Bulk Loading 35mm Film Part 1 – Cassettes

From left to right: Leica FILCA Cassettes, Nikon Reloadable Film Cassettes, Kodak Snap-Cap 135 Magazines.

Leica introduced the first popular camera using 35mm cinema film in 1925. There was no such thing as a preloaded roll of 35mm film. Leica, and then Contax and other 35mm camera manufacturers supplied cassettes to be loaded with bulk film by the user in the darkroom. A variety of bulk loading devices of differing complexity were introduced by the camera manufacturers and by various third parties.

As 35mm film cameras gained popularity, cinema film manufacturers like Kodak and DuPont began to sell preloaded spools of 35mm film to be loaded in camera-specific cassettes, still by the user and still in the darkroom. These preloaded spools turned out to be a dead end, but they still turn up from time to time on eBay. I have yet to see one of them correctly described by the seller.

Finally, in 1934 Kodak introduced the first preloaded 35mm film cassettes and in fairly short order they became the de facto standard for 35mm film cassettes. Those first preloaded Kodak cassettes are fully interchangeable with every preloaded 35mm cassettes made since then.

Despite the widespread adoption of the Kodak design cassettes, bulk loading of 35mm film didn’t go away completely. There remained advantages to bulk loading including a greater choice of film stocks in the early days and lower cost per frame. When I started reading Popular Photography and Camera 35 in the 1960’s the ads for 35mm bulk loaders promised to cut the cost of film by half or more.

Sixty years later the film stock advantage has turned completely around. There is a much larger choice of film stocks in preloaded cassettes than in generally available bulk rolls. And while some manufacturers like Ilford continue to price 100’ bulk rolls at a somewhat lower per frame cost than preloads, others like Kodak offer little or no savings.

But some photographers still continue to bulk load their own film for a variety of reasons. In my case it is partly about cost but mostly about film roll length. As I get older I find that my attention span is getting shorter. I long ago stopped buying 36-exposure rolls of film and increasingly found myself removing 24-exposure rolls from the camera before they were finished so I could develop them before I lost interest in the subject. The 12-exposure rolls of 120 film I used back in my medium format film days were just about right. That is what I am doing with 35mm film these days, bulk loading 12-exposure rolls.

The above is a very long-winded introduction to this three-part series of posts about my experiences with bulk loading. In Part I will describe the three types of reloadable 35mm cassettes I have used and their application to my particular cameras. In Part 2 I will describe the bulk loaders I have used and their application to these particular cassettes. In Part 3 I will describe how to modify a Watson 66 or Alden 74 bulk loader to work with Leica FILCA cassettes.

Leica FILCA Cassettes

Over the years, Leica sold at least four variations of reloadable film cassettes for the Leica thread mount “Barnack” cameras. All of them have the five-letter code FILCA. And, as far as I know, all of them have a black knob on the end. In theory, all of them will work with any thread mount Leica from the Model I through the IIIg. In practice, there are variations in the external spring configuration of the different FILCA versions that make some of them not work very well with the older cameras up to and including the Ic, Iic and IIIc. All of my FILCA cassettes work with my IIIf and IIIg cameras.

Tip: If a FILCA does not drop easily into your camera do NOT push it into place. It will go in but you will have a very difficult time getting it out again.

There is also a Leica cassette for the Leica bayonet mount M models. They have the five letter code IXMOO, And, as far as I know, all of them have a chrome knob on the end. They can only be used with Leica M cameras up to the earlier M6. They can not be used with newer M6, M6TTL, M7 or MP cameras, due to the lack of a film-locking notch in the baseplate of these models, which is required to open and close the cassette.

Both Alden and Watson advertised that their bulk loaders worked with Leica cassettes. Notably, they did not say Leica FILCA cassettes. In fact, the FILCA is significantly taller than an IXMOO or  a standard preloaded 35mm cassette and it does not fit nicely in either the Alden 74 or the Watson 66 family of bulk loaders. The knob on the side of the loader opposite the crank does not settle into place. I have seen light leaks and found it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to use the knob to close the cassette before removing it from loader.

In Part 3 of this series I will describe how I modified my Alden 74 and Watson 66 bulk loaders to work with FILCA cassettes.

The Watson 100 gets around this problem by making the chamber long enough to fit the FILCA, and Contax counterparts, and including a removable shim to shorten the chamber for “standard” 35mm cassettes.

Nikon Reloadable Film Cassettes

The Nikon Reloadable Film Cassette shown was released with the introduction of the Nikon F. It is backward compatible with the Nikon rangefinder cameras that preceded the Nikon F SLR. The reloadable film cassettes contemporary with the Nikon rangefinder cameras will work in the F too. But none of these cassettes will work with any other Nikon cameras or with any other cameras for that matter.

There is another Nikon reloadable cassette, the AM-1 Film Cassette that only works with the Nikon F2. It does not work with the Nikon F or with any other Nikon camera, or with any other camera.

The Nikon reloadable film cassette is compatible with the Alden 74 and with the unmodified Watson 66 and Watson 100.

Kodak Snap-Cap Magazines

Many people report good luck reusing preloaded 35mm cassettes. My results have been mixed. Using a “church key” can opener in my changing bag I have not been able to open any recent film cassettes without bending the end cap so badly as to render the cassette useless for reloading. But I saved some of my empty cassettes from the early to mid 60’s and have been able to reload them without incident.

There are new metal and plastic reloadable cassettes on the market but they are very cheaply made and I have not had good luck with them. Once the end of the film in the bulk loader is attached to the spool the cassette has to be reassembled and the end replaced without pulling too much film out into the daylight. Neither type of the new reloadable cassettes lets me do that reliably. Others I have talked with have had better luck.

Some time ago Kodak manufactured what they called Kodak Snap-Cap Magazines with ends that can be easily snapped on and off with just finger pressure. These work even more easily that the vintage cassettes.

All of these cassettes work in all of my 35mm cameras, with the caveat that they are not as tall as the FILCA cassette around which the Barnack Leicas were designed and this can result in sprocket holes appearing among the bottom of the image on the negative. There are some work-arounds but most users just allow for it when composing the shot.

And all of these “standard” cassettes work with the Alden 74 and with the unmodified Watson 66 and Watson 100.

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