Loading Film

The first step in processing roll film is to load onto a developing reel, which is then placed in a developing tank. The tank has a light-tight lid which allows chemistry to be poured in and out during the process. The film needs to be loaded in the dark, and the rest of the process is done in the light.

Since this needs to be done in complete darkness, wisdom dictates that practicing loading your film would be a good idea. Try it a few times in light, then a few times in the dark. The whole thing is not terribly difficult, but until you do it several (or several hundred) times, it can be frustrating. Loading film remains a step where many beginners ruin much film, mostly due to not actually practicing loading.

Before going dark, set out what you will need: a complete tank and reel set, your film, a church key bottle opener or film cartridge opener, and a pair of scissors. Set them out in a particular order, so that they can be found readily. One method is to set the reel directly in front of you, right side up (spirals going clockwise), starting point facing you, so that when you pick it up in your left hand, the opening falls to your index and middle fingers, ready to guide the film. Directly behing that is the open tank, with the lid just to the left. On the right of the reel is the film, opener, and scissors.

There are two types of tank/reel combinations: plastic and metal. As well as the material they are made from, they differ in the technique used to load the film. Metal tanks and reels are easily cleaned, and with a modicum of effort, will stay clean. However, if a reel is bent even a little, it becomes impossible to load correctly. In other words, do not drop a metal reel.

A plastic set has an extra component, which is a black, tubular insert which goes in the center of the reel. This is a critical part to keep the tank light-tight. Without it, you will fog the film as you process it. Plastic reels must be completely dry before loading, as even a small bit of moisture will make the film stick to the reel, keeping it from loading properly (or at all). Plastic tends to build up chemical residue over time, and may get brittle. Not to say that either one will not last indefinitely. I have been using the same plastic tank and reel for over twenty years.

Both types of tanks have two lids, and inner one and an outer one. The inner one keeps the tank light-tight, while the outer one can be reved to allow pouring chemistry in and out. Make sure you know how the secure both. The inner lid on the common Paterson tank needs to be rotated clockwise until it clicks.

The Steps

  1. 1. Lay out the materials as described.
  2. 2. Turn out the lights.
  3. 3. Open the film canister using the opener. Gently pry off the cap from the flat end of the film canister (without the protruding spool). If the cap dose not come all the way off, just pull it off.
  4. 4. Push on the protruding spool, and remove the film from the canister. Keep a hold of the film and spool, so it does not unwind.
  5. 5. Next is to cut the leader off. Transfer the film to your left hand, with the leader sticking out between you first and middle finger. Use the scissors to cut the leader, trying to keep the cut fairly straight. It does not need to be perfect, but very crooked can cause problems.
  6. 6. With the leader removed, transfer the film back to your right hand,cupping the spool in your palm, with the film between thumb and forefinger. Pick up the reel, and begin loading the film:


Metal reels are loaded from the inside out. That is, the film is inserted into the center of the reel to begin. Gently squeeze the film and insert it into the center of the reel. Hold the film in the center with the forefinger of your left hand. Keep your thumb and forefinger of you right hand on the film and in contact with the rim of the reel, and slowly rotate the reel, feeding the film in. Go slow and steady, without forcing the film, keeping it squeezed just a bit. Listen as you go. If you hear crinkling, that means the film has jumped the track. Back it out, and go again.


Plastic reels load from the outside in. Where you begin should be obvious. If you place the reel correctly before you begin, you should be able to pick it up in your left hand and the starting point should hit your fore- and middle finger. Keep those fingers there, squeeze the film film gently, and insert it into the reel. Unwind a few more inches of film, and gently push it into the reel. Continue until the whole roll is in.

Paterson-type reels have small ball-bearings near the opening of the reel, and often you need to give the film a tug to get it past these. Once done, you can hold the reel in both hands and ratchet the film on.


  1. 7. When you reach the end of the spool, take your scissors and cut the film at the spool, place the reel right-side up int the tank, and secure the lid to the tank. Before lights go on, make sure the tank is secured correctly. Some plastic tanks are threaded, so make sure you have not cross-threaded the lid. It should go on nice and easy. With the film loaded, you are now ready to process.