FilmLab is an app for digitizing negatives quickly and easily, and I’ve spent the past few weeks testing its limits. It fulfills its intended purpose well, and future updates promise higher performance. For now, it’s a good alternative to more expensive and time consuming scanners, but its use also brings a few significant trade-offs.
My first film scanner was a Nikon Coolscan IV, erroneously listed on Gumtree as a “small silver printer.” I picked it up for £50 (around $80 US at the time) after a late-night road trip to Milton Keynes, the most boring town in England. For years it served me well. It was easy to use – simply feed a strip of 6 negatives into the front, and after a lot of whirring and buzzing, the small camera inside would focus on the negatives and quickly produce six sharp images. Paired with Vuescan, it was all I ever needed while using 35mm cameras. However, as I started experimenting with medium format and long, panoramic negatives courtesy of the Hasselblad X-Pan, the Coolscan started to come up short, and I was thrown back into the baffling world of film scanners.
Flatbed or dedicated feed? Canon, Pakon or Epson? Scanning your own negatives quickly becomes both time-consuming and expensive. At the lower end of the scale, $160 will buy a basic flatbed negative scanner able to process both 35mm and 120 negatives. Mid-range, and the Plustek dedicated 35mm film scanners will set you back around $300, but will only be able to handle 35mm negatives. The Big Daddy of home film scanners is the Epson Perfection V800, but you’d better have $600 to spend on it.
If, like many people, you balk at the prices above, Abe Fettig might have the answer. In May 2017, he launched a Kickstarter for the FilmLab app. At that time, we sat down for a chat and a hands-on with the FilmLab prototype. Now, it’s a real product and ready for consumption.
FilmLab App aims to turn your phone into a film scanner. It’s a clever idea – everyone has a phone with a camera in it, so why not use that to digitize negatives that are too often stuck in the real world? Version 1.1 of the app is now available for iPhone users at a bargain price of $5.99, with the Android version planned for February 2019.
To use FilmLab, you’ll need a light source to place behind your negatives. I have an older lightbox powered by fluorescent tubes, but this did not agree with my iPhone’s camera at all, and either showed flickering light or a slow brown bar that moved across the iPhone’s screen. So I switched to my partner’s iPad Mini, and simply opened a blank browser page – voila, a white, backlit rectangle that I could use to illuminate my negatives.
On first opening, the FilmLab app looks minimalistic and easy to use. There aren’t multitudes of menus to trawl through, or masses of options to tweak in order to get the result you desire. I was grateful for this, as I’m not one for reading manuals – I tend to get stuck in first, and work out the problems as I go along.
Clicking on the film roll icon will give options for colour negative, slide and black-and-white film. Selecting each option changes the input from the camera as you’d expect – an inverse image appears for colour negative or black-and-white, and gives a preview on your phone’s screen. This preview attempts some sort of auto-correction, which can be a bit fiddly to get right. I found myself moving my phone closer and further away in order to get the colour inversion to work correctly. Sometimes it would be too dark, sometimes the colours would look all wrong – this is something that could be improved (and Abe, the developer, is consistently fine-tuning the app to improve exactly this aspect).
Once you’ve clicked the shutter and captured your negative within the FilmLab app, there’s options for minimal processing, including cropping, contrast, and exposure. While the Exposure and Contrast sliders work well, I found adjustments to the Colour Balance sliders difficult to dial in. The results from auto-correction were, well, not great. I also found the cropping functionality to be a right pain in the backside – trying to accurately move large anchor circles to the right place on a small negative is fiddly, and if you’re in slide film mode, the bright white of the lightbox renders the anchors completely invisible.
I ended up doing minimal work within the FilmLab app, and instead imported my images into Snapseed where I felt more comfortable editing them. Once imported to Snapseed, I noticed that a couple of my photos had a grid-like pattern showing up over my negative.
This may have been down to me using an iPad to illuminate the negatives – I suspect the individual pixels on the iPad’s screen might have caused this, especially as they don’t seem to show up on the monochrome negative scans.
Overall, the FilmLab app seems to be a quick, easy-to-use solution for scanning negatives if you’re not all that bothered about enormous, high-resolution images. Paired with a decent LED lightbox and a smartphone copy stand, it would be possible to get a speedy workflow going for not much outlay at all. However, the faff of cropping, tweaking and saving negatives on a small phone screen quickly gets annoying – personally, I’d much rather be using a dedicated scanner and a laptop, paired with Vuescan and Lightroom.
With these caveats noted, I do see myself using the FilmLab app in future. Digitzing a negative of pretty much any size is something I’m going to need to do. I currently have no way of scanning 4×5 negatives, so this may end up being $5.99 well spent, even if just for previewing an image before sending it off to be processed on a proper drum scanner. Additionally, I can see the app being useful if you find yourself cornered by a family member and asked to scan old negatives – the novelty value of being able to look at long-lost memories so quickly and easily shouldn’t be underestimated.
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