Photographic Laboratory

Working in a Photographic Laboratory is varied and fast-paced, requiring a high degree of accuracy and quality control.

A Photographic Laboratory is a technical facility that serves the needs of professional photographers, designers and serious amateurs for the production of high-quality photographic images on a variety of papers and other display materials.

Photographic laboratory technicians do not generally take photographs but knowledge of photography is very useful as laboratory work is an essential part of the overall process of taking and producing pictures.

Photographic processing laboratories fall into two broad categories.

Photofinishing laboratories (often known as D & P, which is an abbreviation of developing and printing) provide a service for the amateur photographer, and the other is professional laboratories who offer a specialist service for those making a living out of photography.

In the past 15-20 years, laboratories, both amateur and professional, have expanded rapidly and have embraced modern technology to achieve this rapid growth. This gives would be employees excellent opportunities both on the technical and on the management sides of the industry. There is always a shortage of trained technicians, mainly due to the continued expansion in this area, and jobs are available in all parts of the country.

D & P Photofinishing

The photofinishing industry breaks down into two areas. Firstly the large operation, of which there are only handfuls, each employing hundreds of people. Secondly the small mini labs you see in the high street which will process your films within an hour if necessary.

  • The big photofinisher can offer a large variety of jobs and a good career is there for someone with 'people handling' skills or who is technically very competent. Thousands of films are processed every week using highly automated machines which are computer controlled and are operated by semi-skilled labour. This is the type of job one would start on but it is quite possible to move on to more skilled jobs offering greater rewards.

  • Mini labs, on the other hand, are small operations employing only a handful of people but one is often dealing direct with the customer and at the same time operating the machinery that produces the prints. There are hundreds of mini labs up and down the country and anyone with mini lab skills would have no difficulty in finding a job, although the potential for advancement is limited.

Professional laboratories

Professional laboratories have been growing rapidly in recent years. They offer a wide range of premium quality services that specifically meet the needs of professional photographers. These include:

  • Processing film

  • Printing from film and digital files

  • Digital image manipulation and retouching

  • High end scanning

  • Large format printing and mounting for exhibition and display purposes

Many laboratories specialise in certain areas but there are a few who offer a very comprehensive range of services. The quality of work produced is of the highest standards and the people working in the laboratories are highly skilled.

Employees starting straight from school will be expected to carry out fairly elementary jobs, but training would be given and one could expect to advance quickly, provided the right aptitude is shown. It is true to say that many people who started straight from school now hold important positions within professional laboratories. There is always a shortage of trained technicians and, therefore, there are always good opportunities to be found.

Before the arrival of digital cameras, photographic laboratory work involved developing film, duplicating slides, printing contact sheets, and producing high quality prints in a dark room, as well as retouching, mounting and laminating images for display. However, since most images are now originated and handled in digital format, the modern photographic laboratory is a bright-lit, computerised facility containing digital workstations and a variety of photographic, large-format and inkjet printing equipment.

The revolution in digital imaging, and the introduction of affordable 'home' printers, has also meant that Photographic Laboratories have had to diversify into new 'value added' areas of image production in order to remain profitable. These new areas often include products and services such as:

  • Online ordering and reordering systems

  • Billboard, large format and poster display

  • In-store promotion Units and counter displays

  • Banners and exhibition display stands

  • Display graphics and accessories

  • Photo montage

  • Photo restoration

  • Fine art canvas printing

  • Wedding album and personalised calendar production

  • Personalised wallpaper printing

  • Backlit displays

  • Lenticular and 3D graphics

In some cases, Photographic Laboratories have diversified so far away from processing and printing that they now regard themselves as Image Producers, who may also carry out some design and printing work formerly undertaken by graphic designers or graphic printers.

Most people who work in the Photographic Laboratory and Image Production sector are employees who enjoy the benefits of a regular income, holidays and a pension.

Employment in Photographic Laboratory Field

The job profiles roles relevant to the photographic laboratory sector include Laboratory Manager, Minilab Operator/Machine Print Operator, Digital Imaging Specialist - Laboratory, Print Finishing Technician.

Most Laboratory Managers working today started in a technical position such as Minilab Operator / Machine Print Operator and Digital Imaging Technician before moving into to a management role. This route has the advantage of providing good background knowledge and experience of the equipment, systems and processes involved, which is invaluable in such a demanding and varied role.

In larger photographic laboratories, Laboratory Managers may have the opportunity to progress into a more specialised management, marketing or product development positions.

Since most Lab Managers progress into this position from a technical position within the laboratory, there are no set qualifications for this role. However, employers usually expect the Lab Manager to combine excellent technical and managerial skills with extensive experience of professional laboratory and/or retail minilab work.

The most common route into becoming a Machine Print Operator is to first gain experience as a Minilab Operator in a photo retail environment . Most professional laboratories will also ask that applicants should have an outgoing customer-oriented manner, an interest in photography and a willingness to learn. On the job training on additional equipment (e.g. inkjet and large format printers) will usually be provided in-house at the laboratory or with the supplier.

Print Machine Operators who develop a good understanding of all the equipment, processes and the workflow within a professional photographic laboratory may be promoted to senior technician (in larger labs) or to Lab Manager.

No formal qualifications are required to become a Machine Print Operator, though applicants may well have received previous training on minilab equipment in a retail environment. Laboratories usually ask that applicants for this role have an interest in photography and good computer skills. Training and qualifications in the use of photo imaging and desktop publishing software, such as Photoshop, Quark, Illustrator or InDesign may also be useful.

Many Digital Imaging Specialists currently working for professional laboratories progressed into this role from film processing, print finishing or photographic printing work. However, this situation is changing with many colleges now offering NVQ and SVQ qualifications in Digital Imaging. This means that new entrants can now secure positions directly from college, without previous laboratory experience.

There are no formal entry requirements for this role and many laboratories currently employ people who were previously film processing technicians, photographic printers or print finishers before they added computing and digital imaging existing skills to their other work experience.

The Print Finishing Technician requires excellent manual dexterity and a keen attention to detail. As a result a typical route into this kind of work is often through picture framing, woodwork or model making - or other roles where technicians need to work with their hands to accurate dimensions.

There are no formal entry requirements for this role, but the work would suit someone with a calm attitude, a systematic approach and prior experience in woodwork, model making or another craft activity which requires accurate measuring and good manual dexterity.

Training on specific items of laboratory equipment is usually provided "on the job" and by some of the major suppliers to the industry.

Further Resources

The Photo Marketing Association (PMA)
is an international association representing over 20,000 member companies across the world operating in photo imaging service centres, laboratories, photofinishing and retailing. The association supports businesses and provides a forum for the interchange of ideas.

Local careers offices, Job Centres and the local press will also advertise vacancies in photographic laboratory work. .

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