In reality, customers are not as spoilt for choice as they might think. The mail-order firms and the shops that send the film off to be processed share only a few processing laboratories. Bonusfilm, Bonusphoto, Bonuspost and Bonusprint are all the Grunwick laboratories in another guise. Boots uses Grunwick, too.
We set out to test which company provided the best quality prints and standard of service. A photographer took five sets of family snapshots with the same camera and the same type of film. Each was developed by a different company - two mail-order, two shops with minilabs, and one chain, Superdrug, which sends customers' photos away for processing.
Simon Bromige, supervisor of the darkroom at the Independent an Sunday, assessed the quality of the prints. He looked to see, first, whether there was a good contrast between dark and light tones, or if they were flat and wishy-washy; second, whether there was a good balance between warm and cold colours; and lastly, whether the negatives had been correctly exposed or not. If film is underexposed, pictures look dark; if overexposed, they look washed-out. This can be the photographer's fault, but in this test, where the exposure was incorrect it was the processor that had got it wrong. Prices quoted are for 24 prints, 6in x 4in.
pounds l.99 (turnaround two days, though this depends on what day the film is brought in)
Superdrug wasn't my first choice. I'd intended to try out Dixons, but the machinery in the branch I visited was being replaced (the shop had neglected to tell me this when I rang the day before). The service at Superdrug, in keeping with its budget image, is of the DIY variety. Customers fill in details on an envelope, and deposit their films in a container. After laboriously completing the form (having had some difficulty understanding the prices and instructions), I realised the films are picked up only once a week, on Thursday, for returning on the Friday. Luckily, this was a Wednesday. But even if I'd waited longer, it's hard to complain at this price.
Packaging: Flimsy; strips of negatives were not separately sleeved.
Quality of prints: There was a good colour contrast, though not as good as Kodak. The balance of the colour was not too bad, and the exposure of the prints was true to the negatives.
pounds 2.45, plus 50p postage (mail- order; company says prints are returned within 7-9 days of posting; in our test, it took 10 days)
The prints from this mail-order company were slightly better than those of its competitor, Truprint, but it trailed behind on service. It promised the mail-order envelopes I requested would arrive within three days; they took five. A second batch I asked for when the first lot didn't turn up took a week. The prints were returned to me 10 days after the film was posted to the company, compared to Truprint's seven. At this rock-bottom price, the company doesn't throw in a "free" film - but I was sent a mass of material for its more expensive sister companies, which do.
Packaging: Flimsy, but the negatives were properly sleeved.
Quality of prints: Poor contrast; the prints looked flat and pastelly. Colours didn't stand out. There was a slight magenta cast in some pictures, which should have been balanced out with green. The skin tones were OK. Print exposure wasn't too bad.
pounds 5.99 (one-hour service)
This was our overall winner. I went to a branch of this franchised chain of minilabs, based in a local chem-ist's shop. The set-up looked less laboratory-like than at Boots, with the machinery spewing out lines of strangers' family snapshots in view of customers getting their prescriptions or buying shampoo (not the place to get any intimate photographs developed). The snaps were ready within the hour, and cheaper than Boots.
Packaging: Very good; the strips of negatives had been separately sleeved in a bag, and presented nicely in a strong envelope made of card.
Quality of prints: The best prints, with a good, punchy, colour contrast. They had been correctly exposed and there was good colour balance; the skin tones looked good. The photos were printed on good quality paper.
pounds 6.49 (one-hour service)
The film was processed in the shop's own minilab, where technicians looking like male nurses from Casualty operated mysterious-looking machinery. The prints were ready within the hour as promised, and there was nothing to criticise in the service. I was lucky, though: my pictures were among the last to be developed before the laboratory ran out of paper and the service was suspended, to the disgruntlement of a queue of shoppers. The service is cheaper if you are prepared to wait longer for your pictures. Smaller branches
of Boots send the films away to other laboratories to be processed.
Packaging: Fairly robust; the negatives were properly sleeved.
Quality of prints: They lacked contrast, making them look thin and milky. The print exposure wasn't quite right, so they looked dark. There was a cyan colour cast, which should have been corrected with red.
pounds 3.59, plus 55p postage, including free film (mail-order; company guarantees film returned within seven days of posting; in our test it took seven days)
The mail-order envelopes I asked for turned up a day later than promised, but the service was otherwise efficient. The company guarantees it will give you your money back if it doesn't get the snaps back to you within seven days. It met this target - just. Bonusprint, on the other hand, didn't offer such a guarantee and took longer. One flaw of Truprint is that you must ring a special number if you don't want to be flooded with junk mail in future. Bonusprint, more conveniently, lets you tick a box on the envelope if you don't want your name added to the mailing lists.
Packaging: The negatives were not bagged at all, lying loose in the pocket of a flimsy folder. They could easily have fallen out and been badly damaged or smudged.
Quality of prints: The poorest of all; the vast majority of the prints had been underexposed in the lab, making them look washed-out. There was also a slight magenta cast to them. !Reuse content