I’ve been developing my own film now for over ten years, using Paterson system tanks and reels.
The process of finishing a roll, getting out the dark bag and getting the film onto the Paterson spool has become almost second nature and, when all goes well, almost meditative.
A few moments of calm.
Does it always go well? Ah, no. On those occasions, loading the reel is frustrating, listening to it crinkle and warp, skip out of the tracks. Then your hands start to sweat and you’ve got fingerprints all over your film.
This has happened to me on more occasions than I care to admit and I’m sure most photographers have dealt with the same issues.
I’ve been keeping an eye on the ars-imago LAB-BOX for quite a while, thinking it may be the solution to my issues and then, by chance… I spotted the original daylight processing tank, the Agfa Rondinax 35U, and, surprisingly, for something of a steal.
What are the benefits of using one of these tanks?
First, there’s no faffing about in the dark. As long as you’ve got the film leader out, you just trim it, attach the strap to the end of the film, and put the top on. After that, you wind a knob that pulls the film out from the canister and into the tracks on the reel.
Once you hit resistance, there’s an integrated blade to slice the film so the last of it can be spooled onto the reel.
Second, and in my opinion, the most important, is the volume of chemicals required. In a standard single reel Paterson tank the requirement is 300ml, whereas the Rondinax cuts that by a third to just 200ml. The trade-off for this, however, is that the film needs to be constantly agitated using the knob on the side, constantly rolling the film through the developer.
So what is the Agfa Rondinax 35U like to use?
Well, the first minor issue I encountered was that the clip that clamps onto the film and pulls it onto the reel wasn’t quite as strong as I thought, which meant that as I was trying to load the film, the clip came loose. Not a real problem in my case since very little of the film had been pulled from the canister, but if it did that once say half of it had been loaded, the only way to rescue it would be to put the whole thing into a dark bag.
A decent squeeze of the clip onto the film and it felt a bit more secure, so I carried on, and it loaded properly with no issue.
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The film cutter is easy to use and, surprisingly quite satisfying, giving a recognisable sound that clearly says “The film has been cut” and you can wind the last of the film onto the reel.
The process of developing was simple; pour the developer (slowly!) into the little trough on the top and keep the knob on the side of the unit turning — one half turn every 2 seconds. This works fine and is really easy to do, though I did encounter something of a leak from the hole that the knob fixes into, possibly indicating 200ml is actually a little too much.
At the end of the development time, it’s a case of simply pouring out the developer through the same trough you added it in via, replacing it with a stop or water bath, and then repeating the process for the fixer step. The leak from the hole continued to be an issue for me, particularly when emptying the tank (as it’s on the same side as the little pouring spout), so getting rid of the chemicals without it leaking even more was a bit of a task.
Washing the film is probably the part I disliked most — the manual suggests filling the tank with water, letting it sit for five minutes and emptying it, repeating this process a few times. There are two issues I could see with this method, one of which being the hole for the crank knob. The other problem which is potentially more serious, is avoiding getting water in the slot for the cutting blade or into the little area that the film canister sits in. If this happens, it’s going to take a bit of surgery to take bits off and dry them to stop the blade from getting rusty.
In the end, I removed the reel and washed it separately, which worked fine.
The reel itself doesn’t come apart, so the film needs to be peeled from it which I’ve never done before but doesn’t seem to have had any ill effects on the film.
Agfa Rondinax 35U pros
- No need to use a dark bag. If all goes well, the entire process is completed in normal light
- No fingerprints. The only part of the film you touch is the leader when clipping it in and the other end when removing it from the reel, though even that could be avoided.
- Less chemical usage. Only 200ml per roll per chemical.
- The frame counter on the side allows you to use part of a roll and develop just that part, leaving the remainder of the roll available to use.
Agfa Rondinax 35U cons
- Constant agitation is required throughout the entire process.
- Film leaders need to be left out. No big issue if you rewind by hand, but electronic cameras may not have the option to leave the leader out, meaning you’ll have to retrieve it to use this tank.
- Leaks. This may be individual to my tank, but its still something to bear in mind.
- Wear and tear. These tanks have been around a long time now and, as with all things, will have worn components. In my case, its a slightly loose clip and frayed ribbon attaching it to the reel.
I did enjoy using the Rondinax, though it isn’t without its issues. Washing the film is probably my biggest bugbear, followed by the leak, and it should be understood that while it can be an easier method of getting your film developed. If something goes wrong with the loading, you’re in no better position than with a normal Paterson spiral.
The other thing to note is that, while the volume of chemicals required is much lower than a single reel Paterson, the number of cylinders/jugs required to store them is not. You’ll still end up with the same number of things to wash as if you’d used a Paterson tank in the first place, albeit potentially smaller ones.
Am I glad I bought the tank? Yes, absolutely. Would I buy another? Probably, if it was the right price. The extra convenience isn’t worth the massive costs that some of these units are going for. Once it reaches a certain price point, you’re probably better off buying a LAB-BOX, which could well be a very good and easyish way for beginners to get into developing their own film.
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