Organizing Large Format Film Holders: Bag and Tape

Unlike most forms of photography, large format photography typically has little to no mechanical safeguards in place to prevent you from ruining a sheet of film. It is an unrelenting beast that waits to pounce on your process to screw up your film in many, many ways.

In my opinion, one of the panic-inducing ways to screw up a negative is when it happens via putting a darkslide in incorrectly after an exposure.

The traditional methodology for managing large format film holder is that you decide in advance which side of the darkslide means unexposed. I use white to indicate unexposed, while some weirdos use black.

This is great and such but imagine a hypothetical scenario where you are out photographing with your large format camera. In your bag you have three film holders, all showing the white side to indicate the film is unexposed.

On this day something incredible happens in front of you. It is a fleeting moment, but you manage to get off a single exposure before the moment goes away. Your heart is still racing as you can't believe how great of a thing you just photographed was as you tear down the camera.

You move onto the next thing you want to photograph, but when you reach to grab a holder for that exposure, you see that all the film holders are showing white! In your tizzy, you don't recall in what position you put the holder with the once in a lifetime image on it.

What do you do? You can think really hard and try to remember what holder it was that you made the first exposure in, then gamble by exposing the others and hope you don't end up with a double exposure in the batch.

Or you can start to systematically develop the sheets one by one, possibly wasting five additional sheets of film before you hit the negative you exposed.

This system sucks and I've always hated it. I've ruined more film than necessary while using it. And if you ever start shooting a format larger than 4x5, developing blank sheets to find the one that you screwed up becomes a very costly mistake.

After having this mishap happen once while shooting expensive 8x10 color negatives in 2012, I had a good long thinking shower about how to better manage my large format film holders and came up with a solution.

The bag and tape film holder method

The Tape

Save ruined sheet film with a little bit of tape.

The key to this method was to modify the film holders in such a way that a barrier must be broken in the field before an exposure can be made. This creates a situation where it is safe to assume that any holder in my possession during an outing that has the barrier broken, has been exposed.

The simple solution to achieve this that I use is to just put a little piece of tape over the holder's L-lock immediately after loading it. Thus, I must remove the tape before I can pull the dark slide and make an exposure.

With the tape, determining which film holders I've used and those which I haven't is simply a matter of seeing which are still taped or not. I can now screw up and put the darkslide back in any orientation, and I'll still know exactly which film holders remain unused in my bag. I will never accidentally reapply the tape to the L-lock to cause confusion.

The Bag

The second part of this method requires a little bit of discipline to not screw up. For each large format film format that I use, I have dedicated film holder bags. This includes whatever backpack or bag I'm using to hold a few film holders while in the field and larger spare backpack or bag that I'll keep in the car to exchange spent film holders out between excursions.

The rule about these bags is that I must never use them to store any empty film holders. The film holders only come out of the bag to be unloaded, and they only go into the bag either freshly loaded & taped, or on an outing after I've exposed them.

The Method

So now, instead of having two ambiguous black/white statuses, I have three potential film holder statuses.

  1. Taped, and anywhere in my house/bags: Film is loaded and unexposed
  2. Untaped, and in my bags: Film is loaded, and exposed
  3. Untaped, and not in my bags: Film holder is empty

Now the biggest potential for error is removing a non-taped holder from the film bag and forgetting to unload it. But, since I've adapted to this method in 2012, this has never happened, and I am yet to accidentally ruin a sheet of film via a darkslide mixup.

Other Benefits

Taping the L-locks on the film holders also add a few additional niceties to using large format film that I appreciate.

  1. Provides a place to mark film speed on the top of the holder. Useful to find an unexposed sheet of the speed you need if your bag only shows the top of the holders.
  2. Prevents accidentally pulling the dark slide while removing the holder from your bag if the L-lock is loose and has moved out of the locked position.

Give the Tape & Bag method a try if you are into large format photography. It is pretty great.