IN the age of ever-more powerful smartphone cameras, setting up a mail order film photography lab to develop pictures taken on analogue cameras seems like a bold move.
But cousins Liam Henry and Joe Singleton, along with musician Nick Baines of Kaiser Chiefs fame, are attempting exactly that with their company which is attracting a growing reputation – thanks, ironically, to Instagram, the social media photo and video sharing app whose vast popularity is indelibly associated with the rapid rise in smartphone use.
Their Leeds-based company, Take It Easy Lab, was formed last year and has rapidly built up almost 13,000 followers on Instagram thanks to growing interest in film photography.
But getting to this point has been more than a decade in the making.
Back in 2008, Liam graduated from Leeds University with a degree in photography and began a job at Snappy Snaps, in Leeds city centre.
One of his most regular customers was Nick Baines, who had pictures of Kaiser Chiefs’ travels around the world he wanted developed.
Liam explains: “It was 100 per cent tour stuff from when the band had just broken through. He was getting really good shots of the band in places like America.
“I don’t really know why but he came to me more than anybody else in the shop. I guess we were of a similar age and had a similar passion for photography.”
In 2011, the shop was closed down but Liam took a chance and asked Nick if he was interested in starting a business. He said yes.
Liam bought the film developer machine from the shop and brought his photography-loving cousin Joe on board.
They launched a film lab called No Culture Icons Developing but after six months decided to pull the plug.
Joe says: “We just realised it wasn’t working, the timing wasn’t right and we were pretty young.
“At the time it was maybe too niche which is maybe why the business wasn’t there.”
After both having a spell working at a chocolate shop in Leeds city centre, the pair moved on to other things.
Joe was working for a law firm while Liam was in marketing for a company called Awesome Merchandise when they were contacted by Nick at the start of 2020.
“Nick was talking about clearing out his storage unit – the developer we had got from Snappy Snaps had been in storage for years,” Liam says.
“He said ‘I need to get rid of it or do something with it’.” From there, they decided to have another go at setting up the film lab – little realising that the Covid pandemic would soon upend normal life.
The trio officially opened the Take It Easy lab, which is based in Aire Street Workshops, in Leeds city centre, in September 2020.
While Liam juggles his time between his other job and the company, Joe has quit his law firm job to concentrate on the business.
By the beginning of this year, they also had five part-time members of staff working for them, while Nick also comes in to work at the lab, band commitments permitting.
The cousins say that in contrast to a decade ago, Liam’s additional marketing experience and the popularity of Instagram in allowing them to interact with and build an online community is offering them a much better chance of success this time around.
Instagram was very much in its infancy 10 years ago, but currently has around one billion active users and is now a vital platform for creative
people of all kinds to get their work seen.
“The biggest change now is that Instagram exists,” says Joe.
“There is a big community on Instagram of people interested in analogue photography who get involved and spread the word.”
They say the rise in interest in analogue photography is being driven by younger people and has parallels with increasing interest in vinyl records.
Joe says: “In the same way that vinyl has had a bit of a revival again, people like the fact there is something to physically hold.
“It looks different to a typical photo on an iPhone.” They say social media has had a dual influence in that ongoing revival – with people both seeing film photography on networks like Instagram and wanting to give it a go themselves, as well as providing a motivation for people who want to post pictures that differentiate them from the crowd.
Liam says: “At the moment, our audience is mainly students. A lot of students are getting into film photography. There are other people who do it for the love of it.”
Joe adds: “That look of film photography makes you stand out a bit more on social media.”
But in addition to helping both professional and amateur creative photographers to get their work developed, the lab also offers the old-fashioned service of getting rolls of film that have been lying around people’s homes for years finally developed.
The pair explain that one recent customer came in with 70 rolls of film dating back to the 1990s that she had found in her grandfather’s attic. They developed the film, which was largely made up of family pictures including her as a child, and with the customer’s permission posted a video on Instagram of their efforts.
The pair say that she was so pleased with the results of what they developed, she bought them 20 cans of Northern Monk as a thank you present.
As a mail order service, the film development side of their business has been relatively unaffected by lockdown restrictions as they have been able to serve customers who have dropped films in through their letterbox or posted them out from a distance.
Their early success means they are planning to buy another developer and another scanner to increase the amount of film they can process.
But one key element of the business that they hope to develop has been held back – with the pair seeking to put on a series of face-to-face events to help build on their growing online community.
They say that as well as developing relationships with other like-minded indie businesses in Leeds, like analogue camera shop West Yorkshire Cameras, they want to build an inclusive community with customers of all levels of photographic experience.
Liam explains: “One major difference between the one 10 years ago and now is we would like to be more community-led and want to do photography workshops, arrange talks and photographic walks.
“We haven’t been able to do it yet because of lockdown but that has allowed us to focus on getting the business to where it is.”