Oscars Photo Lab vs. Richard Photo Lab | Shooting Film, Part 4 of 5

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After I shot my first few rolls of film, I did a little experiment. I sent one roll to my local lab, Oscar’s Photo Lab, in San Francisco, and I sent the rest to Richard Photo Lab in Los Angeles. Richard Photo Lab is easily the most well-known film processing lab in the country today, and all of the major film shooters, at least in the wedding industry, use them. They have a reputation for quality and great customer service. But honestly, I was silently rooting for Oscar’s Photo Lab. I can walk a mile to their storefront, I would be able to drop off and pick up my film in about two days, and it would be slightly cheaper too. I also thought it would be a great way to support a local small business.

The Winner

Well, it turns out that Richard Photo Lab wins, and not by a small margin either. I still feel a bit bad about the declaration, since I do like the people at Oscar’s Photo Lab. I also just found out the timing of this post is really unfortunate, because Oscar’s Photo Lab just suffered a devastating loss a couple weeks ago when their lab went up in flames. Luckily, everyone is ok, and though they are temporarily closed and without most of their equipment, they are in recovery mode and plan to return to business as soon as they can.

Nevertheless, the review stands. And I think it is probably reflective of most photographers’ experiences of their local labs versus the inimitable Richard Photo Lab. The number one reason for this is better shown than told. And so we kick it off with some images– sneak peeks– of a collaborative styled shoot we did in San Francisco. They are all raw scans, just as I received them from the labs with no color or exposure corrections on my part.

The Images

First off, a scan from Oscar’s Photo Lab. Not bad! It looks just a little bit muddy to me– so if I were to adjust it, I would have just raised the curves a bit, but it’s definitely a good, usable scan.

Below, a couple scans from Richard Photo Lab. Looking great. No complaints here.

Based only on these outdoor portraits, the two labs are comparable. Obviously the settings on the photos are different, so any differences in color are going to be hard to compare. But if these were the only samples, I might just go with my local Oscar’s. Unfortunately, Oscar’s goes downhill from here.

Below, two indoor portraits, processed and scanned by Oscar’s Photo Lab. The images begin looking underexposed and the midtones look a bit gray. Well, you might point out, I was probably the one who underexposed the actual negatives when I took the photos! Yes, but the whole point is that the lab should be able to compensate for this when they produce the scans. If you keep scrolling down, you’ll see what I mean.

Another scan by Oscar’s Photo Lab. Clearly not looking very good. The image is extremely grainy, especially in the dark areas. And the entire image looks underexposed.

And then, a scan by Richard Photo Lab of the same scene, shot with the same film, with the same settings.

Two more images, just to drive the point home. Oscar’s Photo Lab:

Richard Photo Lab:

Based on the last red tablecloth image alone, I would not want to process my film with Oscar’s Photo Lab. The image is simply not something I would be able to present to a client. With Richard Photo Lab, every single frame of every roll I have received has been more than presentable. It’s been shockingly beautiful. I’m often pleasantly surprised by what comes out of the camera. But just to be analytical and to demonstrate the weighing of options, I will outline some of the considerations that actually went into this experiment of mine.

Costs

Lab Color Process + Scan Scan Quality (other options are available) Shipping Turnaround Time
Oscar’s Photo Lab $5.00 + $13.00 = $18.00 “super resolution” jpg (2797 x 2048 pixels) none 2 days
Richard Photo Lab (process + scan) = $18.50 “+/- 15MB” jpg (2797 x 2048 pixels) ~$4.00 there, $9.00 back 5-10 business days

Basically, if it weren’t for shipping, the costs would be almost the same, and RPL would just have a longer turnaround time. But with shipping, it costs about $13 extra, and it takes a lot longer. Of course, all of these added costs are basically moot when one turns out an image that you can’t use and the other consistently produces excellent results.

When I did this experiment and saw these results, I immediately wanted to know exactly what it is that makes Richard Photo Lab stand out and why their images are just so much better when you get them back. So the last part of this post is a huge rave about everything they do. No, they did not sponsor me or give me anything to write any of this. They really are just that amazing.

Richard Photo Lab

Customer Service

When I posted my first blog post in the series and tweeted Richard Photo Lab about it, they actually saw it and responded! ¬†Angela from RPL emailed me this out of the blue: “I saw your blog a few days ago about how you were sending us a few rolls of film so I went back to production and asked them to push your order along for you! Normal turn around time is about a week to 2 weeks but I definitely wanted to make sure that you got your scans back quickly since it seemed like they were test rolls.”

Yes, customer service. The amazing thing is that they treat everyone like this, even when they are just ordinary customers like myself. I emailed Angela a couple more times, and when I told her I would be writing more blog posts in the series she connected me with Bill, who readily indulged all my questions for about 45 minutes on the phone. Below is a bit of what we talked about.

The Process

The first thing that happens is the chemical processing, C-41 color processing in this case. According to Bill, it’s important to maintain consistency, but for the most part the objective is just to get a clean result. The real magic happens in the scanning. RPL has three scanning technicians who do all of the scanning, and they have a level of awareness and attention that most other labs just don’t. When they scan film, they preview each individual image and do color and density corrections for each frame. When you submit your film, you can also write the names of photographers you love, so they can emulate the look for you. For instance, Jose Villa’s look is warm and yellow, while Jonathan Canlas’ tends toward the cool side. Bill also mentioned that for weddings in general, photographers usually like detail shots and children to be brighter. All of these considerations are made by the scanning technicians even with the standard processing.

The results of their standard processing are already awesome, but if you get to a point were you want more customization, RPL works with you to create a custom profile that reflects all your preferences, almost like a moodboard. This service costs $450, but it’s refundable if you do a certain amount of business with RPL.

There are many more things we talked about (including their digital RAW file processing, which I will be testing out next!) but the bottom line is clear. If you’re going to start shooting film, it’s more than worth it to send it off to Richard Photo Lab, where they’ll treat you like a star and create better results from your film than you even imagined possible.

Want to see for yourself? Check out:
Oscar’s Photo Lab of San Francisco
Richard Photo Lab of Los Angeles

Check the related links below to see the other parts of the Shooting Film series!