Keeping it Old School

“You have science, chemistry, and actual film. You have processing and you have the artistic part of photography, and also these highly engineered machines. I just think it’s the best parts of humanity all together and it’s so cool, it’s basically magic,” said Laz Emery. Emery has been an employee of the Old School Photo Lab in Dover, New Hampshire for six years and primarily processes customers’ film. 

Since 1980, Old School Photo Lab has been developing film and offering their photo services both in store and through the mail. They are one of the few places left in NH that still develops film since the rise of digital photography. This local photo lab has managed to stay in town through the digital age of photography while maintaining a local feel when handling film. 

Film photography went into a rough patch when digital increased in popularity. These new photographers preferred the higher definition photos, more variety to lenses, and instant ability to view photos from digital cameras. The main result was that the film world was left on the backburner in people’s minds because big camera companies like Canon and Nikon developed high-tech cameras. Even major film companies struggled during this time.

In 2003, the film market had reached a peak with almost a billion rolls of film being sold globally. By 2012, Kodak, who was America’s leading film company, filed for bankruptcy protection at a time when cell phones were being more popularized, according to The Guardian’s article, Back to the Darkroom: Young Fans Reject Digital to Revive Classic Film Camera. 

Although almost everyone has a cell phone with ever-evolving cameras, Emery said, “there are millions of cameras that still work and I think that people who learned in digital don’t really fully grasp what an ISO is or shutter speed, or apertures and how all of those things play together and I think you just have to.” He also compared using film photography to using vinyl records and said, “it’s just fulfilling. It’s more inconvenient and it’s slower, but it just feels nice to do.”

Like Emery mentioned, a major difference between film and digital is the need for understanding functions like ISOs and apertures. “I think you just get a better handle on light and what you’re trying to do while taking the shots, so I feel that it makes people better photographers,” said Emery. 

The photographers agreed that more people should use film for photography because they see it as an opportunity to experience more. Racheal Brehm, who has been working at the photo lab for three years doing most of the film scanning said that when using film for photography, it gets her outside and into nature while Dora Bowden (‘21), a student at ORHS, said that the developing process is an experience on its own. 

Another reason why people like film is the focus on taking the image. “I like that I focus more on the picture that I’m taking because I know I don’t have as many pictures as I do if I was using a digital camera,” said Bowden. 

Among the appeals of film photography, there are also reasons why customers like using this photo lab.“They’re really friendly and accommodating. They are punctual, so you don’t have to wait too long for your pictures, but it’s very clear that they treat everything with care there. It’s more of a local vibe than getting your pictures developed at a Rite Aid or something,” said Bowden.

While working at the photo lab, employees have formed relationships with customers. “I’ve definitely made friends here from people who are customers and it’s nice to communicate with people about something we love equally,” said Brehm. She also works at the front, receiving people’s film and gets many opportunities to talk to customers. Emery said that he also shares this close knit feeling with customers.

Although customers are a big part of their work, their main focus is on processing film. The photo lab has several machines that make the developing and processing faster. “Once [the film] comes in, either by the mail or in through the front of the store, the color film goes through a big machine and you tape the liters on to a card and the machine pulls it through and processes it. So it’s like ten minutes dry to dry, then we scan the negatives on our scanner and then once it’s scanned there, a lot of people either get a CD or they get an upload and we print those digital files on our printer here,” said Emery.

Emery noted that the black and white film gets handled differently. The employees load the black and white film onto reels by hand and in the dark so the film doesn’t get exposed to light (which would ruin the film). After the film is loaded, it is put into a machine. Emery said, “there’s a machine that measures how much chemistry [the film] needs, heats it up, rotates it, and I pretty much just press a button and I come back and hang it up and dry it.” 

Although the Old School Photo Lab is geared more towards film, they offer other services for digital photography. They offer digital photo printing, photo calendars and holiday cards, and through them, people can order things like mugs and cups, as Emery said, “anything you can pretty much put a photo on, we can find a way to put a photo on it.” They also sell an array of different film from companies like Fujifilm, Kodak, and Ilford. 

The photo lab also works with several camera stores in New England who don’t have a lab in store. These businesses send their film to the Old School Photo Lab and they develop and process it for them and send it back. “It’s just that having the lab part is expensive. It’s funny how just 15 years ago everyone’s fighting over the accounts with these people and, ‘I don’t want to send anything anywhere,’ and now it’s like you have to work together with other places or you’re not going to survive,” said Emery. 

For 40 years, the Old School Photo Lab has continued to provide their lab services for the people who are experimenting with film, finding old disposable cameras, and taking professional or ammetur film photos, and everyone in between while also offering digital photo services.

Even with temporary business closures across the state due to COVID-19, Old School Photo Lab is staying open and continues to take mail ordered film. They are also answering any questions over the phone at (603) 742-6659.