By George Griffin
With the cost of all things analogue rising steadily in price, one way you can save money is bulk loading your own film.
All the figures in this article are based on the cheapest film I was happy to use and that is Fomapan 200.
Obviously, the initial outlay makes starting bulk loading a little bit expensive as you will need a changing bag/tent and a daylight bulk loader.
The bag you may already have if you home develop. Loaders can be picked up at auction sites (sometimes even new), but as with everything analogue the prices are creeping up but you have to look at it as a long-term investment.
There are a few different models made by Watson, AP and Lloyds to name a few. I managed to pick up a Lloyds LegacyPro model for £35.
The other thing you need are film cassettes to load the film into. You can buy reusable canisters but I have heard stories of the caps coming off and the felt deteriorating quite quickly which doesn’t help with light leaks. Personally, I just recycle old cassettes from the films that I bought in the past. You can also ask your friendly local film-developing shop for empty cassettes although you do need them with the tail of the film sticking out so you can attach the new film to it.
Using either type of cassette does lead to the dreaded DX coding. The reusable cassettes do not come with a DX coding on them and using old canisters you can end up with different codes for the film you are using.
There are ways around this from buying a set of different DX stickers to stick on or making your own (this is a whole new article). The best way to avoid this problem is to use cameras that either manually set the ISO or cameras that can override it.
The only cameras that will cause the biggest problem with this, are the more modern 90s point-and-shoot because if there is no DX coding on the cassette they will usually default to 100 ISO. Luckily, the cameras I have allow me to set the ISO manually.
As for the loader, it is basically a light-tight box with a crank handle to load the film into a cassette.
Some can have dials on them to set the total amount of film that you have in them and how many frames you are winding into the cassette.
My Lloyds one is very basic: open it up, place the bulk roll in and pass the lead of the film through the felt trap and into the loading chamber and close it up again. This all has to be done in complete darkness.
At the top of the loader is a small door opening this will expose the small piece of the leader from the bulk roll and where the cassette sits to reload it.
The next thing is to attach the film to the protruding piece from the cassette. This can be tricky the first time as you are trying to expose as little of the film in the loader as possible.
I usually pull one or two frames worth of film out and sellotape this to the piece in the cassette, I make sure that the tape wraps around both sides of the film but not that it overlaps you don’t want the joint to be too tight when it goes back into the cassette or the film overlapping as this will cause problems winding into the cassette.
Bulk-loaded films shot on a half-frame camera (above)
Once happy that the film is attached, it’s just a matter of closing the door to make it all light tight and insert the crank handle to wind in the amount of film you want in the cassette, the crank also helps to keep the door securely closed.
The Lloyds loader doesn’t have any fancy dials to tell you how many frames you’re winding into the cassette but it does have a turns = exposure label on it.
It also has an arrow to tell you the correct direction to turn, an extra couple of turns are always worthwhile as you can get fogging at the end of every roll.
Moving on to the actual film; most film manufacturers supply their own B&W in bulk with Harman providing all of their films from Kentmere through to Ilford XP2.
The rolls usually come in two sizes 17m or 30.5m. The 17m tin will give you 10 rolls and 30.5m will give 18, all based on 36 exposures per roll.
At the time of writing, prices vary from £26 for a roll of Fomapan 100 to £170 for 30.5m of Kodak Tri-X.
Typically you will get savings of around 30 to 40% on the cost of single film cassettes when rolling 36 exposures. Although bulk loading gives you the option to roll any length you like, you will only want 10 frames to test a camera. If you’re shooting with a half-frame camera, you may only want 24 exposures.
Bulk loading has usually been the domain of the B&W photographer but in the last couple of years with people willing to shoot more cine film you are able to buy colour in bulk in the form of Kodak Vision3 which comes as 500T, 200T, 250D and 50D.
There are sellers now selling this film in bulk from 7.5 m to 15 m. Yes, you will have to deal with ramjet. Some labs can develop this film at an increased cost but it does give you an extra option when colour film can be hard to come by.
So in conclusion, is bulk film for you?
Yes; but only if:
- You shoot more than 10 rolls a year.
- You are happy to shoot with the same film stock over and over.
- You are working on a long-term project and want to keep the same film stock throughout.
- You shoot a half-frame camera and it takes forever to shoot 48/72 shots.
- You want to save money on shooting film.
If you like to try different film stocks and you don’t really want to mess around collecting cassettes and sticking and rolling film into them, then it might not be worth it.
One final point, the 17m roll of Fomapan 200 I bought cost me £28 and I got 10 rolls out of it. The last one was only 31 exposures as I did mess up with it, but it was my first-time bulk loading.
The cost worked out at £2.80 a roll compared to £5.50 for a single roll.
Some will say that the cost of the loader should be added to this and if I did it would push the cost up which would make the rolls £6.30, 80p more than a single roll but like I said this is a long-term investment and the price will get lower and lower every time I use it.