We Go Hands On with FilmLab, a New App for Scanning Film with Your Smartphone

We Go Hands On with FilmLab, a New App for Scanning Film with Your Smartphone

2000 1125 James Tocchio

Abe Fettig is looking to change the way many of us scan our film. “I feel like people really enjoy spending time in the dark room, but really don’t enjoy scanning.” The measured understatement was spoken by the 37-year-old software developer in the basement of a pastry shop in Boston’s North End. We had met to chat and get some hands-on time with his latest project, an iOS and Android app called FilmLab that’s capable of digitizing film with a smartphone.

After explaining FilmLab’s pre-beta state and warning me of the possibility of bugs, Abe pointed his phone at a strip of negatives and let FilmLab do the talking. What happened next was pretty magical. The strip of negatives showed on screen, much as they would with any camera app. The difference here was that the negatives were instantly recognized and converted to color positives. A quick tap snapped the selected frame to the full size of the phone’s screen, another tap enabled focus, and a final tap processed and captured the image. He’d essentially created a high quality digital scan of a 35mm frame in something like five seconds. With a phone.

“So that’s basically FilmLab.” He said anticlimactically.

I blinked at the beautifully scanned photo on his phone, looked at Abe, and said, “That was pretty amazing. Let’s see it again.”

He shuffled around the negatives, replacing the 35mm negatives with a strip of medium format, and repeated the process. Position the phone, tap the negative, focus, capture – done. Impressive. I had to know more, so I started asking questions.

The story of FilmLab’s initial germ isn’t too different from many other startups and inspired products. It was born from frustration. Back in 2014, Abe found the process of scanning negatives with his Epson V700 to be “really unpleasant,” noting that dedicated film scanners are expensive, the process is slow, and the software they use is dated and cumbersome. Right on all counts. He thought he could do better, so he started tinkering with scanning software, researching color conversions, and learning all he could about the world of negative scanners. Once smartphones became capable of shooting RAW files, the promise of a film-scanning app turned into more than a dream.

He’s now spent the better part of six months working on FilmLab, and in the hour that I was able to spend with Abe and his prototype it’s clear his hard work is paying off. More than just a neat new gimmick to cash in on the resurgence of film photography, or an ultra-niche product in an already small pool, FilmLab is an app with broad benefits and potential real world impact for nearly any photo geek shooting film today. This is because it promises to do what all successful products do; it fills a need. It’s useful.

But how does it work, what will it cost, and when will it be ready? Over the course of our meeting, Abe would happily answer all of these questions and more.

Built from the ground up to work with all smartphones in one form or another, FilmLab’s ambition is to aid the spread of film photography by eliminating the barriers that exist for those who want to easily and effectively use their film photos in the digital ecosystem. Sharing photos with friends and family on Facebook, posting images to blogs and websites, and publishing film shots on Instagram have all been difficult for film shooters who don’t have access to film scanners or don’t want to pay the often-high cost of scanning through a lab.

In practical use, FilmLab is nice. The user interface, though currently a work-in-progress, is intuitive and concise. It’s the kind of app that any photo geek will understand immediately. The process of scanning is so simple that it almost resists explanation, but let’s run through it one more time and talk about some details that should be noted.

First, use of FilmLab will require a light source. In our hands-on we were using a battery-powered, portable LED light panel. Cheap, effective, simple. But we could’ve also used a lightbox and a negative carrier, a slide copier, etc. Once the light source is set up, things get very simple. Point the phone at the negatives and the phone’s screen acts as a “loupe” of sorts, displaying in realtime what the converted negatives will look like. Choose the frame to be scanned, tap it, and it fills the screen. At this point we can pull up a manual-focusing aid that charmingly resembles the focus magnifier of something like a Rolleiflex. Focus is locked by the app to the phone’s minimum focus distance in order to create a scan that’s as large as possible. By lifting or lowering the phone further or closer to the negative we’re able to bring it into and out of focus, a methodology to which macro shooters will be well-accustomed. Adjust for sharpness, press the capture button, and the app does the rest.

The whole process is about as seamless as any I’ve experienced in photography, and certainly far better than the chore of using any scanning software with which I’ve worked.

The app also allows for the importing of negative images made from other capture methods, such as the often-discussed DSLR and macro lens method. Once imported into the app, FilmLab’s conversion software goes to work, automatically creating an optimized positive. Compared with Lightroom’s tedious process of importing, converting to positive, and fiddling with tone curves, the FilmLab method sounds heavenly.

Of course simplicity and usability of its design would count for naught if the app failed to deliver useful images. Thankfully, scans from FilmLab look remarkable even at this early stage of development when Abe says the app is being continually improved. He’s refining his color profiles, working on auto-focus and focusing aids, and exploring ways to overcome the limits of the less-than-ideal minimum focusing distances imposed by many phones.

The last of these limits poses the biggest challenge. The long minimum focus distance of the average smartphone combined with the relative size of 35mm and 120 negatives means that scans of different formats will yield differing resolutions. But even with this caveat, Abe says scans from FilmLab 1.0 will be large enough to look excellent on any digital device. He’s still experimenting with upscaling to reach the limits of usable resolutions, so the file size isn’t settled yet. Even in this pre-beta stage, scans are coming in at two to six megapixels, yielding images large enough for web and social media use, and these numbers only stand to increase relative to any increases in phone camera specs.

When discussing the scans produced by this early build, Abe is candid about where FilmLab stands and where he hopes it will be with help from the Kickstarter. “It’s honestly a bit painful for me to look at [the early version’s scans], because it reminds me of all the improvements I need to make. By the time FilmLab 1.0 rolls around I hope the images will be looking significantly better, both in resolution and in color reproduction. But these give an accurate portrayal of where FilmLab is today.”

The images he’s sent, below, show scans straight out of FilmLab with no post-processing, color-correction, or exposure balancing.

To coax the highest possible quality out of each scan, FilmLab is using some ingenious techniques. For each scan, the app captures eight RAW images of each negative and processes them into a single image. By using this massive amount of data from multiple RAW files, FilmLab is able to align the images to achieve maximum resolution and eliminate noise while avoiding typical noise reduction techniques that often harm image quality.

It works great, and if this initial version is anything to go by, the promise of FilmLab is really exciting. In a relatively short time, Abe’s put together the bones of an app that looks poised to change the way many of us scan and share our film photography. Now he’s looking to move forward with his vision, and for that he’s turning to Kickstarter.

Launching less than a week from today, the Kickstarter will allow Abe to concentrate on developing FilmLab full-time over the next handful of months. Rewards for backers aren’t yet finalized, but Abe’s committed to giving maximum bang for the buck. Early access to the FilmLab beta, advanced updates over the months following the Kickstarter campaign’s conclusion, and free use of the app for a year are just some of the rewards he’s considering. When the app is released to non-backers, which will happen just a few months after the Kickstarter ends, there will be a free one-month trial followed by a $1.99 per month subscription fee. That’s pretty remarkable compared to the cost of getting a single roll of film scanned at my local lab, which is approximately twenty-five bucks.

But the biggest takeaway from my conversation with Abe and my time with FilmLab wasn’t that the app was clever (which it is), or that it worked perfectly (which it did), or that it would drastically cut my scanning costs (which it will). Rather, what impressed me most was Abe’s commitment to the creation and distribution of not only a highly-refined product, but a product that’s also truly useful. To quote the man himself, “This is the app that I wanted for myself. But I’d like FilmLab to be a transparent and useful tool… for other people. And if people find it useful and valuable to them, that’s great.”

To follow along with the development of FilmLab, visit Abe’s website here or follow his progress on Instagram. And to support his efforts and get yourself on the FilmLab beta, head over to the project’s Kickstarter.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Wilson Laidlaw May 9, 2017 at 8:36 am

    Sounds very interesting. At the moment I cannot scan at all with my 2016 15.4″ MacBook Pro, as my film scanner is Firewire only. Stacking a Thunderbolt 3 to 2 and then Thunderbolt 2 to FW800, although working to access a hard drive, does not work to a film scanner with Silverfast crashing or freezing, with an error message: Communication protocol interrupt. I borrowed back my old MBP that I had given to my daughter to check the scanner was working on Sierra 10.12.4 with a T2 to FW800 dongle, which it was. I am therefore waiting for the OWC T3 dock, which is due ????? I suppose it will be interesting to see which arrives first, the scanning app or the OWC dock. I know that getting an app certified by Apple can be a time consuming business, as my wife is a director of a company which develops apps for the medical professions.

  • Really, really interesting approach to film scanning. Cannot wait for the Kickstarter campaign to start. Any way to get earlier early access to the beta application?

  • OK, nice for a quick idea of the results, but a ‘real’ scan is something different. Resolution is minimal, colors are…. hmmm let’s say approximative.

    Won’t replace my (cheap) Plustek Scanner! Only advantage is speed I guess.

    Sorry, good idea but not for me!

    • OK, just read that the examples were without color correction so that might be improved. That leaves a very low resolution….

      • For sure. That’s the big challenge. Bear in mind that this is a pre-alpha build and that Abe is very aware of what needs tweaking. I think it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

  • Looks interesting. I’m pretty happy with my Epson V750 Pro, but this could be good for someone who doesn’t want to shell out that much.

  • Gregory (@noctous_) May 9, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    I still don’t have money to buy film scanner, so it can be a remedy for my problem. I am waiting!

  • I’m just excited that someone’s trying this. There’s so much to learn from this (as a software developer) as an experiment. I have apprehension about an iPhone’s ability to capture a scan that’s as good as even a low-line flatbed film scanner but I’m open to seeing what this fellow can make my iPhone do!

    • That’s the right kind of optimism. Some of the comments on Facebook have been puzzlingly snarky. Another reason I love the readers that visit this site. Thanks Jim.

      • I’m Director of Engineering at a software company – I love software experiments! And I bought a cheap film digitizer to “scan” 10 years worth of 126 negatives I shot in the 70s as a kid and while the scans were basically usable, they weren’t actually good. The app output you show in this post is better than that thing can do. I’d commit to rescanning all of those negs with FilmLab if it can handle the format!

      • Yeah, I dig the vibe on this site.

  • I think this is great. Currently I am scanning my film with my DSLR D750 and AF macro lens and the results have been fantastic. The lens is able to AF 1:1 in live view and a full rez scan takes seconds from set up to exposure. I print large from these, and like James was spurred on because I became allergic to paying $25/roll for dev and high rez scans. But the casual user won’t want to do this, and so this app is fantastic. They just want to scan and post.

    My real interest is in the profiles being created. Any chance that those will be sold separately to users of LightRoom etc? Right now I have built my own, but they still require a little tweaking on some images. I guess that is to be expected. And yeah it is a bit of a pain creating profiles, but you only do it once per film type then save it.
    B&W is super easy. The profile is basically just an invert.

    For me the main take away is that while perhaps the primary mission is to get old film scanned and posted, it encourages new photographers to take up film. As they now have a very easy way to post to social media.

  • Thanks to Huss Hardan for linking this over at the rangefinder forum. I scan the same way as Huss, with my DSLR and a Nikon 85mm macro lens. Works great. But this could be a terrific app for casual to semi-serious photographers.

  • Marcus didius falco (@falcos2012) May 9, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Dear all,
    Sounds like a good idea:)In terms of the resolution question, even a low res. scan posted on twitter will give someone a respectable image e.g. a typical photo I post on twitter is 2592 x 1456(1.6mb), which is not very high compared 2 some:) This could be a very useful app 4 the beginner/novice photographer, as it cuts out the expense & time of acquiring/using a film scanner:)
    My only quibble is that the app is currently not ported to Windows Phone(yes, I am that guy!), so that would be a deal breaker 4 me:(

  • I have been following Abe for a couple months now. This is an EXCELLENT aspiration, and it will make film so much more accessible to the masses. Lets face it, we live in an age that makes shooting film DIFFICULT and EXPENSIVE. We cannot let these drawbacks kill the art. The only way we could support film into the future is innovation like this. Congrats on making it this far, Abe! And Bless your efforts moving forward! Dont let the naysayers say otherwise. Sure it will have drawbacks but for the quick scans that most users need, this is a great idea. For everything else, scan yourself or send it out for processing. Not sure what’s up with the snarky behavior. We as film shooters should be welcoming this breath of fresh air… – andre

  • Ever since I saw this a month or two ago, I have been waiting so, so eagerly for it to launch. This is going to be HUGELY important to film photography. Go on a Facebook group where a bunch of beginners are asking about scanners daily, and you’ll realize how useful a tool this will be. I can’t wait until it launches, I’m going to be backing the KS immediately.

  • This is really amazing. Sure, it’s not going to replace that 2,000 plustek scanner but I don’t see it as doing that. I’m 100% darkroom but I do scan my contact sheets to get SOMETHING online for various reasons and this would definitely make that easier! I’d support it for sure. (and be a beta tester also) 🙂

  • I wonder why there’s people hyped about this, because taking photos of film with your smartphone and applying 2 Photoshop (or any photo edit software) settings (Invert Colors + Auto Color) isn’t difficult at all, and this information is all over the internet. The sample images show no improvement at all and the process probably involve equal or more clicks and offers less freedom.

    • Sorry but no, waving a smartphone over a negative is going to be insanely faster and easier than loading negs into a scanner, waiting 45 minutes for them all to scan, and then spending 45 minutes editing them in Photoshop. Invert + auto color is not even close to looking good, in fact, I just opened a photo of a negative and did those exact steps, and hopefully this comments system will let me link the outcome: http://benicetobears.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/invert-auto-color.jpg

    • I think you just said it…it involves several more elements and cost than this (getting photoshop (expense) and then using photoshop with two clicks not to mention opening, PS, opening the photo, saving the photo) and just using your phone won’t stack raw files for better images like this app will, it will just use the crappy jpg.

      Those are just a few reasons that I thought of right off of the top of my head, there are probably more.

  • If this can get social quality scans (about equivalent to JPGs that come out of my Epson V550), this will be a game changer for me. My primary frustration with the V550 is the lack of focus control, thus necessitating either non-OEM holders I can micro adjust (which is a pain in the ass) or just living with the sharpening in software.

    The other advantage? I don’t need the desk space for a bulky scanner anymore…

  • kjhqfjklqsdhfhjklqsdf May 12, 2017 at 4:17 am

    Great idea ! Keep us updated on this project !

    Also, I’m guessing it would drastically improve resolution to put a magnifier in front of the film right ?

    • There currently is a kickstarter that will allow you to contribute to make this happen and also keep you updated.

    • The magnifier is an interesting idea! It would have to not curve the image though, I feel like most magnifiers would do this

      • A magnifier, as in close focus adapter or magnifying glass is a very bad idea and would deteriorate the resolution and picture quality extremely. As for distorsions you might have to use some glass with the quality of an excellent lens to avoid that…. and then you can as well ‘scan’ with your digital camera.

  • In case you missed it, FilmLab has achieved its funding goal on Kickstarter and the project is moving forward. Best of luck to Abe, and we’ll be sure to bring you updated hands-on reviews of the app when it goes live.

  • I already use an scanning app for my contact sheets for a long time now and it works perfectly.
    Its called FilmScanner Lite. And its FREE 😉
    It does excactly everything explained here and i get great results (i noticed that an led light box makes an huge difference – i used to do it with another phone or just the white from the browser on my imac with not so good results).

    • Erik,
      Not even close.

      did you watch the video all of the way through?

      Filmscanner Lite isn’t even comparable to this.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio