How To Reload A Medium Format Film Camera

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This is just a short post to tell you stuff that old skool film photographers know in their sleep but that new users of film might be genuinely perplexed by. 35mm film is pretty straightforward because it comes in a light-proof canister, that you rewind back into when you are done, and you simply take it back out again. Medium format is a little different.

The Camera

The example camera is my lovely trusty Agfa Record III. It’s a typical medium format folding camera from the 1950s. The principles are the same for any medium format camera but newer film cameras that lack the frame number window typically have a “Start” line to align when winding the film on instead of finding “1” in the window.

The Procedure

The first thing I’m going to do is close the camera and place it face down so that I’m looking at the back. You can see I have a new roll of film waiting to be loaded. I never leave a camera empty. What use is an empty camera?

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Here you can see the film counter window. Mine has a little window shade operated by the lever. This is because over time the light can start to make a mark on the film by shining through the backing paper. If I lift the shade we will see nothing because I already finished the roll inside by winding it until it was all wound up on the “take up spool” side.

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There will be a catch to open the camera back. Mine is located on the side under the little carry strap.

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Using this little lever I can open the camera back. The used film should be tightly wound up on the take up spool so it should be safely shielded from the light. Nevertheless, it’s a good habit not to do this in direct sunlight.

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OK. Lets open it all the way up to see what we are working with.

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Here you can see that the film is all wound up on the take up spool. On the righthand side you can see the spool that the film was on when I bought that roll. It’s now empty. All the film got wound from the supply spool to the takeup spool one frame at a time as I took pictures and advanced the film. This is one slightly weird thing about medium format: The film is always wound on from the spool that the new film came on onto the spool of the previous film you used. THERE IS ALWAYS A PREVIOUS ROLL. In theory this means that medium format film has been around since creation, thus proving its divine origins.

OK. The first priority is going to be to take the EXPOSED roll out containing all the photos you just took and make it safe. On my camera you pull up the winding knob and the spool will helpfully pop forwards so you can take it out. With lesser cameras it may be slightly less convenient.

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It shouldn’t unravel immediately but I’m always careful nevertheless to keep it tightly wound. The only thing keeping the light off your film is the film remaining tightly wound on that spool. If it unravels you will get light on your pictures and then you will have to post them in the Lomography forum instead.

You will find a little tape to seal up your film. On Kodak you lick it like a stamp. On Fuji it’s already sticky, you just pull the end open. In either case you need to fold the tapered end under. It tells you (sorry for the bad iPhone close focus).

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And here it is after I folded that end under and pulled the sealing tape around it.

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Helpfully, it says EXPOSED on it so you don’t mistake it for an unused roll.

Now we do the spool dance. No, not that one. We need to take the spool that we just emptied from the supply side where it is sitting lonely and empty.

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Again, the Agfa Record III is a bit of a Rolls Royce and when I pull out on the little tab it’s going to actually swing out the spool and then the bottom pin will actuall fold down to make the loading and unloading stupidly easy. Check it out.

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Your camera may be slightly different but whatever the mechanism you need to get that empty spool out because it will become your new takeup spool. Once out you need to install it in the takeup side. The same place you just unloaded your exposed film from.

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One small note: I have rotated the spool so that the slot is facing up. This will make it easy to feed the new film onto it.

Now we can open the new film roll. Kodak and Fuji both seal them individually like this to keep dirt and moisture out. You can open this in daylight. The film roll inside is all tightly rolled up and taped.

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Mmm… Fresh film! Before we load it you should remove the tape that is keeping it tightly wound up. Of course, this means that you now need to keep it tightly wound up until it’s fully loaded. No big deal, just don’t drop it or anything.

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OK. Over on the supply side there’s no spool currently because we just moved that one. This is where the new roll goes. You will be drawing it across the film path with the writing on the backing paper facing the back of the camera. Like you see below.

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And now you can draw it across. Don’t worry, there’s quite a bit of paper leader before you get to the film part. It’s safe to do this in the light although, again, I would avoid direct sunlight.

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Now you see why I wanted the slot facing me. You need to feed the tapered end into the slot down to that sharp crease that you see (just before the paper gets wide enough to show the coloured bands). Now you can start feeding the paper on with the wind on knob. The paper should be a little taut.

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OK. Now it’s time to close the camera. We need to wind through all of this leader paper until the first frame is ready to shoot. But that needs to be done with the camera closed.

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If you look in the window now you will see a white nothing instead of a black nothing.

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You need to wind quite a ways before you get to the number “1” showing you that you are ready to shoot your first frame. Don’t worry. Just keep watching and winding. It’s normal to see some other weird stuff before you get to the first number.

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Just before you get to the “1” (and just before each number) there will be some countdown markings. They’re slightly different for different brands but in Fuji they are some large blobs that get smaller until you reach the number.

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Wind slowly and carefully now. There is no reverse! In just a little further you should see the “1” and stop.

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Congratulations! You’re ready to take your first picture.

For each picture you take you will wind on to the next number. Until you run out of numbers. Medium format film is a flexible format film. For example, on my Agfa 6×9 folder I will get 8 shots. On my Mamiya 6×4.5 camera I will get 15 shots. If I had a Hasselblad or other 6×6 camera I would get 12 shots. It’s the same film length but different picture sizes depending on the camera. All the numbers are printed on the film for the different frame sizes but in different places. So your camera will always show you the numbers correctly because it will have its film window in the right place. Clever, no?

When you have shot your last frame you simply wind the film on until you no longer see anything at all in the window (black, not white) and then a little more. This should ensure you have it fully wound up when you open it up to reload.

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