3.4 The Quest for C-41

Note from the future:
The invention of photographic film, a light-sensitive emulsion on a flexible strip, along with the access to photo labs, allowed photography to become widespread and popular throughout the entire 20th century.  But there were distinct limitations associated with film that simply don’t exist in modern digital photography.  The limited number of exposures that could fit on a roll of film was one of them, requiring careful consideration of what scenes were worthy of each precious frame.  There was also a need to keep the film safely stored away from direct light and at the right temperature and humidity.  But the most severe limitation was that there was no “preview”; each exposure was taken on faith, because the film needed to be chemically developed and printed before the success (or failure) of a shot could be determined.


I was now a week into my travels and had experienced the luck of good weather and had succeeded in making a few exposures of the night sky from my small arsenal of cameras.  Some of them were astrophotos taken at the prime focus of a telescope, and others were time exposures of the landscape rotating under a starry night.  I was starting to complete entire rolls of film (although admittedly, some were quite short—only 12 exposures.  But even if the film had not been completely utilized, I was eager to find out if my settings and techniques were working.  I would happily wind off the rest of the roll to see if those first few exposures yielded successful images.  But that meant that I would need to find a place that could develop them.  

For those less familiar with photographic chemistry, there are a number of solutions for developing a latent film image into a physical photograph.  The “native” response of silver-halide film is to form a negative: where the densest amounts of metallic silver forms where the most light struck the film.  To make a picture that corresponds to the original scene, a second light-sensitive emulsion must be employed, reversing the negative, making a positive. We often throw the negatives away (or into a shoebox) once the human-readable prints are available.

Color transparencies for presentation slides use another way to develop film.  In this case, the film is first partially developed, but then a chemical process reverses the natural response, and removes the silver that was most exposed, leaving the clear film substrate.  When projected, the image is a positive representation of the scene.  But because the film went through the development step that reversed the normal response of silver to light, it is called “reversal film”.

The two ways of developing film have been standardized over the years by Eastman Kodak and are used worldwide.  Color negatives are developed by the “C-41” process, and transparencies by “E-6”.  The complexity of the E6 reversal process makes it more expensive and time consuming, but C41 has become so efficient that it is possible to develop and print a roll of film in a few tens of minutes, hence the creation of the one-hour photo lab.

I was in Glacier National Park, a popular place, yes, but not a place to find a strip mall with a one-hour photo lab, much less a lab that could handle special processing instructions (film can be overdeveloped to bring out low exposure details by special handling called “push-processing”).

There were no developing facilities inside the park, but what about the tourist-serving towns just outside it?  I inquired at the park visitor center and learned that the nearest towns were too small to provide much in the way of this particular tourist service.  There was the town I had come through two days before, West Glacier, that might have a photo lab, but it was on the other side of the park, too far for an afternoon errand.  No, the nearest candidate was Cardston Alberta, a forty-minute drive.

I headed up the solitary road north toward Canada, a road that seemed to be the dividing line between the Montana grasslands and the eastern front of the Glacier range.  It took me past the grass landing strip known as Babb International Airport (“international” because it serves small private planes from both the U.S. and Canada), and past views of the distinctively shaped Chief Mountain.  Eventually I reached the Canadian border, marked by a wire fence, perhaps to keep cattle from emigrating.  There was a brief stop to show my driver’s license to someone who barely looked at it and waved me on. (This was 2001, pre-9-11).

The town of Cardston was much like the other small towns I had breezed through on my drive across the prairie.  I was able to traverse the full extent of it in search of likely places that might host a photo lab.  After doing so, finding none, and exhausting all other possible options, I stopped to ask.  I know.  But this was Canada so I thought I could get away with it.

I learned that indeed there was once a photo lab in the town, but it had closed some time back.  I was disappointed that I would not be able to get any feedback from my exposure experiments.  Having no further purpose for staying, I began the return trip, reversing my path.  

As I re-entered the U.S. at the northern border, a billboard reminded me that the legal rule in Montana was to drive in a “reasonable and prudent manner”.   I contemplated my afternoon mission.  Would anyone think that driving to a foreign country in search of a C-41 photo lab to see what a few dim frames revealed on an otherwise empty strip of film, was reasonable and prudent?


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1 thought on “3.4 The Quest for C-41

  1. Pingback: 3.5 Dark Sky Enforcement at Many Glacier | Thor's Life-Notes

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