Film Observations from using the Ars-Imago Lab-Box

Location
Switzerland
Real Name
Matt
First, a couple of caveats:
  • I'm still a complete beginner when it comes to developing film, so you have to take everything I say with a grain of salt at the very least.
  • None of the issues I encountered are unrelated to my own limitations - if something's a problem with the product, it's exacerbated by my personal shortcomings.
  • I was consciously taking a lot of additional risks I won't go into here, mostly regarding the chemistry used (partially untested and/or
With this out of the way, here's what happened and what I experienced:
  • The Lab-Box I have is the backer's version with the crank and the Professional lid with a timer and thermometer built-in, very handy. Both accessories are highly recommended and really practical. However, the general design of the Lab-Box means that it's so small that it's actually a bit cramped to handle and hold on to. It works, it's nice and small, but it's not that comfortable to hold (left hand - on the lid or back) and do agitation (right hand - the crank). That said, the crank clearly beats the knob, and the timers in the Professional lid work great, even though there's no acustic support - something that would have made things a little easier for me: I could have used the stool to sit on while working the crank, but I was unable to really see the display from that position, so I had to stand up the whole time when operating the Lab-Box - my back was kind of shot after three-odd hours.
  • I've only used the 120 back so far because that's what I was more interested in - after all, it allows daylight loading of 120 film, which in itself is awesome. And well, it worked - after a fashion. Here's a list of all my troubles:
    • You *will* expose some of the film to light, maybe losing the first frame (that happened on *all* rolls from old 6x6 folders - the No. 1 frame was affected in some way. This is basically unavoidable because you have to attach the clip that'll drag the film onto the spool (more on that in a bit), and you need some space on the film itself to do that. Furthermore, if the clip is not attached correctly, all sorts of bad things can happen:
      • When the clip slipped for the first time, I managed to figure out what the problem was - only to open the Lab-Box before checking if the film chambre was closed. Minus one roll. I think it had to happen once - but the slippage shouldn't have happened in the first place.
      • On one roll, the clip tore the end of the film, so I had to cut off a centimeter or so and re-attach it. But if you slip the film in just a touch to far, the film gets warped and will not lay flat on the spool. This resulted in some smudging and creasing during development and also when pulling the film off the spool - 50-60% of the frames lost.
      • Another role crumbled up on the spool, so it was totally ruined during development (smudged all over, only one frame almost usable).
      • The warping that can occur if the clip isn't attached in an optimal way can result in unevenness that can be exacerbated during development; on my last roll, things weren't as bad as I had feared, but some frames aren't completely flat and even.
    • So, from six roles attempted, that's a total of four to work with, two of which are damaged or at least impacted to some degree. Of course, as indicated, some, if not most problems *can* be attributed to my own mistakes - but I feel things should certainly be less failure-prone.
    • I think the clip itself is the main reason for most issues: It's fiddly and prone to damaging the film while not at all being easy and straightforward to attach sufficiently precisely to work well. On more than one occasion, it became detached (no doubt because of some tiny misalignment - so, also due to my own clumsiness). And before you ask: No, I have not used PET based films (I double-checked!) - those are known to tear too easily.
    • It's also far from easy to pull the film safely onto the film guide if the alignment isn't perfect - even though the guide helps somewhat in counteracting some problems, its placement can cause additional issues because it's impossible to be sure that everything is working as it should. The whole thing is a tad flimsy - it's certainly more delicate and less securily alignable than it ought to be (maybe a smooth metal guide would help).
    • Now, my bathroom *can* be turned into a darkroom (it was specifically modified to provide for that), but it's impossible to correct for all mistakes in the dark and only by feel - at the very least for me. This means that if something goes wrong, you're screwed (or at least I am). You'll then have to either sacrifice a frame to have enough space to work with or end up with warped film, which, at the worst, will be smudged and ruined.
    • My intermediate solution for all the issues I described above is this: Prepare everything, including attaching the clip, than close the door, turn the lights off and try to get the film on the spool with the lid off (instead of closed) - which kind of negates all the advantages of daylight loading.
    • If push comes to shove, sacrifice the frist frame. I don't like doing that at all, but on all roles I pulled out the film to the point where it touched the edges of the film guide, the roll went on the spool just fine.
  • Oh, and *don't* wear an activity tracker in the darkroom ... I forgot to take mine off (I was aware of the problem) once ... oh, well. I'll the "damage" when I do the scanning.
  • Related, but somewhat of a "duh!" effect: I've been a bit wary of "spiraling up" 135 film in the changing bag - but it worked a treat yesterday, in fact, much more straightforward and easy than doing the same for 120 film. This only just goes to show: Try things and learn how to do them - if the design's right, it'll work out if you put your mind to it. Working with the Paterson tanks is super-easy overall - and they allow for the development of several rolls at once, too.
Now, where does all this leave us (or at least me)? I'll check out the Lab-Box with 135 film next - should work a lot better from what I can see. For 120 film, careful preparation and patience is key, and you have to be able to check things in absolute darkness (i.e. work in a darkroom or a suitable substitute).

I really wish Ars-Imago would change the clip - since the axle it's attached to by a rather flimsy plastic strip is an exchangeable part of the spool, it would be easy to replace it, and at it is it's the most probable point of failure. The second point of contention is the exact position and shape of the film guide, at least for 120 film - I think it's maybe a bit too simple and doesn't help enough in correcting minor mistakes. But to be fair, if everything is lined up perfectly, it works flawlessly.

I will do another round of development using the 120 back - I'm convinced that it *can* be "learned" better. But I was hoping for something considerably less fiddly and error-prone. As things stand, I'll probably go back to my Paterson tanks for 120 in the future - yes, setting things up takes more time, but error checking (and correcting) is much easier, and sub-par results a lot less likely. I doubt that I'll ever use the Lab-Box 120 tank for a roll I expect really good images on. It may be alright for "quick and dirty" stuff, though (it'll probably get quicker *and* dirtier this way ...).

I'll report on my experiences with the 135 back soon.

M.
 
Location
Switzerland
Real Name
Matt
Well, that's kind of unexpected, but: I've more or less cracked the 120 back:
  • The first point seems obvious, but it's decisive: take your time and place the clip as precisely as possible; it's more important that it's straight than everything else.
  • Make sure the film guide is set very, very precisely and - most importantly - *raised* to be more or less horizontal before you start winding the film onto the spool.
  • Always open the film chambre before winding out the film - a stupid mistake to make, sure (and one I take full responsible of), but it's perfectly possible that at least the torn film I experienced yesterday was mainly caused by this.
I had no more problems winding 120 film onto spools. As I suspected, the 120 back can be "learned". I hope I've made it more accessible to everybody else who is interested.

What remains a bit of a nuisance is that the back is hard to remove (but the manual contains a warning on that - it's just that it's true ...).

I'm glad I decided to revisit the issue.

Next: The 135 back ...

M.
 

grebeman

Old Codgers Group
Next: The 135 back ...

M.
Matt, if the 35mm version is similar to the old Agfa Rondinax that I used to use then it should be quite straight forward. Just remember that if you opt to use the smaller amount of developer and use continuous agitation then reduce developing time by at least 10%, maybe a little more or you'll end up with very contrasty negatives to scan. Hopefully the instructions will make note of that point. I shall be interested to hear your experience with it.

Barrie
 
Location
Switzerland
Real Name
Matt
Matt, if the 35mm version is similar to the old Agfa Rondinax that I used to use then it should be quite straight forward. Just remember that if you opt to use the smaller amount of developer and use continuous agitation then reduce developing time by at least 10%, maybe a little more or you'll end up with very contrasty negatives to scan. Hopefully the instructions will make note of that point. I shall be interested to hear your experience with it.

Barrie
I just realised I hadn't thanked you yet for the insight; thanks for sharing your expertise, much appreciated! I think I may have overdone it with development times - however, I was so glad I had any usable results at all that I really didn't think about the fine detail (pun intended). I'll take your advice into account next time - i.e. either this week or next. Five rolls of Kentmere 100 (135), two rolls of Kentmere 400 (135), one roll of (wait for it) Acros 100 (120) - the original recipe, well cooled, but we'll see ... The developer I use is good for up to 15 rolls in one shot (during up to eight weeks, too). Unfortunately, I certainly am not - six rolls is the absolute upper limit of my stamina in the lab/bathroom - and four is currently what I can hang up to dry in the shower cabin, anyway (I'll change that in the next couple of weeks - up to six, with a rack instead of single clips! :)).

Oh, and possibly, I'll already do a dedicted roll of FP4+ (120) for Andrew's "challenge in the challenge" - that'd be great. Eight films to develop in two days - should be doable (Friday, Saturday, possibly Sunday, though that'd mean getting up very(!) early on Monday to cut and store before being able to shower ...).

M.
 

grebeman

Old Codgers Group
I just realised I hadn't thanked you yet for the insight; thanks for sharing your expertise, much appreciated! I think I may have overdone it with development times - however, I was so glad I had any usable results at all that I really didn't think about the fine detail (pun intended). I'll take your advice into account next time - i.e. either this week or next. Five rolls of Kentmere 100 (135), two rolls of Kentmere 400 (135), one roll of (wait for it) Acros 100 (120) - the original recipe, well cooled, but we'll see ... The developer I use is good for up to 15 rolls in one shot (during up to eight weeks, too). Unfortunately, I certainly am not - six rolls is the absolute upper limit of my stamina in the lab/bathroom - and four is currently what I can hang up to dry in the shower cabin, anyway (I'll change that in the next couple of weeks - up to six, with a rack instead of single clips! :)).

Oh, and possibly, I'll already do a dedicted roll of FP4+ (120) for Andrew's "challenge in the challenge" - that'd be great. Eight films to develop in two days - should be doable (Friday, Saturday, possibly Sunday, though that'd mean getting up very(!) early on Monday to cut and store before being able to shower ...).

M.
Hi Matt. good to hear that you've got results with the 35mm attachment, I always found the Agfa Rondinax fairly straight forward to use and was happy with the results. You're aiming for a higher usage rate than I would ever achieve I think. I'm still considering investing in an Ars Imago myself, to that end I've actually closely examined my 90mm f/3.5 lens for the Mamiya Press. I'd given it a cursory glance and it appeared to be badly fogged but I've taken it to pieces and the glass surfaces have cleaned up rather well so in that sense it should be quite usable. It will probably be a different story with the mechanical shutter, I expect some of the timings to be well out of spec. However if they prove to be reasonably consistent then I can make allowance for that. It looks as though we'll be going into a much tighter lockdown because of the virus withing the next hour or so, given that I might well postpone any purchases in order to return to film, my opportunity for making photographs will be quite limited with a choice of three muddy farm lanes to walk down from my home and I don't want chemicals slowly going off for lack of being able to use them.

Barrie
 
Location
Switzerland
Real Name
Matt
Hi Matt. good to hear that you've got results with the 35mm attachment, I always found the Agfa Rondinax fairly straight forward to use and was happy with the results. You're aiming for a higher usage rate than I would ever achieve I think. I'm still considering investing in an Ars Imago myself, to that end I've actually closely examined my 90mm f/3.5 lens for the Mamiya Press. I'd given it a cursory glance and it appeared to be badly fogged but I've taken it to pieces and the glass surfaces have cleaned up rather well so in that sense it should be quite usable. It will probably be a different story with the mechanical shutter, I expect some of the timings to be well out of spec. However if they prove to be reasonably consistent then I can make allowance for that. It looks as though we'll be going into a much tighter lockdown because of the virus withing the next hour or so, given that I might well postpone any purchases in order to return to film, my opportunity for making photographs will be quite limited with a choice of three muddy farm lanes to walk down from my home and I don't want chemicals slowly going off for lack of being able to use them.

Barrie
I hope to get into a routine of one or two films a week, not more - but I have a whole stack to tackle, and I want to do this as quickly as feasible.

I've made good progress on the 120 back - not yet the 135 one. But that looks straightforward enough and much easier to handle - for one thing, much more space to handle and attach the clip ... I'll see. But I'm quite confident it'll turn out well.

That Mamiya Press has me fascinated - you did such great work with it that I hope you can get it to work again; I've almost pulled the trigger on one a couple of times, but I know myself: I prefer my cameras small and light (though I quite like using my Pentacon Sixes ...), and the Mamiya Press is ... something else. Great concept, though, and actually compact for what it offers. Take your time with it, though - right now, we can only do what we're allowed to do.

Here's an idea, though: I've found old folders (especially Zeiss Ikon ones) a great compromise between size, weight and results. Of course, your Mamiya is a much more sophisticated camera - but to dip your toes in again, a Nettar, Ikonta or (gasp!) Super Ikonta might just be the thing. I personally really adore my super-cheap Nettar 515/2 with f/6.3 Nova Anastigmat and Vario shutter - super-frugal, low-end even in its time, but it produces quite pleasing results. My other 6x9 Nettar is quite the beast though: Compur-Rapid shutter, Tessar lens, almost twice the weight of its smaller sibling - but it still fits into a coat pocket when folded ... Quite remarkable, really. The camera I truely enjoy, however, is the Super Ikonta 531/16 - a wonderfully build, very functional tool, and superbly small for what it offers. A pocket rocket with 6x6 film!

M.
 

grebeman

Old Codgers Group
I hope to get into a routine of one or two films a week, not more - but I have a whole stack to tackle, and I want to do this as quickly as feasible.

I've made good progress on the 120 back - not yet the 135 one. But that looks straightforward enough and much easier to handle - for one thing, much more space to handle and attach the clip ... I'll see. But I'm quite confident it'll turn out well.

That Mamiya Press has me fascinated - you did such great work with it that I hope you can get it to work again; I've almost pulled the trigger on one a couple of times, but I know myself: I prefer my cameras small and light (though I quite like using my Pentacon Sixes ...), and the Mamiya Press is ... something else. Great concept, though, and actually compact for what it offers. Take your time with it, though - right now, we can only do what we're allowed to do.

Here's an idea, though: I've found old folders (especially Zeiss Ikon ones) a great compromise between size, weight and results. Of course, your Mamiya is a much more sophisticated camera - but to dip your toes in again, a Nettar, Ikonta or (gasp!) Super Ikonta might just be the thing. I personally really adore my super-cheap Nettar 515/2 with f/6.3 Nova Anastigmat and Vario shutter - super-frugal, low-end even in its time, but it produces quite pleasing results. My other 6x9 Nettar is quite the beast though: Compur-Rapid shutter, Tessar lens, almost twice the weight of its smaller sibling - but it still fits into a coat pocket when folded ... Quite remarkable, really. The camera I truely enjoy, however, is the Super Ikonta 531/16 - a wonderfully build, very functional tool, and superbly small for what it offers. A pocket rocket with 6x6 film!

M.
I found that the Mamiya Press actually sat quite comfortably on one's hip with the correct length of strap given the shape of the removable roll backs and dispite how it might look it wasn't uncomfortable to carry. With landscape work I often set it up on a tripod and used the ground glass screen to frame the shot. I've actually got a second body which had a faulty rangefinder. I modified it using the finder with no rangefinder bits in it so it becomes just an OVF with two intentions in mind, using it just by zone focusing or purely as a sort of old fashioned view camera for landscape work.
I was asked a few times when on the street with the beast whether I was a newspaper photographer but I was never challenged about what I was doing, perhaps times have changed since those days, if I get it going perhaps I'll find out!

Barrie
 

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