The Secret to Loading 35mm Film for Development.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that when a lot of people are initially taught how to load a developing reel for 35mm film, they get shown how to do it as follows.

  1. Remove film from the cannister.
  2. Cut off the film leader.
  3. Insert the leader end first into the developing reel.
  4. Spool the film onto the developing reel.
  5. Snip the film off the canister spool right before finishing.

Not the best way to load your film

This method may seem fine on paper, but from my hands on experience, I found it to really suck.

For years I just assumed that having the film get stuck 3/4th of the way through the loading process was just something that film photographers had to deal with. With nearly every roll I loaded I would find myself at a point where I had to decide to either keep slowly trying to force the film onto the reel and risk crinkling it, or tearing it off the reel and starting over. Often I’d have to make that decision several times with some stubborn rolls of film that just would not load.

This put me off towards 35mm for years as I hated the constant struggle of loading it. Then one day I had a single, simple revelation about the physical nature of a roll of film, and loading has been a breeze since.

It dawned on me that if I first cut the film off of the canister spool, and then loaded it from that end instead of from the leader end, the natural curl of the film would align better with the spirals of the development reel.

Make sense? If not, here is an image to illustrate what I’m saying.

Development reels with rolls of 35mm film.

Circle A is a roll of film wound so that the lead end is on the outside, and the spool end is on the inside. Circle B is that same roll of film reversed so that the lead end is on the inside, and the spool end is on the outside.

When a roll of film is loaded using the method that I claim sucks, what results is that the tight circle B has to be forced into the spiral development reel. When loading from the spool end first, then circle A is what ends up being on the development reel. As the image tries to show, this is a much smoother fit.

Loading film for development the easy way

Reversing the Roll
Ready to Load

What I do is remove the film from its canister and cut off the leader. Then I reverse the direction of the roll in my hands so that the end of the roll of film is on the outside. At this point I’m holding in my hands what is represented as B in the previous image. I then clip the film off of the spool, and it is smooth sailing onto the development reel.

One other thing that I’ve found with this method is that the film is much easier to manage while trying to get it onto the development reel. By having the film forming a nice tight circle, and not having the spool from the canister in the center of it, I can just slip the film over my little finger while transferring the film onto the development reel. This keeps the film securely in line with the development reel, and completely frees up the other hand for film advancing. Everything ends up staying nice and orderly throughout the process this way.

Switching to this method has led to a massive reduction in incidents where my film seizes up while I’m trying to get it on the spool. This in turn not only saves me time, but also eliminates the frustration of having my favorite photo from a roll end up with a big crescent moon shaped wrinkle right smack in the middle of it.

If you happen to need any more proof of concept, I put together a video for this post showing me load a reel. I’m not trying to show off to break any records in it. This is actually how fast I confidently load my film on a day to day basis.

I am using a Paterson Super System 4 reel here. I own some Paterson System 4 (notice the lack of super) reels as well, and there is no way I could possibly hit this speed with them. In fact, they are so slow and clunky at loading, I’m actually terrified to try and use them. I should just throw them out.

If you’ve ever had the same issues with loading your film like I had, please give this technique a shot the next time you develop. I’d love to hear back and know if you found it any easier to get your film ready for processing.

Category Gear & Technique  | Tags: 35mm