Interview: Gulabi Photo Lab

Gulabi is an independent film lab in the heart of Glasgow’s Southside. They develop and produce high-quality scans of colour and black-and-white film. The lab was founded by friends Ben and Chris, who bonded over photography in 2019 and started the business that same year. Now a team of four, they (generally) take 24 hours to process colour film.  

Q. Could you begin by telling me about the services that Gulabi offers and the processes/machines that you use to provide this?

Chris: We pretty much just do processing and scanning. Regarding processing, we just do C41 colour and black and white. Formats-wise, we mainly develop 35 and 120, but we also do some other little weird formats like 126, 110, APS, and 127. We can pretty much scan all negative film. 

Ben: In terms of machinery, we develop all our colour with a fuji 363 mini lab. The film goes in and comes out dry at the end. For black and white we use a rotary processor, we use it with ID11 chemicals and some Ilford as well. 

Q. Why did you want to open a film lab and why in Glasgow specifically? 

Chris: I moved here from Melbourne, and there were a lot of independent film labs there. So I was wondering where the local one was, and I realised that there wasn’t one, so I had the idea of starting my own indie film lab.

Ben: I was processing my own film, and my friends were asking me to process their film because their only other option was snappy snaps, and we know what they’re like. So yeah, if this doesn’t sound too bad, I realised I could make money. There was a ‘gap in the market’ haha, but that’s a horrible phrase. A lot of things aligned, Chris and I bumped into each other randomly in a cafe and it worked out well in the end.

Q. Could you tell me more about the name choice of ‘Gulabi’?

Chris: Gulabi is the Hindi word for the colour pink. I just really like how it sounds, it’s unique, and I have a real disdain for puns and wordplay, so I liked the strong name, which wasn’t associated with anything else. 

Q. Seeing as you opened in 2019, in what ways did Covid-19 affect your business, and how did you combat this?

Ben: To be totally honest with you, it was really good for us. Everyone suddenly had endless free time, a walk a day and a lot of people decided to start taking photos with that time. At the same time, we had only worked for 6 months before COVID happened, so we have no idea what the normal progression of things would have been had COVID not happened. We can only say that COVID happened, and we got busier.

Q. I’ve seen that you take in used film packaging for recycling, are there any other actions you take to help reduce the environmental impact of film photography? Or any steps that other people can take?

Ben: We recently found a recycling service for disposable cameras, so we can now recycle them and recycle all of our canisters and recyclable waste. Currently, all of our chemical waste gets disposed of by a silver recovery company, but we are getting a machine soon to recover the silver used in the chemistry ourselves. 

Chris: In terms of what people can do, I think it’s hard because I feel like this can sometimes distract from the larger movements and the larger causes of climate change and pollution. That being said, there are little things that people can do, one being using rechargeable batteries for your camera if you can find compatible ones. 

If you’re looking to reduce packaging, you should look into bulk rolling as an option, if anybody wants to bulk roll, we will happily supply cassettes you can use. But apart from that, the main thing is that as we are using already manufactured cameras, the longer you keep a piece of equipment, the less impact it will have. 

Q. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography?

Ben: I was making music videos for a long time and ended up living with a guy who was shooting a lot of stills. I got into it through him and then got super obsessed with it and bulk rolling film, as it was the cheapest way to get into it.  

Chris: I just got into taking pictures as a teenager on the family digital camera. When I was still in my teens a family friend was downsizing their possessions, and I bought an old Canon AE-1 from him. I fell in love with it, and shot on and off with it for many years after. I’m a chemist by trade, so I never worked in photography or the creative arts, so it was just a hobby that I have always done.

Q. As your website says, Gulabi is ‘run by photographers who love all things film’. What type of photography do you do yourself?

Ben: We both end up taking quite similar photos. Personally, I take street photos. It’s mostly black and white, and it’s all probably blurry and out of focus. It’s a complete hobby for us, we are in the lab 10 hours a day 6 days a week, so we don’t have time to be in any way professional photographers, but yeah, we go hard on the hobby.

Chris: I also mostly take street, but I also do a bit of documentary. I’m involved with the Tenants Union, and I hang around and take photos there at events and meetings. But also just vernacular personal photography, it’s just taking happy snaps and compiling them later so that it becomes something more solid. 

Q. What camera gear and film do you use? Do you have a favourite item in particular?

Chris: My main camera is a Leica, and I know that that’s like the Audi wanker driver of cameras, but I love it. I bought it because I like rangefinders. I had a little Canon M before it, but I’m quite a clumsy person, and the camera only cost me like forty bucks, but every time I dropped it, it cost me one to two hundred dollars to get it fixed. So, by the time I’d spend four or five hundred dollars on this forty-dollar camera, I thought it was time to buy something a bit more rugged, so my primary camera is a 1967 Leica M4, and I mainly shoot on a 35mm Biogon lens.

I also have a little fuji point-and-shoot that I love and chuck in my pocket just for happy snaps and stuff. I started shooting medium format because of the 35mm colour film shortage last year, so I got myself a Fuji 645, which is essentially an insane, enormous point-and-shoot.

I love shooting Portra 160 in all of these, it’s maybe my favourite colour film. I also love shooting Ilford XP2. I’m really impatient, so I love that we can put it through colour chemistry, but I’ve really grown to like how it looks.

Ben: I recently joined the Audi wanker club by buying a Leica M5 last week, and I must admit, I see why people like them. I have yet to see any photos but have enjoyed using them. I also have a Mamiya 6, which is a medium format camera, that I’ve been using a bit more recently, and I also have the same Fuji point-and-shoot that Chris has. In terms of film, I love Ilford FP4 and then developing that in Rodinal.

Q. Stemming from this interest in photography, I assume you started developing your own film before starting your business. Would you recommend that others also try to develop for themselves?

Ben: Yes, 100%. However, I’d recommend self-developing black and white rather than colour. I have developed some colour, but I’d recommend buying a bulk loader, a Paterson tank, and some chemicals. The expenditure gets covered very quickly. The experience of it is amazing, the first time you pull a developed roll out it’s just like magic. The learning curve is pretty steep, but once you learn what affects the things like temperature, time and agitation make you can balance out pretty quickly and start to get some really really good results. 

Q. I was wondering if I could get your opinions on the current popularity of film and what the future might look like for the hobby?

Chris: I feel that as everything is kind of unlimited now, you can take 1000 photos on your phone, and they will all be amazing. They’ll be perfectly exposed, and your highlights will be clipped to the perfect whatever, and it’s the same with digital cameras. So having restrictions like only having 36 exposures and having your ISO fixed can be quite liberating, and working within can really stimulate your creativity. All in all, I think it comes down to the fact that it’s novel, it’s fun and you get a pre-built look when shooting a film that I think just looks great.

Q. What do you see as the future of film? For example, could we see the development of modern film cameras and new filmstock?

Ben: The number one issue that we see is that nobody is even considering producing any equipment to process film. Everything we use in here is 20 years old, with no one there to service it, no spares and no new circuits to replace broken ones with. Everything done on the developing equipment side of things is built on unsteady ground. Unless someone starts to research and develop new ways of developing colour film with minilabs, I really don’t know what the scene will look like in another 10 or 20 years. 

Chris: In terms of short and medium term, I hope the film supply becomes more stable. I don’t know what the future of colour film and colour processing is, so I think the future of film might be black and white. I’d like colour to still be around when I’m an old man, but I think we might just have to enjoy it while we can. 

Q. Lastly, have you considered expanding the business? Are there any plans to offer further services or adapt your process?

Ben: We don’t want to expand it in terms of space. We did plan to move out of this space, but the world kind of put the brakes on that, so in terms of other Gulabis, no, there will be no baby Gulabis on the horizon. In terms of services though, maybe.

Chris: We’ve been looking into things such as large format processing or looking into some sort of DSLR contact sheet scanning. Also, maybe adding some services like photo finishing so that you could get a fully edited product from us. We are always making plans, but the main thing that we want to provide is a good, reliable service. We won’t be adding anything just for the sake of it. 

Gulabi is open Wednesday-Saturday, but you can drop film into drop boxes around Glasgow anytime.

By Abe (he/him) and Rosa (she/her)


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