Tutorials & Guides

How I Make Three Rolls of Film From One – By Eric Norris

November 11, 2020

One of the perennial problems with film photography is getting through an entire roll of 36 exposures in a reasonable amount of time. Film photography isn’t like digital, where it’s common to go out for a day and shoot hundreds of frames (“Spray and pray,” as some of my digital photographer friends call it). Film photography encourages a more deliberate approach, taking care with each exposure. Which means that it can take a very long time to shoot an entire roll of 36 photos. I developed a roll yesterday that had pictures of rain in our neighborhood, and it hasn’t rained in months.

If you’re shooting black and white, it’s reasonably easy (and usually cheaper in the long run) to buy 100-foot rolls and a bulk loader to create your own short rolls. I often do this, rolling 10 or 12 frames that I can shoot on a morning stroll or bike ride.

With color, it’s more difficult. Color film, based on my hunting around, is virtually impossible to find in bulk, leaving us with 36-, 24-, and (less commonly) 12-exposure rolls. As would be expected, the shorter rolls are cheaper: Amazon sells a roll of 36-exposure Kodak Gold for $16.50, and the same film in 24 exposures for $9.99. They don’t offer it in 12-exposure rolls, but you can find them online if you hunt around.

I’ve found an easier way to get short rolls and save money at the same time: Re-rolling 36-exposure rolls. Converting one roll of 36 into three shorter rolls saves at least $10 in my experience, compared to buying three 12-exposure rolls.

Here’s how I do it:

First, I hunted around on eBay and bought a used bulk loader. I bought a Lloyd’s Daylight Film Loader because I’m familiar with it (I use them for hand-rolling black and white film) and because it lacks the geared frame counter on some other brands. I don’t need those gears, and they would just complicate things. Used bulk loaders are easily available for about $20 on eBay, although you could probably find one cheaper if you hunt around. A new one will run you upwards of $50. Based on savings in film, you can easily recoup the cost of a used loader.

“The Daylight Film Loader,” a commonly available and simple bulk loader

With my bulk loader and a roll of 36-exposure film in hand, I remove the top from the loader and then insert the film leader into the slot. Then (leaving the cover off) the loader, film and the top of the loader go into a dark bag.

The end of the film is threaded into the bulk loader. Leave the top off and put it in a dark bag (with the top ready to put on)

While in the dark bag (I don’t have a darkroom), I carefully feed the film from the cassette into the bulk loader with my fingers (reverse of the usual direction), taking care just to touch the edge of the film and making sure it coils around the stem in the center of the bulk loader cavity. Once that’s done, I replace the top and tighten it down. I also close the cover over the canister (I can wait until it’s out of the bag to insert the winder handle). Now the whole thing can come out of the dark bag.

With the film inside the bulk loader, winding into the canister happens in the usual way. The door is open here; it is closed and the winder handle inserted before winding film into the canister.

Back in the light, I now have an empty film canister with film attached ready to roll. Following the directions on the loader, I wind ten frames back into the canister (13 turns of the handle with the Daylight loader) and cut the end of the film to create an end for loading into a camera. Once I’ve shot those ten frames, I develop the film and reload the canister (although any will work) with another ten frames.

Cut the leader, using as little film as possible–a couple of inches is enough. I’m more frugal using this method than when hand rolling from a 100-foot roll

I use artist’s tape to remind me how many frames I’ve rolled back into the canister

Film box end tells me what’s in the bulk loader and how many of the original frames have been rolled back into the canister

A few tips:

  • I’ve found that it works best to split a roll of 36 into three 10-frame rolls. There’s a certain amount of waste involved in hand-rolling film–the small ends that are exposed to light during the rolling and cutting process–that adds up quickly. If I roll two 12-exposure rolls, I end up with a too short third roll.
  • When re-rolling film like this, I create a shorter leader on the film than I normally would, to preserve as much film as possible for shooting.
  • I tape the end of the film box on the outside of the bulk loader and mark on it to keep track of how much film is left inside.

Re-rolling film like this is easy, saves a few dollars per roll, and gives me rolls that I can shoot and develop in a day or two, rather than weeks. Give it a try!

I shot film almost exclusively, 35mm and medium format. I enjoy working with everything from box cameras to point-and-shoots. See my photos (including some from shortened rolls) on my Instagram page: campyonlyguy

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  • Reply
    Shubroto Bhattacharjee
    November 11, 2020 at 10:28 am

    Fiendishly, simply clever, Eric!

  • Reply
    Paul Mulherin
    November 11, 2020 at 10:32 am

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

    Another way of shortening your rolls would be to explore shooting with a medium format camera and 120 roll film as they only have about 10-12 exposures if memory serves?

    • Reply
      Eric Norris
      November 11, 2020 at 2:45 pm

      Yes—I enjoy shooting medium format for that reason. I have an Agfa Clack that shoots 6×9 negatives, which means just 8 shots on a roll of 120 film!

  • Reply
    Neal A Wellons
    November 11, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Yours is a unique idea and nice presentation about a common problem.

    I also have the too many exposures problem, especially since I shoot a lot of 35mm half-frame with 72 exposures per roll. Even though I pay less than $6 in the U.S. for the same 36 exposure roll of Kodak Gold (plus shipping that goes down very low per roll because I buy multiple rolls), I still often want to look at a photo expedition before I finish the whole roll but save the rest of the film.

    I develop my own, like you and just put the film tank into my changing bag plus the film and scissors. In the dark, after advancing a frame or two, I open the camera, snip the film, and load onto the reel and into the developing tank.

    Next I open the bag and the unused film is waiting to be loaded onto the take up spool (with a snip of the corner to make it fit in the slot.)

    This way, my developing tank is ready to develop and I don’t need a bulk loader. I put a piece of blue masking tape on the bottom of the camera with the film type and approximate number of exposures left.

    • Reply
      Eric Norris
      November 11, 2020 at 2:45 pm

      Another great solution! I will give that a try.

  • Reply
    November 11, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    Quite honestly, I wouldn’t bother with this. But if you must make up your own 12 exposure rolls, why not just load a normal roll of 36 in your camera and fire off 12 frames in the camera (in complete darkness or with the lens cap on so the frames are not exposed to light). Then open the camera in the darkroom or dark bag, cut off the wound film and attach this to a spare canister and wind this inside to leave a leader. Do the same with the remainder of the film. This task is not too difficult to do in complete darkness and, by so doing, the last few frames of your individual films will not be exposed to light as they would when using a bulk loader.

    • Reply
      Eric Norris
      November 11, 2020 at 2:47 pm

      I’ll give this a try as well!

  • Reply
    November 11, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Exakta cameras have a little built in knife to cut your film early. I think it was intended for journalists, so they could process news shots quickly. A reloadable canister as your take up reel seems like the most convenient way to use that.
    I’ve never used mine, but you’ve inspired me to try it.

    • Reply
      Eric Norris
      November 11, 2020 at 5:52 pm

      When I was a reporter some years ago (before the digital era) we would load a cassette with film for 8-10 shots when we went out to cover a story. We seldom needed more photos than that (think of a typical picture of someone interviewed in the paper) and it created the need to pick your shots carefully.

      My editor also encouraged the use of a wide angle lens (28mm, as I recall) because it forced you to get close to the action. Still great advice.

  • Reply
    November 11, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    I’ve never had this problem. I’d appreciate having 40 shot 35mm rolls. And bringing back 220 would be great.

    Shooting three rolls of 36 for 72 frames total, is a normal session for me. I usually shoot motor-sports, rodeo or surfing for fun.

    I’d be interested in knowing how man people would actually buy 12 or 18 shot 35mm rolls? Color negative or chromes?

    • Reply
      Eric Norris
      November 11, 2020 at 6:31 pm

      I don’t take that many pictures, and I tend to be more intentional when shooting film. When I went on a multi-day cycling trip recently, I loaded a roll of 36 in my camera and brought a second roll. In most cases, those 36 shots would take me a week or more to shoot.

  • Reply
    November 11, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    To get more frames from a roll just tape a piece of old film (3 inches long) as a leader. You can save 3 or 4 frames doing that.

    • Reply
      Eric Norris
      November 11, 2020 at 6:29 pm

      Great idea!

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    November 12, 2020 at 4:13 am

    An ingenious solution. I hope others use your approach for color film.
    About a year ago, I returned to bulk loading HP-5. I usually load rolls w/15 exposures (because that number works for me.) Now, during the pandemic with travel curtailed and minimal daily outings, the short exposure rolls are just enough to keep me shooting and engaged in the darkroom. The down side to this approach is that it takes just as much developer to process a 15 exposure roll as a 36 exposure roll.
    I’m a retired photo teacher. For awhile, Ilford offered 12 exposure ‘press’ rolls in a 50 roll pro pack. They were perfect for my entry level b&w photo class. Students could shoot a roll in a short period of time and have negatives ready for the darkroom. They were a win-win for us.

  • Reply
    November 12, 2020 at 8:29 am

    Interesting…. but i keep my 36 Exposure Rolls, or buying sometimes just 24 Exposure Rolls.
    Usually, it takes months to finish a 36 Roll, or even 1-2 Years. Last May, i made a Trip with Friends to a well known Cemetery,
    and i thought to shoot at least two full Rolls….hence 72 Exposures….but i made just 21 exactly, into half the Day…when suddenly,
    the Film Advance of my FX3 Super 2000 become stuck. I like Angel Statues, and Cemetery Statues into General way much.

    Good Light.

  • Reply
    November 12, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    “Amazon sells a roll of 36-exposure Kodak Gold for $16.50, and the same film in 24 exposures for $9.99.”

    Do you mean a 3 pack of film? Surely not a single roll for $16.50? My local shop sells that for about $5.

    • Reply
      Eric Norris
      November 12, 2020 at 4:39 pm

      Here is Amazon’s listing for a single roll of Kodak Gold 200 36-exposure for $16.50

      I haven’t seen Kodak film selling for anywhere near $5 in my area. Amazon’s price is pretty much in line with the local camera stores here in Northern California. Can I send you some money to buy film for me?

      • Reply
        November 13, 2020 at 4:01 am

        I buy my film from the Film Photography Project. A roll of Portra 400 is about $8 a roll, a roll of Gold 200 or ProImage 100 about $5.50. 120 film is similarly very reasonably priced.


        Like buying hard drives, I’m leery about buying film on Amazon, unless it’s just a store front for a reputable dealer like Adorama, etc.

      • Reply
        November 13, 2020 at 11:33 pm

        You need to shop around if you are paying $16 for 1 roll!!! I thought that was a typo.

        Buy film from freestylephoto.biz, bhphotovideo, adorama, bluemooncamera, samys (in SanFran) , mikescamera (they are in NorCal), glasskeyphoto (in San Fran), Photo Source (Sacramento) etc etc

      • Reply
        November 13, 2020 at 11:48 pm

        In NorCal you can find film at MikesCamera, Photo Resource, glasskeyphoto and Samys. All for a fraction of what you have been paying on Amazon.
        Mail order from lots of places including freestylephoto, adorama, bhphotovideo, bluemooncamera etc etc

        Seriously I thought $16 for 1 roll of Kodak Gold was a typo! That is insane.

        • Reply
          Eric Norris
          November 13, 2020 at 11:55 pm

          I’ll shop around. But … if I can get a roll of Kodak Gold 36 exposures for $6, then each of my 10-shot rolls goes down to $2 each, which is pretty darn cheap.

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