For those of you not aware, Lab-Box from ars-imago is a daylight film development system, designed to be used to develop 35mm and 120 format photographic film rolls. The makers claim it to be easy and quick to use allowing you to “develop your own films in full daylight anywhere and at any time”.
For those of you not wanting to read this entire article, here’s the TLDR:
…the Lab-Box is a quirky, yet brilliant piece of kit for developing 35mm or 120 format film. There is a small learning curve and the margin of error is quite fine, but once mastered provides an excellent solution to those without space for a full darkroom setup, or for the more casual film photographer. Yes, there are alternative setups that can be had for less money, but if you are looking for an all-in-one film developing solution that can be used during the day, look no further.
And in further detail for everyone else; for those of you who have ever developed your own film, you will know the challenges daylight film development can present, so the potential of a device that does away with the need for a dedicated darkroom or changing bag is potentially game-changing. While not the first time something like this has been seen (see Agfa Rondinax, made from 1930-1970 below), the Lab-Box is currently the only new option on the market.
Before I begin the review of the Lab-Box, as is often customary with reviews these days, a quick disclaimer. I do not work for ars-imago, nor do I know anyone who works there. At the same time, I was not sent the equipment for review, I have paid for this with my own money, looking to use this as my main developing method for 135 and 120 film. I did not back the original Kickstarter, instead, I wait for the final product to hit shelves. So the review is based on a “finished” version of the Lab-Box, from an every-day consumer.
EMULSIVE previously conduced a very interesting introduction / interview with Giorgio Di Noto about Lab-Box back in 2017, which you should read before diving in (if you haven’t already). Having read the original article back in 2017, I was curious about the Lab-Box, but having a dedicated darkroom of my own at the time, I stopped short of backing the Kickstarter. Since the publication of that article, the Lab-Box Kickstarter raised over €650,000, some way above the initial €70,000 initial goal. The very first Lab-Boxes were shipped in 2019, slightly behind schedule, but complete nonetheless.
Here’s what I cover in this article:
Table of contents
- 1 Lab-Box availability
- 2 Supported film types
- 3 Lab-Box Alternatives
- 4 Why I purchased the Lab-Box
- 5 Do yourself a favour and read the manual
- 6 Developing 35mm film in the Lab-Box
- 7 Developing 120 format film in the Lab-Box
- 8 Lab-Box real world use
- 9 In conclusion
At the time of writing, Lab-Box is available in several brick and mortar, and online stores (including Analogue Wonderland). The standard kit provides:
- A 35mm film module (for loading film).
- Developing tank.
- Film loading/agitating knob.
- Multiformat film reel (which the unexposed film is wound on to).
Aside from chemicals and a shot roll of film (obviously), the kit contains everything you need to develop 35mm film, and unlike other “daylight” film developing tanks, the Lab-Box does not require film to be loaded onto the reel in a darkroom/dark bag. More on that later.
As of August 2020, the basic Lab-Box currently retails at £145 (including shipping) in the UK. For those wanting to develop 120 film, a separate film module is required, which costs £45 on its own or can be purchased alongside the standard kit as part of the “multi-format” kit for £180, saving £5.
There is also a crank (pictured above), which can be purchased to replace the winding knob for easier agitation for £15.
Supported film types
The Lab-Box allows you to develop one roll of 120 or 35mm (135) format film at a time and can be used when wet, so there is no need to wait between rolls if you have more than one roll to develop. Each film type
As noted above, the basic Lab-Box kit comes with a 35mm (135 format) film module which, as of August 2020, retails at £145 (including shipping) in the UK. A separate 120 film module can be purchased for £45 on its own or alongside the standard kit as part of the “multi-format” kit for £180.
At the time of writing, there is no 110 or 127 module, so if you shoot in these formats, this is not the tool for you. There is no mention on the Kickstarter or ars-imago website about APS film, but I would imagine that this is also not possible due to the size of the film and the size of the reel inside the device. Large format film sizes are also not catered for with the Lab-Box.
So where does that place the Lab-Box in the market for the hobbyist film developer? Purchasing the required equipment to develop 35mm or 120 film using a Paterson Tank and reel (or similar brands) plus a changing bag (allowing you to load film for developing during the day to make this a fair comparison) will set you back in the region of £50-65.
Alternatively, if you happen to own a money tree, you could go fully automated and buy something like a Jobo film processor which, brand new, start around £1500 in the UK — and even a poorly condition used one will set you back £400 or so on eBay.
Ultimately, whilst the Lab-Box is not the cheapest solution to developing film, in my opinion it offers the best all-in-one package, with the added bonus of not requiring a changing bag, which can be extremely frustrating to use in warm/humid conditions.
Why I purchased the Lab-Box
I previously had a darkroom of my own, but having moved house, I no longer had the space for a dedicated darkroom setup. My challenge was to have a darkroom setup that I could easily assemble/disassemble and store in a large storage box ready for when I needed it. The idea being that I could use it in my kitchen/bathroom whenever I had the time to develop a roll or two.
I liked the idea of developing during the middle of the day (Lab-Box says you can develop outside, but not in direct sunlight), or with the lights on when the long Winter evenings hit. I had initially considered the Paterson/changing bag solution, as many others already do, but decided to spend the extra money and purchase the Lab-Box after watching a couple of YouTube videos running through the use of the product.
I took the plunge and ordered the “multi-format” kit as I shoot both 35mm and 120 film. I also ordered the optional crank, as one of the YouTube videos had mentioned that this made agitation a much easier process.
Do yourself a favour and read the manual
Once you have your Lab-Box, do yourself a favour and read the instructions before and during assembly. If you are that person who never reads the instructions (you know who you are), swallow your pride and read them for this. Yes, it is stupidly easy to put together, but speaking from experience, just read the instructions, then scan the QR codes included in the instructions and watch the videos provided.
…then read the instructions one final time just to make sure you fully understand it, as there is a very fine margin of error with this. I found out the hard way as I skipped the videos and assumed I had understood the process.
My first piece of advice
When loading 35mm film there is a double silver rail which the film must sit under, so that the film can be cut by the metal blades when the end of the roll is reached. I didn’t watch the video and skimmed over the instructions. This led me to ignore this important step and as a result, my film was scratched the length of the reel and then snapped when it got to the end of the cassette.
This is not the fault of the device, but the user. Fortunately, this was a test roll I had shot at home and I didn’t lose anything important.
My second piece of advice
When using the Lab-Box for the first time, use a sacrificial roll of film you wouldn’t mind losing just in case you make a mistake when using it for the first time.
There is a learning curve to using the Lab-Box. It’s not a steep one, nor will it take you ages to conquer, but it took me 2 or 3 rolls of 35mm and 3 or 4 rolls of 120 before I was fully comfortable with the process. Fast forward a couple of months and I can use it without thinking, so it isn’t anything to fear by any means.
Developing 35mm film in the Lab-Box
When developing 35mm film, you will need to make sure you cut the leader end off square, leaving you with a flat edge. This allows the film clip to sit flush to the film, ensuring it slides on to the reels correctly.
Once you have cut the film end, place it into the slot (it can only go one way), and slot it under the silver rails. Then place the film clip in the middle of the film with the Lab-Box logo facing up (this way the film will load correctly on to the reel). In practise, it does matter if the film clip is not centred correctly.
You don’t need to get a ruler out and measure the exact centre of the film, but if the clip isn’t straight or in the middle it can lead to a mis-load. This happened once and my film stuck together, leading to patchy spots all over the roll where the developer had not hit the film equally.
Once the film has been clipped, slide it into the grey film guide and put the lid on. From here you can slowly turn the knob/crank and load the film on to the reel. When you turn the knob/crank do it slowly. And I mean slowly. The kind of slow that would infuriate a tortoise. I have found from experience that any kind of speed during this process can cause the film to mis-load on to the reel.
I should also point out that during this film loading process (fast or slow) there is a rather odd scratching sound as the film loads on to the reel that sounds like keys scratching something metal. Despite this, in all 12 rolls of 35mm I have successfully put through this thing, not one has been scratched, so I am not sure why the sound exists. However, as fear inducing as it is, your film should be fine, assuming the blades were retracted when loading the film.
When the film has been wound on to the reel and you cannot wind further, push the button at the back of the 135 module to raise the blades and cut the film. You’ll need another couple of rotations to get the last of the film on to the reel, but you can feel when it has fully passed through the chamber.
At this point, you are ready to load your chemicals of choice through the slit at the end of the Lab-Box lid. It is up to you how much developer chemistry you want to use, but Lab-Box recommends one of two solutions:
- Use 300ml of chemistry and agitate constantly throughout.
- Use 490ml of chemistry and agitate occasionally.
In real-world practise I tried both amounts of chemistry. I found that 490ml is extremely close to completely filling the Lab-Box, to the point where I often had spillages of chemistry with even the slightest turn of the crank. I found 300ml to be more than sufficient, and do not mind the agitation process.
Having switched to 300ml I tried both the supplied knob and the additional crank and found the crank to be a significant improvement over the knob. I was able to agitate the film much more consistently and found the process to be much less of an ache on my arm.
Similar to when loading the film, agitate the film slowly (tortoise slow). I found that if I was too vigorous with my agitation, even with 300ml of chemicals inside the tank, there would still be spillages, which is not ideal.
When your development time has elapsed, simply pour the chemistry out of the tank. You’ll notice one of the corners has a slight lip to it, which helps when pouring back into containers for storage, which is a very nice touch.
Personally, I rinse my Lab-Box after each use with plain tap water just to make sure that there are no chemicals left inside, and to try and prolong the life of it but I used to do the same with my Paterson tanks in my darkroom, so this isn’t something you must do by any means.
You do not need to fully dry the Lab-Box before use again, and I encountered no issues when loading film on to a wet reel vs a dry reel during first use. I was able to develop 4 rolls of film back to back without any issue and that was without drying the Lab-Box. As long as you are careful and take things slowly then you should be able to replicate this without issue.
Developing 120 format film in the Lab-Box
When developing 120 format film many of the steps are similar to 35mm, only the loading of the film differs.
To load 120 film, first make sure that the dial on the module is in the 12 o’clock position (below, left) and flip up the hinged cover. Break the seal on your exposed 120 film and load it into the 120 module. As you do, slide the leader through the slot at the back of the module. Pull down the film cover, clicking it into place and place the Lab-Box’s man cover over the unit.
With the module’s dial at the 12 o’clock position, the film will wind itself into the cavity below when separated from the backing paper.
With everything ready, start pulling the backing paper through the slot. Keep pulling until the paper becomes tight and you cannot pull it any more. At this point, tear the backing paper as close to the slot as you can. Turn the dial from 12 o’clock anti-clockwise to the 8 o’clock position.
Turning the dial covers the film in the cavity, stopping light from spoiling your film. The next step is to take the lid off the Lab-Box — make sure you have definitely turned the dial, otherwise, you will expose the whole roll of film to daylight. With the lid off, you will see the end of the backing paper and the end of the film roll.
Pull the backing paper from the slot and remove the tape holding it to the film. Take out the film spool and backing paper and you should be left with the end of the film roll, sticking out of the cavity. From this point you can attach the film clip, similar to the 35mm instructions, ensuring that the clip is straight and centred.
Finally, once the clip has been applied, place the lid back on the Lab-Box and turn the dial back to the 12 o’clock position. This allows the film to freely flow on to the reel. Similar to 35mm film, do this super slowly and take your time with it. Once your film is on the reel, develop as you normally would, just like the 35mm process described above.
Lab-Box real world use
I have had my Lab-Box for 3 months now, and in that time, I have successfully processed 12 rolls of 35mm and 9 rolls of 120. I lost one roll of 35mm because I didn’t read the instructions carefully, and my first roll of 120 I lost the first frame because I thought I needed more of the film to fully attach the film clip to and pulled too much into the light, exposing the negative (you don’t need to do this, the little bit you have leftover after separating the film from the backing paper is more than enough).
All of my film has developed properly, with the exception of one roll of 35mm, which stuck together due to me not taking my time when winding the film on to the reel. All of my film was free from scratches and didn’t show a single sign of a light leak, despite being under my kitchen spotlights throughout development (I tried to make the room as bright as possible to see how good the thing really is, and I must say, I am impressed).
Whilst it is only possible to develop one roll of film at a time, I had no problem with developing multiple films, and managed to develop 3 rolls of 120 film back-to-back without any issue. I also managed to develop 4 rolls of 35mm film back-to-back without any issue.
However, being colour film I found that this did push my boredom threshold due to the long development time of the C41 kit I was using (Tetenal, 8.5 minutes – 9 minutes per roll just for the developer stage, it took about 20-25 mins in total with blix, rinse and fix, per film). This isn’t the fault of the Lab-Box, but I can acknowledge that a multi-reel Paterson tank would have sped this process up considerably as I would have been able to develop all 4 rolls in one go with enough reels.
The crank is definitely a must purchase, as the knob that comes as standard with the kit makes it hard to consistently agitate the film – I used it once and haven’t touched it since. I wish that ARS-Imago had included the crank arm as standard, and feel a little disappointed that this was an additional purchase, especially for the price being asked. However, despite the cost and annoyance of having to purchase it separately, if you are thinking of buying a Lab-Box, it is definitely an essential purchase.
I did notice on mine that after 5 rolls of use the screw holding the crank arm to the crank end was loose, which caused it to separate slightly (see image below). I was able to tighten the screw, but given the ease of 3D printing in the modern day, I cannot understand why this part was not made as one singular piece, rather than being held together with a screw.
Ultimately, after quite a bit of extensive use, the only issue I have had with the Lab-Box that wasn’t my own fault was the build quality of the crank. There has been nothing go wrong with it that couldn’t have been avoided with a bit more patience or reading the instructions (seriously, just read them) and when I reflect and consider that, I am more than satisfied with my purchase.
In summary, would I recommend the Lab-Box? Yes and no.
The makers claim of it being easy and quick to use is somewhat true. The Lab-Box does have a learning curve, but fortunately, this is quite shallow, so I would say that it is easy to use, once you have got the hang of it. The claim of it being quick is also true, if you are the kind of person who struggles with changing bags (those proficient with a changing bag wouldn’t see a time saving). However, the need to be slow when agitating or when loading film is certainly not quick, so that is the claim I dispute the most.
What the makers don’t directly claim (it is semi-implied if you read between the lines), but certainly is the case here, is the question “is the Lab-Box convenient?” to which the answer is a definite yes. As an all-in-one developing solution that can be used in the middle of the day, this definitely adds a level of convenience to the developing process that should be celebrated.
In short; does the Lab-Box work? Yes.
All of my films — both black and white, and colour — came out fine and it did exactly what I wanted it to do. The build quality of the Lab-Box and the modules is good. I have used it quite extensively in a short space of time and the only issue I have had with the build quality was the aforementioned crank, which was easily fixed by tightening the screw.
So why my hesitance in recommending it? Well, if you already have a darkroom setup, this is not for you. There is nothing that the Lab-Box does that a regular darkroom cannot.
At the same time, if you are the kind of person who will want to batch-process large amounts of film, this is not for you either.
Considering that you can get a Paterson tank capable of developing 8 rolls of 35mm film AND enough reels to develop said 8 rolls of 35mm for the same price as the 35mm Lab-Box kit, I wouldn’t recommend the Lab-Box, as you would save a lot more time by going down the Paterson route, even when using a changing bag. When you also consider that smaller setups using tanks and changing bags can be had for much less than the price of a Lab-Box, for the budget-conscious film shooter, I cannot recommend the Lab-Box either.
However, if you are the kind of person who doesn’t have the space for a darkroom, then this is a great solution as it is an all-in-one device. I can imagine that for people who live in a flat (apartment/condo for you Americans) or are in a house-share this presents a great option as it does not take up much storage space. I could also see this being a great travel darkroom, for those who would want to develop film whilst travelling in a motorhome or camper-van for long periods of time and had access to enough running water.
A quick aside…
Here are some recent photos, developed with the Lab-Box. 35mm photos are Kodak ColourPlus 200 (EI100), developed using Tetenal C41 kit. 120 photos are Ilford PanF (EI50) developed in FD10.
…back to my final thoughts.
Similarly, if you are the kind of person who only shoots 1 or 2 rolls at a time, then the Lab-Box is a viable solution. I have found that by adapting my workflow and developing more regularly that I develop smaller amounts on the day I have shot the film that the Lab-Box makes sense, rather than my previous workflow of saving up lots of film and batch-processing.
Finally, for those who are new to film photography developing, buying a Lab-Box compared to lots of separate items would seem less intimidating, even if the initial cost was more. Plus, with the added ability to develop during the day, possibly under the guidance of someone more experienced, may provide a level of comfort to those not familiar with the darkroom.
So if you are in the niche group that this product is for, yes, buy a Lab-Box, you won’t regret it.
TLDR; whilst not for everyone, the Lab-Box is a quirky, yet brilliant piece of kit for developing 35mm or 120 film. There is a small learning curve and the margin of error is quite fine, but once mastered provides an excellent solution to those without space for a full darkroom setup, or for the more casual film photographer. Yes, there are alternative setups that can be had for less money, but if you are looking for an all-in-one film developing solution that can be used during the day, look no further.
Thanks for reading!
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