TAMPA — On a Tuesday morning in March, light streams through the large windows of the Coastal Film Lab. Two neon signs hang from the high white walls: a pink flamingo, a nod to the owner’s upbringing in Florida, and a lucky cat behind the crate, a symbol of good fortune. The lo-fi music passes gently above the chatter of the regulars who have dropped off yet another film.
An employee records the films – some from locals, others mailed in from as far away as the Virgin Islands. A lab technician uses gloved hands to hang long orange-brown 35mm negatives on S-hooks before running them through a scanner. On an oval table, another MacGyvers worker gently brings an old camera back to life, armed with cotton swabs and toothpicks and syringes filled with isopropyl alcohol.
In the same room, customers can browse shelves of refurbished cameras, browse a metal cabinet full of camera accessories, or stare into a mini-fridge stocked with movies. They can walk around to ask the technicians a question about their latest project or sit with a friend on the sofa by the windows and flip through photo books.
The relaxing vibes and open floor plan of the Coastal Film Lab are intentional. Owner and founder Stephen Zane, a local commercial portrait photographer, wanted to create a space where creatives could find a home away from home: somewhere relaxing and inspiring, but never pretentious. The welcoming atmosphere is a big draw for its customers, many of whom are new to film photography.
“We have people who have been there for a while, or people who, like me, learned on the internet a few years ago. Or old people who come back to it,” Zane said. “But most people who do it are middle schoolers, even high schoolers, who are just starting to get into it.”
“We’re all that personality type,” he continued. “You just go down the rabbit hole and never come out.”
Zane was sucked in as a teenager in New Tampa and Riverside Heights. He began using a twin-lens reflex camera to capture square images of landscapes, and sent his rolls to be processed in Utah before learning to develop black-and-white film at home. .
“I really like cameras and mechanical things,” said Zane, now 26. “I wanted to have something that didn’t obsess me over what the image looked like right after I took it. It forced me to just be in the moment.
Soon Zane was turning nearly a dozen reels (and spending hundreds of dollars on processing) every month. Looking for a more economical system, Zane emptied his savings and bought a $6,000 lab film scanner. Oh shoothe was thinking. What did I do?
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At first, he only used the machine for himself and a few friends. Then, to help recoup his investment, he started a small business parallel to his home. Customers dropped off films in his mailbox and he scanned once a week.
When the pandemic hit, Zane’s commercial photography jobs dried up, so he started taking on more scanning jobs and hired two friends who had found themselves unemployed. In 2021, he and his wife, Julia, were expecting their first child and were finally out of the house setup. He signed a one-year lease for a 2,000 square foot space at 1704 N Nebraska Ave. The brick-and-mortar coastal film lab officially opened in August, just two months before his son was born. Activity tripled almost immediately.
Film photography has seen a resurgence in the past five years or so, with even more people taking up the hobby during the pandemic. Although this meant many customers for Zane, the growing interest made it more difficult to find equipment, especially since film companies stopped making most products in the early 2000s. Zane spends a lot of time searching online for closing lab machines. He’s been known to travel to other states to check out gear in person.
“If you want to do that, you have to go find it used, and the people selling it are like the sleaziest people you could imagine,” Zane said. “They call them the Minilab mafia.”
Alex Vicente, who has a background in car repair, works on the cameras and equipment that come in.
“The more you look at mechanical systems, the more you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s all the same stuff just remixed in a different package,'” Vicente, 26, said.
Both Vicente and Zane are involved in film processing, which takes place at the back of the company. Black-and-white film is spinning in a tank in a small room, and a waist-high machine, about the size and general appearance of a desktop printer, is processing color film nearby. Arron McNeile, a St. Petersburg-based photographer who often shoots weddings on film, also works as a lab technician. Zane offered him a job after many conversations they had when McNeile would bring in his own movie.
“In this community, there are a lot of keepers who are like, ‘This is my secret, you won’t know about it,'” McNeile, 32, said. “So to be here and watch all the customers come in and just chat with us and become our friends, that’s cool. You get people making movies, all doing the exact same thing that keeps us alive, and you have all the same passion for it.
The space also began hosting the gallery’s occasional exhibition. Other times, photographers set aside time in the studio, which is decorated with multiple backdrops and tucked into the corner of the lab.
“The lab was the vehicle for making money, but we just wanted to create a space that felt like a cultural center,” Zane said.
“I mean, eventually we’ll be able to make a good living, but it’s never going to be something that we’re going to, you know, bank or anything. I really like that.