Bulk film is essentially a giant strip of film (typically 100’ or 400’ long) and comes all rolled up and placed in a light-proof bag in a box or a canister. It’s like the IKEA of film. You’re given the basics, have to put it together, but you save money by doing so.
The trick is getting the film off of the giant reel and into cartridges so it can be loaded into your camera.
And obviously this has to be done in the dark so the film doesn’t get exposed to light.
Empty film cartridge with a couple inches of film still attached
Long leader (optional)
The trickiest of these items to get is the almost-empty film cartridge. If you are a home developer, this is easy. If you aren’t, I would recommend buying re-loadable cartridges, but keep in mind you will want a way to get these back from your lab.
If you develop at home, you can easily obtain an almost-empty cartridge by not cracking the cartridge open to retrieve your exposed roll of film.
Either leave the leader out, or retrieve the leader if your camera automatically winds it in. Load your film onto the reel, and when you get to the end of the roll, cut the film free but still leave about 1.5” of film still attached to the cartridge.
You might end up losing part of your last frame, so either be okay with cutting it off, or shoot a blank for the last frame.
You now have all your supplies for bulk loading!
How to Bulk Load Your Film
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that loading your film needs to happen in complete darkness.
Even be careful if you open up the bulk roll in daylight, because all that guards your film from total ruin is an open-ended black bag. But also, there’s no need to open up the canister in daylight, so consider just not.
Make sure your hands are clean and dry if you’re not using gloves. You will get fingerprints on the end of your film, which will be exacerbated by any dirt or lotion you might have on.
Put your film canister, empty cartridge, scissors, and tape in your changing bag.
Open up the canister and take out the roll of film, but try to touch it only along the edges to avoid coming into contact with the faces of the film strip.
The outside of the roll of film is the shiny side, so keep that in mind when you line up the film with the empty cartridge.
When I line up the film, I will even tuck it into the cartridge a bit to ensure the film is straight. If it’s askew, it won’t successfully wind into the cartridge.
I then tape the little strip at the end of the empty cartridge to the bulk film. I grab my scissors, stick them into the head of the cartridge and start winding and counting my full turns.
This is a common chart for the number of turns and approximate resulting exposures, BUT I typically get more than the chart reads.
When the film is wound into the cartridge, instead of cutting the end to form a leader, I tape on a leader from an already developed roll of film.
This leader gets exposed to light anyway, so why waste perfectly good film just to load the camera when you can tape on a spare piece? (Now you see just how thrifty I actually am ?)
But this hack has gotten me 10 exposures with 10 turns, and 15 exposures with 13 turns, so I will unabashedly share my thrifty trick with you.
Note: A 100’ roll of film will give you about 18 rolls of 36-exposure film. Keep in mind if you’re loading smaller rolls, you are “wasting” more of the potential frames on the front and back end of the strip.
Once you have your film loaded, cut the film free from the bulk roll by cutting rather close to the opening of the cartridge. Just make sure you leave enough film on so the cartridge can’t suck up the tail end, leaving you stuck to retrieve it.
Place the bulk roll back into its lightproof bag and then back into the canister.
At this point, you can open up your changing bag, take out the spooled cartridge and either cut a leader into the film or tape a leader on to save a few frames.
I have fallen in love with bulk loading because it truly offers many advantages.
It’s more cost-effective to buy a bulk roll than a bunch of individual rolls. Since you’re reusing old cartridges, it also creates less waste.
But maybe my favorite advantage is that you can load any size roll you want. This is great for projects where I just want to shoot a few frames and develop the roll to have the images ready ASAP.
It’s also great for half-frame cameras, where 36 exposures turns into 72 and feels like it takes an ETERNITY to shoot through.
So Then, What Are the Cons?
The most obvious one is that it’s fussy. It’s not as easy as just grabbing a roll from your stash and putting it in your camera.
If you’re not careful (I’m pointing at myself here), some frames could end up with smudges and fingerprints, particularly at the end that’s taped to the cartridge.
Lastly, if you don’t develop at home, it’s not necessarily more economical, because you have to spend the same amount for your lab to develop and scan one roll of 10 exposures as you would one roll of 36 exposures.
And you also have to consider that you will want your cartridges back to use again, so if your lab isn’t local, you’ll want to pay for shipping to have them returned.
Definitely consider these pros and cons before buying your first roll of bulk film.
For myself, I for sure became a fast fan of it. Maybe I’ll even buy the bulk film loader and the reusable cartridges.
But then again, in the full spirit of DIY, I’ll probably stick with my circuitous method.