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Photographic Process Workers

If the developing of film and printing of pictures were left to the average photographer, few photographs would be taken. Instead, professionals and amateurs alike generally rely on photofinishing or custom photo labs to develop film, make prints and slides, and do related tasks such as enlarging and retouching photographs. Some photographic process workers operate machinery that automatically develops and prints film; others do detailed tasks that cannot be automated.

All-round darkroom technicians can do everything necessary to develop and print film. They vary the developing process according to the type of film--black-and-white negative, color negative, or color positive. For example, a developing process for black- and-white negative film covers five steps: Developer, stop bath, fixing bath, washing, and drying. The first three steps use chemical solutions and are performed in darkness. In a hand operation, the technician fist immerses unwound film in the developer to bring out the image on exposed film. After a specified period, the technician transfers the film in the developer to bring out the image on exposed film. After a specified period, the technician transfers the film to a stop bath to prevent over-development. Next, the film is placed in a fixing bath that makes it insensitive to light to prevent further exposure. Finally, the technician washes the film with water to remove the fixing solution and places the film in a drying cabinet. Although processing still is done by hand in some small photographic studios, technicians in most photographic labs operate machines that automatically perform the steps described above.

The darkroom technician makes a photograph by transferring the image from a negative to photographic paper. Printing frequently is performed on a projection printer, which consists of a fixture for holding negatives and photographic paper, an electric lamp, and a magnifying lens. The technician places the negative between the lamp and lens, and the paper below the lens. When the technician turns on the lamp, light passes through the negative and lens and records a magnified image of the negative on the paper. During printing, the technician may vary the contrast of the image or remove unwanted background by either using paper patterns to shade part of the photographic paper from the projected image or by adjusting the height of the lens above the paper. After removing the exposed photographic paper from the printer, the technician develops it in much the same way as the negative. If the customer desires, the technician mounts the finished print in a frame or on a paper or cardboard back.

Some darkroom technicians specialize in one aspect of photographic processing work. For example, airbrush artists restore damaged and faded photographs. They also color drawings to simulate photographs. Photographic retouchers alter photographic negatives and prints to accentuate the desired features of subject or remove undesirable ones. Colorists apply oil colors to portrait photographs to create a natural, lifelike appearance. Photographic spotters cover or spot out imperfections on photographic prints using a gloved finger, brush, or pencil. Color laboratory technicians produce color prints, negatives, and slides by hand.

In addition to working in the laboratory, darkroom technicians may set up lights and cameras or otherwise assist experienced photographers. Many technicians, particularly those in portrait studios who aspire to become professional photographers, divide their time between taking and processing pictures. In some labs, helpers assist technicians. Technicians also may be assisted by photographic process machine operators who specialize in a particular activity.

In most large photo labs where film developing is largely automated, darkroom technicians supervise operators whose assignments require only a limited knowledge of developing and printing. Included are film developers, who operate equipment that develops still or motion picture film automatically; color-printer operators, who control the equipment used to produce color prints from negatives; automatic print developers, who operate machines that develop rolls of exposed photographic paper; takedown sorters, who sort processed film; and automatic mounters, who tend the automatic mounting presses that cut film into individual transparencies and seal them in mounting frames.

Working Conditions

Photo lab jobs are not physically strenuous, and the work is done in clean, appropriately lighted, and air-conditioned photofinishing laboratories. However, many workers, especially in large laboratories, do repetitious work at a rapid pace. Some photographic process workers are exposed to fumes from the chemicals used to develop film. Workers such as airbrush artists and photographic sorters, who perform detailed tasks, may be subject to eye fatigue.

Most photo lab employees work a 40-hour week. In labs that specialize in processing film for amateur photographers, employees may work a considerable amount of overtime, at premium pay, during peak seasons such as summer and after Christmas.


Photo process workers held about 69,100 jobs in 1990. About half worked in large photofinishing labs that process film for amateur and professional photographers and in minilabs that process film at the customer's convenience. Many others worked in photo labs operated by portrait and commercial studios and with motion picture producers, photo equipment manufacturers, and other organizations. Darkroom technicians also work in commercial labs that specialize in processing the work of professional photographers.

Photo process workers are employed in all parts of the country but are concentrated in large population centers.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most photo process workers learn their skills through informal on-the-job training. Beginners start as helpers and gradually learn to develop and print film by assisting experienced technicians. It generally takes 2 to 3 years to become a fully qualified darkroom technician. Some helpers specialize in a particular activity, such as printing or developing. Generally, less training time is required to become a specialist than to become an all-round darkroom technician.

When hiring darkroom technician helpers, employers prefer applicants who are high school graduates. Courses in chemistry and mathematics are helpful to people interested in this filed. Some high schools and trade schools offer courses in photography that include training in film processing. The Armed Forces also offer training in photographic processing. Experience gained through processing film as a hobby is helpful.

Several community colleges offer 2-year programs leading to an associate degree in photographic technology. Formal training also is available from vocational schools and technical institutes. Completion of postsecondary courses in this field is helpful to people who are interested in supervisory and managerial jobs in photo labs.

Some darkroom technicians eventually become professional photographers. Others advance to supervisory positions in laboratories.

On-the-job training for workers in specialized photo process occupations ranges from a few weeks for print developers and automatic mounters, for example, to several months for photo retouchers and spotters. For many jobs, manual dexterity, good vision, including normal color perception, and good hand-eye coordination are important qualifications.

Job Outlook

Employment of photo process workers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000 due to rising demand for photographs from individuals as well as careeres. Many additional openings will result from the need to replace experienced workers who change occupations or stop working.

The demand for film processing is expected to rise as a result of the expanding interest in amateur photography--spurred by rising population and personal income as well as improvements in still and movie cameras that make them easier to load and operate. careeres and government also are expected to contribute to the demand for film processing through expanded use for film photography in research and development activities and increased use of photographs to illustrate printed materials. Employment of photographic process workers is not expected to keep pace with the demand for film processing, however, because of the continuing automation of photo lab operations.


Earnings of photo process workers vary greatly depending on skill level, experience, and geographic location. Median earnings for full-time photo process workers in 1990 were about $286 a week. The middle 50 percent earned between about $215 and $416 a week. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $184 a week; the highest 10 percent, more than $546.

Related Occupations

The more highly skilled photo process workers--all-round darkroom technicians and color laboratory technicians, for example--need a specialized knowledge of the photo-developing process. Other laboratory workers who apply specialized technical knowledge include chemical laboratory technicians, crime lab analysts, food testers, medical laboratory assistants, metallurgical technicians, and quality control technicians.

Sources of Additional Information

For information about employment opportunities in photographic laboratories and schools that offer degrees in photographic technology, write to:

Photo Marketing Association International, 3000 Picture Place, Jackson, Mich. 49201.


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