A basic introduction into bulk loading 35mm film

Bulk loading black and white 35mm film will halve your cost per roll. The 100 feet of Tri-X you’ll see in the pictures below cost 5980 yen. From this roll I was able to load 20 used film canisters with about 35 shots each. This comes to about 300 yen apiece. If you develop your own film, you’re looking at less than 350 yen ($4.00 US) per roll when all is said and done.

Here’s how I do it. (This will be written for someone who has never loaded their own film before.)

First, you’ll need the following: A bulk film loader, a 100 ft roll of film, scissors, tape, and used film canisters with about half and inch of film remaining:

The film canisters are leftovers from new rolls. After I’ve shot a new roll I use a film picker to pull out the film enough that I can pull the rest out to load it onto a reel for developing. The film picker lets me keep the canisters intact- I don’t take them apart at all. I leave half an inch or about two or three centimeters of the film sticking out the canister to make bulk loading easier. Since I’m loading 400 speed film I located canisters with the appropriate DX coding in case they are used in a camera that automatically reads the ASA.

The one other thing that you’ll need which isn’t pictured in the first image is this: A dark place to load the film into the loader. Some people use changing bags- I suggest using a windowless bathroom with a towel stuffed along the bottom of the door to keep out the light. Upon opening your box of film you’ll find a (taped shut) can that holds (in a black plastic bag) 100ft (30 meters) of 35mm film tightly wound around a small plastic spool. Naturally this can should not be opened anywhere but in total darkness. The image here shows where the film goes into the loader:

When loading you’ll need to remove the tape at the start of the film and then carefully thread the leader into the slit where the film will exit the loader. I trim the leader into a point in the dark to make this easier. Successfully completed (and trimmed) it will look like this:

Next, I trim the film that is sticking out of a film canister so that it matches the leader from the loader.

Next, I place some tape across the film from the canister. Make sure that half of the tape extends out on three sides like this.

Now is the tricky part- carefully line the film from the canister slightly over the edge of the film coming from the loader. A slight overlap is fine. Then secure it down and around with the extra tape off the sides. NOTE: you’ll want to make sure that the underside (pictured) is tight and does not get stuck when you begin to roll the film back into the canister.

Use your fingers (or the plastic crank that comes with the loader) to get the taped-connection into the cartridge. Then place the unit into the loader.

Bulk loaders will vary in shape and possibly size, but most will have what you see here. Make sure to reset the remaining film length gauge before you start. This gauge (the largest dial in the center) will let you know how much film you have left to load. The top left dial is the frame counter and lets you know how many frames you have wound onto a roll of film. Set it at ZERO before you start. I usually wind to the white triangle- 35 frames. The crank at the top right is how you physically transfer the film from the bulk roll into your cartridge.

Now’s the fun part where you wind the film accompanied by some satisfying clicks of the frame counter mechanism.

Once you’ve loaded your film into the cartridge, pull out the plastic crank and pop open the lid of the loader. Pull the cartridge out just a bit and cut the film free with your scissors.

Next, trim the film leader as you like.

Repeat 19 more times and you’ll have twenty rolls of film ready to go:

A few closing points-

Q: Where can get the film cartridges?
Most of mine are from rolls I’ve already shot. If you didn’t have enough empties lying around after you’ve developed your film you could try asking for a bag of them from your local photo lab. I’ve never had a problem acquiring a grocery bag or two full from the local shops in my neighborhood.

Q: How many times can you reuse a film canister?
Honestly, I am not sure. The only worry would be if something that could scratch the film would get caught in the felt around the opening of the canister, or perhaps if that same felt got thinned out from overuse it is possible that stray light could enter the roll.

Q: How long does this take?
I’d say half an hour at most. A lot quicker when you aren’t stopping to take photos of the process for your blog.

Q: Where can I get a bulk loader?
I got mine at Yodobashi camera for 8000 yen about 4 years ago. The current price for the exact same model in Japan is (I think) 18,000 yen– or $200 US. That is really expensive. There must be thousands of used bulk loaders out there- check online and places like craigslist. Or ask an older uncle or someone who was into photography back in the day if they have one lying around somewhere.

Q: Anything else?
Yeah- use a black marker to label your canisters so that you know what film is inside. The canisters seen in this introduction were all originally loaded with Fuji Presto 400 (yes, even the ones marked “Legacy”)- a film which sadly hasn’t been available in bulk form since 2008. I like Fuji Presto enough that I buy it new from Yodobashi Camera- in Japan it is about 400 yen a roll- that extra 100 yen per unit (compared to my estimate of 300 for bulk Tri-X) is worth it for me at this point. That might change though as Tri-X is a mighty fine film.

So there you have it. Like everything else about working with film on your own it is easier, more interesting, and generally more satisfying that you might have thought. Go for it!

13 thoughts on “A basic introduction into bulk loading 35mm film

  1. And don’t forget to keep those cut-out leader pieces in a small bottle, bag or envelope!
    They’re very handy when it comes to doing a film clearing test to check how good your fixer is.

  2. If you have a camera that’s too clever for its own good, it will read the DX encoding off the reused film canister regardless of which film you load it with. It’s something to keep in mind.

  3. Hey John, great post! I like the idea of ‘rolling my own’ however in the UK this is not financially viable. A quick calculation using Kodak Tri-X costs £3.40 a roll (excluding set-up costs) while I can get 10 rolls of Tri-X delivered for £3.50 per roll – 10p saving hardly seems worth the effort… although, that’s hardly the point I suppose :-)

    Keep up the great work!


  4. I’ve started bulk rolling too, but I think b&w is still cheap enough back in N America through sources like Freestyle to not have to put resort toi bulkloading.

  5. Intresting article ive been bulk loading for a couple of years now but ive never thought of reusing canisters that way before im always waring out my reusable ones. Cheers for the great tip.

  6. I’ve been collecting my canisters but unfortunately, I’ve taken them all apart instead of clipping the film off like you do.

    Thanks for the tip! I still have about a year’s supply of hoarded film left before I even start bulk loading.

  7. For Tri-X, the math doesn’t add up for me. A 100 feet roll sells for 95EUR online in Germany. That translates to 4.75EUR per roll of 35 exposures. A single roll of 36 exposures costs 3.69EUR currently when ordered in quantities of 10. So I’ll not bother with rolling my own.

  8. Pingback: Workflow for Film | THE PHOTO LAB

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