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.