Photographic Equipment Reviews

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

Paterson Universal Tank with Two Reels
Paterson Multi Reel 3 Tank + Two Adjustable Reels

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.

[supsystic-price-table id=8]

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.

Paterson Tanks

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


Whether you are developing 35mm or 120 film, you can develop only one roll at a time.  Make sure you have the proper module available and attached to the tank.  The instructions are fairly detailed, but well written and you will likely not need them after loading a few reels.  The process is different for 35mm and 120, so you will have to learn each process.  The 35mm and 120 “reels” are different, but fit on the same core spindle.  Work with them carefully, they are much less durable than the Paterson reels.
The good news is that you can do this in a well lit room with no changing bag.  Follow the instructions carefully and it should work well. The film gets loaded onto the film reel internally and automatically, and the rest of the development process is done in the tank.

Paterson Tanks

The first thing you’ll need is a changing bag (or darkroom) because there will be some time where the film will be exposed to “the elements”.  The process for 35mm and 120 film is essentially the same (except for dealing with the 35mm canister and the backing paper on 120), just make sure the multi-sized reels are set to the correct width. Depending on the tank version and size film, you may be able to do 2 or more film rolls at the same time, unlike the Lab-Box which is limited to a single roll.
The reels are then loaded in the changing bag with the film, which is a process almost always frustrating to the newbie, but not a problem with some experience. Then the loaded reels need to be placed in the tank with the light baffle/funnel then clicked into place.

In Use


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.


Paterson Tank

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.

In Conclusion


Lab-Box, once assembled and practiced with, is a wonderful way to develop 35mm and 120 film for the first time film photographer.  It comes with everything you need (except chemicals) and works well the entire process from loading film reels to final wash.
This will appeal especially to those who will ONLY develop 35mm and 120 film and do not have a darkroom and do not want to fuss with a changing bag.  Only one roll can be developed at a time, so this is best for the occasional user who shoots roll film only.  It is also more expensive than the Paterson Tanks.
For the advanced user, I would recommend a Paterson tank and a changing bag. 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.

Paterson Tank

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.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. David A

    Well, that was kind of disappointing. First two rolls of 120 film went well. However, upon loading the third roll and following the same procedure, after removing the backing paper and going to clip the end of the film onto the clip, half the film itself had not gone into the light proof chamber. I have no idea why. Since I’m used to my Paterson tanks, I think I’ll stick with them for myself. Too much room for mechanical error with the Lab-Box.

  2. Randall Stewart

    The cost between a conventional tank ($30) and LabBox ($200) will dictate the choice for nearly all folks. However, I take exception to characterizing the Paterson tank as the “standard”. It’s design is poor, mixing huge volumes of air into the chemistry if inversion agitation is used. Also, frankly, it leaks like a sieve through its poorly designed top seal. It’s construction is the cheapest plastic and will crack if dropped. AP makes a similar design of tank without most of the Paterson negatives. It’s also sold under several house brand names by major vendors. For some reason I do not understand, Paterson users report that its reels are hard to clean and become sticky and hard to load. Personally, I use stainless steel tanks/reels for B&W and Unicolor tank and reels for color, having none of such problems.

    1. David A

      The “standard” as I mentioned was really about what IS used out there, and you’re correct, it’s inexpensive. I’ve been using the tanks for quite some time, and while not perfect, they seem to be doing a pretty good job, especially for medium format film. I’ll use a jobo or a metal tank for 4×5 and 5×7 though. For the price, and for most people, the Paterson tank is the standard because of availability and price.

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