Bulk Film: 101
What is bulk film and why should you use it: A guide to saving money while shooting more film!
If there’s one thing film shooters know, it’s that film is expensive. It’s not as much as buying a Phase One medium format DSLR, but it’s still far more expensive than it used to be in the days or yore. Of course developing your own film at home can save you heaps on lab processing fees, but what about saving on actual film?
One of the easiest ways to save money when shooting 35mm film is to invest in bulk loading equipment. While it may technically be possible, bulk loading 120 film would not be practical for multiple reasons, particularly spooling and backing paper. However for 35mm, the process is quite simple and helps you get a lot more bang for your buck.
What is bulk film?
Bulk film is a massive roll of 35mm film that you load into empty cassettes and cut on on your own. It usually comes in 100 ft rolls, allowing you to spool between 18-20 rolls of 36 exposure film. The actual number of rolls you get from a bulk roll will depend on the type of loader you have.
So just as an example, as of February 2016 a 100ft roll of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 runs around $69. If we go on the lower end and divide by 18 rolls, that means you pay $3.83 per roll of 36 exposure. Currently, Ilford offers a 5-pack for $29.99 or $5.99 per roll, and single rolls at $8.99. Now let’s look at a 100ft roll of Ultrafine 400 black and white film, which currently sells at $35.95; again on the low end of 18 rolls you’d now be paying $1.99 per roll of 36 exposure. That’s literally cheaper than film was in the 80s and 90s - no joke.
As you can see the savings add up quickly with bulk film, even after taking into account the supplies needed to to it. A home darkroom or complex equipment isn’t necessary to load your own bulk film. The process is surprisingly easy and economic, which is why it’s such a great option for saving money if you shoot a lot.
Here’s what you need to roll your own bulk film:
To take the above price comparisons further, let’s say you buy a set of empty cassettes for $19.95 and a bulk film daylight loader for $59, plus two 100 ft rolls of the aforementioned Ilford HP5 Plus 400, you’re still only paying $6 per roll and that will continue to go down the more you shoot since you already have the loading equipment. (Side note: you can also use a regular bulk film loader with a dark bag or a light-proof room if you happen to have one.)
Canister vs. Cassette
There can be some confusion for new film shooters between canisters and cassettes, particularly because both are available in bulk. Cassettes, pictured above, are the metal containers that hold the film. You’ll absolutely need these to roll your bulk film and put it in your camera. Canisters, however, are the plastic containers that hold your film cassettes. They can be practical for storing your film, protecting from moisture and organizing. While they are recommended, they are not essential for rolling or shooting bulk film.
Black and White Vs. Color
While it used to be possible to find some types of color film available in bulk, most have been discontinued. Black and white is far more common - making it both easier to find and easier to deal with. If you get your black and white film developed in a lab, they can keep your cassettes and return them to you with your negatives and contact sheets (or scans.) If you do manage to find some bulk color film, more power to you!
Have a look at this awesome video from Matt Day on How To Load Bulk Film: