Photographers Don’t Want Their Negatives Back From the Lab Anymore

Photographers Don’t Want Their Negatives Back From the Lab Anymore

A person is examining a strip of photographic film held up to the light in a dim, red-lit room, likely a darkroom. Their expression appears focused and thoughtful as they inspect the film. The setting suggests a process related to photo development.

Ansel Adams once said that the photo negative is like a composer’s score and the print is the performance, so why do so many modern analog photographers not want their film strips back anymore?

Manhattan camera store 42nd Street Photo tells The New York Times that its customers are not picking up their negatives suggesting less than 10 percent return to the store for the film strips.

PetaPixel spoke to a film lab in Birmingham, England which is in the habit of mailing the negatives back to customers.

“We force them on people,” jokes David Shepherd of AG Photolab. “We have so many situations where people get in touch months after they’ve had the scans and say the hard drive’s gone or they’ve forgotten to download them. So we actually insist on sending them back.”

Gone are the days when people return to the shop to pick up a photo wallet of prints that also contain their negatives. Most shops now scan the negatives into a computer and email the digital files to customers.

Another New York photo lab tells The Times that it has made a new policy asking customers to declare whether or not they want their negatives back.

“I was holding in the basement,” says Neal Kumar of Belleker Digital Solutions in Lower Manhattan. “Then the basement started getting full.”

Then there’s the issue of getting rid of the negatives which contain silver. Shepherd of AG Photolab tells PetaPixel over the phone that he sends unclaimed rolls off for silver recovery after about two months.

“A lot of our chemistry and C-type paper is full of silver halides,” he explains. “Plus there are bits of film and clippings we have lying around. We send them all to a company that can retrieve silver from the waste.”

Shepherd says that if the shop didn’t have a policy of mailing back negatives then he would have a lot more unwanted negs lying around.

“We get people asking how they can get out of having the negatives returned because, unfortunately, it’s quite expensive,” he adds.

Legal Issues

While a photographer always owns the copyright to an image they shot, losing the ability to make photos from the original negative complicates things — especially if somebody else has them.

Professional photographer turned copyright lawyer David Deal tells The Times that “when those two things are detached from one another, then all hell breaks loose.”

Take Vivian Maier, for example, whose work was discovered in a box sold at an auction in Chicago. Maier’s subsequent posthumous rise to stardom has led to a legal battle over who owns the rights to her photos. John Maloof, the man who bought the box in a blind auction, owns the physical negatives and therefore controls Maier’s pictures which some believe is wrong.

If you are a film photographer who keeps their negatives then why not check out PetaPixel’s guide on how to properly store them.


Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.

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