The Bean Counters vs. The Film Counter

Or:  Why You Should Get Your Film Developed At A Pro-Lab

Another partly-serious, partly-satirical look at the state of things photographic.
April 4, 2014

I was getting ready to post the "Getting Started in Film Photography" article.  I had gone to pick up my film at a local drugstore and had an experience that really got me thinking.

Others have said it at various times:  the retail store is on its way out.  Ken's update page had talked about this.  Not all retail stores are done-for, exactly, but a lot of corporate-owned chain stores are becoming obsolete.  

It's more than just the availability of on-line shopping.  Much of it is the end result of a larger pattern, which I call the Comprehensive Dumbing-Down of Everything.   Once upon a time, stores were interesting, unique places.  The employees had detailed knowledge and training.  Now, a lot of stores are uniformly-bland outlets for stuff in bar-coded bubble packs.  Today, their employees have only minimal training.  Sometimes they don't even know about the machines they're operating.   They have very little knowledge of their products or the context in which those products fit.

Nowadays, your knowing things about stuff is no longer a way for them to make a sale.  Instead it's become an annoyance to them.  

This all started to happen a while ago, but it's reaching the advanced stages now. 

Rise of the Bean Counters

When the bean-counters took the spotlight in the late 1980's, they started firing everyone at the corporations.  Their only goal was short-term financial gain for the companies.  They used terms like "right-sizing" for eliminating jobs.  

The bean-counters did not realize that some things don't directly make money, but they keep you in business anyway.  Here's an example.  There are two variety drugstores in my area.  One of them has a film developing mini-lab.  The other does not.  I never shop at the one that has no mini-lab.  That's because if I want to buy anything they have, chances are the local superstore has it too, and they have it for a lot cheaper.  The superstore even has its own pharmacy. 

In other words, there is only one thing that brings me in the door at the variety drugstore (no, it's not drugs.  Sunsets on film are my drug.)  Nope, what brings me in the door is the film developing!  They get some really busy days with film, so I know I'm not the only person going in there for it.   People drive there from miles around to get film developed.  And while they're there, they buy other stuff. 

A lot of corporate decision makers don't seem to understand that some valuable things are intangible.  I remember a clothing store that used to be down the road from my home.   It was the coolest place.   People flocked there because they wanted to go into an old, unique store with packed wooden shelves and bins and narrow walkways on old wooden floors.  They wanted to dig through stuff for bargains.  They wanted to talk to someone who knew where everything was.   One day the owner thought he'd expand and "renovate".  The store went all corporate-like.  If something wasn't directly there on a rack, it wasn't there at all.  Pretty soon, people stopped going there.  

It closed down within a year of the renovation. 

What had originally made that store interesting could not be translated into numbers.  But it could be ruined by trying to translate it into numbers.

The bean-counter types don't get that. 

The mass firings in corporate America were humorously and poignantly put into movie form in "Office Space", and yes, it really was that bad at a lot of places.  (In real life the firings were not humorous.  At all.)  Entire R & D departments ceased to exist.  Their staff members were sacked.  Those who remained were often put to work developing increasingly obnoxious and oppressive stuff like menu-driven phone support systems.  During these years, a lot of scientists and engineers lost their jobs.  The bean counters thought they had done a great thing by firing everyone and everything.  Actually it sank a lot of companies.  Some big players ended up going under completely.  Others were bought out by rivals.   What really amazes me is that so many people didn't get that lesson.  It was like a big fat elephant standing in the middle of the room:  the bean counters trashed these companies, they even trashed the country, yet so many people (especially the bean counters) missed that obvious point. 

The cost-cutting measures had cut into their own viability.  They got rid of the producers.  Who does that?!!!   They also got rid of the intangible things that invisibly supported these companies.  

Now, everything is so mercenary.  Simple tasks are farmed out to third parties, and they do it so incompetently.  When they mess up, they refer you back to the original company.  The original company refers you back to the third party.   Both of them put the burden on the customer.  It's ridiculous.  I often wonder how much this costs the people in terms of lost productivity.  And you can thank the bean counters for it.  Again.

This is basically what has happened to a lot of corporations, not just in America but worldwide. 

That brings us to today's situation, where the same thing is happening more quietly.  The massive dumbing-down and blister-packaging of everything has transformed retail stores into places I don't even like to go.  Getting film developed at one of these places feels increasingly endangered, edgy, and a bit subversive:  like you shouldn't be able to do it, and no one there can understand why you still are.

"Everything's Going Digital Now..."

So this night, when I had gone to pick up my film, it was just rolled up and shoved into the film canisters.  

I asked the guy if he could cut the negatives and put them in the usual sleeves, because that's what I'd asked for in the beginning.  Instead of saying "Oh, sorry, I misunderstood", he told me that I asked for uncut negatives.  (Nope.  Quite sure I didn't, because we had this problem last time.) 

He then proceeded to tell me the film lab's "days are numbered anyway", because "everything is going digital now".

Aha, there it is:  the thing he's been wanting to say all along. 

It was always on the tip of his tongue, but the pile of C-41 film rolls I'd bring had left him flustered each time, unable to say it.  Like:  "Yeah, I know we have this machine and all, but why are you still using film?"

I thanked him for telling me, because (I explained) I happen to be doing an article on where to get film developed, and I'll go ahead and cross his corporate-owned chain store off the list now.  I said "This was one of about three other places where you could still get film done locally".  He said "What were the other two?  Walmart doesn't do in-house developing anymore".  I explained that Walmart was never on the list.  He just repeated himself.  "Walmart doesn't do in-house developing anymore."

"Yes," I explained again, "but Walmart was not one of the places I was going to mention in my article.  And now, neither is your store.  So, thanks for the tip.  I don't want to direct anyone to a place that doesn't develop film in-house." 

You know what?  I don't blame the guy for his nervous contention.  He's overstressed and overworked.  Corporate headquarters at most American companies have decided they can make more money if don't hire enough people, or don't give enough hours to the ones they have.  Some places are cutting it down to one staff member.  So he's the guy.  He has to do everything:  pick out hearing aid batteries for customers, develop film, help people print photos, ring up candy bars, clean the aisles, and everything else.  He's been bean-counted into an untenable situation. 

The quest for shareholder value will do that, eventually. 

It's why we're being sold expensive cameras that don't have anywhere near the dynamic range of film.  It's why the camera companies would rather sell you a small sensor than a big one.  It's why full-frame DSLR's are several times more expensive than they should be. 

I'm not saying digital cameras are useless, obviously, because if you've been around this site for a while, you can see I do enjoy them sometimes.  Even the small-sensor ones can be pretty useful.  However, let's put things in proper perspective.  Adjusted for inflation, the Canon AE-1 Program with a 50mm lens would retail for about $585 brand-new in 2014.   DSLR's have fewer moving parts and probably bigger economies of scale... yet somehow, a full-frame DSLR with a lens will set you back anywhere from $2,000 to $3,500.  That's too much.  Way too much.  Even a lot of full-frame owners have taken note of this. 

Canon is not the only digicam company with falling profits.  Maybe they need to rethink their pricing structure.  Make a full frame DSLR with the dynamic range of the Fuji S5 Pro, bundle it with a 50mm prime lens for under $1,000, and you would take over the market.  Will they do that?  Not until sales of their current offerings plummet even further.  Something needs to revive the DSLR market, and that something is not going to be more DSLR's with crummy dynamic range and big price tags.

If a Canon 5D MkIII could be bought new (legitimately) for $585 with a lens, I'd gladly steer you toward that.   Maybe even if it were $1,200 with a lens.  Unfortunately, if we want that camera, we have to be willing to pay the amount they're asking.  A lot of working people in 1982 were able to afford a brand-new Canon AE-1 Program, but today's average working person cannot afford a new Canon 5D Mark III.  

Heck, a lot of working photographers cannot afford the 5D Mark III, especially since the photography market is so tough nowadays.  Hate to say it, but the Canon AE-1 Program makes better-looking photos under most conditions, except very low light.  And I say this as a person who wouldn't mind having a 5D Mark III. 

I saw this over on dpreview from an industry executive:  "The question of whether we'll see a wider range of users expressing an interest in purchasing full-frame DSLRs is one that we're monitoring through feedback."

A wider range of users expressing an interest?  Of course they have an interest.  Everyone and their grandma wants a full frame DSLR. 

Problem is, they can't afford it.  The 6D was a step in the right direction, but it's still about $1,000 too much for that "wider range of users". 

Digital Is Dead

If you really want to make some digital users mad, just say that.  (I'm a digital user, but it doesn't make me mad.)  It's true, though, in a way.  Not because digital isn't useful, but because the bean counters killed it.  Just as they have with film.  Just as they have with everything good.   Believe me, I'm sure the engineers at these camera companies would like to put a full-frame DSLR into the hands of every photographer.  The bean counters said No.   Instead they said "Three and a half grand.  Okay, two and a half, and that's too generous."  The bean counters want to press smart phones into the hot little hands of everyone.  They are replacing real music players with dumb terminals on the shelves of your favorite store. 

On its current course, digital is done for.

There are still a lot of places that process film, but don't count on the corporate chain stores.  They're basically gone, unless they suddenly get some common sense.  That would include actually promoting their film-developing services.  (After all, they have the machines.)  When you have one of these places in your town, yet local people are saying "I didn't even know you could still get film developed anymore", that's a basic failure of marketing.   The original Kodak failed in similar fashion.  They had gems like Elite Chrome and Ektachrome, and they just let 'em slip away into oblivion.

Right now the people in charge at these companies are not thinking straight.  They've become too short-sighted.  What they don't realize is that "digital" as they know it is not the future.  Digital is dead already. 

The beginning of the end was the mobile phone with its own operating system and built-in digital camera.  

It looks sweet and nice, but don't be fooled.  Yeah, "rub off here to unlock".  Don't do it! 

Behold the smartphone, destroyer of worlds (and digital camera sales).  They should have named it HAL 9000.  Give it some decision-making power and it would shut off our life-support systems in a millisecond. 

So anyway, the guy at the film counter was telling me "Dry labs are replacing wet labs.  They process the film digitally now."  Uhh, not quite.  You can't process film digitally until you develop it.  And developing is not a digital process.   The "dry lab" is not even a lab.  It's just marketing-speak for a fancy printer that prints your digital files.   For about a hundred bucks you can buy a Canon Selphy and bypass these turkeys altogether.  

Besides, the dry lab is already on its way out.  Just give it some time.  Digital cameras as we know them are on the road to obsolescence.  

The corporate model has to give you less while charging you more money, because that's how shareholder value expands.  That's how the bean counters satiate themselves momentarily.  The DSLR, the bridge camera, the digital rangefinder... they're all gone. 

Or, relegated to a niche:  serious amateurs, pros, and artists.

The average pedestrian just wants a smartphone.  Might as well bundle the photographic capability in with the already-overpriced phone plan.  Many smartphone users don't even bother to get pictures printed;  they just want to post selfies on Facebook.  Try explaining the value of good photos-- even DSLR photos-- to this crowd.  It's a hard sell.   

Why even bother to have printing kiosks anymore?  If things continue on their current track, the people of tomorrow won't even be able to afford a wall on which to hang their photos.  The bean-counter way of doing things is no good in the long term.  It's like trusting a swarm of locusts to help you for a little while.  Ultimately they don't even want you to have a computer that can store files of its own.  You'll have to store all your images and music on someone else's server bank.   By letting you have your own storage, they're leaving money on the table, and they're not going to do that.

The guy at the film counter says "Everything's going digital."  He nods approvingly. 

"Everything" is going straight down the drain, if we let it. 

Don't let it.  

This, my friends, is just one more reason why I still routinely use a film SLR that was introduced in 1981.  The classics earned that title for a reason.  And if your local drugstore can't get their act together, get your film developed at a pro lab.  Besides, old-school dip-and-dunk labs can do all the film sizes anyway.  Those minilabs rely on complex machines that break down, and the new trend is that they don't get fixed again.

In my article, "Getting Started In Film Photography", I talk about some places to get film developed. 

The corporate-run chain store is a structure that can't support much of anything good.  Film developing never really meant anything to them, because nothing in particular means anything to them.  They just deal in whatever sells at the moment.  Right now if you look on their shelves, they're selling smartphone accessories.  OK, so maybe they won't have a wet lab next year.  Then again, I don't see any 5D Mark III's there, either.

Photography is dead.  Long live photography!

Thanks again for reading.

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