"Why are my pictures blurry?" "Why is that one so dark?" "How come these are all pink?" "Why are these ones all grainy?" Being a Walgreens photo specialist for close to a year now, these are the sort of questions that plague me on a day-to-day basis. And also being a bit of an amateur photographer, I usually have answers our customers don't like to hear. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of the time, when your photos don't come out the way you want, it has nothing at all to do with the way they're treated in your favorite (or not-so favorite) one-hour photo lab. In this article, I'll attempt to explain why, and how you can get better pictures next time around.
With the holiday seasons rolling around again, consumers will be flocking by the hundreds to purchase disposable cameras, rolls of film, and memory cards to capture their priceless memories in image form to enjoy for years (or weeks) to come. And we, the tireless one-hour photo specialists of the world, will be inundated with unhappy customers wondering why some of their pictures came out so crappy. Unfortunately, the short answer to most of these questions is, "You suck at taking pictures." Equally unfortunately, high customer service standards preclude us from actually responding with this quick-and-to-the-point, one-size-fits-all answer, and so we're forced to take valuable time out of our day, over and over again, every single day, to explain in detail just what caused those pictures to come out looking not-so-great, to customers who never actually believe a word of it anyway. In a fruitless effort to make life easier for myself and my colleagues across the country, here is, once and for all, detailed explanations of Why Your Pictures Suck in all of the most frequent cases.
Why Are My Photos Blurry?
Here's an always-popular one. In short: In the vast majority of one-hour labs, it is physically impossible for the photo specialist to act in any sort of way to make your pictures any blurrier than they already would have been, even if said photo specialist hated your guts and was hellbent on ruining your priceless memories. Furthermore, despite your protests, there's nothing at all we can do to sharpen up a blurry photo. It's just not possible. Here are a few reasons why your pictures might be coming out less than tack-sharp:
1. You're using a cheap one-time-use camera. Please, folks. I think I speak for all photo specialists when I get on my knees and beg of you: Don't buy or use the dirt-cheap, bargain-bin one-time-use cameras. For any reason. Ever. You will be better off with no pictures at all than buying a camera and then paying the development fee for what will inevitably be a nice stack of 27 stiff, glossy and thoroughly uncomfortable toilet paper sheets. A film camera is a fairly sophisticated piece of technology. If you're paying a buck-99 for one, it's probably going to be of exceedingly poor quality, which not only makes it harder for you to take good pictures, but also can make it much more difficult for us to develop them (I'll explain why later). Cheap cameras are made of cheap plastic, use cheap mechanics which can often leave you with slightly-overlapping frames on the negatives, and most importantly use cheap lenses that really don't focus all too well in any situation. If you don't have a camera and need a quick and cheap solution, go for the expensive end of the shelf. Kodak has a line of relatively nice one-time-use cameras which usually are capable of yielding great-quality results in normal situations, and they only range from $15-20 for a two-pack. Look for designations like "HQ" and "HD" on the packaging. It might strike you as marketing bullcrap, but take it from someone who has developed hundreds of rolls of film: it does make a noticeable difference.
2. If you have a more sophisticated, electronic 35mm camera, and you're getting blurry shots, it may simply be that your lens is focusing on the wrong object, or is unable to focus at all. If you're taking photos from too close a distance (the ubiquitous Myspace self-portrait shot, for example), your lens is probably not going to be able to focus correctly on the subject. If the subject is at a suitable distance and you still wind up with a blurry shot, check the photo more closely to see if anything is in focus. If you find anything that looks nice and sharp, you've found your problem: The computer chip in your camera decided it was more important to focus the lens on that incidental object in the foreground or background than on the subject you were actually intending to photograph. Sorry.
3. Low-light situations. Again, if you're using a fairly sophisticated 35mm camera, and some of your shots came out blurry, it may be that the lighting was not suitable. It might not immediately strike you as very intuitive that lighting should have anything at all to do with sharpness, but in fact it has quite a bit of an effect. If it's just a little darker than ideal, it may be that your shutter has to stay open longer to gather enough light for the image to form on the film surface. Any movement of the camera or of the subject during this time is going to cause the image to be slightly (or very) "smeared" looking on the negatives. If you're hearing a good quarter-to-half a second go by between the initial click and the whir of the film gears, you're pretty much guaranteed to be getting a blurry picture, unless you're using a tripod and shooting a perfectly still subject.
Why Are My Photos So Dark?
The quick and easy answer to this question is that you took the picture in the dark! It is possible for a photo specialist to intentionally make a photo too dark if he really wants to for nefarious purposes, but ruling this out, there's really no way for simple incompetence on the part of the developer to account for dark photos.
1. You're still using that cheap, crappy one-time-use camera. Stop it. Go buy a better one. One-time-use cameras are purely mechanical. Besides the flash, there are no electronic components at all. This means that there's nothing to tell the shutter how long to stay open when you press the button; it uses the same length of time for every shot, no matter the lighting condition. With a good quality camera like the Kodak HQ line, this doesn't make a huge impact on the final product as long as you're shooting in relatively well-lit situations and using the flash otherwise, but on cheap cameras with cheap lenses loaded with exceedingly cheap film, it can make pictures taken in even slightly varying lighting conditions vary wildly in actual brightness. The ones taken outdoors in the sun will look washed out and overexposed, and the ones taken indoors will be dark, low-contrast, grainy (we'll get to that later), and desperately underexposed. There's not even a happy medium with these crappy little cameras. All of your pictures are basically going to look like crap. Just stop buying them. Seriously.
2. Back-lighting. Most people are fairly familiar with this concept so I won't go into great detail, but the basic gist of it is this: If there's a bright light source behind your subject when you take the picture, your camera is going to expose for that light source and not for your subject, and the result will be a nice silhouette effect, whether or not you intended it. Electronic cameras gauge how much light is coming in through the lens and decide on an aperture size and exposure time accordingly. If there's a good deal of light coming through a window in the background and not a whole lot of light shining on the face of your subject, your camera is not going to be smart enough to know that your subject is in the dark. It's going to see the light coming in from the window and snap the picture as if the window is what you wanted to take a picture of in the first place.
3. Excessive front-lighting. Similar situation, but reversed. Have you ever seen (or taken) those photos set indoors, maybe in a restaurant environment, where all the people in the picture are bright and pale, and the background is so dark you can't see it at all? That's because the photographer was in a pretty dark environment and the camera (or the photographer) decided a flash was in order. The flash will illuminate your foreground quite well, but unfortunately it's not going to stretch all the way to the background. It also often has the effect of "overdoing it" and washing out the foreground so that what you end up with is a bunch of bright-white heads surrounded by a dark abyss. A lot of these shots can also end up blurry, incidentally, because in the dark environment the camera doesn't have a very clear image of the subject and thus can't focus on it very accurately. Some more sophisticated cameras use a "pre-flash" to aid in the auto-focusing before the actual shot is snapped, and these tend to come out much sharper.
Why Are My Photos So Grainy?
It could simply be that you're using a very high-speed (and thus very grainy) film, but more likely this is directly related to the above scenario: Low-lighting. All modern one-hour photo labs use equipment which auto-adjust each photo to make it look as nice as possible. It tweaks the brightness, contrast and color saturation in an attempt to make every photo look nicer than it would have otherwise. When these auto-adjustments are performed on very dark pictures, it's essentially trying to make something out of nothing. It's taking smooth black and turning it into medium gray. In also trying to raise the contrast where there initially isn't any, you get a lot of pronounced film grain and/or digital noise as the algorithms fruitlessly try to find some difference between colors and shades in the photo and pronounce those differences to make them "pop." Bottom line, if you don't want grainy photos, don't take your pictures in the dark, and consider going with a lower-speed film (although even 800 speed tends to be fine in well-lit environments).
Why Are My Photos Discolored?
And here we arrive at our first quality issue which could possibly be a direct result of lab incompetence. Fortunately, this is also one of the only quality issues in which the specialist can reprint the offending photos and compensate for the mistake by making some manual adjustments. There are three main reasons why your photos may be a little (or a lot) discolored.
1. The auto-adjusting software got it wrong. It doesn't happen too often, but occasionally it does. If you take a shot that is predominantly one color, the software may color-balance it in a way that slightly shifts the overall color content away from that particular spectrum, in which case you may end up with prints that are slightly off-color. In this event, you can just hand the offending prints along with the negatives back to the specialist, tell them that it came out too ____— (too bluish, too redish, too yellowy, etc.), and they can re-run the negatives and fix it for you manually. Walgreens will happily redo these prints for you free of charge, though I can't speak for other businesses.
2. Maintenance of the photo machines has been negligent. Every day when the store opens, a specialist is supposed to run a "control strip" through the film processor and paper processor. The control strips are then analyzed electronically and appropriate calibration adjustments are made automatically to the processing machines. If this doesn't get done for a while, then as the photo chemical process changes over the normal course of operation, the calibration of the machines can wander slightly off, which can cause the chemical processes to lean unduly toward a particular color spectrum. Be suspect of this cause if every single one of your prints is discolored in exactly the same fashion. If this happens to the film processor (i.e., your negatives are discolored), then unfortunately it may be too late to undo the damage. The specialist can re-run your negatives and manually compensate for the discoloration in the final prints, but they're never going to be perfect. If this happens to the paper processor (i.e., your negatives are fine but the prints are discolored—this is much more likely to be the case), then the problem can be easily fixed. A knowledgeable specialist will immediately recognize the problem, and can simply recalibrate the paper processor and re-run the negatives, and everything will be fine and dandy again.
3. You waited way, way too long to develop your pictures. Unprocessed film has a shelf life. There's a reason that, when you buy a throw-away camera or a roll of film, there's a date printed on the bottom or back of the box (usually about two years from the date of manufacture) advising you to develop your photos before then. I recall one instance in which a customer told me he was a professional truck driver, and had left a spent roll of film lying in the glove box of his big rig for several years before finally getting around to developing them. He was not optimistic about how they were going to come out, and neither was I. Our suspicions were confirmed when every single one of his photos came out bright pink. It is possible to re-run the negatives and make manual color compensations to attempt to lessen the effect, but it's still not going to be very pretty. Your best bet is probably to ask them to redo your prints in black and white, because after a significant length of time (especially in extreme temperatures), color contrast is lost altogether and any sort of manual adjustment you make is just going to make it, for example, toned-down washed-out yellow instead of bright pink (which is the solution upon which the truck driver and I eventually decided).
Why Are There Fuzzy Pink Streaks On Some of My Photos?
Unfortunately, this one is also often due to lab incompetence, and more unfortunately, this one's also impossible to fix. What happened is that the unprocessed film was somehow incidentally exposed to very small amounts of light, usually at the very beginning or end of the roll. This could be because you accidentally cracked open the film door on your camera before rewinding the film (if you opened it completely there won't be streaks, but you can pretty much say goodbye to the last few pictures you took), or it could be because the photo specialist didn't use enough care in extracting the film leader from the cartridge.
In order to develop your pictures, the specialist needs to pull out the very edge of the film roll (the "leader," which is also the part that's sticking out when you first open a new roll of film) and expose it to light. Sometimes the leader can be quite difficult to extract, and an unwitting specialist may choose to pry open the slit in the film cartridge ever so slightly to make it easier to pull the little sucker out. (Remember how I said that buying cheap one-time-use cameras can make the development process more difficult? Well, a lot of the no-name-brand companies selling dirt-cheap cameras are just using the recycled, taped-together plastic shells of old Kodak or Fujifilm cameras and loading them with dirt-cheap film. More often than not, they aren't loaded properly at all, so the leader ends up getting creased, wrinkled, mangled or even cut off entirely, which makes a fairly difficult process sometimes nearly impossible.) What they don't know is that, in doing this, they're letting a tiny sliver of light enter the cartridge, which may end up hitting the first or last couple pictures you've taken. The end result is a little colored smear or streak on one or two of your photos because of this incidental exposure, and this damage is completely irreversible. The only thing I can tell you that might alleviate this issue if you're experiencing it, is to start taking your film to another store, or make sure the first and last shot on your roll of film aren't horribly important ones.
In case I haven't made it completely obvious, here are just a few final tips for making sure you can be reasonably happy with your photos this holiday season (and any other time of year):
1. Don't buy cheap one-time-use cameras. Don't buy cheap one-time-use cameras. Don't buy cheap one-time-use cameras. Ever.
2. Take pictures in well-lit environments, or else use a camera that's sophisticated enough to focus and/or evenly light the scene in low-light environments. If you want to take really good indoor-concert shots, you're pretty much going to have to spend hundreds of dollars on an absurdly fast lens for your exorbitantly expensive SLR. Otherwise, just deal with the relatively poor quality. Sorry.
3. Be kind to your local photo specialists. No, this one isn't necessarily going to get you great-looking pictures, but it is going to make our day just a little bit more pleasant. We work tirelessly and thanklessly for crap wages in an often high-stress, very fast-paced environment with very temperamental machines that are liable to catastrophically fail at any given moment for no reason at all. It doesn't help matters when you're screaming at us from the other end of the counter because your pictures are going to be fifteen minutes late, or because there are a few blurry pictures which are entirely your fault, or because there are a couple streaks on your negatives which are entirely our fault. We try, but we are only human, and occasionally we make mistakes.
Far more often, the machines we have to work with make mistakes which can severely disrupt our already tight schedule. If you come back after an hour, and the specialist tells you your pictures aren't quite ready yet because the machine broke down (again)...sympathize, don't yell. There's often nothing we can do about it but wait for a tech to arrive and fix the problem because it's not something we were trained to handle. When it is something we can take care of ourselves, it's usually inbetween running errands for our managers and assisting customers every few minutes, which can drag out a simple mishap into a two-hour ordeal.