by Q.-Tuan Luong for the Large Format Page
Summary: this article explains how to load and unload film holders, store sheets after exposure, and file them so that if you shoot backup sheets so you can adjust development. It emphasizes methods that I use for a long trip in the field when I expose a hundred or more sheets before returning to the lab.
You won't have to do anything described here if you shoot quickloads/readyloads, which tells you how useful they are ! One unloading/reloading cycle as described below with 20 holders takes me about two hours that I'd rather use for sleep or rest. However this is not always an option, if you are shooting larger formats than 4x5, or the emulsion you prefer is not available in quickloads/readyloads. Also Kerry told me that despite (or maybe because ?) shooting 35mm-like quantities of Velvia, David Muench doesn't use quickloads.
If you shoot less film than the number of film holders you have, you could leave all the film into the holders and give them directly to the lab, marking with tape or post-it notes which ones you want processed. However, some labs will charge you an extra fee if you don't give them the film in boxes. If you are just beginning, and don't have yet an empty film box, try to ask your lab for one. Despite the apparent fragility, those boxes are light-tight when handled properly.
Otherwise, besides a few creative options that I tried in the past, such as blocking all the light from the sky in your car with tarps, or working in a sleeping bag, your best option is to use a changing tent. A changing tent has a semi-rigid (collapsible structure) and is a considerable improvement over a simple changing bag.
However, the Photoflex/Calumet changing tent is also worth considering. The new model sets up instantly, unlike the Harrison. Even though I have the older model, I can still set it up in 15 seconds. For a smaller footprint than the Harrison, it has a taller volume, which I find convenient. The arms openings are more spread-out (sort of working with a Microsoft natural keyboard as opposed to a normal keyboard) which I find personally more comfortable. The drawbacks are that it collapses to a flat but big package, and the metallic rings inside can get in the way. There are also rumors that it is less light-tight than the Harrison, and therefore wouldn't allow you to work in direct sunlight, which I avoid anyways.
Then I pile up the holders who contain either one or two backup sheets, exactly in the order of numbered backup sheets, introduce them into the changing tent with the "backup" box, and unload them into their dividers.
Once I have finished using a box for the unloading section, I immediately tape it to prevent accidental opening. Each of the boxes is clearly marked, either "Film", "Process", or "Backup".
I use a paintbrush. I first clean the outside of the holders with the black side of the dark slides closed. Then I remove one dark slide, clean the top, reinsert only slightly the dark slide with the white side up, clean up the dark slide, tap the holder in my hands while holding it vertically, clean up the inside and the film rails, flip out the bottom, clean it, slide down the dark slide to a point where one centimeter of the film rail is still visible, and repeat the same operation with the other side. If at home, I'll also from time to time use canned air.
I then shake the dust out the changing tent, and I am ready to reload.
The way I tend to work with a changing tent is to pile up all the empty holders on one side, the film box on the other side. As holders gets reloaded, I pile them under the film box.
It is better to process exposed film promptly for optimal results. For instance, after a few months, Velvia tends to have a (very subtle magenta shift) and to loose a bit of speed. In the while, refrigerating the film will keep the degradation minimal.
You end up by knowing how much you alter the processing of the second sheet by experience. What I suggest is that you ask the lab technician for his advice to begin. After you've seen the results a couple dozens of times, you'll be able to guess with good accuracy. A few tips:
You need different clearly marked film boxes, one for each type of processing (eg -2/3,-1/3,0,+1/2,+2/3,+1) What I do is introduce in the changing tent all the back-up boxes and only one processing box at a time, begining with the most populated box (hopefully the "0" box !). The notebook is open and I look at it while retrieving all the relevant sheets with my hands in the tent. When this is done, I upgrade the numbers on the notebook, taking into account the sheets which are no longer there, and reiterate with the next most populated box.
You never have enough of a good thing. If your image was great and the exposure correct, process the backup. You'll be happy to have it if your first original gets lost or damaged. You can carry it around and show it off, and not worry. You could file it with a stock agency. In case this additional $1.5 to process your 4x5 backup sounds expensive, remember that a 4x5 duplicate costs $30. If you didn't like your image, don't process the backup.
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