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How To: Load Your Film Camera

Are you having trouble loading your camera? Don't know your film door release from your shutter speed knob? Look no further, Michael Elliott explains how to open that door and get your film loaded for most common 35mm and non-removable back medium format systems.

Still got questions?

Step 1: Locate the Film Door Release and Open

A film door release is a mechanism that allows you to open the back of the camera and load or unload the film. There are different types of film door release depending on the model and design of the camera.

Olympus OM-2 Camera

Pull-up knob: This type of film door release is usually located on the top left of the camera, as part of the film rewind knob. To open the film door, you need to pull up the knob and then pull it outwards. This will release the latch that holds the film door in place. To close the film door, you need to push it back until it clicks and then push down the knob. An example of a camera that uses this type of film door release is the Olympus OM-1/2/3/4.

Contax T2 camera

Slide lock: This type of film door release is usually located on the side or back of the camera, near the edge of the film door. To open the film door, you need to slide the lock downwards or sideways, depending on the direction of the arrow. This will unlock the film door and allow you to open it by pulling it gently. To close the film door, you need to push it firmly until it snaps and then slide the lock upwards or sideways to secure it. An example of a camera that uses this type of film door release is the Contax T2.

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Twist lever: This type of film door release is usually located on the bottom right of the camera, or on the side of the camera opposite the hinge. To open the film door, you need to twist the lever counterclockwise until it stops. This will release the latch that connects the film door to the camera body. To close the film door, you simply need to close it until you hear the lock engage. An example of a camera that uses this type of film door release is the Fujica GL-690 or Contax G1.

Step 2: Insert The Film

This is where 35mm and medium format differ somewhat. For 35mm, to insert the film, identify which chamber you need to insert the film cassette into - some cameras will need the film cassette to be inserted right side up in the right hand chamber, while a large majority will need the film cassette inserted upside down in the left chamber. Pull out the leader and pull it across the film gate, to reach the takeup chamber. For older cameras, typically most manual wind SLRs and rangefinders, you will need to attach the leader to the takeup spool. For newer SLRs and point-and-shoot cameras, you should be able to pull the film to a pre-marked point and then just close the back.

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For medium format, there are a few different types of loading mechanisms. The first is very similar to 35mm. Here the film winds across from left to right. First, make sure that you move any empty spool from the left hand chamber to the right hand chamber - that will be your takeup spool. Then, insert the fresh roll into the left hand chamber, lock in place and rip the sealing band off the roll. Pull across the leader paper to the right hand chamber and insert the tip into the takeup spool. Wind on until you see the START mark on the leader paper align with the proper start mark on your camera.

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The second is for twin lens reflex cameras like the Rolleiflex models. Here the film is inserted into the bottom chamber and winds up to the top chamber. So make sure to move any empty spool from the bottom chamber to the top chamber, and then insert the roll into the bottom chamber. Lock in place, and remove the band. Pull the leader paper out, and if your model of TLR features automatic detection of the first frame position, feed the paper under the first roller, up to the top chamber, insert the tip and wind until the leader is certain to have gripped, and close. If not, simply pull the paper up and over to the top chamber. Feed the tip into the takeup spool, wind on til the start mark on the leader aligns with the start mark on the camera and then close.

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Step 3: Close the Film Door/Back

This one's fairly simple. Follow the instructions in step 1 as to how to close the film door.

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Step 4: Wind On

For manual loading 35mm cameras, the accepted standard is to wind on and shoot 3 frames before taking any important photographs. 

Auto loading 35mm cameras will do this step for you, so you can skip.

For medium format cameras, there are broadly three standards:

1) Wind on until the camera stops you (the Fujica GL-690, or Rolleiflex 2.8E3)

2) Wind on a specific number of frames (for instance, the Kiev 60)

3) Open the red window at the back and wind on until you see the number "1" in the frame (for older cameras, for instance, the Lubitel, the Box Tengor, etc.). Be careful with these cameras with modern films: the red window was effective at stopping light leaks on the orthochromatic films of the time, but will allow light impingement on the film with modern panchromatic films. Make sure to close the window after every wind immediately (and if there's no closure on the window, improvise one with some duct tape and a square of discarded 120 rollfilm leader, black side facing the camera).

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Step 5: Enjoy!

Now you're ready to enjoy your film camera shooting experience! Go take some absolute belters, you legend!

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