Oh the times, they are a-changin… The majority of photo labs from the heyday of analog photography have closed their doors for good and it’s all but impossible to find a drugstore that still develops film (check out which stores still offer the service here).
And perhaps the biggest change of all? Film developing by mail has taken the photo world by storm, as many labs have pivoted to accommodate the new way that most folks patronize businesses: online.
Sending your film for developing by mail isn’t an entirely new phenomenon; some pro photographers with fierce loyalty to a certain lab have done this for decades. But nowadays, there are spots that exist online without even operating a physical location.
If you aren’t so lucky to live somewhere with an independent photo lab, or maybe you’re unhappy with their results, it’s definitely worth looking into developing film by mail.
With most labs offering this service in some capacity, it can be overwhelming trying to find the best place to send your valuable film.
Don’t worry, we’ve gathered a list of the 12 best places to develop film online as well as some tips to make sure you’re pleased with the results. We’ve included which types of film are accepted and pricing for each spot. Check it out below!
- 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
Note: While we’ve done everything in our power to provide the most accurate information possible, please double check that the prices and services haven’t changed before sending your film to one of the labs on this list.
For each lab, we’ve listed which types of film are accepted (any formats not accepted are crossed out). We’ve also given the price of developing, as well as the prices of the cheapest and most expensive scans.
These figures are based on a roll of 35mm color film and the scanning prices include the cost of developing.
Here are our 12 favorite places for online film developing, listed in alphabetical order:
Location: Portland, OR
Website: Citizens Photo
|Develop: $3.75||Lowest Scan: $8.75||Highest Scan: $11.25|
We’ve already written about Citizen’s Photo in our list of the best places for film developing in Portland (check it out here).
Offering the most affordable option for developing on this list, Citizen’s Photo could be a serious money saver if you scan your own film, but still need processing.
If you’re interested in their scanning services as well, you’ll have two size options, both ringing in at a few dollars less than most of their competitors.
No matter how you look at it, Citizen’s Photo is definitely one of the best places for cheap film developing by mail.
Location: San Clemente, CA
Website: The Darkroom
|Develop: $8||Lowest Scan: $12||Highest Scan: $20|
The Darkroom is, without a doubt, the biggest name in the online film developing game. You’ve probably seen their ads or come across their extremely popular and informative Instagram page.
Established in 1976, they were miles ahead of the pack, pivoting to a fully online photolab well before that was the common. And since then, they’ve fully embraced this business model; they don’t even list a phone number to reach the lab.
Just about any type of film you’ll ever see can be developed by the Darkroom and scans come in three different sizes.
If you’re new to developing film by mail, the Darkroom is a fantastic place to start, as they make the process incredibly straightforward, even offering free mailers to send your film in.
Location: Parsons, KS
Website: Dwayne’s Photo
|Develop: $6||Lowest Scan: $9||Highest Scan: $14|
Dwayne’s Photo had the honor of developing the last roll of Kodachrome (R.I.P.) in the entire world. This distinction has led to a lot of press, some kitschy merch, and even a Netflix movie about one photographer’s journey to Dwayne’s (check out the trailer below if you’re interested).
They’ve used the increased attention to ramp up the presence of their online film developing services. Both processing and scans are on the cheaper end of this list, with two sizes of scans available.
The FIND Lab
Location: Orem, UT
Website: The FIND Lab
|Develop: $7||Lowest Scan: $12||Highest Scan: $35|
Beloved by many, many wedding film photographers, The FIND (Film is Not Dead) Lab is a fantastic, high end photo lab that develops film by mail.
While they do offer the most expensive scanning option on this list, you can certainly develop and scan your film for roughly the same price as most of other photolabs mentioned.
The difference comes in the extremely customizable scanning options, offering not only three different sized scans, but also three levels of scanning adjustments. The lowest and cheapest option offers basic, untouched scans, the highest option offers color and density correction as well as a custom color profile created to your particular preferences.
If you’re looking for a high end lab for online film developing and need the utmost professional quality, you should check out the FIND Lab.
Location: Vauxhall, NJ
Location: Gelatin Labs
|Develop: $6||Lowest Scan: $12||Highest Scan: $19|
What do you think – could you ever start a business with a family member? How about one as closely related as your parent or your child?
Whether you think the idea sounds novel or miserable, you have to respect the father and son team at Gelatin Labs for giving it a try.
With two generations who grew up in two very different time periods to be a film photographer, Gelatin has the blessing of wisdom from the past, combined with a finger on the pulse of younger photographers.
Services are straightforward with two sizes of scans available. E-6 slide film and large format are not accepted.
You’d be surprised at how many photolabs are run by folks who don’t take photos, so we always love to see a lab run by people who still love shooting film as much as we do.
Indie Film Lab
Location: Montgomery, AL
Location: Indie Film Lab
|Develop: $8||Lowest Scan: $11||Highest Scan: $30|
Indie Film Lab provides plenty of options so that you can get exactly what you need out of your film developing by mail.
Three sizes of scans are available and they also offer a cheaper, uncorrected scan option for 35mm color film.
If you’re in a time crunch, rush processing is available (for a fee), which is a nice option, since the time it can take to get your film developed online is one of the biggest drawbacks.
While you can definitely order prints along with your scans, their secondary business, Indie Print Co. also has less common offerings like handmade leather camera straps and bags.
Memphis Film Lab
Location: Cleveland, OH
Website: Memphis Film Lab
|Develop: $5||Lowest Scan: $8||Highest Scan: $15|
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 the lab, this is effectively a fully online film developing service.
There are three sizes of scans available, with .TIFF files as an option for the largest size.
While Memphis is already one of the cheapest places to develop film by mail, they offer significant discounts for developing and scanning of 10+ rolls of 35mm color film.
If this is the type of film you usually shoot, and you shoot a lot of it, you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal for developing and scanning your film.
North Coast Photographic Services
Location: Carlsbad, CA
Website: North Coast Photographic Services
|Develop: $8.50||Lowest Scan: $18.50||Highest Scan: $23.50|
North Coast holds the title of the preferred photolab of the man, the myth, the legend, Ken Rockwell. They’ve been in the game for about as long as Ken has, opening their doors in 1978.
There are two sized scans available, and there’s no doubt that this is one of the priciest places to get your film developed by mail.
It’s also worth noting that they’re only open Monday-Thursday, which can lead to some pretty long wait times to get your photos returned to you.
At the end of the day, if it’s good enough for Ken, it’s probably good enough for us.
Location: Salem, OR
Website: Photo Vision
|Develop: $7.50||Lowest Scan: $18||Highest Scan: $22|
Photo Vision is neck and neck with North Coast for the most expensive spot for online film developing.
That said, you’ll be able to choose between two sizes of scans and you can submit a preference image for the technician to reference while scanning your film.
While some labs may offer this level of personalization if you ask, we like that Photo Vision advertises the service, truly helping photographers achieve their exact vision for their photos.
Location: Overland Park, KS
Website: Process One
|Develop: $4.29||Lowest Scan: $9.28||Highest Scan: $9.28|
All this talk about expensive film developing is making my wallet hurt..what a perfect opportunity to look at Process One.
This is one of the cheapest online film developing services you can find, and you’ll have just as hard a time finding prices like this in person.
This lab is about as bare bones as a skeleton, offering only developing and one size of scans. That said, if cost is at the top of your list of considerations, you should definitely look into Process One.
Richard Photo Lab
Location: Santa Clarita, CA
Website: Richard Photo Lab
|Develop: $8.99||Lowest Scan: $12||Highest Scan: $20|
Richard Photo Lab has been in business since 1984 and they’ve grown into a sizable operation that develops film by mail, as well as takes outsourced film from other labs that have stopped handling the service in house.
We’ve written about Freestyle Photo in our Guide to Los Angeles (check it out here), and while they are regarded as one of the top photo labs in the city, it’s really Richard Photo putting in the heavy lifting.
You’ll have three sizes of scans to choose from, and prices are pretty standard compared to the other labs on this list.
State Film Lab
Location: Louisville, KY
|Develop: $6||Lowest Scan: $12||Highest Scan: $22|
Last, but not least, we’ve got State Film Lab, based out of Kentucky.
While they do also operate a brick and mortar lab, this spot is a relative newcomer, opened less than a decade ago by a small team of photographers who built the lab they’d always wished for.
Scans come in two different sizes, and you can opt for untouched scans, or scans that are color and density corrected.
Prices are about as average as average could be, which makes this a viable online film developing service for a variety of photographers.
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 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.
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. To be completely frank, it’s a 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, instead of having it picked up. Not everyone has the benefit of knowing (and trusting) their mailperson. While this may be overkill, we always feel better taking important packages straight to the local Post Office or delivery carrier. This can sometimes help your package get on it’s journey sooner.
There’s no denying that someone has lost rolls of film by sending them in the mail, but it’s never happened to us, nor any of the photographers we’ve asked about it (which is more than a few).
There’ll 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 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 should probably be pretty low on your list of concerns when developing film by mail.
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 researching 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, there are a few types of film that are not accepted at every lab on the list.
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 almost certainly be able to use any of the labs we listed. There’s no problem developing color or black and white film by mail.
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.
Try to take reviews with a grain (see what we did there?) of salt, and remember that someone who had a bad experience is significantly more likely to leave a review than someone who had a good experience.
If there’s a recurring issue with a particular lab, it’s usually pretty obvious from a quick scan (we did it again!) 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; it could be left outside on a rainy day or stacked underneath a leaking case of the latest, hottest energy drink. 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 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 like us, 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 also 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.
Especially with many small photo labs continuing to close their doors for good, we think that film developing by mail will continue to grow in popularity and maybe even become the norm in the future. As they say, modern problems require modern solutions.
If you have a favorite online film developing service, let us know in the comments!