First Look
ASF 35mm Film Kiosk Yields Prints, CD...But No Negatives

First Look ASF 35mm Film Kiosk

The long-anticipated Applied Science Fiction Digital PIC kiosk has been placed in various retail sites around the country. We recently attended a test site demo in New York City. The kiosk uses the company's patented system for converting exposed 35mm rolls into prints and supplying the same with a CD and index print. During the process the film's negatives are destroyed (actually developed to completion) and stored in the kiosk for disposal and hopefully recycling. Essentially, the system scans negatives three times during "processing" (which uses only developing agent) and is said to get the full dynamic range of the exposure onto each scan. A dye sublimation printer creates the prints and a CD writer handles the archiving.

The stand-alone station uses touchscreen technology that guides the user through the entire process. Once you enter the appropriate credit card, etc. information you place a cartridge of 35mm color negative film into a slot. The door on the slot closes and the process begins. An on-screen monitor lets you see the progress and view the images as they are scanned. As scanning progresses you can change vertical compositions from landscape to portrait mode and even order extra prints and print packages. Once the full scans are complete printing begins, with two slots catching prints as they are created on side by side printers, said to be used to decrease throughput time. Included with the prints is an index print of the full roll. After printing a CD is written. The CD also contains tiny renditions of the images on the roll.

The kiosk also contains slots for various types of memory cards. In the future, other types of films will be supported, such as E-6 and chromogenic black and white. The cost is in line with what higher-end minilabs might charge for the process, but of course the final pricing is up to each retailer where the kiosks are installed.

The prints we received were on sturdy paper and were quite sharp with good color balance. The dynamic range (range of visible values from light to dark) was in line with what you'd receive from a minilab that takes care in printing. Yet, even though the scans are said to encompass the full range available from the exposure, any print will compress those values down again, thus the same constraints a lab doing conventional printing has are shared with this setup.

When you place the CD you receive with processing into your CD reader the images open automatically on the screen. This allows you to change orientation, etc. right away. The scans are where you really see the advantage of this system, as they are truly full range and do away with any contrast problems you might otherwise have with film. They are, in my opinion, as good as any scan you'd get with a decent desktop film scanner. There are three levels of resolution available from each scanned photo that yields 1.21, 7.37, and 11.8MB respectively as you go through low to medium to high resolution. This means that at 240dpi you can expect very good 8x10" and, with some reasonable resampling, up to 11x14" prints from the highest resolution. The accompanying software also allows some editing capability, a slide show, and a Save As feature for eventual export to an image-editing application like Photoshop (in JPEG format).

The system is fascinating, but does raise some questions. The first might be--is this a film or a digital image? It is unquestionably of digital character, thus a bit flatter in both contrast and color vibrancy. That's good for digital output folks, as you can always add attributes later, such as increased contrast and color vividness. But those expecting the same type of prints they'd get from, say, Kodak 100 via conventional processing, might miss the hotter colors and deeper contrast that photographic prints deliver. The prints are unquestionably flatter than you'd get from a straight develop and print route.

But in my experience flatter in digital is often better and in this case you get much better contrast spread from the scans, seeing into shadows and controlling highlights. So I'd say that the prints are quite good but serve as proofs for what you might want to do later with your digital image work. The prints are made on dye sublimation paper, possibly the best digital option for continuous tone color but clearly not photographic paper. And, the system does offer a develop and scan option, priced at the location I saw the setup, Camera Land in New York, at $5.95. So this seems a great way to go from film to digital scans in a few minutes. And the higher resolution (about 12MB) is better than you get with a Picture CD.

But the most controversial part of the system, one that has been questioned since day one, is the destruction of negatives in the process. Bob Shell has described the system in these pages fully, so I won't go into detail here. But when some folks shoot film they want negatives for archiving and backup. Others don't seem to mind. Indeed, there is a large notice on the touchscreen before you start the whole process that negatives are not part of the deal. I hope people see that and understand what it means, or there will be some interesting discussions with store personnel taking place.

A minor point is that the setup seems to clip the last image on the roll, or should I say the last "squeezed" image on the roll. So if you shoot 25 on a 24 or 38 on a 36 (which is not difficult with some cameras and films, especially for manual loaders) than don't expect to see that image come out full frame in the print or scan.

And it seems that with Kodak, Fuji, and others now offering prints, negatives, and a CD scan of the images as a regular part of their processing service, some folks might think that getting negatives of their precious images as another form of backup is not a bad way to go. But those who just shoot for digital work, and want the convenience of working with a film camera, the ASF Digital PIC kiosk might be just the ticket. It does present an interesting hybrid approach to shooting film. And we can see lots of times when that would be just fine.

--George Schaub