Lab Box vs. Paterson Tank: Developing Your Own
I just received my Lab-Box, a self-loading daylight tank for 35mm and/or 120 roll film. It only took 3 years from my backing on Kickstarter, but it’s here. My first impression: nice looking but a bit intimidating to put together and set up the first time. Once past the initial technical intricacies, my first question was “is it worth it”? What can the Lab Box do that other daylight tanks can’t do? What can it do better? How does it compare to the standard daylight tank: the Paterson System 4?
By the way, what IS a standard Paterson Tank? They come in so many configurations. The one listed here comes with two reels and can do two rolls of 35mm or one roll of 120 at a time (around $30 with two reels). Yet, there are a number of larger tanks, and the next size up will be needed for the MOD54 film holder (an add-on) or to process two rolls of 120 film at a time (about $33 for the tank and $9 for each reel, not to mention the MOD 54). So we’re are going to talk about both sizes, but the smaller one is the more “direct” competitor. A little confusing, but hey, choices can be confusing…
Lab-Box with 35mm and 120 modules
You don’t need a darkroom with either system. That is the point. The big difference to start out with is that with the Lab Box you can load roll film (35mm or 120) in a changing bag and the film reel loads automatically. The Paterson tank has to be loaded in the dark (in a changing bag or darkroom) and the film reel(s) have to be loaded manually (also in the dark). If you don’t have a darkroom AND you don’t like loading film reel(s) and loading the tank in a changing bag, then the Lab Box may be the solution for you.
So the major upside for the Lab Box is that there is no need for a changing bag and no need to fumble with loading film reels in the dark. The major downside is the price difference, though the Lab Box has other pros and cons as well. The Lab Box with both 35mm and 120 modules is $199; with just the 35mm module alone is $159. The Paterson Tank System 4 basic 2-reel tank (it also comes in larger sizes and a 35mm only) is just under $30. To be fair, we’ll add a changing bag to the price (another $30 to start) and you’re up to $60.
Un-boxing and Assembling
Beautifully and safely packaged, LOTS of parts to find and assemble. The instruction manual has bar code links to instruction videos, which is a good thing. Initial setup is fairly intricate.
Simply packaged, not many parts: Tank, light baffle/funnel, lid, center post (and film reels if included). Easy, and assembly instructions consist of a a few short lines.
Loading the tanks
Pouring chemicals into the Lab-Box and pouring them out is easy. The lab-box comes with a knob for agitation, but a longer crank is available as an accessory. Unusually, Lab-Box suggests in their instructions to use a continuous agitation method, but to vary the speed and consistency. You can use the standard intermittent agitation, but they do recommend continuous. Reduce development time 20-30% from standard agitation times.
My first attempt went well and development seemed consistent. Next time I would turn the agitating crank more slowly as the film seemed a bit overdeveloped.
Pouring chemicals into and out of the Paterson tank is also easy. Agitation is very flexible with either a rotating motion or, with the lid on, traditonal inversion.
Paterson tanks are a tried and true method producing consistently good and even development.
As mentioned above, Paterson tanks are a tried and true method producing consistently good and even development. They are inexpensive, can deal with more than one roll at a time (even more than one format at a time), and with an add-on can even do 4×5″ sheet film.
The only downsides are having to manually load the film reels in the dark (a frustrating task for newbies) and the need to work in a changing bag if you don’t have a darkroom.
Between the price and flexibility, I would recommend the Paterson Tanks over the Lab-Box for most users. However, if you are new to film development and know you are sticking with roll film and shooting a modest amount, the Lab-Box may be the choice for you.