Guide to Developing Film at Drugstores in 2023.
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Years and years ago, when I was first getting started in film photography, I lived just blocks away from a CVS pharmacy; the first 100 or so rolls of film I ever shot were all developed at this location.
My more experienced photographer friends advised me against doing so, but while I was still getting the hang of shooting film, developing at the drugstore made perfect sense.
For starters, they developed and scanned my photos extremely quickly; usually within an hour. Secondly, it was cheap. Really cheap.
Although there was a well-regarded photo lab across town, it cost almost twice as much to develop a roll, and in my early, experimental stages of photography, it made a lot more sense to go with the least expensive option.
While I’ll admit that I might not trust that same CVS with my film nowadays (and wouldn’t advise most people to go this route), I can certainly understand why it might be the best option in certain circumstances.
Which Drugstores Still Develop Film?
To the best of our knowledge, these are the most common drugstore chains that, at one point developed film. While we have confirmed this information with various locations in different parts of the country, it’s important to note that every location may be different. This is a good place to get you started, although it would be best to call your local store and confirm their services and policies.
CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart still develop film at most locations. While these chains do offer film developing services, they send your film to another location for processing, which means turnaround time is usually around a week. Unfortunately, you will not usually get your negatives returned to you.
Target, Costco, and Sam’s Club have discontinued their film developing services altogether.
Outsourcing Film Processing
Even as film photography has seen quite the resurgence in the last few years, there are nowhere near as many people shooting film as there were a few decades ago.
Since most drugstore chains have thousands of locations, and the equipment to develop film is expensive and requires frequent repair, it makes sense that drugstores are pulling the plug on in-store film developing.
So how do they still accept film for developing without any of the necessary equipment? By outsourcing the process.
We’ve heard of drugstores sending film to a regular, reputable lab. We’ve also heard of stores operating their own central lab for all of the locations’ film orders. Bottom line: it ain’t getting developed on site.
What does this mean for you? For the most part, the location of developing doesn’t change much – the most significant being the time it takes to get your photos back after dropping off your film. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t other issues to be aware of.
Quality of Film Developing and Scanning
The most common complaint from photographers that get their film developed at the drugstore is the quality, whether it’s a problem with the developing process or the scanning. Especially for beginners, quality might not be the biggest concern, but it’s important to know the potential issues when deciding if this route is best for you.
Problems with Developing Film
Developing film is more of an art form than most people give it credit for. High-end photo labs usually employ experienced technicians who have plenty of experience with the process.
On the flip side, drug store film labs usually use machines that automate the process as much as possible. The problem with these automated machines is that it provides significantly more chances of your film getting damaged in the process.
A common issue is spots or scratches on your film, which will be visible in the photo and permanently damage the negative. The only way to remedy this problem is to take the scans into photoshop and digitally fix the problem, but this requires access to expensive software or paying someone to do it for you.
Problems with Scans
Nowadays, most people want their film scanned so that they can access the photos digitally and share them on social media. While any drugstore that develops film will offer this service, there are some things you should know.
Firstly, the size of the files you get back from most drugstores is less than ideal for most uses. If uploading your photos to Instagram is the only goal, the size of the scans should be adequate for you, but that’s about all you’ll be able to do with them.
If you ever want to print your photos, or even upload them to a website such as Flickr or a personal blog, you’ll quickly notice that the photos may look grainy or pixelated when you look at them on a computer.
Dedicated film labs almost always provide higher-quality scans, and many even give you the option to choose what size files you receive.
Aside from the size of the scans, you may be unhappy with the appearance of your photos when you look at them on the computer. Similar to developing film, scanning is much more complex than most people would assume, and the process at drugstore photo labs is usually automated to make things go as quickly as possible.
Common problems include odd, incorrect colors, overexposed or underexposed images, and photos looking soft or out of focus when they should be sharp. When you get your film scanned at a dedicated photo lab, there is almost always more attention to detail and you are much less likely to have these types of problems.
While some of these issues can be addressed in photo-editing software, a lot of people don’t want to add the extra step and would rather go somewhere that provides consistent looking scans.
Not Receiving Your Negatives with Your Scans
Since the majority of drugstores no longer develop film in house, it has been unfortunately common to throw away your negatives after scanning is complete.
One of the biggest benefits of shooting film is that you always have a copy of your photos, as long as you hold onto the negatives. While digital files are great, we’ve all accidentally deleted something or lost valuable photos when a computer prematurely crashes.
Not to mention, if you ever want to reprint your photos (especially in a larger size), having access to your negatives will make the process quick and painless.
I’ve even had the unfortunate instance of a drugstore sending me the wrong person’s photos, which, aside from being a huge privacy concern, meant that it was impossible for me to ever get my photos. Especially because they threw out the negatives after scanning, there was really nothing they could do to remedy the problem, other than offering me a refund, which didn’t quite make up for valuable photos that I’ll never be able to see.
This practice may vary by location, but it’s pretty safe to assume that if the drugstore sends your film elsewhere to develop, you won’t be receiving your negatives. Check with your specific location to see what their policy is.
Turnaround Time on Film Developing
One of the biggest draws to drugstore developing was always a quick turnaround time. Even throughout the mid 2010s, one hour developing was still common at most drugstores.
Although I had been bringing my film to dedicated photo labs by this point, there were still times that the promise of one hour developing was enough to bring me back to that same CVS.
Since most drugstores (if not all) send your film elsewhere to develop nowadays, the allure of a one-hour turnaround has been replaced with days, sometimes even weeks, of waiting to get your photos back.
While most stores still try to get scans back to their customers in a timely manner, you’ll never be quite certain how long it’s going to take.
Benefits of Developing Your Film at the Drugstore
While this may have dissuaded you from ever stepping foot in a drugstore photo lab, there’s no denying that there are also some benefits to going this route.
First, and foremost: the price. Drugstores offer some of the cheapest prices for film developing, across the board. If you’re just getting started with film, you’ll realize pretty quickly that it can get expensive. Really expensive.
Especially for your first rolls of film, you’re probably going to make some mistakes. And if you’re getting those rolls developed at a dedicated photo lab, those mistakes can cost you quite a bit of your hard-earned cash.
Even if you’re not new to analog photography, you can’t argue the fact that it’s gotten significantly more expensive to shoot film than ever before. The price of film itself has continued to rise, and a lot of photo labs have hiked their prices up as their competition has become more scarce.
Another huge benefit to taking your film to the drugstore is the accessibility; not everyone has a dedicated photo lab where they live, but almost everyone in the country has a CVS or a Walmart in their area.
While many photographers advise against bringing your film to drugstore photo labs, there are still circumstances where it might make sense for you to do so. As long as you’re aware of the potential risks, you should be able to decide if it’s the right choice for you.
Do you have any other questions on drugstore developing or want to share any of your own experiences? Let us know in the comments.