Tips on loading 4x5 sheet film

As a new large format film user I spent a fair bit of time watching videos and reading how to load film. Coming from smaller formats the concept of having to load film is quite alien at first, simple when you are ready to try it and actually quite frustrating as you actually get to do it!

So far I have loaded 25 or so sheets and have picked up a few tricks that I didn’t find in the videos and articles I read. In this article I will attempt to put them all together so that you can have a checklist and walkthrough for your first attempts!

What you’ll need

Before we start, here’s what you need to load sheet film:

  1. Loading tent. Get a tent, not a bag. It is invaluable not having a changing bag get in the way as you try to open the film box, get the film out of the little bag it is in, removing dark slides and all that!
  2. Film and holders (obviously!)
  3. Pencil and eraser. You will need these to write on the holders what film you have loaded.

Before your first attempt

The best thing you can do before you try loading film for real is to try it with a sheet of film. It is probably worth wasting those £5 (or less, depends on the film) on one sheet to see exactly how it goes in. I didn’t and thought I had it all sussed out after watching videos. But as in everything, seeing something and then trying to do it (without looking!) is another. The danger here is that you will end up loading all the sheets incorrectly so you will end up with a very expensive mistake a few weeks later (when the film arrives back from the lab).

At the very minimum you should try a dry run, layout everything on a table and pretend you’re loading, do all the movements except opening the film box. This will give you an idea where things will roughly be. Do that with your eyes open once, then with your eyes closed.

Let’s go!

Time to get started. First, either load film or unload film. Unless you’ve done this a thousand times (which means you don’t have to read this) the possibility of error and mix up (did I load this holder, was this the loaded or unloaded film, etc) raises significantly. If you have film holders loaded with exposed film, unload them first, store the exposed film in the box, empty the tent then start again loading.

The film holders

First, let’s prepare the film holders. I am assuming that all your film holders are empty, after all this is the first time you are loading film! The process is the same after unloading film too. To prepare the empty film holders I first remove any film markings I have (I use a pencil to write on the holder what film is loaded). If you use a rubber eraser make sure to get rid of any of the eraser flakes.

Get to know the holder and work out a system. The darkslide tops have a light/dark band. If you put the slide with the white band facing out then that means unexposed film. If the black side is out it means I have exposed it. Or maybe you prefer it the other way around. Just pick a system and stick with it.

Also, note the dots on the top of the tab on the light side and the lack of them on the black side. This can help if you remove the darkslide fully in the tent, you can figure out which way you are putting it back into the holder.

Unlock all the dark slides (see image below) and remove them. Open the loading flap (where the film goes in) and give the holder a shake to get rid of any debris. Put the dark slides the right way in (unexposed side showing). Remember the locking tabs, you may accidentally twist them in the tent, if you cannot get the darkslide out then check the locks. Done.

The tent

Next, setup the tent and maybe give it a good shake (entry side facing down) to get rid of any big dust/hair/lint/etc. We need to try and minimise as much as we can the amount of dust getting in the holders.

Wash your hands and dry them! You don’t want any left over grease from what you were just eating, dust, dry skin or anything else getting in the film holders either. I’d also recommend taking off watches and bracelets, they tend to get in the way of the tent sleeves as you put your hands in/out.

Putting things in the tent

Put the film box on one side (left for me!) and the stack of holders on the other. If this is a new box of film make sure you cut the sealing tape of the lid, no need to try and do that in the dark.

A film box will generally contain 10 sheets, ie 5 double-holders needed to load it. I find 10 sheets the limit of what I can do comfortably in my changing tent. After that it gets a bit too cramped but the main issue is that it also gets hot and sweaty in there very quickly. Any more than that and I’d probably start leaving sweaty fingerprints on the film! Another reason not to unload and load at the same time.

Loading time!

Close the tent zips, put your hands in, close your eyes and think of the Wood Beast from Flash Gordon. Well, no, no don’t do that. First open the box. It is a two lid box, so first remove the outer lid, turn the lid upside down and put the box inside it. Now turn the whole thing over and pull the bottom part off. This will have the film inside. Turn the lid (the two lids actually one inside the other) over, put the bottom with the film inside and put that aside.

The film will be in a little bag (at least Kodak and Ilford do that, maybe other manufacturers don’t) you will need to rip off. The film will be sandwiched between two little cardboard pieces. Put the film (with cardboard) back in the box and remove the top bit of cardboard. Put that aside (or under the box).

You are now ready to load the first sheet. Take a holder and pull the dark slide a third to half way out. Do not pull it off completely. Open the loading flap. Put the holder aside for now. Now take a sheet of film. Try to hold it from the sides, let’s not leave fingerprints on the film! Feel the edges and on one corner you will find the film code notches. These must go either on the top right or bottom left of the holder (bottom of the holder being the loading flap). If you forget that and put it the other way around the film will be facing the inside of the film holder, ie will not get exposed.

Slide the film in. I find it easier to grab the holder with the flap away from me but you’ll find your own way. Make sure the film goes under both loading rails.

You will need to feel the loading guides and make sure both sides are good! Otherwise the film will not be correctly loaded. It is possible for the film to go in under the rails (correct) or above (one side or both), between the rail and the darkslide. If that happens the film will slide up further than it should so you waste part of it but more importantly it will not be in the correct plane of focus, ie the photo will be out of focus. See the images below for more on what is and isn’t correct.

To remove the film use the little rounded indent at the bottom, use a fingernail and pull the film out.

Once the film is in the correct position, close the loading flap, push the darkslide in and lock it. Repeat for the other side of the holder and any other holders in the tent. After you load everything, replace the piece of cardboard on the top of the remaining film in the box and close the box (both lids!).


Unloading film

Unloading film is a bit simpler. First of all, you need an empty box. If you loaded all the film then you already have an empty box, the one the film came in (you didn’t throw that away did you?). If you used part of the film then you will have to either find another box (this is only a problem until you develop your first box!) or get a tiny photo bag to put the film in. Still, you cannot depend on the bag alone, you should put it in a box to be safe.

Anyway, assuming you have an empty box, open it and put the box and holders in the tent. When unloading I prefer to fully remove the darkslide, open the flap, extract the film (remember the little round indent at the bottom that helps with that) and place it in the box. Once everything is done, I have a box full of film and a bunch of empty holders and darkslides. Close the box and you’re done!

Final thoughts

Overall, loading the film is not that complicated once you get the hang of it. It requires patience though and if things start getting tricky just stop and feel your way slowly around the issue. In the end you can always put the film back in the box, open the tent and have a break before trying again.

The important thing that I missed first time (yet was lucky enough to spoil just one sheet) was making sure the film goes under both guides. So remember, put the film in, feel the guides. Then you know if it is loaded correctly or not. Also, remember the indent at the bottom that helps getting the film out and don’t get caught trying to remove a darkslide franticly when it is locked.

Thanks for reading!

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