BESPOKE FILM PROCESSING
A Review of the Filmomat 2020
By: David Senoff
Bespoke (adj.): ordered to be made, as distinguished from ready-made adj. and n.; also said of a tradesman who makes goods to order. Also n., a bespoke article.
Most of us associate the word “bespoke” with clothing, as in a custom made or “bespoke” suit. As Harry Hart tells his young pupil, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, in 2014’s hit film “Kingsman: The Secret Service”:
“Now, the first thing every gentleman needs is a good suit. By which I mean a bespoke suit. Never off the peg. … A suit is the modern gentleman’s armor.”
Do not fear, neither I nor Bellamy are here to sell you any custom-made suits (perhaps some custom made JCH merch), but I will let Bellamy handle that part.
No, instead, I am here to discuss with you DIY “bespoke film processing.” Now at first glance, you make think: how can something that be both “do it yourself” and “bespoke” or custom-made. Also, how can any of that apply to film processing? (I have been known see connections that no one else sees, but please bear with me).
Some years ago – pre-COVID – before any government lockdowns, I was a mild-mannered attorney living in the US, not really thinking about photography in any meaningful way – other than to pull out my mobile phone du jour and snap some pics of my kids.
Prior to becoming an attorney, while in high school, university, and law school, I earned money as a wedding/events photographer, a lab-tech in a commercial film, processing lab, and a lab-tech working in various one hour photo labs in malls and shopping centers. Remember, this was the mid 80’s through the early 90’s, so it was all analog all the time. (For goodness sake you could purchase unexpired Kodachrome back then AND get it processed).
Once I became an attorney, I put my cameras down and never purchased a DSLR or any stand-alone digital camera.
Then in 2018, it happened. We had moved in 2016 and I was going through the last few boxes from the old house … and it happened. I smelled an old familiar smell. What could that be, mold? No. Mildew? No. It was the sweet smell of my old Tenba camera bag. To quote Robert Duvall from the movie Apocalypse Now…It “smelled like victory.” In June, 2020, I wrote an article for Emulsive.org, titled: “Living with GAS, one film photographer’s story so far …”, describing what happened after that.
I concluded that article by saying:
“That bit above in the conclusion about being at peace with my self-described role as a collector is crap. I forgot to tell you that in my battle with GAS I purchased a Canon Pixma-Pro 10 printer and a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 ed negative scanner because I was fed up with the prints and scans, I was getting from labs far and wide. Now, if I could just scrape together enough for a Filmomat 2020!”
After sending off another load of film to be processed in Iowa, California, or some other distant location from me, I had an idea: with this entire analog film resurgence, why not find a vacant storefront and open a film processing lab/coffee shop/camera shop/someplace where these new film photographers could meet, get their film processed, enjoy some coffee, and share ideas and thoughts about photography and techniques? (Ok, yes, I had not considered the economics of this AT ALL, when the idea came to me).
Then the Pandemic Hit.
That idea quickly evaporated. The thought of anyone hanging out in a coffee shop, seemed, well, quaint, at that point. That idea still seems quaint, as I watch Starbucks closing so many retail locations.
At some point during this time, I began totaling the amount I was spending on processing, including shipping costs. It was substantial. I had also sold some of my precious gear during the pandemic, as I realized it was not being used and was likely never going to be.
The realization occurred one day during the pandemic while watching a live stream sponsored by Silvergrain Classics Magazine. On that particular episode the editors and their guests were discussing the future of film processing. The underlying theme of the discussion was that the future of film processing was going to be home processing.
Hmmm, I thought to myself and with a few extra-bucks in my pocket from selling my gear, I decided to go for it.
That day I contacted Lukas Fritz, the brilliant inventor and manufacturer of the Filmomat 2020 (Instagram: @filmomat_official, web: Filmomat, and YouTube: Filmomat) and ordered a Filmomat 2020!
(Earlier this year, after having used the Filmomat for about a year, I was speaking with Bellamy via Zoom, and, he said (regarding a film processing lab): “no, mate, the future of film processing is definitely in-home processing.” With that, I officially ditched the idea of opening a film lab/café and he asked if I would write this review).
As you can already tell this is not your ordinary “gear review.” That is because the Filmomat 2020 is no ordinary “bit of kit.” It is truly a hand-made, bespoke home film processor. That is correct, all Filmomats are made by hand by its creator, Lukas Fritz, and his team in Munich. And the Filmomat looks and feels every bit like a bespoke piece of gear.
The best way I can describe the feel of the Filmomat while you are using it is by way of comparison. Prior to purchasing a Hasselblad 500 C/M, I had been shooting medium format with various Bronica cameras with Zeiss and Nikkor lenses. I loved the look and feel of them (I owned 4 at one point), the way the lenses were easily interchangeable like my 35mm Nikons. I thought, why bother with a Hasselblad, when I have these?
Then during my “great gear sale,” I purchased the Hasselblad. The difference between the Hasselblad and the Bronicas was remarkable. Every element of the Hasselblad that can be removed (lenses, film backs, screens, viewfinders, etc.) fit perfectly together down to the millimeter, there is no shaking, no loose-fitting feel, everything fits like a glove…or a bespoke suit. That is exactly what the Filmomat and its parts feel like. All tightly fit together, not a screw out of place, and nothing “vibrates” or shakes, rattles, or rolls.
Although I promised myself, I would not include a section of this review called “unboxing,” I feel as if I would be remiss if I did not at least describe the packaging. The machine arrives in a box that is much larger than the machine itself and stronger and thicker than any cardboard box that you have ever received from Amazon, or any other online retailer. (Editors note, it really is a massive box. We have one at JCH HQ and the packaging is incredible).
Owing to the Filmomat’s impressively beautiful design and use of laser-engraved acrylic glass, one cannot simply throw some packing peanuts in the box and hope it will arrive at its destination in one piece. This is especially true given that the machine holds 1500 mL of process chemistry (three acrylic tubes holding 500 mL each of chemistry), plus two separate compartments holding over 10l of water for the warming bath and rinse water.
To say nothing of the mechanical components under the hood. Thus, you would not want to develop a crack during shipping that could compromise the integrity of the tanks or any other part of the Filmomat.
In order to solve this potential problem, inside this heavy cardboard box, the Filmomat is packed in heavy foam pieces that are cut to fit the machine perfectly. This ensures that your package within the package arrives safe and sound. Picture an old Zero Halliburton type aluminum briefcase with foam cut out specifically to fit your kit.
The packaging alone is a thing of beauty.
Filmomat touts its design as “living room friendly,” and from a purely aesthetic point of view, this is absolutely true.
For example, its physical footprint is 35x35x40cm or around the size of a microwave oven. Plus, the bottom of the unit (that houses the mechanicals) is made of shiny black acrylic while the top of the machine is the transparent acrylic glass.
“How can a film processor be made of clear acrylic glass?” you might ask. “Well,” I might answer, “since the film must be loaded onto spools and the spools placed in a light tight tank, and thereafter attached to the Filmomat itself, all processing takes place with the lights ON.” One can load the spools and the tank in a large dark film changing bag. The one I use I purchased on Amazon for around $20.
The original idea behind the design was not simply to make a “coffee table” friendly machine, but also to be used in a two room (or less) apartment where there is no room for a dedicated “darkroom” and where space is at a premium. The Filmomat’s design accomplishes both of those goals with the style and sophistication one expects of a bespoke suit.
Having processed film at home, in commercial film labs, and one hour photo labs, I have developed film in everything from small stainless-steel tanks with small stainless-steel reels, to large industrial “dip & dunk” machines, leader card fed roller processors, plain roller processors, and everything in between. But that was in the 20th Century. I can assure you that the Filmomat is the first true 21st Century film processor I have ever had the pleasure of using. Let me explain what I mean.
The Filmomat can automatically process any 3-step chemical photo process in existence. That means it handles C-41 (color negative film), E-6 (color positive/slide film) and black and white (negative and positive) processing. In addition, by employing the machine’s “2nd exposure” and “manual modes,” which are really just fancy ways of saying that the machine pauses the processing allowing the user to swap out chemicals for others from one or more of the three built in acrylic tubes and then restarting the process. This means you are not limited to processes which are only 3 parts. If you want to find a 6 chemical E-6 processing kit instead of a 3-step process, fear not, you will be able to process with that chem in the Filmomat.
The significance of the Filmomat’s ability to process film in more than 3 chemical baths should not be overlooked. While Cinestill has pioneered the 35mm cinema film look on film that can be processed with C-41 chemistry, many people have begun experimenting with the “real thing” in their cameras.
Due to the availability Kodak’s 35mm cinefilms from the Vision 3 family of films, which are then rolled and packaged as 35mm still films, analog photographers now use the actual cinefilm, with its nasty rem-jet layer still on the film. (Cinestill removes this layer allowing their films to be processed in regular C-41 3 bath chemistry).
In addition, other companies like Silbersaltz, QWD, and The Film Photography Project roll and package their own private label cinefilm for 35mm use. These cinefilms should be processed in the ECN-2 process, although they can be cross processed in C-41 chemistry, the results are not as good, and the chemistry is immediately ruined requiring it to be dumped after one use.
Never fear Filmomat to the rescue. Once the film becomes desensitized to light because you can pause the processing, you can open the tank unroll the film and clean any remaining remjet off the film before finishing the process. As a result, you can use traditional ECN-2 chemistry in the Filmomat. You can do this without fear of ruining any C-41 film you may have accidentally loaded with the ECN-2 film.
So successful has Filmomat been with the ECN-2 Process they recently introduced a circular tank which looks like a bicycle wheel. This tank processes Super-8 and 16mm movie film, right in the same machine as your still film. That means, you need only purchase a different shaped tank to process your home movies alongside your still pictures, as opposed to having to purchase a second Filmomat in its entirety.
Let me describe the typical processing workflow for the Filmomat. First off, its important to note that the Filmomat processing tank utilizes Jobo brand 2500 film spirals for the processing of 135/120 film, Jobo 2500 film spiral, or Easyload film holders for 4×5 format film, and finally the Easyload 5×7 film holder for even larger format processing. All of these film spirals are available for purchase on the Filmomat site when you make your initial purchase so you can “mix and match” what spirals/holders fit your needs best. The “standard” configuration for a person shooting 35mm and 120/220 film is to order the Filmomat with 4 of the Jobo 2500 film spirals. This will allow the photographer the following film processing arrays in one Filmomat tank:
- 4 – 135 format spirals which is equivalent to 4 rolls of 35mm/36 exposure film;
- 2 – medium format spirals, which is equivalent to 4 rolls of 120 film (2 rolls per spiral), or 2 rolls of 220 film; or
- 2 – 135 spirals and 1 – 120 spiral, which is equivalent to 2 rolls of 35mm/36 exposure film and 2 rolls of 120 film, or 1 roll of 220 film.
For larger format photographers, the Filmomat also offers the following additional configurations:
- 1 – 4×5 format reel which will process up to 6 sheets of 4×5 film; or
- 1 – 135 format reel and 1 – 4×5 format reel, which is equivalent to 1 roll of 35mm/36 exposure film plus up to six 4×5 format sheets.
Obviously, you cannot mix and match film types which requires different chemical processes. Nevertheless, assuming you are processing all color negatives any one of the above configurations can be utilized at the same time.
I hear you saying, this seems very complicated, and we have not even discussed the chemistry yet. It is not complicated at all. Once you master loading the reels, which you should practice with your eyes open and closed in light, the rest of the process is no more difficult than setting your coffee maker to brew a pot of coffee the next morning at a specific time.
Each of the three tubes for chemistry holds 500mL worth of chemicals. This results in the Filmomat being frugal with the chemistry. It also allows you to mix your chemistry in 500mL batches at a time, process your film and depending on the number of rolls you put through in one session to simply dump the chemicals out when you are done, as opposed to storing copious amounts of pre-mixed chemicals in your home.
Once you have mixed the chemicals you simply pour them (with the aid of a funnel) into their corresponding tubes. Whichever chemical is the most temperature sensitive should be placed in tube “B” as that tube has its own separate heater and can achieve more exact temperatures than tubes “A” or “C.” Notwithstanding, I have never had a situation where any one chemical’s temperature was not within the manufacturer’s temperature tolerance regardless of which tube it was in.
Yes, this seems complicated and not intuitive. Trust me, once you have the chemicals in the right tubes, fill up the water baths with fresh water, you load the film on the reels, load the reels in the tank, place the tank in the Filmomat and either run an automated program pre-installed on the machine to develop color negative film with Tetanal brand C-41 chemistry or color slide film with Tetanal brand E-6 chemistry.
I hear the cries of all my “Death before Digital,” “#filmisnotdead,” “#filmphotography,” and “#monochrome” black and white purests, screaming but what about us, what if I want to have 85 formulas for pushing, pulling, developing Agfa Silvermax, Adox Scala or Tri-X black and white positive film? Whatever will we do?? “This product is not for us, we’d rather manually pour the chem into a tank, manually agitate it, bang it, and shake it,” like a cocktail made by Tom Cruise in that awful movie of the same name. Fear not my Long-Island Iced Tea, Margarita, and Moscow Mule drinking friends, the Filmomat has you covered.
While the pre-programed formulas or “recipes” are only for use with Tetanal C-41 or E-6 chemistry, the ability to program the Filmomat to your heart’s content is as easy as making a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.
The Filmomat can store 19 custom processes, EACH of which can be composed of 10 unique steps, including pre-rinsing, rinsing, and chemistry. If you cannot develop your film in one of 19 custom processes (designed by you), with up to 10 steps each, you may need to go back to bartender school. Should you fall into that category, do not worry, I got you. In addition to the 2 pre-programed recipes and the 19 custom recipes you can add on your own, there is always the manual process where you add the chem and turn the Filmomat off and on manually so you can get just the right number of shakes (or stirs if you prefer) before pouring your vodka martini into a pre-chilled glass.
Here is what I have found works best for me, I wait until I have at least 3 or more rolls of film of the same type – color negative, color slide, black and white negative, or black and white slide (that number is my preference, simply because I do not want to mix up chem for less than 3 rolls of film). Once the chem is mixed and poured into their corresponding tubes, I then fill the reservoirs with water. At that point, I load whatever rolls are to be processed first onto reels and load the reels in the Filmomat’s light tight tank. I then attach the tank to the machine in its main reservoir, attach the tanks cable on the outside of the machine, dial up the recipe I want, and then do something else (legal work, get a snack, whatever).
Once the recipe is selected and the tank is attached, the Filmomat begins its heating process warming both the main bath (not the rinse bath) and the chemicals to the temperature called for by the particular recipe. Once it reaches that temperature, the Filmomat commences processing your film according to the exact specification of whatever recipe you have selected.
You do nothing but either watch in awe, or some watch some YouTube videos or some other such time killer. If, like me, you are using the Filmomat in a room of your house that does not have a drain in it, make sure you get a bucket or some other large container to accommodate the large tube from which the Filmomat drains its wastewater between steps. When it is done, you can simply open the tank remove the reels and hang the film to dry. I do not have a dedicated film drying unit, so I use a film drying hanger that I hang from the shower head of the shower in the bathroom next door to where the Filmomat is located.
After your film is dry, you can then scan, print with an enlarger, or do whatever you wish with the film. ince the Filmomat returns the chemicals to each of their proper tubes, you can then proceed to process more film of that type or empty the tubes into storage containers, beakers, or a bucket and save or dispose of it as you wish. At that point, the only thing to do is to clean the machine. And just like everything else on the Filmomat, there is a preprogrammed automated cleaning process. Once you have emptied all three tubes, refill the rinse water tank with clean fresh water. Take the empty film tank, close it as if there is film inside, attach it to the machine as you did before and start the automatic cleaning process.
After 6 minutes the Filmomat will be clean and ready for its next use. You will notice that each of the three tubes will be full of clean water when the process is done. At that point, empty each of the 3 tubes into a bucket along with any remaining water in the two reservoirs. Then, you are done. You have successfully developed your film, cleaned your machine, and had an ice-cold vodka martini while you waited.
If film photography makes a person slow down, be more mindful, and present when compared to digital, then the Filmomat is the processing companion to your camera.
The Filmomat works. It does what it promises to do with little or no training time. Like most machines which share both analog and digital roots if an error occurs, and something does go wrong, in my experience, those errors have always, uniformly been caused by user error (put the wrong chem in the wrong tube, used the wrong recipe, did not load the reel properly).
Being a 20th Century film processing veteran, let me assure you that all of the user errors I have described above, and more take place in the best commercial or local labs. People are human and no matter how many times they operate a machine and no matter haw many rolls of film they have processed, mistakes will happen.
If the future of film photography is dependent upon home processing (and Bellamy and others have convinced me that it is), then as long as the Filmomat exists, and is maintained and updated, the future of film photography is safe (that is, assuming there continues to be enough film and chem to go around – which is an article for another day).
The Filmomat is expensive as it should be, given the job it does and its build quality. If you are only shooting a few rolls a month or a year, it may not be in your budget. However, if you, like me shoot hundreds of rolls of film per year and must then ship your film through the post in all kinds of weather conditions, potentially exposing it to harmful heat, x-rays by the postal service, and then pay for the processing, scanning, and return shipping costs, the cost of the Filmomat is quickly recovered after 3-6 months.
Not to mention, you will almost certainly cut your film processing waiting time by more than 90%. The only impediment to you shooting a roll of film at sunrise and seeing the results by lunch, will be you, not the mails, not the lab, and not the lab’s employees.
The Filmomat, like a bespoke suit, is the height of civility in film processing. As Eggsy learns near the end of the Kingsman: “A bespoke suit always fits,” and to take slight poetic license with the remainder of that quote: “just be glad that Lukas had it made for” all of us.
 The author is presently a “practicing” attorney and a film (analog) photographer seeking to improve his perspective (and yours) on life, the universe, and everything else. You can reach David on Grainery (a film (analog only) photography platform) at dssenoff or on Instagram at @chestnuthillphotog
 “bespoke, adj.”. OED Online. September 2022. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/18156? (accessed October 02, 2022).