Everyone finds a forgotten roll of film at least once in their lifetime– in the back of a drawer, a box labeled “souvenirs, Niagara Falls,” or even in an old camera. 

What to do? Can it be developed? How can you tell, and do you need some sort of specialist or just any local place that has a dark room and can develop the film?

The answer is: it depends on how much you care about the end results. 

For instance, photographer Levi Bettweiser is so drawn to the mystery and potential photos found on undeveloped film that he launched a “Rescued Film Project.” Bettweiser actively seeks out undeveloped film and recovers the images by processing the film in his lab himself. He’s revealed everything from images shot by a soldier during WWII to home life in 1950s America.  

The catch, of course, is that Bettweiser is an artist and a trained photographer who has his own lab and equipment.

So, what’s a curious non-photographer to do?

Even in today’s age of digital photography places like CVS, Cosco, Walmart and Walgreens all offer film developing services. But, keep in mind that these are going to be basic, automated, labs doing the work.

Remember, the film, when processed, will become a negative. The prints are made from that negative so the handling of the physical roll of film is important.

(Which is different than digital photography where there is no physical negative.)

This is important because, depending on the age of the film, the negative itself could be compromised if not created carefully. Plus, some of these places no longer return negatives.

So if there’s a possibility that the images are important to you, it’s worth taking the time to find a lab that caters to artists (who often print their own work, but these days will use trusted labs), or is capable of archival (museum level) restoration.

A online search for “museum quality photo prints city X” will steer you in the right direction. There are also numerous places where film can be mailed and processed. Make sure that there are reviews and testimonials available so you know you’re sending your mystery film to a good lab.

Finally, no matter what, do get that roll of film developed! You never know what memory, story or moment will appear when the contents of the canister are dusted off and the pictures captured brought to life.

(See the image above for an image I shot years ago that, when it was printed, became a favorite.)