Developing Mode: Lorenzo Thapliyal Of The Black And White Box
In our latest A Conversation With we sit down with the founder and director of The Black and White Box, Lorenzo Thapliyal. We cover the process of film development, starting a business while you are young.
The Black And White Box
129 Main Highway, Ellerslie
Interview: Zayyar Win Thein
Photography: Platform Studios
Zayyar: Tell us a little bit about yourself Lorenzo, what do you do and where are you based?
Lorenzo: My names Lorenzo Thapliyal, the founder of The Black and White Box (TB&WB), an independent film lab based in Auckland.
Zayyar: How did you first become interested in photography and film development?
Lorenzo: I first became interested in it at around age 16 after getting a job at a photo lab printing photos. Whenever I start a hobby I can become quite obsessive and want to know everything I possibly can about the topic. So I started buying a variety of cameras, shooting as much as I could, reading up on all things film and photography, developing my own black and white film at home etc. I guess the rest is history!
Zayyar: Cool to hear that the discovery and obsession was organic! For some of us that might not know, how does film development actually work? And how long does one roll of film take?
Lorenzo: For myself and the team, developing a roll is as much a labour of love as it is physical work honestly! Basically once the roll comes into the lab we prepare it for development, attach a tracking number and identify how the customer would like it processed which they indicate on the order form. It is then loaded into a big developing machine which processes the film in complete darkness, taking roughly 15 minutes.
Once the developing is complete the negatives come out of the machine ready for scanning! A lab technician then feeds the roll into the scanner, which essentially photographs the negatives against a light box. It’s here we make exposure, colour and contrast adjustments to make sure the film is looking its best.
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Once scanning is complete the negatives get placed into archival sleeving for when the photographer comes back to collect them. The last stage is another lab technician going through the images in Lightroom to ensure there is no dust or inconsistencies on the roll. And then the fun part, we get to send off the images back to the photographer via a service called WeTransfer. Each roll follows the same process, so they all get the same love and attention.
Seeing happy faces, or getting excited emails from our customers once they receive their images keeps us going and striving to deliver our best.
Zayyar: So quite the process indeed. Were you always interested in starting your own business growing up?
Lorenzo: My father has been an entrepreneur for most of his life, seeing him working so hard since I was very young; I think maybe it’s in my blood. I started up a few small hustles at school buying discounted lollies and drinks from ‘Reduced To Clear’ and flipping them. I really like the idea of being self made and self sufficient. When I was working for other people, in that photography lab, all I could think about was what I would do to improve it, and how I would make it more efficient if it were my lab. So in the end I decided to give it a shot and do it myself.
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Zayyar: So now that you’ve established that you were interested in doing it on your own, what were the first steps that led to you to starting The Black And White Box?
Lorenzo: I originally identified a gap in the market for cost effective black and white film processing here in New Zealand. The idea initially was to offer black and white processing direct to the consumer as well as wholesaling for other stores that wanted to offer it. It started off through word of mouth and then once I realised many people were enjoying the service I was offering compared to the services from other labs, I figured why not just make it a real thing? So my co-founder Caitlin and I spent the next three months working on the branding, sourcing the equipment from all around the world and eventually setting up the lab in my parent’s garage. We named it The Black and White Box based on the original idea of being a black and white only film lab. And despite deciding to expand our services we wanted to keep the name as a reminder of the idea we grew from.
Zayyar: Now you were pretty young at the time of starting the business, was that quite a hard thing to do?
Lorenzo: It definitely made it harder. I didn’t have a lot of money to start up the business so the beginning was a slow process in that sense, buying equipment has been very incremental. And being young a lot of suppliers didn’t take us seriously and didn’t bother putting much time into dealing with us. But now that we’ve grown, both as people and a business, it’s funny to watch how those people change the way they treat you when you’re placing bigger orders, or coming to them with more work, things like that.
We just had to learn to not let people walk all over us and to back ourselves and recognise our value. In saying that though, we have been incredibly lucky to have some really amazing people in the industry back us regardless of our age. And that’s really meant a lot to us, having people see beyond a number and simply recognise and resonate with our vision and value.
Zayyar: From the initial launch of the brand what were some of the obstacles and challenges you faced along the way?
Lorenzo: There is an immense amount of trust in having a stranger handle your precious images and memories, so being the new kid on the block it took a little while for us to build our reputation and trust within the community.
Working with legacy equipment made in the 90’s/00’s is also a big one, there aren’t many technicians around working on this kind of gear anymore so when something does go wrong it can be hard to diagnose and get parts.
And honestly, the amount of time we have in a day. At the beginning of a business you don’t necessarily have the ability to hire many or even any staff and there is a finite amount of hours in the day. The grueling long hours, sleepless nights and never ending to-do list can really get to you sometimes. We now have two staff doing a lot of the processing so that has allowed me to step back a bit and allow more time working in other areas, but the first year was definitely rough.
Zayyar: A big part of what you guys do involves local community and sharing some of your customers photos, how important do you think that is to your business?
Lorenzo: Although we are a business, we are also a group of people who are passionate about film, so for this reason that sense of community has and always will be an integral part of our business. For us it’s as much about being a part of something bigger than just ourselves as it is about running a business, because essentially we believe the two go hand in hand. We owe a lot to our customers and supporters and wouldn’t be able to do the amazing work we do without them. As well, I think because of this community spirit people can actually see that we do care a lot about the process and what we’re doing, and that we’re not just here to make a quick buck and process people’s film with no regard to the importance and value behind these wonderful people’s work and memories.
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Featuring photos on our platforms is a great way to help photographers connect with their peers and celebrate what members of the community are getting up to. It also allows us to show off what exciting projects we get to work on with some really awesome people and brands; these projects help to further the reach of film and reintroduce it back into the audience of these brand’s lives. All in all the community inspires us to keep pushing, trying to innovate and offer fresh ideas and opportunities to an awesome bunch of film shooters.
Zayyar: I know we’ve been talking a lot about film while we live in a digital era, what are your thoughts on digital vs. film?
Lorenzo: This is such a debated question, but in all honesty, neither is really better in every way than the other. At the end of the day they’re completely different mediums which both have their merits, and downfalls, in various situations. Of course I will always lean towards film, but in saying that I would personally never do something like product shots in the studio on film!
Zayyar: Excellent points for sure. So personally for you what are some of your favourite film stocks that’d you recommend for someone starting out?
Lorenzo: For colour film, Portra 400 is a staple in most photographers inventory, and is our most popular stock by far. It’s got a really dreamy pastel look that you’ve most definitely heard about! And if you were wanting B&W film, Tri-X is my personal go-to; a classic emulsion that you really can’t go wrong with!
Zayyar: Leading on from this the revival of film in the past few years has been massive, why do you think that is? And what do you think will be the future of film?
Lorenzo: Things tend to come full circle and the same goes for many other hobbies. People are rediscovering the beauty of tangible things because sometimes they're just so much better than what you can get from an iPhone screen. Most of our generation only caught the tail end of film at most, so experience is limited, but the joy of taking 24/36 shots and not knowing if any came out makes you a more critical, perhaps considered photographer.
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When shooting film you tend to stop, think and appreciate what you are doing instead of taking 20 photos of the same thing and never looking at them again. When you finally get your film back, you often tend to be in awe of what you created; you really cherish those images and those moments. And those feelings extend beyond film into our day to day, being more appreciative and in awe of the world around us. And of course for a lot of people it’s the look. The colour and grain you get from film just can’t be matched with any amount of editing. There’s nothing quite like it but the real thing!
The future of film is a tricky one, as much as there has been a massive revival in recent years film companies like Kodak and Fuji are still financially struggling and restructuring since the industry is not demanding anywhere near the volumes of film it once was. However I do think the future is bright and I have seen first hand a steady increase in the number of people shooting film in the past four years. And I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.
Zayyar: Finally, what's some advice you’d like to pass on to someone wanting to start their own business?
Lorenzo: The best advice I could give is to just start. A lot of people put too much thought into minor details which inhibits them from getting anywhere in the first place. The best thing is to get the ball rolling, you can figure out the rest along the way. As long as you’ve started, you’ve got a chance at making it. If you don’t start, you aren’t even competing in the race.
As well as that, you need to prepare to work hard for very long hours, and prepare to make sacrifices. There’s no point going in half-cocked, it needs to be all or nothing. In saying that though try and keep some degree of sanity. It’s healthy to take a break here and there, burn-out is not a fun place you want to be.
At the end of the day, in all you do, keep coming back to your main goal. And don’t stop until you get there.
Zayyar: Thanks for your time Lorenzo! Can’t wait to see what 2019 cooks up for you and the team.
Interview: Zayyar Win Thein
Photography: Platform Studios