SwankoLab: The Lighter Side of the Darkroom
SwankoLab doesn't exactly simulate the processes and techniques needed to master a real darkroom, but it does put an easy-to-use interface on a photo retouch and special effects app. You can choose from a cabinet full of "chemicals" to mix special effects formulas, then apply them to the images in your camera roll.
Digital photography has made photos easier to take, easier to retouch and easier to share. Producing pictures digitally is cleaner, faster and in some ways cheaper. So does anyone actually develop film and make prints in darkrooms anymore, outside of classically minded pro photogs and a few little mom-and-pop camera shops?
Making your own prints in a well-appointed darkroom is a mellow, meditative process done in a dimly lit place full of strong odors that most people find a little repulsive. But smells bring about emotional memories, and to the brain of a darkroom lurker, fixer funk = peace. Yes, it's a little like church.
The hours can pass by quickly, but when you emerge, you're holding a truly one-of-a-kind creation. The negative can be reused, but the exact conditions under which this photo was printed -- the precise mix of chemicals and the length of time it remained in the soup, right down to the nanosecond -- likely won't ever be recreated. There's no copy-paste for this one.
I suppose it would be asking too much to expect anything like a straightforward darkroom simulator in an iPhone app. What would be the point, really? So I didn't know what to expect from SwankoLab. As it turns out, the app doesn't actually try to mimic the art of darkroom photo printing; it just puts a darkroom-themed twist on a familiar type of iPhone app -- photo retouching.
Get MixingSwankoLab puts you in a darkroom-like atmosphere as you select various touch-up and effects options to apply to pictures from your camera roll. SwankoLab's creators put some work into the details -- you've got your wooden booth, metal tray, cheap overhead lamp, and lots of drippy, spooky sounds in the background.
"Developing" your photos has very little to do with actual darkroom techniques, but it does give your images some creative punch-up. You originally have nine different kinds of fluids at your disposal (more if you pay for an in-app purchase). The names include "Fantabra," which produces "mysterious cool blops," and "Flamoz Fixer" for "super warm saturation." Pour any combination of these fluids into your beaker to combine desired effects. Choose carefully -- your beaker only holds a certain amount of fluid, so you can't throw in everything at once.
Once you've mixed your potions, hit the lights and you'll get a new, retouched, special-effecty image.
Perhaps you'll grow fond of using a certain mix of fluids to create an especially cool combined effect. SwankoLab will let you save your formula and name it for future reference. A collection of ready-made formulas are also at your disposal -- "Contra Force," "Grumpelstiltskin," "Jungle Jim's Secret Sauce," etc.
Your chemical checklist isn't limited to what comes with the original purchase. For another $2, you can just about double your collection as well as receive new chems each time SwankoLab's developers come up with them. The additional filters aren't extremely different than what you get in the standard set, but they do add some variety. Try out the first set before you buy.
One thing I didn't quite understand about SwankoLab was the business about the developing tray. After you mix your chemicals and flip the switch, the screen gives you a view of your "photo" sitting in a developing tray while a timer runs its course.
This lasts for several seconds. Waiting is all part of the game in a real darkroom, but is it really necessary to make you stare at a timer when all this is is a rough simulation? Perhaps there's some image processing going on in the background -- that would excuse the wait. Otherwise, it's just dull and pointless.
Photo retouching apps aren't new to the iPhone, but SwankoLab makes the process a little easier by making photos look more interesting in a fairly automated way. Of course, that leaves a lot less room for your own artistic control, but at least you can combine filters for your own special mix. And perhaps when it comes to low-res camera phone pix and tiny-screen photo editing apps, a more feature-rich and adjustable editor just might be overkill. If all you're after is a way to spice up iPhone happysnaps in an easy-to-use way, SwankoLab will give you your two bucks worth.