My first attempts at processing film using the Ars-Imago Lab-Box

For anybody who has been following my blog for a while, you may have read about my ‘light leak’ issues I had when I first attempted processing film in a changing bag because the sleeves of the changing bag were too big for my slender arms and ended up letting light in and therefore ruining some of the film I was developing.

Now, I know I’ve had the alternate option of loading the film tanks in the darkroom, since I now have access to one. However, due to current work commitments and the fact the local community darkroom takes me approx 1-2 hours to travel to (since I don’t drive and have to rely on public transport or walk), the very precious time I am currently able to spend in the darkroom, I want to focus solely on making prints, rather than developing film.

I recently saw in the film community that people were getting excited about their Ars-Imago Lab-Boxes arriving in the post that they had backed on Kickstarter in 2017.

I didn’t get back into film photography until last year, so completely missed out on the opportunity of purchasing one via the Kickstarter campaign which seemed much cheaper than what they now retail at.

I really wanted to start doing my own film processing but ideally from home where I can do it around work in the evenings so this lab-box really appealed to me as I wouldn’t have the need for a darkroom or changing bag.

It also looked like a simpler way of loading the film than using a normal developing tank.

I was put off though by the retail price of the lab-box which is around £179.00 plus accessories such as the crank handle cost extra.

Back in August, I was chatting to one of my photography friends about it and they said they had backed the original campaign on Kickstarter and just received theirs in the post. Although, realistically, they didn’t think they currently have time to process their own film.

As luck would have it, my friend agreed to sell his one to me (for a lot less than the current retail price!) and his one came with both 35 and 120 modules plus the crank handle accessory and also a film retriever.

He hadn’t even opened the original postage packaging to look at it so it was all completely brand new and sealed up!

I decided I was going to use the Cinestill DF 96 Monobath since it has both the Developer and Fix in one and I figured it would be the easiest thing for me to try first until I got used to processing film:

Initially, I was going to try developing the 35mm film, as that looked the easiest.

What I didn’t bank on, was not being able to retrieve the film leader out of the canister after shooting. I had initially attempted to only wind the film back in the camera until I felt the slack on the winder but twice in my Olympus Pen FT, I failed to feel when it went slack and it wound all the way back in.

I ended up breaking two film retriever’s trying to get the film out of both canisters and all the other methods (double sided sticky tape etc) didn’t seem to work because I must have worked the film into the canisters tightly which made it impossible to retrieve them without breaking the canisters (so off to the local lab they went for developing)……not a great start so far!

In the meantime, I had taken some black and white photos on my Hasselblad 500 C/M camera so I decided to use the 120 module first instead.

Once I had read the instructions, I found this very simple to do. However, I was a little disappointed on reading to discover that I cannot process 120 films with PET Base which include the following:

JCH 400, Rollei Infrared, Rollei 80s, Rollei Superpan 200, Rollei 400s, Fomapan 100, Fomapan 200, Fomapan 400, Arista Film.

I found this a little frustrating as I quite like using the JCH4 400, Rollei 400s and Fomapan 120 films so I’ll either have to go back to the old way of processing film in the dark with a normal developing tank or get my local lab to process these films.

I decided to use the Crank Handle accessory instead of the standard turning dial (which in my kit is black but there are orange and green options) as I thought this would help with the agitating process.

I used the Ilford FP4 (125) 120 roll film and the temperature of the monobath was 21 degrees so the instructions told me agitate for 6 minutes.

I then rinsed the film inside the tank as per the lab-box instructions then washed the film in a jug with some wetting agent.

I had a slight issue with the Crank Handle mid agitation which I’m not sure if I locked properly into the tank and it promptly came off! Thankfully the film didn’t seem to be affected by this as I was concerned about a light leak.

I took the photos in my local cemetery as I knew I wouldn’t be too annoyed if I messed up and didn’t develop them properly and here are some of the photos I took:

I was really happy with the outcome of my first photos using this box. The main thing was that I actually managed to develop some photos I could scan!

I was determined to test out the 35mm module so I loaded my Pentax K1000 with some Kosmofoto 100 film and I took most of the photos at my local cemetery (again, just in case they didn’t develop very well so I wouldn’t be too disappointed).

This time I managed to wind the film back to the point where I left the leader out! (as it’s really easy to tell in my Pentax K1000 when I’ve wound the film back to this point).

Loading the 35mm film into the lab-box was very easy and it wound into the box so quickly I genuinely thought the film had jammed midway through loading and that I wouldn’t get to develop the full film. I couldn’t pull the film back out so just had to go with it and see what happened at the end. Thankfully, it had actually loaded the whole film and hadn’t jammed as I had initially feared.

I again, agitated the film for 6 minutes as my monobath was 21 degrees. I rinsed as per the instructions and used a wetting agent and here are some of the results:

Once again, I was pleased that there were photos and that I was able to scan them! I was also really happy with the tone and contrast of these photos for a beginners attempt.

I had some drying issues with both sets of negatives. I decided to dry them in my bathroom since I feel my bathroom is the least dusty/fluffiest place to hang them (plus my three extremely fluffy cats don’t tend to go in there).

Even though I had used a wetting agent and wiped down the negatives before hanging to dry, they still managed to attract a lot of dust and fluff whilst they were wet and sticky before they fully dried!

I therefore had to use a film cleaner on them to try and get them as clean as possible before I could scan them.

I could see some water marks on them too, so I’m considering whether to use bottled water next time I rinse them as the tap water where I live is extremely hard and causes a lot of limescale issues on my taps, kettle etc and see if that makes a difference.

Since I’m new to film processing, I know I’ve a lot to learn about using various chemicals and the drying process etc.

With regards to the lab-box, would I recommend it? I would say if you currently process your film using a darkroom/changing bag and the tanks with no problems, then I would continue that way and save your money.

This product is certainly a more costly way of developing your film because of how much it retails at.

However, if you’re wanting to try out processing film and are feeling overwhelmed about doing it in the dark, or using the normal processing tanks, then I’d definitely recommend this box.

It has certainly given me the confidence I needed to process film again after my previous disastrous attempts last year.

I also love the fact I can process them in daylight in the comfort of my home without the need of using a changing bag or darkroom.

I also think once you get to grips with the lab-box, it is a less fiddly way of developing your film than loading it into a normal developing tank but this is only my personal opinion.

Lastly, will I be using the lab-box on a regular basis? then the answer is yes! Just the buzz alone of seeing my film come out of the tank with photos was a massive high for me and felt like a real sense of achievement! I definitely don’t get the same buzz when picking the film up from my local lab.

Since I’ve only developed two rolls of film so far, I’m looking forward to experimenting with different chemical types and also doing colour film too.

I would love to know if anybody else has got one of these and has tried it? It would be great to read your opinions of what you thought of it.

Also, if anyone who already processes their own film has any advice they would like to share with me going forward, I’m always grateful for any help since I’m a complete beginner and have much to learn!

Instagram: natalie_smart_photography

23 thoughts on “My first attempts at processing film using the Ars-Imago Lab-Box

  1. Hi Natalie
    I purchased the lab box myself a couple of months back and am really pleased with the results I have had from 35 MM. and 120 black and white film
    Yes the initial outlay is expensive but I feel much happier processing my films in the lab box
    The only one issue I had once was I completely forgot to turn the lever in to the open position before loading 120 film and could not properly pull the film through the slit at the end of the lab box so I ruined that particular film
    So now I pay particular attention to what I have to do before loading a film
    Apart from that I would highly recommend the lab box

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback Norman 😊 Did you previously process your films in the old style way? If so, it’s really interesting to hear how you prefer using the lab-box. I certainly feel it’s an easier way of processing film 👍

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  2. Hi Natalie,

    Nice work! I’m glad your first two attempts with the Lab-Box proved successful. It’s always exciting to pull a roll of film out of the developing tank and see images (and it never gets old). And it’s equally as frustrating when things don’t go as well, so I understand how you must feel about your prior attempts.

    Regarding the light leak issue you had with your changing bag, I have a suggestion that may help. My first changing bag was very cheap and as such the “arm holes” were not double-lined with two sets of elastic. Because of this, I was scared from the get-go that I would end up with light leaks. So what I did was very simple. On each arm I put a thick and tightly fitting rubber band (you’ll have to gauge the right size based on the size of your forearms). That way in addition to the elastic band already built into each “arm hole,” I also had a strong rubber band about two inches further back holding the fabric tightly against my arms. I never had a light leak, and I think the rubber bands are why. If I hadn’t used them, I honestly believe I would have.

    Most of the tricks I’ve seen at retrieving film from a canister didn’t work very well for me, including the double-sided tape method (it’s too sticky, I think). What I do when I accidentally wind the film completely back into the canister works quite well. I get a regular Post-It note and fold it into thirds, making sure that the sticky edge is facing outwards. The adhesive seems to have just the right amount of stickiness to grab the film inside the canister, and folded into thirds the paper has just enough rigidity to get it inserted into the can without being too thick. Otherwise, it’s utilized just like the double-sided tape trick.

    Anyways, I hope those two tips are helpful. Best of luck with your future developing adventures.

    Take care!

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  3. Success! Your images look good. Thank you for saying that if you already have regular developing gear it may not be worth the considerable expense to buy Lab-Box. I am trying my hand at developing with the regular gear and have been wondering whether Lab-Box would remove some of the frustration. Gonna stick with my regular gear.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Natalie, just a quick suggestion, buy some distilled water for final wash & add a ‘very’ small amount of photo flow (Ilford or Kodak). It will help stop drying marks due your hard water.

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  5. Good write-up on the Lab Box! I’ve used my Lab Box once so far, and it was for a roll of 120. One thing I would add is the Lab Box is really only good for those who develop a single roll, in one day. I tried to dry off the reel and the other various parts of the Lab Box so I could develop a second roll of 120 and it failed. The film ended up getting stuck. 😦 I will probably try the Lab Box with a roll of color 35mm film next week.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great results from your first attempts at film developing. I’ve never had any luck with trying to retrieve film from a canister. Like you I have cats and my films seem to be very good at attracting any dust or cat hairs in the vicinity !!! I’ve started using demineralised water from Halfords, about £3.50p for five litres as the water around here is very hard too.I let my film stand in PhotoFlo for the final rinse for at least 2 minutes, then just shake off the excess water while the film is still on the reel.

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  7. Certainly sounds like it works for you and I’m pleased to here you have good experiences with the Lab Box. I already have changing bags etc so this is an expensive outlay for me.

    Did I read you right and the one stop developer can’t be used with Fomapan? I was about to try it with some 120 and 35mm Fomapan this weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Love your results, Natalie! You’re inspiring me for this weekend 😊 Makes me want to try out a monobath once I’ve run out of developer too

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post! I’ve been really interested in a Lab-Box since I recently heard about it. I don’t really have the space to layout a bunch of developing equipment, but the relative ease and small footprint of this thing look nice. I’m a bit turned off by the price tag as well, but I guess relative to the time & cost of sending rolls for development it would pay for itself after a while. My main thing now is trying to find an affordable scanner for negatives. I’m hoping with time the Lab-Box will go down in price or some used ones will show up. Then I’ll probably need to buckle down and get one for 35mm B&W work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind comments 😊 I’d definitely recommend getting a scanner if you can. My Epson V600 cost me around £200 new and I’ve more than made up for the cost of it in view of what I used to spend paying for scanned photos at my local lab. It also scans both 35mm and 120 negatives. I’ve also had no problems in scanning my Polaroid photos as a document which is good. I’m sure there will be some second hand lab-boxes coming up for sale soon 👍

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