The past decade’s explosion of digital cameras—or even our ubiquitous phonecams—have lured many new folks into pursuing photography. It can certainly shorten the learning curve when you’re free to shoot many different versions of a scene, or try crazy experiments, all for free and with immediate feedback. So for an increasing fraction of today’s photographers, film cameras are just a hazy memory.
Yet there is still a powerful draw to recapture some of the “analog soul” of chemical photography. You can see this in the surprise popularity of the Hipstamatic iPhone app, the success of Lomography-branded cameras at retailers like Urban Outfitters, and the recent re-launch of Polaroid-compatible film by The Impossible Project.
For those who want to dip a toe into shooting the real thing, there is much to recommend a basic Holga 120N camera. It’s cheap, widely available, and gives images with a distinctive dreamy flavor. And in general, any camera with the same large film format will give a noticeably different feeling from digital (something I’ve written about before).
We’re talking about shooting the 120 film size, often referred to as medium format.
Even if you’re an old hand with 35mm film, 120 has some quirks which can trip you up. So today I’ll give a visual step-by-step on how to load it, and how frame-counting works with 120 cameras.
120 film is sold in many different emulsion types, both color and B&W—although there’s definitely more varieties available in 35mm. If your local camera shop doesn’t sell 120 (and sadly, many don’t) there’s still lots of choices online, e.g. from B&H or Freestyle. The “Arista” black & white film shown here is Freestyle’s inexpensive house brand—it’s a relabeling of some pretty decent Fomapan film from the Czech Republic.
Tear open the box, and the film itself is sealed in a foil or plastic wrapper. And why have I also torn off the box end? I’ll get back to that in a bit.
The rolled-up film is kept from unwinding by a paper band around the spool. Slide a thumbnail under the folded-over flap to rip the band; then peel off as much of the paper strip as you’re able to.
Now the tongue of the backing paper is free. Be sure to hang on to the rest of the spool, so it doesn’t unravel and expose the film.
Notice that the backing paper has one printed side—and with different manufacturers, this can be different colors, white, or black. But the unmarked, dull black side must always be loaded facing the lens.
The backing paper protects the actual film emulsion from light. Here I’ve unwound the first two feet of a roll, so you can see the beginning of the film itself. Exposing film to light like this ruins it, of course! But I sacrificed an old expired roll for our photo here.
What actually advances the film is a tab in the camera, which matches the slot in the film spool. The tab might be directly connected to a simple knob, or to a more elaborate geared winding mechanism.
You may come across vintage cameras (like Kodak Brownies) made for the very similar, but now extinct, 620 film size. While 620 film and paper are virtually identical to 120, the spools are skinnier and have a smaller slot for the winding tab. So it takes some fussing before you can use 120 film in these cameras.
What Frame Is This?
When you buy 35mm film, the number of exposures is printed right on the box. It gets a little more complicated with 120—because the same film is used in cameras with various different image sizes. So the frame count is different for different types of camera.
Above is a nice Zeiss folder from roughly 70 years ago (and “B2” is just an older European designation for 120). As it tells us, it shoots 6×9 cm rectangular shots (or 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 inches—these dimensions are all just approximate). However, many medium-format cameras shoot square 6×6 cm photos; and some shoot even smaller 6×4.5 ones.
So, how do you wind the film the right distance for each of those sizes?
The trick is in how the frame numbers are printed onto the backing paper (here I’ve shown two different film brands):
The frame counter on many 120 cameras is simply a red-filtered peepsight on the back, which lets you stop winding when you get to the next number. (And the printed dots just warn you when you’re getting close.)
But notice that the rows of numbers are in three sets, each for a different frame spacing. The trick is that each camera puts its red window at the correct height for its particular image format:
Here the Zeiss folder has its red window at the top—this counts off the frames for 6×9 format, where #8 is the last frame on the roll. (When the winder is on your right, it’s normal for the numbers to appear upside down.)
When we buy 35mm film, it comes in a light-tight metal cassette. The film is pulled out to expose it, then rewound again to shield it from light before developing.
With 120 film there is no rewinding (and so, 120 cameras don’t have rewind cranks). You simply keep winding forward after the last shot is exposed. Just as at the beginning of the roll, extra backing paper at the end protects the film—and there’s another band you wrap around the spool to keep it from unraveling. Fuji uses a nice self-stick band; but for the other manufacturers you need to lick an adhesive strip.
This also means a fixed take-up spool is not built into a 120 camera. Instead, after you finish one film, you pull out its now-empty spool, then move it over to become the new take-up reel.
What if you don’t have a spool to start your first roll? Well, you can ask for a spare from a lab that develops film, or from another 120-shooting friend. (And if you’re ordering something else online anyway, you can even buy one—which seems kooky to me—but whatever.)
Many types of cameras hold their spools in place with little spring-loaded pegs. Every 120 camera is a little different on that score; so don’t worry if you need a bit of trial and error figuring out how to to get your spools in and out.
Move the empty spool to the take-up compartment—the one with the winding tab. Put the full roll of film into the other compartment, and draw the tongue of the backing paper across the film gate. Then thread the folded end of the tongue into the slot of the take-up spool.
Holding the tongue in place with your fingertip, wind the film a smidge until the spool seems to have grabbed the paper.
Advance the take-up spool by a couple of full turns, to be sure the paper is winding snugly. (With a Holga, you’ll probably need to stuff some bits of cardboard, etc., under the spools to so there’s some tension on the paper.)
Then it’s time to close up the back of the camera.
It can take quite a few turns to wind up all the paper leader, and reach the actual film (remember there’s about 16 inches of backing before the film starts). But most film brands are printed with various stripes and arrows to reassure you the spools are still winding correctly.
Then after a few last printed dots…. Finally we are at frame #1! Above, what I’ve shown is Kodak’s notorious, cruelly ambiguous #1, which throws off everybody. But yes, that’s really it.
Most Holgas are supplied with a plastic mask which lets you shoot a smaller, rectangular 6×4.5 frame if you chose. (I, and most Holga fans, would say “don’t bother.”)
But remember the business with the different frame numbers for different formats? The Holga lets you switch its red window between one setting (12 square photos) or the other (16 rectangular ones). What is totally confusing is that it’s not the red window you match to the number. It’s that (nearly invisible) molded arrow instead.
This will make sense if you scroll up and look a the backing-paper numbering again: The frame numbers for square 6×6 photos are the ones running down the center of the roll.
Beyond the Red Window
Now, the “red window” method is mostly used by simpler and older camera models. As you go up in price and sophistication, medium format cameras usually have some automatic film-sensing roller, letting you simply wind forward until you hit a stop—and there’s your next frame.
But even with these, there’s one manual step at the beginning: You must get the film-counter mechanism started at the correct place.
What you do is to crank the film slowly until the printed “start” arrow lines up with a specific mark in the camera body (which, as here, might not be all that visible).
At that point, close the back. All the frame counting and film spacing should be automatic after that:
A few turns later, the crank comes to a stop and #1 shows in the frame-counter window.
After shooting the final frame, the wind mechanism will let you crank freely again, until the tail of the backing paper has wrapped up all the film. Then it’s safe to open the back again. Don’t forget to lick the stickum band to hold the spool wound up snugly.
A Final Tip
Remember that end of the film box I had torn off in the second photo? I find it really useful to tape that onto the camera body somewhere, just as a reminder of which film I have loaded. Otherwise, if you set aside a camera for a few months, it can be a bit of a mystery trying to remember which emulsion type it was.
Fancier medium-format cameras even provide a little slot so you can do this without getting tacky tape residue everywhere.
Have fun with your 120 camera!