For the longest time, digitizing film was both the best and worst part of being a film photographer. In walks pixl-latr, and the world of digitization is forever different.
Let us start with a very simple question: “why would you digitize your own film and not have a lab do it?” It is, after all, a very good question. Most local labs will digitize your 35mm film without typically charging you too much (usually only a couple to a few dollars); however, most local labs charge considerably more for digitizing medium format and large format film. In addition, the results of local labs tend to be lackluster and, in my opinion, usually only good enough for a proper 4x6 print. There are bigger labs with access to famously great scanners (e.g. Fuji Frontier, Fuji Noritsu, etc.), which, truth be told, are better than anything you would get at home. In addition, there are drum scanners, which are widely considered the best of the best. Though these options can produce amazing results, they are not without their price tags. They are notoriously large and cost at least $5,000 for something that would be quite old and no longer easily or possibly serviceable. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, no one in any lab will take as much care as you would to ensure your scans are as good as they can be and in the style you want.
An example from a 6x4.5 negative made on Kodak Portra 160.
For years, I strived to achieve the best results in digitizing my film, trying method after method. After a while of sending my film out to a big lab in California and also using my local lab in Charleston, I grew a bit frustrated with the results I was getting and decided to get a flatbed scanner. I toyed around with the idea of getting the Epson V800 (which is no longer available), but at the end of the day, I ended up going with and staying with my Epson V600 for several years. Though the Epson V600 has increased in price over the years, it is still an affordable $250 and produces some great results. Last I checked, I had surpassed 2,500 scanned frames with the V600 and was working my way towards 3,000. When you consider just how little I have paid per frame at that point, it is clear that the scanner has paid for itself several times over. With this said, even though I have had several rolls of film to digitize, I have not actually used the Epson since last year. There is only so much I can take when it comes to sitting next to the scanner and computer for hours on end. In an effort to avoid the time spent in front of the scanner (which can easily be an hour per roll of 35mm), I have tried digitizing my film using my Sony a7R II. However, it required constructing masks for my light table, which were a giant pain, and ultimately, the results were frustratingly not much better unless the film was already nice and flat.
An example from a 6x4.5 color positive made on Fujichrome Provia 100F.
It is here, at the intersection of saving time, holding the film nice and flat, and getting the quality of my Sony paired with a beautiful macro lens that the pixl-latr really shines. So, without any further delay, let’s get into the specifics about the pixl-latr. The pixl-later can help you digitize your 35mm, 120, and 4x5 film (note: the Epson v600 cannot scan 4x5) for around $50 pre-shipping. The company got started via a Kickstarter back in the summer of 2018 and has been on the market for non-Kickstarter purchases for a little over a year (since March 2020). In that time, they have gained quite a footing among the film community.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t actually sure what to expect in terms of build quality, but I have been genuinely impressed. It is constructed of a nice, heavy-duty plastic, and the parts all fit together snugly but not so much so that they are difficult to take apart to rearrange the pieces to change the film format. They offer an additional mask to go around the pixl-latr that is made of a nice and pliable foam.
An example from a 6x4.5 color positive made on Fujichrome Provia 100F.
What I Like
- The price. The pixl-latr is wonderfully affordable at $55.
- Film format options. Being able to handle 35mm, medium format, and 4x5 puts it above the abilities of the Epson V600.
- Adaptability. The pixl-latr website has a tab entitled “3D printable parts” where you can buy additional accessories and, in some cases, get free downloadable 3D printer files (e.g. an insert for 35mm slides, gates for holding 35mm film in a way that exposes the sprockets, etc.)
- Ease of use. It’s not at all difficult to sort out how to use the pixl-latr.
- Speed. It took only a few minutes (between 5-10 min) to digitize a roll of 35mm film compared with over an hour on a flatbed.
An example from a 35mm negative made on Kodak Portra 800.
What I Don’t Like
- I wish there was some material on the slits on both sides of the pixl-later to ensure the film would not get scratched. Please note that none of my films ended up damaged, but with film, it's something I'm almost always worried about.
Epson V600 (cost: $250): As you know, I think the Epson V600 is a solid machine and it has served me well for years (review can be found here). The downsides are that it does not allow you to scan 4x5 and takes a long time to scan a roll of 35mm film. In addition, though it has a maximum resolution of 6,400 DPI, the optics hold it back quite a bit, and it’s difficult to notice any improvement in resolution beyond 2,400 or 3,600 DPI. The only edge the V600 has on the pixl-latr is the ability to scan with digital ICE.
Epson V850 (cost: $1,150): The V850 tends to get scans with higher resolution compared with the V600 and it can scan 4x5. Given that the cost is nearly six times that of the v600 and more than 20 times the cost of the pixl-latr, I cannot recommend the V850.
Plustek OpticFilm 8100 (cost: $350): As evidenced by Kyle McDougall’s video, the Plustek produces nice, high-resolution scans, but it only works for 35mm, so its utility is pretty limited if you shoot any medium format or large format.
An example from a 35mm negative made on Portra 400. These results far surpass anything I was ever able to get on the Epson both in terms of resolution and dynamic range.
For any photographer that shoots film but has access to a decent digital camera with a nice and sharp lens, the pixl-latr is the way to go. Though it is not necessary, you can pair the pixl-latr with a nice light table; new, they can be had for $130, and on the used market, you may even be able to get one for free. In addition, a good macro would take your results to the next level. For the Sony system, the Sony 90mm f/2.8 G OSS is a fantastic choice, albeit an expensive one. For something less expensive, vintage macro lenses can offer tremendous quality at a fraction of the price. With that said, I have found that vintage macro lenses don't always have particularly nice coatings, so it would be important to pick up the additional mask to go around the pixl-latr to ensure consistently high-quality results. Lastly, while I use and am happy with using my tripod for holding my camera, you may want to use a copy stand. If this is the case, you can follow this article from the pixl-later website with details of using a homemade copy stand.If you are at all interested in how this setup compares with that of a flatbed scanner, stay tuned; I plan to make such an article within the coming weeks. Though I've only made one direct comparison, made on the example 35mm result shown just above, using the pixl-latr with my Sony has resulted in better resolution and way more dynamic range.