Test Driving the Analogue Wonderlab!
Analogue Wonderland came as a breath of fresh air to the film photographic community. Before they were around we could source film from other places, sure, but a dedicated online store for film photography with a social and community driven background?! It was something of a dream! Even more so with their penchant to purposely source international and somewhat obscure film formats to give their customers more variety. I treated myself for Halloween and got the third spooky film release from Film Photography Project; Frankenstein film via them so I don't get hammered by international shipping rates! I'm not a prolific film buyer, but most of the time they're the first place I turn to if I'm ordering film online. So naturally, when Paul and Marina announced plans to launch their own sustainable film processing lab last month it was another exciting development (pun not intended, honest...) for the film photography community and I definitely wanted to put a film their way to give them a try!
However, I've been a customer of AG Photolab for about 5 or 6 so years, ever since local labs in my area shut down and disappeared, and they came with a recommendation from an at-the-time work colleague at Lomography. I've trusted them with my films ever since, so much so that I became a shareholder when the opportunity presented itself and I recommend them to friends and other photographers as the go-to lab for mail order film development. They are obviously not the only mail order film developers in the country and you might have your own personal favourites, but given that I've used them extensively for so long, they will be my go-to frame of reference when comparing the service offered by Analogue Wonderland (from here on in: AW) and this isn't to score them one against the other and appoint a winner at the end or anything like that as it isn't really a competition but more so to show how AW's service sits in comparison.
The 'Wonderlab' Film Development slots in alongside the rest of AW's store front, albeit in it's own separate tab, and is broken down into x4 super simple categories; 35mm development, disposable camera development, 120 development and 110 development, with secondary options to choose between black & white and colour once selecting film format, and an option for sprocket hole scanning which is great news if you shot your film with the Lomo Sprocket Rocket or something similar. At time of writing there is no option for E-6 or B&W reversal dev, or dev for ECN-2 or Washi branded films. This isn't quite as extensive as the service offered by AG but it covers all the major popular film formats and I expect the team are already working on adding E-6 dev to their repertoire. No APS dev option though Paul. I'm disappointed 😉.
At time of writing, in terms of costs, It's a flat rate of £6 for 35mm film processing, black & white or colour, and £7 for 120 or 110. Scans are charged at an additional £5 for standard (3632 x 2433 JPGS), £8 for premium (5444 x 3648 JPGS) or £10 for premium TIFF's (5444 x 3648 TIFF). I'm not sure how the sizes differ with 120 and 110, presumably they are 3632 x 3632 and 5444 x 5444 respectively? I would be surprised otherwise. But the costs are peacemeal across all film types. Scans of the Spocket Holes are charged at an additional £5 on top of any other costs. I sent them a roll of x36 exposure Foma Retropan Soft 320, a black and white film, that I'd put through my Olympus Trip 35, and picked standard sized scans, no sprockets and paid £11 altogether. Postage is free, my favourite price! AW send you a pre-paid postage label via email, you just need to print off and affix that to your packing of choice and then take it to your local post office.
In comparison, had I sent this film to AG PhotoLab, it would have cost me £14.93 for 3089 x 2048 JPGS which are smaller in resolution but AG do give you the option to have your photos returned to you on CD (which I like; hard copy backups!) or sent via web link with no additional charges for either option. AG charge £4.94 postage (inclusive), but they do supply you with a pre-paid envelope after your first order and with every subsequent order that you can then return your next film in, although you will perpetually pay postage so it isn't a free postage option like the Wonderlab. They also cut and sleeve the negatives for you, or give you the option to choose what you want them to do. They generally turn things around very quickly and I've got every film I've sent over to them back in less than a week tops. I can't comment on how long it takes them to turn a film around and send via web link as I've never used it but if they can dev a film and get it back to me via post in less than a week, I imagine they can turn that around pretty sharpish as well.
So I sent my Retropan film to the Wonderlab on Thursday 21st October, afternoon, and it arrived with the lab on Monday 25th October. Fully expecting to get my photos back before Halloween (and therefore this blog post out in October...) things did not go quite according to plan! Shortly after launch, the folks at AW had some issues with their lab; the film processor was misbehaving so they had to power it down and call an engineer out. That combined with an overwhelmingly high amount of orders meant that they had to push back turnaround of film processing from 3-4 working days to 7 working days. However despite the minor set back, all seemed to be going well... until Thursday 28th when an update came from the team that they were still experiencing serious issues; the blades that cut rolls of film after they have been pulled through the first chemistry bath were misbehaving and not cutting rolls correctly, which can cause jams in the process, totally mess up the film and seriously damage the machine. Paul put it best when he said "Incidentally this is bringing home to all of us just how difficult it is to operate a faultless service on 20-year old machines." and I genuinely felt bad for them that they were having such undeserved bad luck. But at least they were being completely transparent with the problems they were having. As a result AW put a pause on processing any films they had already received (which included mine) together with any new orders for a minimum of 2-3 weeks. They did give existing customers the option to have their films returned free-of-charge so they could pursue alternative processing arrangements, to their credit, but I chose to let them hold on to my film until they sorted the problems. By Wednesday 10th November things were starting to get back to normal as AW began to work through their backlog of films to be processed, although the Wonderlab was still closed to new customers, and a week or so later on Tuesday 16th I got my scans back!
So after waiting nearly 3 weeks, how did my photos turn out? Well alright actually! My roll of Retropan Soft was... admittedly... a couple of months outside it's expiration date so the slight increase in grain I put down to it being expired and not a developing issue. This roll of film also travelled through Dublin and Birmingham Airport customs with me so that probably didn't help... but I don't feel like the grain has ruined the images. Actually the punchy high contrast of the film coupled with the grain gives the shots a bit more of a dramatic but aged looking aesthetic so I am alright with that! But more importantly; the scans came back to me at the pixel resolution advertised, they've been scanned perfectly with almost no exposures mis-framed or mis-aligned and there are no obvious signs that things haven't been done professionally; marks, lines, blotches e.t.c. that I've genuinely seen on scans I've got back from other labs (which I won't name here, but one of them is an international photography brand...). All in all I would feel perfectly confident trusting them with another roll of film, which I plan to do actually as soon as they get back on their feet.
AW use WeTransfer to host the digital scans of your photos, they send you a link via email that is live for approx. 4 months to a .zip file containing your images. You don't need an account before you can download your photos or any nonsense like that and I had no problems downloading mine. My negatives came back to me a couple of days later and were neatly cut and trimmed into strips of x5 frames per strip, which actually works better for my "filing" system!
And despite the length of time it took to get my photos back, I don't feel bad about the delay. If it was 3 weeks and it was just down to pure bad customer service then I'd be kicking off, but this was circumstances outside AW's control. They were a brand new operation, and there was going to be teething problems. Had I needed the photos back urgently for, say, business reasons or whatever, I'd have taken the option offered to me by AW to have the film sent back anyway. It would have maybe cut my delay down to just under 2 weeks, but as it happened the whole purpose of the film was to use for this blog post! So I chose to wait! And I hope, am sure actually, that a lot of their customers felt the same way. As soon as they sort the backlog and open up new orders again I'll be pinging another film their way that I've been holding on to.
So this turned into a little bit more of a saga than I expected 😅 but it was refreshing, actually, to give another film processing lab a try after being a customer of AG for so long, and I've been really impressed with the service they offered: my scans look great, my negs came back quickly and have been professionally processed and the price is very competitive. I'm confident that if you're reading this and thinking about sending them a film then you should absolutely give them a try and you won't be disappointed. At time of writing (23rd) they have just opened the lab up for new orders so I'm about to ping them my last ever roll of film shot with my Vivitar Ultra Wide & Slim... yup. Tune in early next month for a blog post all about it... 😥