Loading Large Format Film Holders

by Paul Butzi


When I started using large format, the hurdle of successfully loading film holders loomed large in my mind. This seems to be the case for other people, too, although in reality, loading holders is so simple, it's not worth a moment's worry. Still, it all must be done in the dark, you need to open up a box of film that cost, say, 50 bucks, and you don't know what to expect.

So, here it is, in glorious photographs - just what to expect when you open the box, how to tell which side is the emulsion side (without the hopeless description "Film code notches in the upper right corner").

Just remember - these photos are for illustrative purposes only. Everything you see here, you'll need to do in COMPLETE darkness. But don't worry, it's easier than you think - and even easier than it looks!

The Film Box Mystery

The first problem to be solved is what I call the "Film Box Mystery". Everyone knows that the film box can't be opened except in complete darkness, and everyone knows film boxes are complicated.

Don't worry. Film comes in special film boxes, which consist of THREE nesting parts, designed to reduce accidental exposure of your film to a minimum. The parts nest together to make a light trap around the edges.

This is a photo of a film box with the end cut off. I've painted the exposed edge of the middle box part red, to make it a bit easier to see how the boxes nest in opposite directions so that they form a light trap.

Here's a photo of a film box. From left to right, there's the innermost box, the middle box, and the outer shell. When you buy the box, the inner box (on the left) is nested inside the middle box (which is show upside down, here), and that assembly is then nested inside the outer box. In the inner box, you can see some film. If you look closely, you can see a white envelope peeking out from behind the loose film. When you buy a new box of film, it will be all sealed up, inner box inside the middle, middle and inner inside the outer. Inside all of it, your film will be sealed up inside these envelopes. Just tear one open, and you can get at the film inside. Some manufacturers (like Kodak) put a sheet of cardboard on each end of the stack to protect the film. Others (like Agfa) put a sheet of paper between sheets of film. Don't worry - you will be able to sort all this out by feel very easily.

The Film

The sheet of film has two sides, of course - the base side, and the emulsion side. You want to load your film holders so that the emulsion side is facing the lens, and the base side is facing the film holder. Telling the emulsion side is easy. Here's an image of a sheet of film (in this case, a sheet of TMX, aka Tmax-100).

Note that on the top edge, you can see two notches - those are the notch code that tells us this is a sheet of TMX. Different films have different notch codes, and you can use the notch codes to tell what sort of film you've got in the dark. With the notches on the top edge, as shown, and with the notches on the right hand side of the top edge, also as shown, the emulsion side is facing toward you (or, in this case, toward the camera that took this photo).

The Film Holder

Before we try to insert some film into a holder, let's take a close look at the holder.

On the left, we've got a darkslide, with the 'black' side showing - note that at the bottom of the darkslide, near the little handle, there's just black plastic. In the middle, we've got another darkslide, this time with the 'white' side showing. You can't see it in the photo, but on the handle on the 'white' side, there are little bumps you can feel so you can tell the white side from the black side in the dark.

On the far right, we've got the film holder with the darkslides removed. At the top of the photo is the 'flap' end. Here's a close-up of that flap end.

My thumb is holding the flap open. You can see that I've cut a notch into the flap (on the right hand end) so that I can identify film exposed in this holder. There's a circular depression in the middle of this end of the holder, which makes it easier to feel if there's film in the holder (in the dark) and which makes it easier to get a fingernail under the film to take it out of the holder. At the bottom of this photo, on both the left and right edge of the holder, you can see the 'rails' under which the film must go.

Note that when the flap is closed, and the darkslide inserted, the darkslide rests in the notch that runs the length of the holder, holding it closed.

This detail makes it a little easier to see the film rail. The flap is on the right.

Getting the film into the holder

Now that you know what the film box, the film, and the holder are like, we can discuss how you're going to get the film out of the box and into the holder in the dark.

In the light, take all the darkslides out of the holders to be loaded, dust them off, and set them aside. Make them all face the same way, so that you don't have to fumble around turning them over in the the dark. All my holders are the same, so I don't have to worry about which slides go with which holders, but if yours are all different, you'll need to keep them separate.

Now, set the holders in a neat stack next to the darkslides, with the flap end away from you.

Set the box of film next to those two stacks.


Ok, now, you can open the film box. Open it up, and open an envelope of film if you need to.

To make it easy to pick up a single piece of film, when you open the film box, nest the middle part and the innermost part as shown. Then put the loose film into the nested boxes, as shown. This makes it easy to find the film in the dark, and easy to pick up a single sheet. Note that I've got it stacked emulsion side up - you might want to stack it emulsion down to avoid getting dust on the emulsion side.

Now, pick up a film holder. With one hand, hold the holder and hold the flap open. With the other hand, pick up a single sheet of film, and slide it under the film rails, as shown. This photo shows the film partially inserted - just push it all the way in, as far as it will go. Make sure the film is caught under the film rails on both sides of the holder by feeling the corner of the film rail. If it's not under the rails, take it out and put it under the rails.

Then close the flap, pick up a dark slide, and insert the darkslide all the way, so that it holds the flap closed. If you don't have the film in all the way, the flap won't close all the way, and the dark slide won't go in all the way.

Once you've got one side done, turn the holder over and do the other side. Then set the holder aside and do the remaining holders. Finally, don't forget to put the film back in the innermost box, put the innermost box into the middle box, and the middle box back into the outer.

White Side, Black Side

The white side and black side of the dark slide can be used to prevent confusion about which holders are loaded, and which are exposed, etc.

Different photographers use different conventions, so if you share holders with someone, you'll need to make sure you use the same convention.

I use the following one: Film holders which are loaded with unexposed film have the white side of the darkslide showing. All other film holders have the dark side showing.

So, if a holder has the white side showing, I know it's ok to put it in the camera and expose the film in the holder. If it's black, either the film is exposed (and I don't want to re-expose it) or else it's an empty holder. Either way, I don't want to put it in the camera.

So the normal exposure sequence is to pick up an unexposed holder, put it in the camera, pull the darkslide, make the exposure, and the reinsert the darkslide with the black side showing.