Film Processing – Loading the film into the tank (35mm)


Here is the first in a series of how to guides from St Pauls Darkroom master Chris Waller! Enjoy!

Film Processing – Loading the film into the tank (35mm)

Before loading film, make sure that you have everything: film(s), tank, reels, central column, funnel and lid – and possibly scissors. Don’t forget the central column – a lot of people do. I put everything into a 4 inch deep plastic tray (a developing tray will do but I use a horticultural gravel-tray) just in case I drop anything. If you drop the reel or film in the darkroom I can guarantee you will spend you ages crawling around on the floor to find it. If you are processing several rolls of film, having everything in a tray can make life much easier because you don’t lose things.


I have always used Paterson self-loading reels so everything I say relates to them. Some people prefer stainless-steel reels (made by such as Hewes). These have their advantages (e.g. can be loaded when wet) but, never having had much practice with them, I stick to Paterson plastic reels.

Loading the film into the developing reel


Before loading the film into the reels, make sure they are bone dry. Any water on the reels will make the emulsion go sticky and the film will jam in the reel. Check that the ball-bearings of the ratchet are present and moving freely. If possible, have a spare reel to hand in case one doesn’t load easily. When loading, the film should slide easily into the reel. If it jams, don’t try to force it.

Another point to consider here – reverse curl. Some cameras – a lot of them in fact- put reverse curl on the film, that is, as the film is wound on to the take-up spool in the camera, it is wound the opposite way to the way it is wound in the film cassette – i.e. emulsion side out. This means that when the film is first rewound it retains reverse curl and this will make it difficult to load into the developing reel because it is curling the opposite way to the spiral of the developing-reel. There are two ways round this. One is to load the film into the developing-reel with the emulsion side out, but this risks scratching or finger-marking the emulsion. The other is to wait for 24 hours or so for the film to regain its original curl inside the film-cassette.

Prepare the film by cutting off the leader.


This can be done in daylight. Cut level with the bottom edge of the sprocket-hole ensuring that you leave the maximum amount of plastic before the next sprocket-hole. Cut off the corners of the film to give the leading edge a slight chamfer. This makes it less likely that the film will jam in the reel.

The rest is done in TOTAL DARKNESS. If you don’t have a darkroom then you can use a changing-bag. For loading film, the darkroom must be absolutely dark – check it by sitting in it for 20 minutes to see if you can see any light. If you can, then you need to seal the gaps. If you are using a changing-bag then check that it has no holes in it and zips up properly (both inner and outer bags). I only use a changing-bag if I have to – I don’t like them, particularly in hot weather because the inside becomes damp and clammy after a few minutes and the bag sticks to your hands. That said, this problem can be avoided by making a frame of plastic pipe or something similar that fits inside the changing-bag so that it stops the fabric falling on your hands and it becomes more like a changing-box.

Another point to consider here. Whether to break open the cassette with the cassette-opener (the thing like a crown-cork bottle-opener) or whether to pull the film out through the cassette light-trap. I prefer to pull the film out through the light trap because if things go horribly wrong, you can rewind the film into the cassette by turning the spigot with your fingers, put the light on, calm down and try again. If you have broken open the cassette, you are committed. You could, if things go haywire, drop the film into the tank and put the lid on, or put it into some other light-tight container while you get organised, but it is not ideal. Some people say that you are likely to scratch the film by pulling it out through the light-trap but the film has already been out through the light trap as it has been shot, and then back in via the light-trap as it was rewound. On both occasions, there should be no dust on the film because the camera is closed and there will be no dust in the light-trap which might scratch the film when it is pulled out again. Film is just as likely to be scratched or finger-marked after the cassette is broken open. In all the years that I have used the method of pulling film out via the light-trap, I have never scratched a film.


First pull out a few inches of film from the cassette. Hold the reel with the entrance to the spiral towards you – the two triangular plastic lugs should point upwards like arrows. Ensure the lugs are level with each other.


With one hand, put your fingers around the back of the reel and your thumb over one of the lugs.


Hold the end of the film between your thumb and first finger and then move it towards the reel until you feel the end of the film scratching against your thumb.


Now slide the film under then end of your thumb and pull it up into the entrance to the spiral until it passes the ball-bearings of the ratchet.


Now, hold the sides of the reel, one hand on each side, and drop your thumbs down below the lugs so that they flatten the film as it goes into the reel. If you don’t do this then there is a chance that the film will jump out of the ratchet and stop loading.


Then begin turning the side of the reel to-and-fro to feed the film into the reel.

The film should slide easily into the reel. If it jams, slap the side of the reel vigorously against the heel of your hand to try to shake the film free then try again.

As the film loads into the reel, keep pulling more film out of the cassette. When you reach the end of the film, either cut off the cassette with scissors or tear it off by gripping the end of the film right up against the light-trap between your thumb nail and finger and pulling hard on the cassette. If your thumb nail is sharp, the film will simply tear off.

Give the reel a few extra turns to-and-fro to wind the last of the film into the reel and then you are finished. Push the reel down on to the central column in the developing tank. Put the funnel into the tank, turn it clockwise until it clicks and then put the lid on. You are now ready to begin processing.

Loading 35mm film into the tank

© Chris Waller 2013

2 responses to “Film Processing – Loading the film into the tank (35mm)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s