Lab Chats: Boutique Film Lab, USA

Lab: Boutique Film Lab
Mount Juliet, TN, USA
Established: 2014
Film Formats: 35mm, 110, APS, Disc, 126, 127, 120, 220, 130, 4×5. Process C-41, B&W, E-6 & ECN-2.
Scanners: Fuji Frontier SP-3000 & Noritsu HS-1800

Who are we chatting to?
Ryan Tolbert
Position: Owner
Favourite Film Stock: Portra 400
Camera/lens of choice: Pentax 67II w/ Pentax 105/2.4
Quirky fact: In the early days of BFL, I was processing all of my rolls in my kitchen sink.
Please share your favourite piece of work: I’m pretty hard on myself so if I’m speaking candidly I don’t have a favorite piece of work that have created. It just doesn’t exist…yet.  However, my most meaningful work is my personal work. Which mostly consists of candid pictures of my family.  One of my recent pics that I enjoyed taking was a double exposure while vacationing in the Riveria Maya.  We were relaxing by the pool when I saw a great opportunity to overlay some palm trees and the water.  It really gives the photo a painted look. This is different than a lot of other double exposures that are more about shape and white space. I still have a long way to go to perfect the craft of double exposures but I love trying.Tell us about the history of the lab. When, where and how was Boutique Film Lab born?
Boutique Film Lab is a small, independent film lab that was created in 2014 as a passion project out of my home. I started the company after years of being a film hobbyist myself. I never had any intention of starting a film lab, but once I realized how much money I was spending on getting my own film developed, I dove headfirst into the industry and started learning how to do it myself.

At the beginning, I was processing film in my kitchen sink and doing only a handful of rolls a month from my friends who were wedding photographers. The business has obviously grown, and I am lucky and thankful that it has been able to become a full-time operation. I got lucky and was able to buy some scanning equipment from a large processing lab in Tennessee that was closing down at a really good price. Then I had to learn how to use it and fix it, because there aren’t really technicians out there for those kinds of things anymore. These things were built in the 90s, so I spend a significant amount of my time tinkering with my equipment. I had to become sort of a jack of all trades to make this thing work. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am a today with my lab if it weren’t for everything I’ve learned.What is it that makes BFL unique in the film processing world?
I think one thing that sets BFL apart is my personal commitment to customer service. There are not many film labs out there that treat your film like their own and want to have a personal relationship with every photographer that sends in his or her film. I do my best to stay accessible to customers at all times. I text my clients after hours about their orders and respond to messages on Instagram. I’ll rush an order if you text me about a change in circumstances. I’ll change things for you. I’ll answer questions. It’s never an inconvenience for me to take extra time to make the experience something more than an order. I don’t think larger labs can offer that level of support or accessibility.

BFL processes everything from 35mm to 4×5 – including rare formats such as 126, 130, 110 and disc film. What prompted you to want to explore these unusual film formats?
I want to ensure that film photographers can create their art using whatever film is available.  BFL was started with the intention to serve all and not focus on just the mainstream film formats. We love seeing nostalgic shots on Disc film or 126 film for example. Granted, there isn’t a ton of demand for these formats but it allows us access to clients who we can build a relationship with. If they trust us to process these niche formats, then we will be their go-to lab for 35mm and 120 film too.How has BFL changed over time?
I started in my kitchen sink doing rolls from friends and family and have been able to grow by making connections in the industry and staying adaptable.

One cool thing about Boutique I think I have a place in the industry and am moving where it is going. As larger labs continue to close and interest in film, particular rare formats, continues to get more niche, hobbyists and people passionate about the industry are going to be the ones keeping it alive on a smaller scale. This is why having a relationship with my customers is so important to me. It feels like we’re all working together in this industry.

What do you find the biggest challenge when developing and scanning?
By far, the biggest challenge is scale. It takes a lot of man-hours to keep up with growing demand.  Everytime we double our film volume, we have to double the amount of hours. There are no economies of scale in this business. So it’s a constant challenge to keep up with demand but also keep costs to a minimum. We don’t want to price ourselves out of the market, but we have to maintain profitability. Our goal for 2019 and beyond is to figure out how to grow smarter and still retain a fair price point.As you don’t currently offer print services, who would you recommend?
Stayed tuned for a big announcement on this before the end of February.

Is there a particular body of work/photographer that you’ve worked with that is memorable?
One of the most memorable moments was when I scanned some rolls for a Nashville photographer and it appeared to be behind the scenes photos of them building a piano. There were some frames of the piano wood being cut and milled, some of the piano in a paint booth being sprayed, and finally a BTS of a piano photoshoot in a large studio with models, etc. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I did find it odd that the piano was not the traditional black color. It wasn’t even close to traditional…it was purple.  A few weeks passed and the photographer asked for his negatives back ASAP. It wasn’t until he emailed me that I connected the dots. The piano was made at the Yamaha factory in Franklin, TN for the upcoming Prince solo tour. As we know, that tour never happened. Prince was such an influence for so many artists and broke through so many boundaries. Because of this, I will remember these photos forever.
What rising talent is coming through your lab that we should know about?
I’ve seen a lot of great photographers over the years, but one that really enjoy is Blake CareyHe has a great eye for landscapes and the great outdoors. Of course, I’m partial because he worked with me for several years at BFL. He has since relocated to Missoula, MT to be one with nature.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting out shooting film, what would it be?  Keep it simple. Start out by shooting just one film stock (and one camera), and really get to know how it responds to certain lighting conditions. Review your scans, make notes and keep improving. Also, use the same lab for a consistent period of time. I think a lot of people change labs too often because the expectations weren’t met.  When in reality, their expectations for themselves was too high. Talk to your lab, get feedback, ask questions, find out why things look the way they look.

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