How to manage your film

by Q.-Tuan Luong for the Large Format Page

Summary: this article explains how to load and unload film holders, store sheets after exposure, and file them so that if you shoot backup sheets so you can adjust development. It emphasizes methods that I use for a long trip in the field when I expose a hundred or more sheets before returning to the lab.

You won't have to do anything described here if you shoot quickloads/readyloads, which tells you how useful they are ! One unloading/reloading cycle as described below with 20 holders takes me about two hours that I'd rather use for sleep or rest. However this is not always an option, if you are shooting larger formats than 4x5, or the emulsion you prefer is not available in quickloads/readyloads. Also Kerry told me that despite (or maybe because ?) shooting 35mm-like quantities of Velvia, David Muench doesn't use quickloads.

If you shoot less film than the number of film holders you have, you could leave all the film into the holders and give them directly to the lab, marking with tape or post-it notes which ones you want processed. However, some labs will charge you an extra fee if you don't give them the film in boxes. If you are just beginning, and don't have yet an empty film box, try to ask your lab for one. Despite the apparent fragility, those boxes are light-tight when handled properly.

Taking notes

For each exposure, I write the following information in my notebook
  1. Number of the film holder being used (each face of my holders is numbered, between 1 and 40). This is useful in the short term for knowing which image is in which holder, and in the long term to identify leaking holders.
  2. Number of the sheet of film used in the trip. Useful for overall reference.
  3. If the sheet of film is a backup (identical image), number of the back-up sheet of film used in the trip, otherwise this field is blank. This is useful once you get home for retrieving backup sheets so you can adjust development.
  4. Description of the image
  5. Technical info (lense, fstop/speed, filters, special processing...) It really helps if for each exposure, you make exactly one backup. Then you know mechanically that each odd-numbered sheet is processed directly, while each corresponding even-numbered sheet is a backup.

    Finding a dark place

    If you're staying in a motel, the bathroom usually works fine provided it has no windows. Examine it before renting the room. You can block the light beneath the door with a towel. The light from a small window can be blocked by hanging a dark cloth with duct tape.

    Otherwise, besides a few creative options that I tried in the past, such as blocking all the light from the sky in your car with tarps, or working in a sleeping bag, your best option is to use a changing tent. A changing tent has a semi-rigid (collapsible structure) and is a considerable improvement over a simple changing bag.

    Changing tents

    The Harrison tent seems to be the more popular. It sets up like a free-standing dome tent, with two diagonal poles which go outside, and provides a large flat working surface inside. Once collapsed, it takes little room, which is why I favor it while traveling other than by car. I have the smallest model, and although it is advertised for 4x5 use, I find it works fine with 5x7. The Shadow Box has a very similar design.

    However, the Photoflex/Calumet changing tent is also worth considering. The new model sets up instantly, unlike the Harrison. Even though I have the older model, I can still set it up in 15 seconds. For a smaller footprint than the Harrison, it has a taller volume, which I find convenient. The arms openings are more spread-out (sort of working with a Microsoft natural keyboard as opposed to a normal keyboard) which I find personally more comfortable. The drawbacks are that it collapses to a flat but big package, and the metallic rings inside can get in the way. There are also rumors that it is less light-tight than the Harrison, and therefore wouldn't allow you to work in direct sunlight, which I avoid anyways.

    Unloading film for processing

    I separate holders is three piles. I first unload all the film that I want immediately processed (ie all the sheets not marked as backups) into one separate "process" film box. I put the pile 1 into on side of the changing tent with the "process" box on the other side, close the tent, open the box, unload the top side of every holder, close the box, and then unload pile 2. At the end of the trip, I will just send directly the "process" box(es) to the lab. All the backups will be unloaded into a different box, so I am sure that I never process at the same time two sheets which have identical images, but rather always have in a different place the two versions, should a problem arise (for instance, last summer an otherwise good lab opened in daylight a "process" box).

    Unloading and filing film for backups

    Inside the "backup" box, I have four dividers, which are just the pieces of cardboard in which the film was originally sandwiched. Kodak gives you two separate pieces, whereas Fuji gives you on hinged piece, which I prefer to use for dividing film. I have notched the four dividers with: no notch, one notch, two notches, three notches, to indicate the tens. As dividers, you could also use sheets of papers, or the mylar wrappers in which your film came. The idea is that I am going to use the number of the back-up sheet to be able to retrieve it later by counting the order of the sheet in the "backup" box. However, it is pretty difficult to count reliably more than 10 sheets at a time, so that's why I have the dividers.

    Then I pile up the holders who contain either one or two backup sheets, exactly in the order of numbered backup sheets, introduce them into the changing tent with the "backup" box, and unload them into their dividers.

    Once I have finished using a box for the unloading section, I immediately tape it to prevent accidental opening. Each of the boxes is clearly marked, either "Film", "Process", or "Backup".

    A variant of the system for shorter/lighter trips

    On backpacking outings, I take less film holders (therefore reload often) and might shoot less film total. Often I will take only one empty box and divide it in two. One part contains the film to be processed, the other part contains the backups. I do the unloading sequentially by film holder, while looking at the note book, introducing the holders in the changing bag sorted by their numbers. This method allows for faster unloading and saves carrying one film box.

    Cleaning holders

    Now all the holders are empty. It is time to get rid of the dust.

    I use a paintbrush. I first clean the outside of the holders with the black side of the dark slides closed. Then I remove one dark slide, clean the top, reinsert only slightly the dark slide with the white side up, clean up the dark slide, tap the holder in my hands while holding it vertically, clean up the inside and the film rails, flip out the bottom, clean it, slide down the dark slide to a point where one centimeter of the film rail is still visible, and repeat the same operation with the other side. If at home, I'll also from time to time use canned air.

    I then shake the dust out the changing tent, and I am ready to reload.

    Reloading holders

    For now see this article. Just two additional precisions: (a) you don't have to worry about leaving finger marks on the film, because unless your hands are very dirty or sweaty, they will be washed out by the developer. (b) the main error in loading is not to have the film under the two rails. I recommend you feel the extremities of the rails with your fingers to make sure the film is under.

    The way I tend to work with a changing tent is to pile up all the empty holders on one side, the film box on the other side. As holders gets reloaded, I pile them under the film box.

    Storing film boxes and holders

    To protect film from heat, I store all the film boxes and holders not currently in use in an ice-chest. I do not put ice in it due to the risk of leakage and film damage, however, I cover it with a pillow or sleeping bag to protect it from direct sunlight.

    Processing the backup film

    Please keep in mind while reading the following that I use almost exclusively transparency film.

    It is better to process exposed film promptly for optimal results. For instance, after a few months, Velvia tends to have a (very subtle magenta shift) and to loose a bit of speed. In the while, refrigerating the film will keep the degradation minimal.

    You end up by knowing how much you alter the processing of the second sheet by experience. What I suggest is that you ask the lab technician for his advice to begin. After you've seen the results a couple dozens of times, you'll be able to guess with good accuracy. A few tips:

    You need different clearly marked film boxes, one for each type of processing (eg -2/3,-1/3,0,+1/2,+2/3,+1) What I do is introduce in the changing tent all the back-up boxes and only one processing box at a time, begining with the most populated box (hopefully the "0" box !). The notebook is open and I look at it while retrieving all the relevant sheets with my hands in the tent. When this is done, I upgrade the numbers on the notebook, taking into account the sheets which are no longer there, and reiterate with the next most populated box.

    You never have enough of a good thing. If your image was great and the exposure correct, process the backup. You'll be happy to have it if your first original gets lost or damaged. You can carry it around and show it off, and not worry. You could file it with a stock agency. In case this additional $1.5 to process your 4x5 backup sounds expensive, remember that a 4x5 duplicate costs $30. If you didn't like your image, don't process the backup.

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