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Unloading film from a 35mm camera


Just about all of today’s 35mm cameras require you to rewind the film from the take-up spool back into the original film cartridge.

The take-up spool is protected from light only by the camera’s back, which is completely light-sealed, so if you were to open the camera in any but totally-dark conditions before rewinding the film – even for a brief moment – you risk gross overexposure of the film on the take-up spool (this is called “fogging”), and could possibly lose all of the shots on it. You will undoubtedly lose at least five or six frames, no matter how quickly you re-shut the camera's back. The expression “fogging” is used because the processed negatives appear cloudy or foggy.

When you have taken enough pictures that you reach the end of the roll of film, it must be rewound into the film cartridge, and the cartridge of exposed film must be removed before you can load a fresh film.


There are several indicators to tell you when you are at the end of the roll, depending on the type of 35mm camera you are using.


In an automatic rewind camera, the film will simply rewind itself back into the cartridge when the last exposure is taken. Cameras that load film automatically usually rewind it automatically. If your camera batteries are weak, however, the entire rewind process may not occur before the batteries give out. Should this happen, place fresh batteries in the camera to complete the rewind process, or manually crank the film back into the cartridge. If you can't do either of these, open the camera in a completely dark room, remove the film and manually turn the spindle until the film is inside the cartridge. You can also bring your unopened camera to your photo dealer who can remove the film in darkness for you. Most have darkrooms and other light-tight facilities for exactly this kind of situation. If you attempt it yourself at home, you must be sure the film is not exposed to any light at all, not even a dim darkroom light or a tiny sliver of light leaking through the door frame. Darkroom lights are made for working with print paper, not film. Film can be fogged by the tiniest amount of light. If you are successful in removing the film and loading it into a light-tight container, such as a Kodak Snap-Cap 135 cartridge, which is made for this kind of emergency, be sure to tell your lab or film processor what kind of film it is and how many exposures are on it.

An automatic camera that does not automatically rewind the film will usually display a signal requiring you to press a rewind switch or a button to activate the rewind function. The signal may be a flashing red light or some other indicator. Some cameras require you to press two buttons or switches in order to automatically or manually rewind the film. The first button is often the film rewind button and the second is a lock release that prevents accidental rewinding (or vice-versa). Your camera’s manual will let you know what it takes for film to be rewound in your specific model.


In a manual camera (and in automatic cameras that do not automatically rewind), the film advance lever will tighten up and become resistant to advancing to the next frame, because there is no next frame.

Do not force the lever forward, even if it feels like you only have to move it a tiny bit to squeeze one more picture out of the film. You may pull the film loose from the film cartridge, making it almost impossible to rewind the film. (If this does happen, the film should be unloaded in total darkness and returned manually to the protection of the cartridge. You are best advised to take your entire camera, unopened, to your camera shop or film processor and let them do it for you.)

Forcing the film advance lever can also result in overlapping pictures at the end of the roll. You may think you have advanced the film sufficiently for an additional exposure, but all you did was cock the shutter and partially advance the film, so your last and second-last exposures will overlap.


Your camera’s film frame counter will show how many exposures you have taken. Of course, you must remember how many exposures were on the film you loaded to know whether you are near the end of the roll by using your frame counter. If your camera’s frame counter shows any number beyond 25, you will obviously know your camera is loaded with 36-exposure film (unless you bulk-load your own film in unusual exposure counts.)

If you have a roll of 24-exposure film loaded, and the counter shows 24, you are either one frame away from completion or the film is fully-exposed. (You can often squeeze an extra shot out of a roll of film when less leader is required to be exposed at the time you load the film. This is a risky business, though, you may overlap your final two exposures.) If it shows 25, odds are good that there are no frames left and it’s time to rewind.

With a roll of 36-exposure film in the camera, the numbers 36 or 37 will tell you the same story. Time to rewind.

Some film frame counters and a number of medium format cameras work in reverse by starting at 24 or 36, depending on what you loaded, and work their way down to 1, letting you know how many exposures are left before the film is used up. If the film counter shows 0, rewind.


When the frame counter indicates that the last exposure has been made, or when the film-advance lever can no longer be stroked, you rewind the film, beginning usually by first depressing a rewind button (or operating a switch) that may be located on the camera’s baseplate or near the rewind crank. This unlocks the camera’s film-forwarding gear mechanism. With that accomplished, you must now physically rewind the film. There is usually a crank located immediately above the location of the film cartridge (where it lies inside the camera) for this purpose. You may have to pull up and unfold a hinged rewind knob on the crank, and turn it in the correct direction (usually indicated by an arrow) with a constant, gentle pressure until you feel an increased tension. This greater tension means you are near the end and about to disconnect the leader from the take-up spool. Give it another turn or two and there will usually be a sudden relaxation of tension, which tells you the film has just disconnected from the take-up spool.

Some photographers stop rewinding here and open the camera back because they know they have loaded all the exposed film into the cartridge and the leader is all that remains to be rewound. They do this in order not to have to retrieve the leader from inside the cartridge later when they are about to process the film. However, this is fraught with risk for the average photographer. You may confuse the exposed roll for an unexposed roll because its leader is showing, and accidentally load it again in your camera, resulting in a whole bunch of disappointing [but perhaps interesting] unwanted double-exposures. Better to rewind the film completely so that you cannot accidentally re-load the same roll later.

Give the crank a few more turns until no tension at all can be felt and the crank turns loosely. Now the film has completely rewound and is spinning around inside the film cartridge. (It is not a good idea to keep turning the crank in case a tiny bit of grit got into the cartridge. It could be scratching the film as you turn it around.)


If your camera is equipped with a manual rewind crank, do not turn it in the wrong direction. Usually the correct rewind direction is indicated by a curved arrow. Some cameras won’t permit this anyway, but if yours does, you can damage the film - bending it and even tearing it - by rewinding in the wrong direction.

When rewinding, keep the rewind unlock button or switch fully depressed in the rewind position until the film is completely rewound, otherwise you may stretch the film and could even strip perforations from it.


By observing the manual rewind procedure above, you know that your film is totally rewound inside its cartridge. It is now safe to remove it from the camera.

Usually, automatic cameras rewind the film so it ends up completely inside the cartridge, so it is a simple matter of checking your film frame counter to be sure it shows "0" or “E” before opening the camera back, removing the cartridge, placing it in its original plastic container, snapping on the lid, and bringing the fully-exposed film in for processing.


Purists insist you should unload film in subdued lighting, just in case there is a small amount of light leakage through the lips of the film cartridge. But there is little likelihood, with today’s effective film cartridge designs, of film fogging once it is totally rewound in the cartridge. Having said that, if the shots on the film are incredibly important and cannot ever be shot again, or if you are concerned that the film cartridge may for some reason be prone to leaking light, take no chances. Open the camera back in a darkroom or a completely black, unlit place, and place the film cartridge immediately into a light-proof container while in total darkness. Just be sure you notify the film processor of the importance of the shots and the extra precautions you have taken, otherwise they might just snap open the lid of the container in a fully-lit room and wipe out all your extra care.