Film photography is back. An artform lost to the widespread digitization of the ’90s is seeing a resurgence in a huge way. It’s a paradox in and of itself: in a world that is constantly getting faster, film photography is an outlier based on waiting. A roll of film has a mere 24 to 36 exposures, whereas a digital camera has seemingly infinite space on its SD card. Digital photos can be seen immediately after they’re taken, while a film photo can sit undeveloped in a camera for years.
This uptick in popularity was not lost on Doug and Ben Krueger, the father and son behind New Jersey’s own Gelatin Labs. Unsatisfied with the output of other labs, the family-owned film development lab opened in 2018 in South Orange, New Jersey. The lab—named after the gelatin coating on film that reacts to light—sought to serve the Garden State with photo development services founded on approachability and quality treatment.
How did Gelatin Labs get started?
Doug: There was zero intention to start a business when it all began.
Ben: The idea of scanning our own film began in the winter of 2017, with the purchase of a Noritsu LS600 scanner. We had a lot of family negatives that needed to be digitized, and the Noritsu provided the highest quality results at a fast speed. When we went to pick up the scanner, we were introduced to another Noritsu-made machine, a T15F roller transport film processor. At the time, it seemed like a complicated undertaking to start processing our own color film. We had been doing black and white by hand for many years, and color seemed like a whole other ballgame.
Doug: We eventually gave in and got the processor, and were completely correct in thinking it would be a challenging project. Months later, and countless hours of cleaning, workshopping, troubleshooting, blood, sweat, and tears, the machine was finally up and running. We had learned a lot along the way about C-41, particularly that this machine would need to be run every single day. That’s when the business was born.
Ben: Coupled with getting the Noritsu machines, we weren’t satisfied with some of the results coming out of the labs we were using for years prior. By building our own studio to develop and scan our film to our specification, there had to be others who would be interested in our ways, too.
Can you tell us a little bit about your process of developing film?
Ben: For C-41 color negative film, we are developing with Noritsu roller transport machines and Fuji chemistry. These ensure accurate temperatures and times to keep everything consistent. There isn’t much room for error when it comes to any photographic process, so automating certain aspects is a must when dealing with lots of volume.
For black and white film, we’re rocking it old school and developing it by hand with Kodak chemistry. We handle each roll exclusively, processing it as if it were our own rolls. We do not batch different films together for the sake of speed. Quality comes first.
We recently started developing slide film. This is being handled in a semi-automatic Jobo processor, that regulates temperature, time and agitation. This is a super exciting process that not many labs are advertising enough. Once processed, you literally are holding your images in your hand, in their final positive form. Kinda like magic.
Doug: One of the most important steps of the process comes at the scanning stage. Before Gelatin Labs, we couldn’t find a lab that offered what we now call a “Gelatin scan.” In short, these are dense with tonal information that allows for maximum flexibility in your editing software of choice. For the ideal, perfectly exposed negative, this is a flat contrast scan with plenty of highlight and shadow detail to recover. Film isn’t a forgiving medium (compared to digital), so why limit the range further with a contrasty scan? We are putting the power back into the photographers’ hands.
How do you feel about the recent film photography renaissance?
Doug: I think that it’s hard to believe on one hand, but I can understand the passion photographers and enthusiasts have for it. There is something lacking with digital photography, you can’t beat holding an archival, physical material in your hand. There is something special about film that you can liken to spinning an album. We’re analog creatures, and these formats speak to us in a meaningful way. Photography was born on cellulite. So why use anything else?
Ben: I love seeing people’s reaction to a successful first roll, or the curiosity of someone who has never picked up a film camera doing just that for the first time. It makes sense that people are dusting off these light-capturing contraptions—the mystery and fascination is enough to draw any creative mind in. Our staff consists of creative young people who didn’t grow up with film photography as a staple in their lives. So to see them becoming familiar with the medium through the technical side of working in a lab is pretty cool.
Do you have a favorite type of film to work with?
Doug: I am currently really enjoying shooting in the 120 film format. Gelatin started developing it at the beginning of 2021, so now I have a reason to shoot it more. We acquired two Fuji GA645w’s from Japan, which are essentially the point and shoot of the 120 format. Sharp negatives, great colors, and just a fun camera to shoot on the weekend.
Ben: Not to plug another “new” service, but I am kind of enamored with slide film. It’s the definition of “what you shoot is what you get.” You have to be on point with your exposure, or else you might as well not take the shot. Then that satisfaction of seeing your images vibrantly sitting on the film is a dopamine hit that I can’t really get over. Let’s shoot more slide film!
Settle an age-old photography debate: black and white or color?
Ben: In 2021, there is good reason to be shooting black and white. You can still print black and white in a darkroom, which is a leg up on color. Not that you can’t find color labs, but they are few and far between. So if you are into the concept of printing your work from your negatives, black and white reigns supreme.
If I’m thinking in terms of the evolution of the medium and you are a modern photographer, color seems like the obvious choice. Personally, I shoot 99 percent color, for its true-to-life representation of what I saw, the added ability to compose using color in the frame, and a warmth that is sometimes lost on a black and white negative. At the end of the day, just shoot what you feel your brain and eye can translate to best.
What advice do you have for novice analogue photographers looking to step into the artform?
Ben: Find a camera—any working camera will do. Pick up some Ilford HP5 black and white film. Don’t worry about what you are photographing, just shoot from the gut. Make multiple images of the same scene, at different exposures. Carry your camera wherever you go. Everything is a photograph. Just shoot, shoot, shoot.
When I first started shooting black and white, I shot 25 rolls in five weeks. That’s five rolls a week. So almost a roll a day. I would say that’s a good starting point to really invest yourself in the medium and understand your camera. After about 100 rolls, you might be onto something.
Doug: And to that point, prioritize shooting. You’ll be very happy to look back after a year, five years, or 10 years and be sitting on your first body of work.
Do you have any exciting things planned for Gelatin Labs?
Ben: We are actively setting our sights on a new shop to operate out of. We’ll be staying in the South Orange/Maplewood area and will be opening to walk-in clients. We are also launching new branding and apparel in the fall! Our camera shop is also on the way, where we will be selling all types of film gear that will be tested and vetted by our team.