Photographic Laboratory Worker Career

Photographic laboratory workers develop black-and-white and color film, using chemical baths or printing machines. They mount slides as well as sort and package finished photographic prints. Some of these laboratory workers are known as darkroom technicians, film labora­tory technicians, and developers. There are 32,000 photo­graphic process workers and 54,000 photographic processing machine operators employed in the United States.

Photographic Laboratory Worker Career History

The first permanent photographs were taken in the early 19th century. In its early years, photography was limited mainly to professional technicians due to many factors; the size and awkwardness of early cameras and their acces­sories, the long exposure time required, and the complex process of developing photographic plates before chemical solutions dried up all made photography a complex and technical process. However, the Kodak camera, introduced in 1888 by George Eastman, brought photography within the reach of amateurs. This hand-held snapshot camera contained a roll of film capable of producing 100 nega­tives. After shooting the roll of film, people then shipped the camera with the exposed film back to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, for processing.

Photographic Laboratory WorkerFurther technical developments in photography included the invention of celluloid-based film, light-sen­sitive photographic paper, and faster methods of develop­ing film. Today, photography has become so popular that there are few U.S. households without at least one camera. Professional photographers are constantly experiment­ing with new ways of creating interesting pictures. While many professional photographers develop their own film in home darkrooms, the vast majority of amateur pho­tographers bring their film to film centers, drugstores, or camera stores for development. Photographic laboratories have continued to expand their operations to serve this ever-increasing number of amateur photographers.

The introduction of digital cameras, which store images on the camera’s internal computer chips, has brought photography to an even more accessible level. People can now shoot a picture, view it, and then decide whether or not to keep it in the camera’s memory. This development, however, has not eliminated the need for photographic laboratory workers since many people still enjoy the challenge and technical nature of taking pho­tographs with conventional film.

Photographic Laboratory Worker Job Description

Film process technicians develop exposed film or paper in a series of chemical or water baths. Before develop­ing prints, they have to mix developing and fixing solu­tions. Once chemicals are carefully mixed, they immerse exposed film in developer, stop bath, and fixer, which causes the negative image to appear. The developer may vary the immersion time in each solution, depending on the qualities desired in the finished print. After the film is washed with water to remove all traces of chemical solutions, it is placed in a drying cabinet.

The technician may be assisted by a projection printer, who uses a projection printer to transfer the image from a negative to photographic paper. Light passing through the negative and a magnifying lens projects an image on the photographic paper. Contrast may be varied or unwanted details blocked out during the printing process.

Most semiskilled workers, such as those who simply operate photofinishing machinery, are employed in large commercial laboratories that process color snapshot and slide film for amateur photographers. Often, they work under the supervision of a master developer.

Automatic print developers tend machines that auto­matically develop film and fix, wash, and dry prints. These workers attach one end of the film to a leader in the machine and load sensitized paper into the end of the machine for the prints. While the machine is running, workers check temperature controls and adjust them as needed. The technicians check prints coming out of the machine and refer those of doubtful quality to quality control workers.

Color-printer operators control a machine that makes color prints from negatives. Under darkroom conditions, they load the machine with a roll of printing paper. Before loading the negative film, they examine it to determine what machine setting to use to produce the best color print from it. After the photographic paper has been printed, they remove it from the machine and place it in the devel­oper. The processed negatives and finished prints are inserted into an envelope to be returned to the customer.

Automatic mounters operate machines that cut apart rolls of positive color transparencies and mount them as slides. After trimming the roll of film, the mounter places it on the cutting machine, takes each cut frame in turn, and places it in a press that joins it to the card­board mount. Paper process technicians develop strips of exposed photographic paper. Takedown sorters sort processed film.

Photo checkers and assemblers use a backlit screen to inspect prints, mounted transparencies, and negatives for color shading, sharpness of image, and accuracy of identifying numbers. They mark any defective prints, indicating the corrective action to be taken, and return them with the negatives for reprocessing. Satisfactory prints and negatives are assembled in the proper order, packaged, and labeled for delivery to the customer.

Digital imaging technicians use computer images of traditional negatives and special software to vary the contrast, remove distracting backgrounds, or superim­pose photos on top of one another. Precision photographic process workers work directly on negatives. These workers include airbrush artists, who restore damaged and faded photographs, colorists, who apply oil colors to portrait photographs to create natural, lifelike appearances, and photographic spotters, who spot out imperfections on photographic prints.

Laboratories that specialize in custom work may employ a retoucher to alter negatives or prints in order to improve their color, shading, or content. The retoucher uses artists’ tools to smooth features on faces, for exam­ple, or to heighten or eliminate shadows. Some retouch­ers work in art studios or advertising agencies; others work as freelancers for book or magazine publishers.

Other photographic process specialists include print controllers, photograph finishers, hand mounters, print washers, splicers, cutters, print inspectors, automatic devel­opers, and film processing utility workers.

Photographic Laboratory Worker Career Requirements

High School

Employers prefer hiring individuals with at least a high school diploma for photographic laboratory jobs. Besides photography, courses in chemis­try and mathematics are also rec­ommended.

Postsecondary Training

Many two-year colleges and tech­nical institutes offer programs in photographic technology. Gradu­ates of these programs can obtain jobs as developers and supervi­sors in photo labs.

Other Requirements

An interest in photography and an understanding of its basic pro­cesses are natural assets for those applying for jobs in this field. Manual dexterity, good vision (with no defects in color percep­tion), and mechanical aptitude are also important. If you plan to pursue a career as a darkroom technician for a professional photographer, you will need to have experience with developing procedures. Film convenience stores and camera stores, which will generally train you in devel­oping and processing, are good places to get experience.

Exploring Photographic Laboratory Worker Career

Many high schools and colleges have photography clubs, which can provide you with valuable experience in shooting and developing photographs. Evening courses in photog­raphy are offered in many technical schools and adult education programs. The armed forces also train per­sonnel as photographic technicians.


Photographic process workers hold about 32,000 jobs. Photofinishing laboratories and one-hour minilabs employ about 30 percent of this number. Portrait studios and com­mercial laboratories specializing in processing the work of professional photographers for advertising and other indus­tries employ one in nine. Other employers include gen­eral merchandise stores and the motion picture, printing, and publishing industries. There are approximately 54,000 photographic processing machine operators. About 50 per­cent work in retail establishments, while 30 percent work in photofinishing laboratories and one-hour minilabs. A small percentage are self-employed or work in the printing industry, portrait studios, and commercial laboratories that provide services to professional photographers.

Starting Out

After receiving a high school diploma or its equivalent, prospective photographic laboratory workers usu­ally apply for jobs at photofinishing laboratories. New employees in photographic laboratories begin as helpers to experienced technicians. As they gain experience, they can start printing and developing pictures on their own. Semiskilled workers usually receive a few months of on-the-job training, while developers may take three or four years to become thoroughly familiar with their jobs.


Advancement in this field is usually from technical jobs, such as film developer, to supervisory and managerial positions. Semiskilled workers who continue their educa­tion in film processing techniques may move up to devel­oper, head darkroom technician, and supervisory jobs.

Aspiring young photographers often take jobs in photo labs to provide themselves with a source of income while they attempt to establish themselves as profession­als. There they can learn the most basic techniques of color, black and white, and slide reproduction. Those who accumulate sufficient capital may open their own commercial studios.


Median annual earnings for photographic process work­ers were $21,870 in 2005, according to the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor. However, earnings ranged from less than $14,890 to $40,950 or more a year.

Most employees worked a 40-hour week, with premium pay for overtime. Most salaried photographic workers are eligible for benefits such as medical insurance.

Work Environment

Photographic laboratories are usually clean, well lit (except for darkroom areas), and air-conditioned. There is usually no heavy physical labor. Many of the jobs per­formed by semiskilled workers are limited and repetitive and may become monotonous. The jobs often entail sit­ting or standing for a considerable amount of time in one place. Employees in these jobs need patience and ability to concentrate on details.

Some employees, such as printer operators, photo checkers, and assemblers who examine small images very closely, may be subject to eyestrain. Process workers may be exposed to chemicals and fumes, requiring safety precautions.

Photographic laboratory work has peak seasons: end of spring (school graduations), summer (weddings and vacations), and the holiday season.

Though the work of developers and darkroom techni­cians can be technical or tedious at times, their contribu­tions to the clarity and beauty of the finished photographs can be a great source of satisfaction.

Photographic Laboratory Worker Career Outlook

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, over­all employment for photographic laboratory workers is expected to decline through 2014. Most openings will occur as a result of the need to replace workers, especially machine operators.

Digital photography is growing in popularity among amateurs and professionals. According to the Photo Mar­keting Association, more than 21 million digital cameras were sold in 2005. However, the digital revolution is likely to coexist rather than compete with traditional film pho­tography. In the future, however, as digital cameras and image manipulation software continue to drop in price and gain in popularity, the need for photographic lab workers will decrease.

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