Processing film yourself - Part 4

The stock solution is mixed and waiting, the film is all exposed and rewound. Now we can think about getting it loaded into the tank.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of film developing for all beginners and many of us old-pros alike. The main reason we find it hard to do is because we are doing something really fiddly without the benefit of being able to see what on earth we are doing. This is especially true as photography is all to do with light!

So what will you need for this…. The changing bag, the developing tank and any other items to help you with the process, like a pair of scissors.

A couple of tips – when I rewind my 35mm films, I don’t wind it all into the canister. I leave the leader of the film out and fold it over to show that it is used. I also don’t shoot all 24 or 36 frames. I leave one or two on the end of the roll – the reason is to allow a "tail" at the end of the film when it dries, onto which I can put a clip and not worry about scratching a negative image..

So what are going to do – how to start?

We begin with the leader of the film. Where the short ‘half-width’ tongue of the film widens out to be the full width of the film, is where I cut it off. The idea is to get a straight cut and rounded edges at the corners. I try to get as much of the film behind the curve between a pair of sprocket holes to attempt to add strength to it. That’s just me, some people just cut the film straight across. There are special film leader cutters you can buy to make it all nice and neat, and if you want one go ahead, but they are not an essential tool.

The very first step of all is to PRACTICE. Use a sacrificial roll of film and make your offering with it to the developing tank gods!! :-) You’ll load it in the open and in the light all the way onto the spiral (hence the sacrifice) and then unload it off the 'spiral' or spool and then reload it. Practice this a few times BEFORE you try to use a “real” roll of film with pictures ready for developing on it. The reason for this is that you’ll get to make any mistakes with this practice roll and also get used to the process, so you’ll be ready when it comes to the “real thing”.

I'll describe loading a film into a Patterson plastic tank and internal spiral, The metal tanks load from the center out (there is a clip onto which you hook the film) while the plastic spirals load from the outside in. They do this by feeding the film into the spiral between two ball bearings in the feeder slots. As you move the two halves of the spiral, one side at a time, the film moves into the spiral, because the ball bearing grip it.

I find 120 size film is easier to load onto the spiral as it is thicker and presents a stiffer medium to push against. Also, 120 film does not have sprockets and only goes part way into the spiral (as its shorter), so you don’t have to push against the length of film already loaded. Same for 24 as opposed to 36 exposures in 35mm.

So let’s practice. On a table take the spiral out of the tank and shape the end of the leader of your practice roll of film as described above. Feed it onto the spiral until the ball bearings have gripped it. Then take the film out of the canister as you twist the two halves of the spiral to feed the film on. It will get harder to push the film onto the spiral the more film is already loaded onto the spiral. TRY hard not to crinkle the film as it gets further into the spiral, but so long as you are as gentle as possible, and don’t leave a crease mark you should be alright. With 120 film it should just slide into the groves on each side of the spiral and you’ll have to take the backing paper off the roll and learn where the tape is at the end by feel only. Don’t worry too much about leaving some tape or the adhesive from the tape on the film. It won’t affect the actual frames of the film.

Pull the film off the spiral once you have it all loaded on and try it again… a few times in fact, until you are well and truly able to do this while talking to your dog, wife, life partner, whoever. You need to get a bit bored with all this practice BEFORE you put the spiral and practice film into the changing bag and try to do it without seeing any of it for the first time. I am almost 100% certain you will mess it up then and have to pull it all out of the bag to see what went wrong. That's fine. 

When you are confident you can get the film onto the spiral without a problem, we can think about finishing off loading the roll. The 120 film comes off the spool once you have torn it off the tape. When it comes to 35mm film however, some people cut the film off the canister, others just tear it while others open the canister (once again, there are special tools you can buy to help with that), so the film doesn't have to be pulled out of the canister and risk getting scratched at any of the process. I suggest you try all of these methods over time and find the one that works best for you and then stick with it. There is no absolute right or wrong way.

So now for the real thing.

Put the tank and all the other items involved into the changing bag and zip it up. There are two layers and therefore two zips to close. Your arms obviously go in through the two arm holes. Make sure the arm holes are tight so no light leaks in.

The secret to an easy load is to make sure everything is 100% absolutely dry. Try to make sure you are relaxed, as being tense generates sweat, which will tend to jam the film as it loads. Remember you will be stuck with your arms inside the bag for about 10 or 15 minutes the first few times, so you don’t want any interruptions or need to take a ‘natural break’ if you can avoid it.

When you are done with loading the spiral, remember that the center tube is vital to keeping the spiral central and also keeping the light out of the tank when the lid is closed, so make sure you use it as well as any clip if provided in the event you use just one spiral. This will ensure that the spiral does not float up to the surface of the liquid and leave a part of the film untouched by the chemicals. Not all of the more recent designs of the tanks use the clip. Whatever you have is fine.

The film is (eventually) loaded onto the spiral, the spiral onto the center tube and the tube in the tank with the spiral at the bottom. Now put the lid on. Tanks from 30 years ago used to have a complete screw thread that you have to do up to keep the lid on the tank but more modern tanks don’t. It just goes onto the tank body and turn it so the lid clicks into place. Check it does not come off and is on straight and you are ready to get your arms (and everything else) out of the bag.

Next installment actually covers the development process for C-41. Its the same no matter what chemical kit you use, as the process is designed to be the same everywhere and for all films. This way, the mini-lab was able to spread into almost all pharmacies and all over the world and be operated by staff that have had minimal training, but is now almost an extinct species. Once you have developed a few C-41 films you'll wonder why some people think it's harder than Black and White developing, but that is coming soon.

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