Business & Industrial

SOLARLAB “Film photography has taught me to wait for the right moment.” (TH/EN)

Published Date : 24 Jul 2019

Resource : Creative Thailand


Human beings have created ways to record their memories especially those related to beauty and aesthetics. From the earliest record, we started keeping track of memories from paintings on cave walls, to papyrus drawing, to oil painting on canvas. Until 1490, Leonardo Da Vinci officially recorded the use of camera obscura that some painters used to produce models for their paintings. In 1826, the world came to know the first-ever-recorded surviving camera photograph, “View from the Window at Le Gras”, a heliographic image created by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. From that point onwards, development in photographical technology has never stopped, from pewter plates to films and to digital era today. Who would have imagined the day that all we have to do is to just press the shutter and the well-exposed photos are ready to be viewed almost immediately?

However, there are those who can’t help but feel that this developed technology has taken some satisfying experience out of the arts of photography. Poon, Mr. Nattaphol Piriyawatkul, the owner of SOLARLAB, Khon Kaen has spent some time with us sharing his passion in film photography and his view on the direction of this film photography business in Khon Kaen, for some of us may still wonder why, with fully developed features of high-technological digital cameras, some photographers (many among them are young generations) are still attracted to films.

How did you get started in this photography business?
I’d taken photos for decades since high school. But at that time, I started with digital cameras. I took photos for fun in my leisure time and also worked as a part time photographer. I’m so into camera gadgets as well. But I found digital cameras no longer challenging and fun for me, as all they have offered is just some increasing megapixels or faster auto-focus mode; those are not exciting for me anymore. When I was in my sophomore year, I developed some interest in film camera and I studied film development techniques from lecturers at the Faculty of Fine Arts while also asking for their permission to use the dark room available at the faculty. However, at that time, film photography was pretty expensive; I got to spend some money on films and some development chemicals which were too much to afford, so I came back to digital cameras.

Until recently, about two years ago, I again found that digital camera was not very challenging. You take photos and you see the pictures immediately. If you don’t like the photos, you can just erase them. I think this characteristic has some good and bad sides. Personally, I want to get in touch with the very basic mode of photography. I also feel that films produce beautiful colors. Whenever you press the button, you’ll never know the result; that’s very exciting to me. We got to use our imagination. We don’t actually know if the results will come out as planned. For some photos, I was pretty sure that they would come out nice, but they came out a disappointment; whereas some photos I didn’t plan for them, but they came out right. It’s beyond your expectation and that’s why I really enjoy it.

What is SOLARLAB and how did it get started?  
SOLARLAB is a film development lab. We also sell films, but we don’t take photography jobs. We started the lab a year ago, since 11 June 2018. Before that I’d helped my brother at a coffee house and also worked as a wedding photographer. I quite enjoyed it at that time because photography was what I liked doing. But working as a wedding photographer, you got to take photos the way your customers liked you to do instead of creating photos you wanted to do. Until last year I met an old friend who persuaded me to get back to film photography and we found a business opportunity to do film laboratory in Khon Kaen so we decided to open SOLARLAB. 

How did you come up with the name “SOLARLAB”?
In order to get a picture, we need light. Without light, there’ll be no photo at all. And the source of light that we’re all exposed to is from the sun. Sunlight is the most crucial source; it helps us see things and possibly produce photographs, so I went for this name, SOLAR. 

What is distinctly different between film photographs and digital photographs? 
I think it’s the color. Digital photography tries so hard to produce realistic colors and minimize color deviation. But for films, the colors are different from what we see. It appears to have it own beauty. For me, the colors are not necessarily correct and realistic, but with some mood and tone, it’s also beautiful. Some photos, like a picture of a cup of coffee, when taken by a digital camera, it looks so real. But when taken by a film camera, the dark shade could be altered, and the color of the coffee could be darker. I found it beautiful. It’s like seeing paintings which do not always look realistic, but they represent beauty in their own way.

What is the magic of film photography? 
I think film helps slow us down. We’re in the era that everything goes really fast. But with films, you have some times to think and review of what you are going to do.

When I went out for photography, some finished films will be kept for a month or two weeks before their development. I just wanted to make sure that my feelings towards the place would be gone first. If I developed the films right after photo taking, I can’t be certain if these pictures look beautiful because they are really nice or because I still carry some impressions towards the place I visited. After taking some time off, when I look at these photos, I’ll also be reminded of the moment these photos were taken. 

Another point is that films make us become more meticulous. We got to think before taking a shot. Now I still use digital cameras, but the habit of taking film camera makes me think before taking any photos. The results are obviously better. In the past with digital cameras, I didn’t actually know what to look at, I just pressed the button because I know that I can select the right photos afterwards. But with films, we got to look for the focus first ad wait for the right moment.  I think this is how some photographers found film photography magical.

What is the limitation of film photography?
You can press the button once and then that’s it. Also, taking photos in less light area is another limitation. Films need light to produce photos. With sufficient light, there’s no limit. 

Please tell us about the working process in SOLARLAB.
For one year, I do almost everything by myself in the lab. My partner takes care of marketing and provides other supports. We’ve just had a new staff to help out.  

Regarding film development, for black and white films, I have some previous knowledge and I learned also from the internet. It’s pretty convenient today to learn new tricks. And for color film development, I have some basic knowledge and also learn while working.

Are there any distinctly new technologies in film development? 
Almost 80% of the process is still the same; the use of films and film development are the same. Some changes may be the new formula of chemicals used in the development process which helps save time and produces better results. We use a minilab machine for color films. But for black and white films, dark room is still necessary. 

In the past, when we developed a film, we would print photos on paper.  But today, most customers want their photos ready in digital files so that they can share the photos on social media like Line or Instagram right away. So, we must scan the photos in digital files and send them via clouds and other cyber sources.

What is your target group? Are there any communities or clubs for film photography in Khon Kaen?
Not really, we’ve not formed an official club or anything. But there are mainly two different groups. The first group is the customers who are in their 30s and have previous experience with films. They come back to films because they feel like they have turned back to the old days. The other group is young photographers; most of them are still in college. They have no prior experience with films and want to try it for new experience. We always have new customers visiting the shop. Some become regular customers, and some have gradually disappeared. We don’t actually know why. Perhaps, it’s because film photography is expensive. Every click we take, that means we have to pay for it. It requires skillful photographers to produce satisfactory results. 

It seems like a niche business. Do you find its niche market a threat or an obstacle? 
The market is pretty small. But for the past year, we found the business growth quite satisfactory, not only in Thailand but all over the world. Though it’s niche, but it’s still alive. I think it’s like music market; we still have CD with music streaming and Spotify. Films are also like that. It seemed like digital photography will kill of film photography. But film still makes the way back to the business. 

Do you think that the return of film photography will be just another fashion?
It can be. But I still think that a lot of photographers still enjoy films. I don’t actually know when it’ll fall out of favors. But one year after SOLARLAB is opened; the business is still going well. This year, FUJI also announced that there will be a launch of newly invented black and white films into the market. I think that as a big manufacturer still finds the opportunity in the market, that’s a good sign for film photography. 

Are there many similar photography labs in Khon Kaen? 
There are some, may be a few places. But I don’t see them as rivals; I see them as business partners. If it was only my lab in Khon Kaen and there are more people interested in films, I wouldn’t possibly serve them all. The photography lab needs time to work in details; the process can’t be rush. If we have more similar labs, it means other people also see similar opportunity in the business. In Bangkok, it is a very active circle; I think there are at least 50 labs. The new ones appear every month. 

What is your plan for the future? 
The business is still going well. But I want to generate knowledge to other photographer fellows and public.  Today, a lot more people are interested in films, but I think their knowledge is not sufficient. There’re cases that the films they took have been damaged for many reasons. For example, they opened the back of the camera before unwinding the film because they expected to see the photo appeared on the film, just like ready-to-view photos in the digital camera. Another problem is using unsuitable ISO. For example, ISO 100 is suitable for daylight shooting, but they used it for night shooting. There are some limitations for films that you need to know before taking photos. I want to help sharing the knowledge. 

What I plan is to arrange a speaking session, perhaps on Saturday, 10.00 a.m. – 12 a.m.; anyone who has any questions regarding film photography is welcome. We’ll talk about basic of photography, how to produce good results, some problems about photography, etc. I want them to come and share because each photographer has different types of camera. We’ve done this talking before last year when we invited a famous photographer to talk at the shop. I want to see this place the center and a community for people who love taking photos. 

What is your expectation in the business? 
I want to build a dark room and share it with other photographers. I want to have the place where we can do thing in 100% analog without any helps from technology. And also, like I said, I want to generate knowledge to people. Who knows, some day some people may continue to grow in the circle and finally become great photographers who bring reputation to Khon Kaen or to the country. I don’t mean that I know a lot and can help people to become great. But I believe that when you have good background knowledge, you can be developed into something great. Young generations are very talented and there’s information everywhere. I think the starting point is very crucial so that you’ll head into the right direction.

SOLARLAB (must always be capitalized, “it’s our style”, said Poon) is located at Soi Sri Chan 4, Sri Chan Road, Khon Kaen. Open daily, except Tuesday from 12.00- 8.00 p.m. When asked why the shop is close in the morning, Poon said most customers normally visit the shop in the evening after work anyway, so this time would work most conveniently for him and his customers. 

For those who are either experts or real newbies, all are welcome to drop by and share some passion in film photography at SOLARLAB. Poon is always happy to welcome you all. 

Story By Dr. Paradee Tungtang
Photography by Titipat Pattanawijit (ROUGE Studio)