The Guide to B&W Film Development: Part 3 – Preparing the Film

Welcome to Part 3 of my Guide to B&W Film Development.

Part 1 looked at the jargon and the process. Part 2 looked at getting you setup with everything you need to develop. Part 3 will directly look at the film side and what you need to get the film in the tank ready for development. When originally constructing the part’s of this guide I considered combining this with Part 2, however it is such an important and crucial step to the process (that takes a bit of practice) that explaining it clearly is paramount.

So film just goes in the developing tank right? Well.. sort of  :) It gets loaded onto a reel (pictured above) and this allows the whole roll to be exposed to all the chemicals during the development process within the tank. The idea behind the film reel is that once the film is loaded it is wound around the entire reel with an even gap between each row. Once in the tank the stirring stick comes through the top and connects with the black tube allowing you to spin/swirl the reel within the tank in a process called agitation.

Sounds easy? Well essentially it is.. when you can see what you are doing. Using film however that is light sensitive means that you either need to do this in a darkroom or within a change bag. Since we are doing this on a budget and with space limitations in mind I purely just use a change bag, which means you have to do it blindly by feel/touch. I have yet to master the skills of  ’walking’ my film on the reel, however I have improved greatly from when I first started.  The effects of kinking, scratching and manhandling your film can be seen in the image below.

I will talk about the loading of the reel in the development tank, using the change bag and how it all comes together in Part 4. For the remainder of Part 3 I will look at opening the cannister, what the reel is and how it works and how to ‘walk’ the film onto the reel. You will have to bare with me my ‘practice’ roll is in fact colour and my donor roll of film for these photos was in fact an old colour roll that I found and didnt mind donating to the cause.

Opening the Film Cannister

I picked up this trick from my good friend Daniel Lee when I was first getting into the ‘how to’ part of home development. Some people use a can opener but others like myself use a bottle opener. I have had mixed success but have found a normal keyring bottle opener to be the most successful method for me without causing too much damage to the cannister. I find the flat end (bottom) of the cannister the easiest part to open. Simply by working my way around the circumference of the cannister bottom you slowly work it away until you pop one side up. Once you have popped the end open (obviously you are doing this by feel in the dark bag), I carefully remove the lid and then slide the whole roll of film out with the plastic inner reel by pushing carefully from the top side of the cannister. I take note to have the cannister facing down when I do this so the film starts to unravel downwards.

The Film Reel and You

Now that we have our film out of the cannister we quickly move on to the film reel. Film reels come in plastic and stainless steel varieties, however the most common is plastic and that is what ill use for reference in this guide. Reels are able to adjust the the width of your film (dependent if you are using 135 (35mm) or 120 size film, however Ill stick with the 35mm theme of the rest of the guide. The reel itself has a hollow center which the holding tube can be inserted through (allows you to spin it within the tank), and then a plastic clip that holds the tube and reel close to the bottom. It is made up of two discs on each end of the reel which move/rotate and you rock this side back and forth to ‘walk’ the film onto the reel. There is an entry point for the film to slide into, you push the film up until it goes through two small ball bearings which are located on either side of the reel. Once you hit this reference point (keeping note that the film is dangling below so it can easily unravel) you rock the side of the reel and ‘walk’ the film. Hard to grasp it in words.. please see below for photos and an external link to a YouTube clip showing the process.

Step 1 – Load the center tube and fasten the clip

This is a personal preference of mine as I use this as a reference point when loading the film on the reel in the change bag. Before putting the reel into the change bag, put the tube through the bottom of the reel with the two ‘hooks’ facing towards you (you will load the film as if it were coming out of your body). I am left handed so I ensure the tube is on the left hand side however this may differ if you are right handed (experiment before you become set in your ways). After placing the tube through the reel I put the plastic clip on the end, holding it firmly in place. This clip is not available with all tanks/film reel combinations but I assume they are with most (since they came with the Paterson tank I use which is a prominent brand). When loading the film I use this tube and clip as a holding point and reference for making the loading action easier.

Step 2 – Cut the Leader on the Film

Cutting the film leader allows the film to load onto the reel much easier. You also have a straight edge to pull the film onto the reel with when getting started which is much easier. When loading the film keep in mind that the first couple of inches are safe to touch with your fingers. I still however just hold the straight end by the tips of my fingers to make it easy to maneuver. I generally unravel the film and cut the plastic reel off the end at this stage as well, however other people like to roll the film onto the reel and then cut it when they get to the end.

Step 3 – Feed the Film through the Hooks

My thumbs are just in front of the hooks mentioned on the film reel. You feed the film in through these hooks as they face you (whilst holding the reel). About 3 – 4cm from these hooks you can see the point where the ball bearings are located. Your main goal is to feed the film up and beyond these bearings so the film is firmly in place before you start ‘walking’ the film.

Step 4 – Feed the film through the Balls


As mentioned above you are looking to feed the film in through and past these balls. Feed the film around 2 – 3 inches past the balls before you begin ‘walking’ the film.

Step 5 – Walking the Film

In the photos above you can see the starting point in Photo #1 and the finishing point in Photo #2 in terms of ‘walking’ the film. My right hand is the only one that moves as I rock it forwards and backwards and the film winds onto the reel. This is the term walking as I rock it forwards at a steady pace until all of the film is loaded onto the reel.

Step 6 – Place the Reel in the Tank

This is the finished product with the whole roll of film loaded on the reel. As with the process I had already fed through the inner tube and put the plastic clip on. If you dont do that before this stage, now is the time to do that so you can place the reel in the tank. I will discuss more about this in Part 4 but at this point you place the reel into the tank with the protruding tube sticking upwards. You then place the lid on and spin the tank lid anti-clockwise until you feel it ‘slot’ in place. I think tighten the lid up and run my finger along the bottom edge to feel that it is sitting snug (not put at a funny angle). It is important to remember that up until you have put the stop into the tank, your film is light sensitive and any exposure to light will fog and destroy your images.

Demonstration Video

Below is a great reference video that shows the process of loading the reel, but also preparing the film and putting it in the tank. Whilst I find videos are useful I found it very handy to have printed reference material when I started out (that way I can spill stuff on it, not a laptop). Otherwise I suppose I could have just recorded a video :)

Direct Youtube link if embed doesnt work for you.

So there we have it.. the film and you. It takes a lot of practice, I have resorted to sitting infront of the television with my test roll of film and my reel and practicing at night. Making sure that I dont get any kinks and really learn how to ‘walk’ the film on correctly. It is hard enough when you can see what you are doing so doing it within a change bag add’s a whole new level of complication.

In part 4 we get to the good stuff.. getting our hands dirty and actually developing a roll of film (which I think let dry and cut up and scanned as part 5 of this guide). If you have any questions or anything to add.. including those tips and tricks more seasoned film photographers may have then I am all ears.

Till tomorrow..

Click through to Part 4 – The Development Process

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