondary business – Indie Print Co – which also has less common products like handmade leather camera straps and bags.
Bet you weren’t expecting Memphis Film Lab to be based out of Ohio, were you?
The geographical location of this lab hardly matters because, aside from a film dropbox outside, this is a fully online film developing service.
There are three sizes of scans available, with .TIFF files as an option for the largest size. All frames come corrected for exposure and color, an option that often costs extra at other labs.
Memphis Film Lab is definitely one of the cheapest places to develop film by mail – their largest scan size (including .TIFF files) costs less than some labs smallest option.
If you primarily shoot 35mm color film, you may be particularly interested in Memphis – they offer discounted prices on developing/scanning bulk orders (10+ rolls) of this type of film.
Nice Film Club stands out on this list for their unique approach to running a photo lab. While it’s not mandatory, you have the option of purchasing a membership, unlocking significant discounts and perks.
All film formats – C-41 color, black and white, and E-6 – are accepted for developing in 135 and 120.
They offer two sizes of JPEG scans and an interesting option where you can pay, per photo, to immediately “unlock” a high resolution, TIFF version.
When getting film developed and scanned at a lab, our preference is usually to get medium or large JPEG scans of the full roll and then re scan our favorite images at the highest resolution.
Nice Film Club’s “unlocking” feature is essentially just a cheaper, easier version of how we normally do things.
Annual membership benefits include developing and scanning for 10 rolls with a discounted rate for every roll past 10, plus discounts on pretty much everything else they have to offer.
Recently celebrating two years in business, Palm Film Lab has been a hit ever since they opened in Miami.
Palm accepts 35mm and medium format film of all types – C-41, B&W, E-6, and even ECN-2 motion picture film, which has been gaining popularity recently.
Scanning options include two sizes of JPEGS as well as high resolution TIFF’s.
This Brooklyn outpost is sure to have something of interest for just about any film photographer. Even online, they have a huge inventory of film-specific offerings of all shapes and sizes.
First and foremost, Photodom is able to develop disposable cameras or any modern type or size of film.
35mm, 120, and sheet film can all be processed – color, black and white, E-6 color reversal, and ECN-2 motion picture film. There are three sizes of scans available.
Beyond the photo lab, you can find a great selection of film cameras, apparel and accessories (both new and vintage), bootleg merch, and just about any other analog-related knick-knack you can imagine.
Quite possibly the most frequently recommended lab on this list, Reformed Film Lab has a great reputation among photographers.
They offer processing for 35mm and 120 film of all types – color, B&W, and E-6 color reversal. You’ll have your choice of three sizes of scans, as well as prints with developing.
Fully embracing film developing by mail, Reformed even has an app where you can order developing or fresh film stocks. They have a rewards program available, as well.
Underdog Film Lab was started by a group of photographers who felt like Oakland needed a better home for analog-enthusiasts.
They provide dip and dunk processing for all types of film – 35mm, medium and large format are all accepted for color, black and white, or slide film.
There are two sizes of scans, both available as JPEGS or TIFF files.
Is Developing Film by Mail Safe
Now that you’ve got a list of great places for online film developing, you may be wondering, is developing film by mail even safe?
There’s certainly a bit of trust involved in the process, but in all of the years, and all of the hundreds of rolls that we’ve developed by mail, we’ve never experienced a problem, and most photographers we’ve talked to say the same.
It seems like most people are worried about one of these two things happening:
Film Getting Lost in the Mail
Possibly the biggest apprehension when sending your film for developing by mail is that the package will get lost. It’s a completely valid concern!
There aren’t any official statistics on how much mail gets lost every year, but just about everyone has experienced this problem at least once. It makes sense to be a little bit hesitant to put something as valuable and irreplaceable as film in the mail.
While lost packages are unfortunately out of your hands, you can take a few precautions to minimize the chances of this happening:
- Pay the extra fee to include tracking on your package. If lost film is a concern, it seems like the extra fee is minimal in exchange for the peace of mind that you’ll know exactly where your precious cargo is.
- Use a carrier that you trust. Some people avoid sending anything through the USPS, while some businesses send everything through the Postal Service. Some are loyal to Fed Ex while some prefer UPS. No matter where you stand, try to send your film through whichever carrier you feel most confident in.
- Drop off your package in person. Not everyone has the benefit of knowing (and/or trusting) their mailperson. While this may be overkill, we always feel better taking important packages straight to the local Post Office or delivery carrier. And sometimes it helps your package get on it’s journey sooner.
Now, there’s no denying that someone has lost rolls of film by sending them in the mail, but it’s never happened to us.
There will always be some hint of fear that you’ll never see your film again, but we’ve found that the more frequently we developed film by mail, the less we worried about it.
If you ever have any absolutely priceless film (we know, we know… ALL film is priceless, but you know what we mean), it might be a better idea to find a lab you can visit in person.
Another common concern with dropping your precious photos in the mail is the use of X-Rays in transit. You may have seen the signs when scurrying through TSA at the airport:
“Are you carrying film? The security equipment may damage undeveloped film. Please remove it from your checked baggage.”
While we can’t guarantee exactly what happens once your film enters its journey to the lab, it doesn’t seem like X-Ray examination is likely. Think about how many rolls of fresh film are ordered online every day and delivered without any issues.
That said, some folks like to be extra cautious and put a note on their package that states something along the lines of, “Package contains photographic film, please do not X-Ray.”
There’s no promise that your request will be followed, there’s also no harm in scribbling this message on your package, just to help you find a bit more peace of mind.
If you’re still concerned about X-Ray interference, another point to consider is that, at least according to TSA, film speeds of 800 or lower will not be affected by X-Rays. For the average analog shooter, it’s pretty uncommon to shoot much (if any) film higher than 800.
The bottom line is that X-Ray damage isn’t something we’d worry about. At all.
What to Look for When Choosing a Lab
So, you’ve decided to give online film developing a try. You’ve read through the list of the best places for developing film by mail and don’t know exactly which lab to choose – there are a lot of great options.
To help you settle on which lab is going to be best for you, we’d recommend thinking about these questions when deciding between your options:
What Kind of Film Are You Developing?
The labs we’ve listed above are all quite inclusive, most offering developing and scanning of any modern film format. That said, not every lab is the same.
The most problematic formats for developing by mail are large format film and E-6 slide film. Large format presents logistical problems that make it more difficult to send by mail than other sizes, and E-6 is definitely the least common format used by most photographers.
Unless you shoot either of these formats, you’ll be able to use almost any lab you can find. There’s no problem developing color or black and white film by mail.
And to answer a common question: yes, developing disposable cameras by mail is also possible, at just about any lab. As long as they accept 35mm film, they should also be able to develop disposable cameras.
What Do You Need Done with Your Film?
Everyone has different needs when it comes to dropping their film at a photolab (in person or by mail).
Some folks just need developing and they prefer to handle the scanning themselves. Some need developing, scanning, and printing all completed at once. Some circumstances call for cheap scans, some call for the best scans that money can buy.
Decide exactly what you need done with your film before deciding which lab you’re going to send it to.
There are labs that offer much cheaper rates for developing only, where other labs include the cost of developing when you get scans.
If you’re going to be getting scans at the same time as developing, make sure to check what size of scans are offered and verify that these will be sufficient for your needs.
Most labs offer a few options for scans, each with a different price point and different quality.
Generally speaking, smaller scans are perfectly fine for viewing online or on social media, but if you ever want to get prints, or zoom in on all of the fine details of a photo, it’s usually best to opt for higher resolution scans.
What Are Other People Saying About the Lab?
We try not to put too much weight in online reviews like Yelp and Google, but there’s no doubt that they can still be a valuable tool.
If there’s a recurring issue with a particular lab, it’s usually pretty obvious from a quick scan of their online reviews.
One person’s issue may be more of a difference of opinion, whereas multiple people all complaining about the same issue may be more of a cause for concern.
Another great tool when screening a photolab is to check if they have a website or an Instagram page. It’s become quite common for labs to post images of customer photos they’ve developed and/or scanned.
Nothing will give you a better idea of what kind of work they do than…well, checking out the work they do.
Tips for Great Results from Every Roll
By now, you’ve decided to develop your film by mail, and you’ve even narrowed down which lab you want to use. Great! Let’s look at a few quick tips to make sure that you achieve great results from every roll.
Pack It Tight, Pack It Right
While some aspects of developing film online are out of your hands (there isn’t much you can do if a package gets lost), the most important thing you can control is how you pack your precious cargo before sending it to the lab.
The most basic yet common question that we get is: what exactly should I put my film in to send it to the lab?
- Envelopes are a no-go. They can rip easily, especially when filled with something rigid like film, leaving your rolls damaged, or lost in transit.
- Padded envelopes are a safer bet. Whether you buy a padded envelope of your own, or go with a lab that provides padded mailers for free, this seems to be the most common and cost effective way to send film in the mail.
- Boxes also do the trick, especially for bulk orders. If you shoot enough film that a padded envelope won’t cut it, or you want that extra level of security, some type of box is probably the safest bet. Safety comes at a price, though, as this is usually the most expensive option.
Once you have decided on a vessel, make sure to take these extra steps to ensure that your film makes it to its destination, unscathed.
- Extra padding never hurts. It may be overkill in an already padded envelope, but especially if you’re mailing your film in a box, make sure to use some sort of padding (bubble wrap, newspaper, etc) to ensure a nice, tight fit. We don’t like our film jostling around in an oversized box, and this also adds another layer of protection in case your box/envelope gets damaged in transit.
- Ziploc bags protect against the elements. You never know what will happen to your package in transit – don’t take any chances and throw your rolls in a Ziploc bag before packing them, just on the off chance it comes in contact with any sort of liquid on its journey. (Undeveloped film and liquid do not get along too well).
Labels Are Your Best Friend(s)
One of the biggest challenges involved in film developing by mail is that it can be difficult to properly communicate every detail with the lab, especially when you may never even have direct contact with them.
There’s a simple solution to this problem: labels, labels, and more labels.
Need a roll pushed or pulled? Label it. Want to keep track of which of your cameras you shot each roll on? Label it.
How about special requests, like cross processing or developing an expired roll that may need extra time to develop? You guessed it…PUT A LABEL ON THAT SON OF A GUN!
Before developing film online, we always like to keep a record of pertinent info for each roll and assign a number to make it easier to keep track of when we get scans back.
It’s totally your call as to how much information you want to record, but here’s what we jot down in a notebook before the package heads out:
- Identification number. Each roll gets a number, starting at 01, which is also written on the roll. Letters work fine, too.
- Type of film. Unless you shoot exclusively one type and speed of film, you’ll probably have some variety in your order. It’s nice to have this information once you get your photos back.
- Speed that the film was shot. If you push/pull your film, make sure to label this on the roll itself, but also keep track for your own records.
- Camera/lens used. If you’re a gear junkie, you’re probably sending in rolls shot on a few different cameras. We like to have this information in the future, and it can be a lot harder than you’d think to distinguish which camera was used when you get a handful of rolls back at once.
- Date(s) of photos. This is probably the least important detail, but some folks like to keep track of the dates that photos were taken. We’re perfectly content with just the month(s) and year shot.
- Any additional, noteworthy details. Did you try a new technique on this roll? Shoot photos using a new light meter? Test out a vintage lens that might be damaged? Especially since developing film by mail can take some time, it’s best to take note of anything else you want to remember about each roll, as it’s unlikely that you’ll remember these details by the time you get your photos back.
Don’t Forget Your Contact Info
Last, but certainly not least, make sure to include all of your contact information written clearly enough that someone else can actually read it.
You’d be surprised how often this (seemingly) basic step is forgotten. There isn’t much that a lab can do if they get an envelope full of film, but the only identifying factor is a barely-legible return address, which doesn’t include any way to contact you if there’s a question or a problem. Well, they could write you a letter…
Many online film developing services have order forms that you send with your film, which includes all of the necessary information. If the lab you choose doesn’t have such a thing, we’d recommend including a sheet of paper with the following info:
- Phone Number
- Email Address
- Order Number (if you have one)
- Any requests or special instructions. We usually write, “Please keep track of each roll’s identification number when returning scans”. And while we always label any pushing/pulling on the roll itself, it can’t hurt to also include here: “Roll 02 should be pushed 1 stop”. Better safe than sorry!
If this is your first time developing film by mail, the process may seem overwhelming, but once you’ve done it a few times, it will certainly become less daunting.
We love supporting local photo labs and still prefer to handle our film processing needs in person. That said, there are plenty of situations where online film developing is the superior choice.
We don’t see film developing by mail going anywhere – if anything, we think it will just become more popular in the years to come.
If you have a favorite online film developing service, let us know in the comments!