CVS drives another nail in film’s coffin: No more 1-hour processing

The phase-out of CVS’s film developing service began four years ago, as consumers began switching to digital cameras.
The phase-out of CVS’s film developing service began four years ago, as consumers began switching to digital cameras.

The “1-Hour Photo” signs have come down outside CVS Pharmacy stores in Boston and throughout the United States, as the Woonsocket, R.I., drugstore chain is now no longer developing photographic film for customers while they wait.

A phase-out that began four years ago concluded at the end of July with CVS removing the last of its one-hour film processing stations from its 3,000 stores, making another moment in the passing of film photography to a niche hobby.

Two decades ago there were 7,600 stand-alone film-developing companies such as Fotomat in the United States, according to the US Census Bureau; as of 2013, there were only 190.

At CVS, customers will be able to drop off film rolls for shipment to a processing center in Greenwood, S.C., run by Japanese photo company Fujifilm. Customers will get their photos back in about a week.

Other retailers are headed in the same direction. For instance, the Walgreens pharmacy chain still has while-you-wait film developing in about 800 stores, a fraction of the company’s 8,200 US stores. None are in Boston; the last holdouts in Massachusetts are located in Beverly, Bellingham, and Swampscott.

And there’s no telling how long the service will be offered at these locations. “Really what it comes down to is customer demand,” said Walgreens spokesman Phil Caruso.

Few consumers will shed any tears, since nearly all casual photographers now use digital cameras, mostly the ones built into cellphones. CVS, Walgreens, and many other retailers offer services to make glossy paper printouts of digital photos.

Besides, hobbyists who cherish old-school photography didn’t always trust a drugstore’s automated film-processing machine to get the job right. “I never used one-hour CVS,” said Martin Heller, a freelance writer from Andover. “I was too picky.” Instead, Heller has his film processed at professional photo labs.

Even Heller mostly shoots digital photos, but he also owns an Olympus camera from the 1970s, and uses it to shoot one roll of film each month. Because he can take no more than 36 shots with a roll of film, and can’t see the results until it is developed, film forces Heller to be a more disciplined photographer.

“It slows me down,” he said. “It gets me into a frame of mind so when I go back to digital, I feel refreshed and I’m going to think more about what I’m doing.”

But another serious film fancier, Stan Horaczek, said he regularly uses the one-hour photo service at the Walgreens near his home in Albany, N.Y. “The one I’m near seems to be going pretty strong,” said Horaczek, an editor at Popular Photography magazine. “I know they’re probably one machine breakdown away from ending it, though.” He used to rely on a CVS store in Schenectady, but that store’s film processing machine broke down a year ago, and wasn’t replaced.

Horaczek said if Walgreens phases out in-house developing, he’ll cut back on color photography, because it’s more costly to ship the film to a professional processor. In addition, he’s planning to process his black-and-white film at home, because it’s much easier than working with color.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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