On digitising (Part 2 – holding still)

In Part 1 of this series I talked about my set-up and the gear I use for digitising negatives. In this second part I will describe my experiences using the two film holders that I briefly introduced in Part 1. How I set-up the Fuji X-T3 and my workflow once the negatives have been copied will go into an (originally unintended) Part 3 as this part got very long very quickly.

When I first saw the Pixl-Latr I immediately thought that it was a simple and very practical solution and looked far better than the Lomography Digitaliza masks I’d been using up to that point. Up until then I had only been copying negatives occasionally so it was something I put up with but with my film usage increasing I wanted something to make the process easier.

The premise is simple. Use the supplied gates to create a masked area into which the negative sits. Turn the frame over, place the negative into the opening you’ve created and pop the diffuser back on. Turn the whole assembly back over, place under the camera and off you go.

Except for me it wasn’t as straightforward. I found that every time I turned the frame over to put the diffuser at the bottom I had to hold it really tight to avoid it all spilling open and me having to start again. It is not practical to load film with the frame and diffuser the correct way up and even turning the diffuser over made no difference. For a while I went back to using the Digitaliza for 35mm and 6×6 120 film. With no alternatives for 5×4 however I found an uneasy peace with the Pixl-Latr for the limited amount of large format copying I carried out. (Stick with me – there’s a happy ending and I really like this mask).

That might have been how the story was left if it hadn’t been for Josh from Pixl-Latr who got in touch with purchasers to see how they were getting on via an after-market online survey. I shared my experiences happily mainly because I wanted to help this small company to continue to thrive. I was very surprised however when Josh got in touch to find out more and even more surprised when he offered to send me a replacement frame and diffuser as to him it sounded like I probably had a less-than-perfect kit. He was right, the new one arrived whilst I was working on this post and it is a big improvement. Top marks for customer service Josh!

A recent addition was the Pixl-Latr A4 Mask which has three primary functions:

– Masks extraneous light
– Helps prevent pixl-latr from slipping on the surface.
– Grips strips of roll film either side of pixl-latr

All of which it does and it has replaced my home-cut foam board mask. I’m not normally big on after-market accessories but this was one I was pleased to have bought. As an aside, the diffuser on its own is fabulous for copying glass plates, I simply place the mask over the diffuser to mask out unwanted light from the light pad and pop the glass plate on top.

Lockdown wasn’t kind to many people but one person who probably had a better time than most was Andrew Clifforth. To quote from his website: “The Essential Film Holder started as my ‘lockdown project’ and has now shipped nearly 3,000 units to film enthusiasts in over 29 countries around the globe.”

Pretty impressive figures and as one of those 3,000 or so enthusiasts I can attest that the holder is pretty impressive too. The Essential Film Holder (EFH) delivered everything that was claimed for it on the website and has considerably sped up the process for me. I have 120, 35mm and 35mm panoramic masks and using these I am able to copy entire rolls of film in one go. Set up once and then copy until the roll is finished.

If I was actually copying the negative I would have curtains drawn and room light off

The EFH is a self-contained unit with a built-in diffuser and a 120 mask forming the next-to-bottom layer of the unit. Above this can be placed masks for other formats including 35mm panoramic (XPan format) and standard 35mm frames. These are held in place by wing nuts and the design cleverly means the 120 masks can stay in place permanently. Once in place you thread one end of the full roll of negatives into the unit and then push/pull the strip through stopping as each new frame comes into view and making the exposure. I use my right hand to gently push the negatives through and my left hand to release the shutter using a cable release.

The one fiddly part is removing/replacing the guides and masks when changing format. I find the retaining nuts fiddly. Not a deal breaker by any means and you really do need to replace the wing nuts to be able to control the grip on the negatives. I have large hands and slightly arthritic fingers though so I cannot imagine it will be an issue for many!

When considering which of the many systems to use it makes sense to consider how often you will use it, what you will be copying and whether or not you use multiple formats. If I only copied negatives occasionally and used multiple formats then the Pixl-Latr wold be a no-brainer for me. If I only used the standard 35mm format then the EFH would be my choice regardless of how many rolls I digitised a month. That said, you do need to consider the cost per roll if you only use film occasionally. I will exceed two hundred rolls of 35mm and 120 combined this year so the cost/roll ratio is less relevant.

So, my current set up for holding the negatives uses both the Pixl-Latr and the EFH and to my mind plays to their various strengths. Whilst it can easily cover all my formats, for me the Pixl-Latr is perfect for my 5×4 sheets, for non-standard formats such as the 35mm panoramic negatives from my KMZ FT-2 and for larger 120 negatives such as the “stream of conscious” pinhole images I occasionally create on 120 film. It is also just right for my glass plates as I’ve already mentioned too. The EFH on the other hand I use primarily for quickly copying a roll of 35mm or 120 before cutting it for sleeving and filing and it is amazing how quickly I can work through a full roll. Perfect for someone who doesn’t enjoy this process!

This simple set up is a far cry from the days when I spent more time loading negatives into the Digitaliza frames than actually copying them. The EFH is used before the rolls are cut for sleeving and it handles the bulk of my copying needs quickly and efficiently at a reasonable price. The Pixl-Latr is very competitively priced and very versatile. I choose to only use part of its potential but know that if needed it has all my bases covered. In particular, it covers everything that my current EFH rig cannot as yet (I’m choosing words carefully as I know that EFH are working on further improvements).

So, there you have it. A lot of words which perhaps can be summarised in a sentence. I digitise all my film with the help of EFH and Pixl-Latr holders to hold the film in place. I hope this has been of interest. Part 3 (of what was intended as a two-part series) will cover the digitising and post production itself.

Disclaimer: My only connection with these two companies is as a very satisfied customer and these notes are based purely on my personal experience. The links below are provided as a service, I have not been asked to post them and I receive no reward or other incentive from their use.

LINKS (non-affiliate!)
Essential Film Holder

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