Photography: Ars-Imago Lab-Box + Monobath Review
Switzerland/Italy based analog photography equipment extraordinaire Ars-Imago caused quite the stir nearly 2 years ago when they announced a kickstarter campaign to produce the Lab-box. The long awaited release of the home developing kit has finally started making its ways to the eager little fingers of its backers.
With film use on the rise yet costs still high and rising, home developing manifested itself for many of us non-1%-ers as the only viable resolution to perpetuate our silver halide and color dye fixes. Now that it’s actually here, does it live up to all the hype and ballyhoo?
If you don’t even know what the Ars-Imago Lab-box is, it is a plastic box that essentially combines everything you need for a home developing kit: a film tank, agitator, film reel, and other tools, minus the need for a changing bag to load your film. You don’t even need scissors or a can opener!
The Lab-box is a multi-format tank that allows to develop film from start to end, in full day light, bypassing the need to load the rolls in the dark. This daylight loading tank promises to simplify DIY film developing for newbs and pros alike. Since it has a detachable 135 and 120 module, it’s easy to switch between developing 35mm and medium format film when you need to.
I think it’s a cool idea that it has interchangeable modules to swap between 35mm and 120 format. It will certainly save on space for those of us living in tiny boxes they call apartments in the big cities. It’s small enough that if you really wanted to, you could just throw it in a backpack and take it out with you.
Check out the official video below to see it in action.
LAB-BOX, HOW IT WORKS from ars-imago on Vimeo.
Agfa Rondinax vs. Ars-Imago Lab-box
Haters will quickly point out “That ain’t nothing new! It’s just a total rip off of the Agfa Rondinax!” Indeed, they are quite similar in design and mechanics and no doubt the Rondinax was the inspiration for the Lab-box. The OG Rondinax was made from the 1930s until the 1970s and designed for 120 and 35 mm film. Clones operating similarly or identically were also made in England in the 1950s (Essex, Kent) and the Soviet Union (Sputnik).
Rondinax tanks and their clones are now only available from such sources as eBay. A quick peek will reveal that 35 mm film tanks (Rondinax 35, Essex 35) can be had for roughly $100 USD and the 120 version(Rondinax 60, Kent 20) fetch higher prices at almost $200 USD. That’s for used plastic that’s anywhere from 40-80 years old. For about $150 USD, a brand new Ars Imago Lab-box that can do both 35mm and 120 film can be had. Though not revolutionary, the Lab-box combining two formats into one unit is a nice revolutionary touch and hits a reasonable price point.
The Lab-Box is designed with multiple options for balancing agitation frequency and chemical waste. As little as 250 ml can fill half of the tank, but will require constant agitation by turning the green crank that rotates the film reel. Alternatively, 500 ml of developer will fill the entire tank and submerge the entire roll, which requires less agitation but obviously requires using more chemicals.
Developing with the Ars-Imago Monobath
The Ars-Imago Lab-Box is also designed to be used with simple all-in-one develop-and-fix chemicals such as Ars-Imago’s own Monobath. Our first go at this will be with this simple solution.
Ars-imago offers this film retriever tool to pull out the lead from film canisters but I found it to be completely useless. After about 15 minutes of trying and many expletives, I had to resort to the tried and true spit trick to get started. Old school rules! If anyone else out there knows a better solution, I’m all ears.
Other than getting the leader pulled out, everything was pretty straightforward and hassle free. There are just a couple things to be careful with. Don’t forget to slip the film under those metal bars, otherwise you won’t be able to cut the film at the end. Also make sure that the clip snaps on to the film well. Otherwise you risk it slipping mid spool onto the developing reel.
Mixing Parts A and B of the Monobath together will yield you 600ml of solution but the Lab-box itself only fits 500ml. I learned that the hard way. So be careful to pour in no more than 500ml if you want to fully submerge the reel to agitate less. I pretty much followed the online demo, agitating for the first minute then 30 secs every minute after.
After the 8 minutes are up, pour out the solution back into a container for reuse and rinse the box thoroughly with water. Take a deep breath and hope something shows up as you pull your film out. Ars-Imago claims the solution can be used up to 15 times.
Sample Images (35mm)
The below images were taken on JCH Streetpan 400, shot normally on a Leica M6 + Summicron 50mm and developed for 8 minutes with the Ars-Imago Monobath in the Lab-box. Scans are from a Plustek Opticfilm 8200i.
I did find some weird streaks and scratches on random frames such as in the shots below. The midtones are mild and balanced but shadows appear grainier and has a weird dusty looking layer over it which leads me to think the film was not spooled evenly onto the developing reel.
Sample Images (120)
The below images were taken on JCH Streetpan 400, shot normally on a Pentax67 + Takumar SMC 105mm and developed for 8 minutes with the Ars-Imago Monobath in the Lab-box.
Streetpan is traditionally quite a contrasty film but the midtones are well balanced and there is more detail in the shadows and highlights.
We hope to do more testing with other solutions in the near future so stay tuned. We’re also eager to try some home color development with this bad boy in the near future. We will also report back on the longevity of the monobath. So far after 5 rolls with the same solution we’ve only encountered the weird scratches as stated above.
Purists probably won’t be ditching their Jobos and Patersons but if you’re new to self developing or looking for a simple developing tank that can easily switch between 135 and 120, the Ars-Imago Lab-box warrants a better investment over older variants such as Agfa’s antiquated offerings. Would love to hear about others’ experiences with this or something similar and as always, comments are encouraged and welcome.
It is only intended for monobaths or regular chemistry can be used too?
As stated in the article, it can be used with monobaths or regular chemistry
I suppose if your camera has a manual rewind, you could probably stop with a bit of the tab out to avoid having to coax it out later. Seems like a nice product. I like it.
I had the chance to test it (as I live in Zurich, near the Ars-Imago store…) and I found it great. Processing really get’s easy with this lab-box, specially the spooling of film. Never had a film ready to be processed so quickly as you need no changing bag and the spooling system is quiet efficient, for 35mm (with the cutting system) and for 120mm (really clever system of separating the backing paper of the film, don’t know if the older versions of Rondinax had the same system?).
The film retriever from Ars-Imago works very well for me: insert the 2 parts, pull out the part with the latch, turn the film clockwide until the “click” from the film start, rotate counter clockwise until you can’t anymore (2-3 turns), push in the outer latch, and then pull out the whole, your film is there!
For the quantity of chemicals, I found out that 475ml are enough to cover the film completely, that avoids to have too much liquid on the surface and spilling some out when rotatitng the lever. Monobath is the easiest and quickest way to process your film in one unique bath for 8-10 minutes, but I personally prefer the more traditional processing with Rodinal (using Ars-Imago R09) or classical D76/ID11, then Stop/Fix and Rinse.
The only thing that I can complain is that you can only process 1 roll of film at a time with the Lab-box… and as I usually shoot a lot, I often have more than one to process… but still have my Paterson x4 tank, so that’s ok ;)
What about watering/cleaning of the film when switching chemicals? I use a JOBO Cascade to efficiently stop development and clean off the chemical residues. Do I need to use a stop bath with this tank?
I have used other companies film retrievers & some take more getting used to than others. I have been waiting a long time for this one – while I don’t plan on ditching by developing tanks any time soon I do want to use it for 120 film & single rolls of 35mm. I have used cinestill monobath but if this becomes available I will try it as well
I like the idea, but at nearly US $300 (with both modules) I would need to be much more certain it would be a long-term investment. The fact that they sell spare cranks separately is disquieting: Is the crank especially breakage-prone?
Fake news? Freestyle has em for $199 Dunno yet about being breakage prone as we’ve only tried 4 rolls so far but the unit comes with a knob and the cranks are sold separately as an alternative.
The $300 figure came from converting the price on the Ars Imago site from euros to USD. Thanks for the pointer to Freestyle. $200 is still significant but not quite as extravagant.
@JL Williams I think the spare crank is only sold as an upgrade to the standard knob that comes with the Lab-Box.
Also, what becomes of the paper backing when 120 rollfilm is used?
You pull it out through a slot in the box and then tear it off at the end. This video demonstrates the whole process for 120
Here is my own “short” review:
Received the set with 35 and 120. No monobath.
I spent the evening developing with it. I can see myself using it in the future. But currently I do not trust the tank at all.
The 135 module bent the film I had to develop (Tri-X). Not too bad, finger crossed it will be too obvious on scans.
It is easy and convenient. The film is quickly loaded, cut and ready to develop.
But one film is not enough to make up my mind about this module. Wait and see…
For the 120 its another story. Worked perfectly the first time with one FP4+ but it failed consistently with Foma film (1x 400 and 3x 100).
With the Foma 400 only the equivalent of the first frame was in the light tight compartment, I gave up and didn’t develop.
For the first 100 film about half of the film was loaded when I opened the tank to clip the film. I just continued and developed the half I had. What was in the light tight part is fine.
For the next one I checked in my dark bag if the film was correctly loaded. It was not. I loaded it in the dark into the Lab-Box. The half of the film that was not rolled in the compartment is heavily bent (it left dark streaks on the negs). But I have my images.
Last try I just gave up and loaded the film in the dark bag from start without loading it in the light tight compartment. No bends but the film touched itself during development. Ruining 3 frames. Might be my fault as it is hard to center the clip in the dark bag, film not perfectly aligned etc…
I don’t know the reason of these issues with Foma. Thinner film that bends more easily, friction making it impossible to load it all the way in, I don’t know. Its true that the plastic base seems more “rough” than Ilford. But it is personal impression nothing scientific.
If you only use Foma in 120, I would not recommend this module. For the rest it is too early with only one other film tried.
Make sure you adapt your dev times for continuous agitation. FP4+ is 15% shorter for example.
I haven’t tried standard agitation (only continuous) but I will for sure.
I’m not giving up yet, the thing has potential. But I’ll stick with film where the pictures are not important for now.
All in all I don’t know if it is worth it… yet. I would not pay more than what I did for the Kickstarter. My advice would be wait and see for more reviews.
If anyone has tips and tricks feel free to reply.
Simon S: I’m still waiting on mine but I saw on Ars-Imago web site that certain films with PET coating are not compatible. Foma, Rollie and a couple of others are listed as examples. Kind of surprising but at least it may explain your experience. Hope you’ll post additional experiences.
“These films can’t be loaded in Lab-Box 120 Module and can be hard to clip in Lab-Box 135 Module:
Rollei Superpan 200
Bergger 400 120
CatLABS X FILM ISO 80 120
Where are you getting this list from? I have not tried all the films listed here but I have used it with Streetpan 400 and Rollei 400s with no problems
I recently received mine however after following all the instructions and the videos and even loading some old film in daylight in both the 35 and 120 module I have found this product to be less than reliable. I find that I am getting a failure rate of 2 to 4 frames lost per development, this is where the negative’s have touched at some stage during the loading or agitation process. I used Kodak portra each time and the negs turned out just fine as far a development was concerned but I can’t trust a system where I lose negatives every time due to what appears to be a design flaw.. I have gone back to using my old paterson tanks and am awaiting the arrival of a new Jobo system. I absolutely cannot recommend this product, this is supposed to have been a product to help bring more people into the analog by making it easier to diy developing, I’m afraid it is likely to do the opposite.
It’s a bummer the sample images are such small jpgs. You can’t see the grain structure at all because it’s all compressed.
I just ruined my second roll of film in the labbox. The first attempt left a scratch on the whole length of the film. The second attempt skipped during loading and resulted in half of the roll not developed.
I then tried to load the already destructed film a few times. Out of the 10 times only one time it was loaded correctly. All the other attempts the film had skipped in the reel. There is no way you can check if the film was loaded correctly.
Invest in a Jobo tank with Hewes stainless steel reels. Never had any trouble with that combo.
What a bummer.
ive had the same problem with the film scratching. all of the 10 or so rolls ive put through have the same scratch running the entire length.
have you figured out a solution? after spending all that money on what i though was a working product im pretty disappointed to discover its majorly floored.
For some reason I am unable to obtain any monobath solution in the USA… Unique photo says that cannot get it now. Freestyle and other distributors either do not answer or say no. Any solutions?
Yeah seems they’re in short supply. Cinestill does list having their own monobath in stock on their site at the moment
Hi all, just use a good condition Rondinax 60 for 120 film. Developed many rolls through mine – never lost a frame. Economical on chemical (150mml) with constant agitation. Might be 60 years old but they work.
I ordered one with the 120 module off of freestyle photography, hoping that it would be a useful supplement to my JOBO when I just wanted to develop one or two rolls of film.
Long story short: I find it to be a pretty compromised system. It does succeed in loading the film without exposing it; the problem lies in the damage that it does to the film while loading. It damaged the film in two ways:
– All of the rolls I ran through it had scratches all the way down the length of them (I presume due to some un-smooth surface within that the film must glide past while being separated from the paper backing).
– The edges of all the film I ran through it were bent, ‘pretty severely in spots. Perhaps they will flatten out once dry but I doubt it. If the don’t: there’s no way they will sit flat in a scanning tray.
Perhaps there is something wrong with the unit I purchased, or perhaps I did not follow their instructions closely enough (doubtful), but I have not had a good experience with this. Going to try and return it to freestyle, and will stick with my job tanks.
I really loved the idea of this, unfortunately nearly all of my negatives have come out with straight lines scratched almost perfectly across the frames. Ive not had a response from ars-imago yet. but im guessing its something to do with the way the film is loaded onto the spool inside the box?
if anyone else has this experience or knows a solution id love to hear. ive put around 15 rolls through it from various cameras and all show the same scratches in the same location. gutting!
I’ve also come up with these scratches from the lab-box on my first roll, and I think I’ve figured out that it is the square edges of the film guide that are scratching the film. This website (which will give out a warning because of some internet certificate expiry or something) also found the same issue and rectified it by using a round pliers to smooth out the corners.
Here is the method I have used for 40 or so years:
*Stick the film retriever in to the canister slot to the depth of the retriever stop tabs on older film that may be wound up too tight, a little sticky or got damp at some point (like in the Galapagos humidity).
*If the roll is fresh, stick the film retriever in just a little where when rotating the film you can hear the end of the film click off it when passing. There might be two clicks, one off the retriever and one off the canisters slot. One should be louder and felt more… that would be the canisters slot.
*Use a marking device to mark the outside reel edge at the point where you here the click (you can put the reel up to your ear to hear it better but you should also be able to feel it.)
*Rotate the reel one more time but . . . stop short of the film end click.
*Slide the bottom portion of the film retriever in to the canister, which should be under the film now.
*Before pulling the film retriever out, rotate the film backwards till it stops up against the retriever inside.
*Now pull the retriever out and the film end should be captured.
*Do not impede the film reel movement as you pull the retriever out.
Another trick is to bend the tip of the film end sharply, creasing it before loading it in the camera. When rewinding the film in the camera you will feel it stop at the crease point so it doesn’t fully go back into the canister. To load the film for developing, just pull it out a little and cut that part off.