The Blank Roll

I shot two rolls of film, and part of a third, during our trip to Great Dunes; my son added another. Of the three rolls we sent to the lab, two were promptly processed, and their scans uploaded. Among those were the photographs I posted a few days ago. Unfortunately, the remaining roll of 35mm film was somehow never exposed! Damn.

This is the major risk for the film shooter: something goes catastrophically awry, and you find out only when you’re looking at the blank strip of disappointment at the lab. In this case, blame human error, abetted by design that makes error more likely. Odd, because Leica otherwise has the details down pat.

35mm film comes in a cassette, an enclosed spool of film with its half-width “leader” protruding through a felt-lined slot along the cassette’s side. This standardized packaging enforces a uniform loading and shooting procedure across all 35mm cameras. You release a latch to allow the camera back to swing or slide open. You put the cassette into a recess on the left side of the camera, stretch the leader rightward across the film gate (the rectangular hole that frames the image on the film) to the take-up spool, where you place the leader into a slot in that spool so that it’s “caught” by the film-advance mechanism. In most cameras, with the back wide open, this is pretty easy to do.

After you’ve shot your 24 or 36 exposures (choose wisely!) you rewind the film back into its light-tight cassette, using a knob or crank that engages the axle of the cassette’s spool. You first have to disengage the take-up spool’s gears by pressing a button or moving a lever, allowing the take-up spool to rotate freely to permit rewinding. Open the camera again, remove the cassette, and off to the lab for processing.

In their wisdom, the designers of the Leica M-series have made this process unduly complicated. Aficionados tend to regard such quirks as one might look upon a particularly homely offspring, with bemused affection; I admit to being less sanguine about them. No easy-open, full-access camera back on the Leica; you have to remove the entire baseplate of the camera, leaving you that piece to set down somewhere if you dare, or hold awkwardly in your hand, while you finish loading the camera. Now rather than a wide-open camera back, you have a “well” to drop the cassette into.

Leica is not yet done frustrating you. As you drop the cassette into its well, you also have to slide the leader between pressure plate and film gate from below. It’s a bit like trying to slide a letter through the slot at the post office. With the baseplate off, the pressure plate — which holds the film flat against the film gate — can be swung upwards for a better view, but you still have a lot of fiddling to do to get everything lined up.

Your next obstacle is to get the leader engaged onto the take-up spool on the right. In the Leica, the spool looks like the petals of an unopened lily; you place the leader between those petals, crank the advance lever, and hope the petals catch the leader as they twirl. It’s an elegant system in theory, but if you don’t get the leader placed correctly between those petals, you’ll likely have to remove the cassette and start over from the beginning.

This is probably where my rolwent wrong. I failed to engage the leader on the take-up spool, and failed to notice the error after closing up the camera. Ordinarily I’d glance at the rewind knob, which should rotate as the film advances, verifying proper loading. I failed at this, too. Result: 24 pictures that exist only in my mind.

The length of the preceding description indicates two things: brevity is not my forté; and loading the Leica M6 is a pain in the ass. Imagine doing it with gloves on, or in blowing sand, or in a foxhole under fire. I’m not sure why Leica’s designers settled on this methodology. A left-hinged, permanently-attached, swing-open backdoor is more the norm, and a lot easier to load. But if you want those lovely Leica lenses, you have to put up with loading the camera Leica’s way.

Having grown up in the film era, I was never one to take a few hundred pictures in a day, even if I could have afforded the film. People just didn’t make pictures that way. Having only 10 to 36 pictures per roll, depending on format, and having to reload film, made the whole process much slower. These limitations forced deliberation; you tended to shoot a representative sample of the experience before you, rather than attempting an expensive and cumbersome, minute documentation of every passing second. The resulting handful of images were the distillation of what you found meaningful in your subject matter. Human memory was left to fill in the gaps between pictures.

Only with the advent of digital did it become feasible, perhaps even expected, to make pictures by the hundreds or thousands, and thresh wheat from chaff afterward. I read somewhere that it took only a few years for humanity to amass more digital photographs than the entire number of film pictures made during photography’s first century and a half. I believe it.

Luckily for me, the lost pictures are no tragedy. The place is only a few hours away, and I’m likely to return someday, perhaps in better light than I had the first time. But as much as I love film, for any once-in-a-lifetime shooting opportunity, I would choose digital. At least I’d know before I got back home whether I had actually made some photographs. I’d upload the images to my cloud storage, and probably back them up on a laptop hard drive. This capability is, to me, digital’s main advantage over film.

Michael Sebastian @mikeseb