I'm going to answer your question based on my own experience. I spent
10 years operating a graphic design studio and partnering with a
professional photographer who processed his own negatives and prints,
so I've seen the photo processing world from behind the scenes.
There are several ways that your film can be processed. One is via
those 1-hour machines that Wal-Mart and other stores use. These
machines are designed to turn out high volumes of decent quality
prints with the least amount of effort and time involved on the part
of the technician. As long as the operator knows what he/she is doing,
the machine is kept in good running order, and the chemicals are
refreshed on schedule, you can safely assume you will receive average
to good quality photos most of the time.
One way in which these one-hour machines save time is by using
automated "average" settings. The machine is calibrated for the
average exposure of your roll of film. Once the technician starts the
machine, all of the photos on your roll will be processed based on
this one setting. This means that some of your pictures might be a
little dark, others might be a little light, skin tones might be a
shade off, but overall they'll be about right. If there is an
attentive technician on the scene who notices a big problem with your
pictures, they might be processed over. Otherwise, any flaws are up to
you to catch.
Another type of photo processing is through the use of a custom lab.
Custom processing means that every single negative on your roll of
film is looked at individually. Then the machine is set to optimize
the results for each picture. The photos are processed one at a time
and the technician examines each picture for color correctness,
exposure, and contrast. If the first print doesn't look right, the
technician will adjust the settings and reprint the picture until it
And finally, there is hand processing -- the most costly but highest
quality printing you can get for your pictures. Again, each print is
tended to individually and minor touch ups, even to individual parts
of a single print can be made if needed.
As you can imagine, custom lab printing and hand printing are much
more expensive and so are usually confined to professional
photographers. For example, you can get an 8x10 print at Wal-Mart for
under $5, but from a custom lab, an 8x10 will run you anywhere from
$15-25 or more. A hand printed 8 x 10 may cost you $45-50.
So, to offer you better quality prints than the super stores, but in a
cost effective manner, some camera stores offer 1-hour (or same-day)
service but with extra attention. They use a one-hour machine or
mini-lab but they monitor the process and use fewer automated
settings. An actual person makes sure your prints come out right. If
done properly, this can give you better quality prints at a pretty
So, what is the answer to your question? Is it worth it, as far as
quality is concerned, to spend the money at your local camera store
rather than to drop off your film at Wal-Mart?
The answer is, it depends.
IF your camera store is just using basic one-hour technology with the
standard automated settings, then you really aren't gaining anything
by going there. However, if they are really trained well and are
giving your photos more individual attention, you will certainly see a
difference in the overall quality of your prints. The colors will be
truer, the contrast better and the exposures all corrected for any
errors you may have made.
The question comes down to, how much quality do you care to pay for?
For myself, I use the low-cost 1-hour places for all of my everyday
snapshots (about 1 roll per month). I've occasionally been
disappointed in the results, but for the most part, I'm content with
On the occasions that I know I've messed up my camera settings (shot a
whole roll of asa 200 with my camera set on asa 400.) I've gone to a
custom lab to make sure the processing is adjusted. If I were taking
pictures for a photo contest, to hang as art on the wall, or of an
important one-time event like a wedding or family reunion, I'd most
certainly pay the extra for custom processing.
So, does that give you a good sense of the balance between quality and
price? It really does come down to exactly what the different stores
are offering and how much you care about quality. I haven't given you
any links here because you seemed to be asking for more of a
knowledgeable first-hand account. I trust I've provided that
Thanks so much for your question,