Loading the Development Tank
Keeping calm and carrying on in the bag

For many people, loading the reels in the changing bag is the most uncertain step. A seemingly complex and high-risk task with almost no instruction. “Just load the film onto the reels”. Hmm. The first thing to do is to get familiar with the reel itself. Know how to open it and close it. Do it several times. You will want to be comfortable opening it when you have developed your film and want to take it out of the reel. Hold the reel vertically, with the two discs in each hand and the little ball bearings at the top. To open the reel you hold the left hand reel still and twist the right hand reel upwards until it clicks open. You will feel some resistance. Push through it and it will click open. To close it, just do the reverse.

You should practice assembling and disassembling the entire tank, down to half reels, several times to make sure you are completely comfortable with it. Remember that you are going to assemble it with your precious film in, in complete darkness, in the changing bag. Get good at it upfront.

If you have followed my advice in the above section about storing your film and left a little bit of film leader sticking out of the canister, then the task of actually loading your undeveloped film onto the reel is easy. The initial ‘priming’ of the film onto the reel can be done in daylight, outside of the bag…

  1. Pull the film leader out about as much as if you were loading it into your camera again.
  2. Cut the leader off so the film is full width at your cut point. Cut off the minimum amount needed.
  3. Start feeding it into the reel just as the internet videos have already shown you.
  4. Once you have got the film a few sprockets beyond the ball bearing, stop. Don’t expose more film that you did while loading the camera - you should not need to. It is now ready to go into the bag.

Make sure you put the following into the bag BEFORE you zip it up and start work…

  1. ALL parts of the tank, except for the agitation stick, if you have one. Don’t forget the spindle top-clip if you have one too.
  2. Your round-nose craft scissors. Don’t use pointy ones as you could easily damage your film.
  3. Your church key bottle opener. This is only to be used in an emergency if, for some reason, you lose the film leader back into the canister. This is very unlikely indeed.
  4. Your white, lint free cotton gloves. Again, these will only be needed if you have serious problems while loading the reel and need to handle the film.
  5. Your film reels, with film ‘primed’ onto the reels as explained above.

Once all that is in the bag, zip it up and start work. Make sure you let the bag take in enough air as you put your arms in. This will give you a little more room to work in. Winding the reels is easy. Simply hold the reel with the film canister at the bottom (photo). The left hand stays still and the thumb touches the top of the canister. The right hand turns the reel forwards and backwards. The thumb of the left hand keeps the film canister still while the right hand pulls the film out and onto the reel. Done correctly, it is very easy to load the reel without touching the film at all.

When the film canister is at the end, you will feel resistance, so stop winding the film on. Use your scissors to cut the film off as closely to the canister as possible. Once cut, do three more windings of the reel with your right hand. This will ensure the film is fully loaded onto the reel and also help when separating the reel after development. Put the reel on the tank spindle and wind the next reel if you have a second film. I always do two films at a time, since this halves the overall time you spend doing development.

When the second reel is done and loaded onto the spindle, remember to put the little top clip on to the spindle if your tank has one. Also make sure nothing is in the bottom of the tank (such as an empty film canister). Then simply put your loaded spindle into your tank and fasten the lid tight. Be careful to not cross the threads. The tank is plastic, so be gentle with it and affix the lid as it is intended to be done.

If you have problems loading the film then you will have to try and asses what has gone wrong and perhaps try to fix blind, in the bag. Let’s say it gets stuck and will not advance onto the reel any further. Your first option is to open the reels and rewind the film back into the canister. You can then try again. Before starting the second wind, you could also try rounding the leading edge corners with your scissors to help it travel around the reel more easily.

The worst case is if the reel comes apart and spills the film after you have cut the canister off. If that should ever happen, then I suggest you put on your white gloves that you have put into the bag, close the reel, find the leading film edge and try again.

It is possible to take your arms out of the bag without exposing your film to light. To get into the changing bag, your arms pass through two elastic rings. You can take one hand out of one ring and then use your other hand inside the bag to press down on this first ring to block out light and to allow you to withdraw your first hand. You can then do similar with the other hand. Note that if your arms are out of the bag then the elastic rings are not closed and probably letting light in. You can put a book on top to help keep the light out. I offer no guarantees on this. I have done this before successfully without exposing the film to light. Work calmly, patiently and accurately and you should never need to attempt it.

previous: The Analog Photographer

next: Mixing the Chemicals

James Burton on 07 August 2017