How do I use a 35mm camera?

This module is aimed at people who have acquired an old 35mm camera, whether as a gift, an inheritance or simply out of curiosity, and want to try using it. If you are in this situation, you may also find the free Basics series of modules useful.

If your only experience to date has been digital, loading and using a 35mm camera can look quite daunting. It isn't, of course: countless millions of photographers have been doing it perfectly well since the 1930s, when standardized cassettes were introduced. The drill is very simple.

Don't work in bright sunlight or you may get 'light strike' through the velvet lips of the cassette. To see what a cassette looks like when it is broken open, go to the module, How do I choose 35mm cassettes for reloading? Normal room lighting is fine, or a shady corner -- or if nothing else is available out of doors, even the shade of your own body.

If at all possible, beg a scrap film from a photographer friend or a camera shop, so you can practice without worrying about messing up a 'real' film -- but if you can't, don't worry, because loading really is pretty easy.



1   Make sure the camera is empty

Rotate the rewind knob or crank in the direction of the arrow (almost always clockwise). If there is film in the camera you will feel an increasing resistance. In this case go to step 9 below.


Rewind crank of Nikon EM

The arrow indicating the direction in which to rewind is sketchy but comprehensible enough


em rewind




2   Open the back

With most modern cameras, you do this by pulling up the rewind crank as far as it will go. With older cameras there may be a latch or sliding lever on the side. Sometimes it's a double action: push latch, then pull up rewind crank. With a few very old cameras, the entire back and base of the camera may come off, usually after releasing a twist-latch (sometimes two latches) on the bottom. With Leica rangefinder cameras, just the base comes off. These are covered in 'Variations' below, # 2a and 2b. With most cameras, opening the back resets the counter. With some, you have to re-set it manually. This is covered in Variation # 6a.



em back open




3   Insert the film cassette

You may have to wiggle it a bit in order to get the dog on the end of the rewind crank to engage with the cassette, or even turn the crank itself one way or the other.

You can see that the rewind crank lever has been folded away here, but the knob itself is still pulled up for inserting the film. As you push it down, it becomes second nature to twist it a little to left and right so that it seats without any trouble.

Most cameras run left-to-right like this, but a few run right-to-left, in which case the cassette goes in upside down with the cut-out of the tongue below. A few cameras allow cassette-to-cassette loading.


em cassette iinserted


4   Pull the film leader (tongue) across

...and engage it in the take-up spool. There may be a slot-and-tab (as below) or a spring clip (normally only with old cameras). Whichever it is, make sure the film is firmly engaged. With the back still open, advance the film slightly with the wind-on lever (or knob) to make sure that the film is not going to slip off. Getting the leader engaged is the most difficult bit in the whole process, and it ain't difficult. The process for cameras with removable bases is covered in Variations below, # 4a. In the picture on the lower left here, the rewind crank has been pushed down but is unfolded. The continuity is nearly as good as a James Bond film, where the Bond Girl's hair goes from wet to dry and back again in a split second...


tongue engaged



take-up spool



5   Close the back

...and lightly tension the rewind knob/crank in the direction of the arrow, as in Step 1 above. 'Lightly' because if you twist too hard and the film leader isn't firmly engaged, you may wind the film leader into the cassette: see Variation # 10a below. See also Variation 6a if the film counter has not automatically re-set to zero minus three.


6   Wind on and fire the shutter three times

This winds off the exposed film that is sticking out of the cassette and brings unexposed film into place. As you do this, you should see the rewind knob/crank rotating. If it doesn't rotate with the first wind or two, check the tension. If it still doesn't, then open the back and check the seating of the film. If it is seated and winding on, you'll have wasted one, two or three frames. Big deal. Don't worry about it. Go back to step 5. When you have finished step 6, the counter should be at 0. If it is not, check Variation 6a, below.

A few cameras require two strokes, not one, to wind on the film by one frame: for example, early Leica M3s, the Samoca that appears elsewhere in this module. This is alleged to reduce the risk of static electricity discharge but is a damnable nuisance.

Static discharge

This is the only time we have ever seen static discharge marks on one of our films -- and we count ourselves very lucky it's such an entertaining example! Roger was testing a Tessina 14x21mm TLR when it happened.



7   Set the film speed or film reminder

Some modern electronic-shutter cameras set the ISO automatically, reading it off the cassette (DX coding), but manual cameras usually don't.


set film speed



retina film reminder

Setting the film speed (Nikon EM)

If there is a meter, you need to set the film speed. There are lots of ways of doing this, but one of the most common is a lift-twist-and-drop collar around the shutter speed dial or elsewhere. Lift the collar slightly; twist it until the film speed in use is in the window or next to the index mark; drop it back again (you may need a slight wiggle if it hangs up). See Variation # 7a for advice on setting film speeds.

Film type reminder (Kodak Retina IIa)

Even without a meter, there may be a reminder of the kind of film you have set. The one above is set to 'Color Tageslicht' (Colour Daylight) and film speeds are in the old DIN logarithmic system: DIN 21 = ASA/ISO 100, and each +/- 3 DIN corresponds to doubling or halving the speed so DIN 18 = ASA/ISO 50, DIN 24 = ASA/ISO 200. Without a reminder, you just have to remember -- or write on the chrome with a soft pencil.

8   Take pictures

You may want to look at the free Basics module, The Box Brownie Leica. Most meters (if fitted) are self-explanatory, but one thing worth knowing is how the old 'bent line' selenium-cell meters work, as shown below -- or you can use the exposure guide. Sooner or later, you will run out of film: the wind-on will stop winding on.


Meter of Samoca LE

With this camera (and with many others with selenium cells) there are two indices, one for use with the trapdoor closed (bright light) and one for use with the trapdoor open (poorer light). Here, obviously, it's open, so you use the red 'OPEN' arrow.

Now, the red meter needle is just inside the second silver band from the bottom -- so you set the index correspondingly, just inside the second silver band from the bottom. From this you can see that at the 15 DIN set (ASA 25 -- there's an ASA scale on the other side, behind the rewind) the exposure is 1/50 at f/2.8, or 1/25 at 4, or near enough 1/10 at f/5.6, etc.

It's easier to see when you're looking straight down, but we thought (perhaps mistakenly) that this gives a better idea of the layout.


samoca meter


9  Look for the rewind clutch

Somewhere on the camera body there will be a button, lever or twist-collar that disengages the wind-on mechanism and allows you to rewind the film into the cassette. This is usually a button on the bottom of the camera, but (for example) with a rangefinder Leica it's a lever on the top (cameras with screw-mount lenses) or front (cameras with bayonet-mount lenses) and with a Nikon F or late Zorkii it's a collar concentric with the shutter release. Buttons are normally marked just 'R', or have a dot on them (which usually rotates as the film is rewinding). Some buttons have to be held in the whole time you are rewinding, while others stay in until you operate the film wind-on mechanism. Levers and collars are normally marked A/R (Advance/Rewind).


pentax button



nikon dial

10  Rewind the film

...using the rewind knob or crank, in the direction of the arrow. This is Step 1 yet again. Wind until you feel a jerk that signals the end of the film coming off the take-up spool. The rewind button will also stop rotating, if it was rotating before. You can open the back at this point -- the film is now rewound 'leader out' -- but we prefer to wind on for a couple more turns to make sure that the leader is wound into the cassette ('leader in') as this removes the risk of re-using an exposed film. If you are practising with a scrap film you may however prefer 'leader out' -- and see Variation # 10a. The rewind should feel a lot looser and more free after the film has come off the take-up spool.

11 Operate the wind-on lever

The rewind crank should not rotate. If it does, the film ain't wound off yet. Go back to Step 9.



12 Open the back exactly the same way as step 2, and remove the film. Again, you may have to pull up the rewind crank and/or wiggle it a bit. Now, with another film, you can go back to stage 3.


em film alongside



2a   Cameras with removable backs

Removable backs give better access, and of course you don't have to pull the rewind crank up: you just slide the film in from the bottom. Otherwise it's just like loading any other camera, Step 2 above, except that you have to find somewhere to put the detached back. Given that photojournalists coped with removable backs for around 50 years, from the introduction of the Contax (on which the Nikon F was to some extent based) in the early 30s to the discontinuation of the F in the early 70s, you have to believe that this is not outstandingly difficult, even under fire.


Nikon F

The silver half-moon at the left end of the back (as seen here) operates the latch and is twisted through 180 degrees; there is a second slave latch, operated by a sliding bar, at the other end of the back. The Contax and the Russian Kiev (a close copy of the Contax) used two latches, one on each end.

You can also see the rather basic film reminder at the other end from the latch key and the hole in the middle that allows the tripod screw to engage with the main body casting, instead of the pressed and fabricated back. Contaxes and Kievs had a substantial tripod socket boss built into the base proper.


nikon f back off


2b   Leicas and other cameras with removable base-plates

The same considerations apply to the removable base-plate of the Leica (1924 to the present day) as to the removable back of Contaxes, Kievs and Nikon Fs. Some people get very exercised by the supposed difficulty of loading the cameras, and of finding somewhere to put the base-plate. If it were really that difficult, it would be hard to believe that many of the greatest 35mm pictures of all time have been taken with rangefinder Leicas.


leica m2 base off



leica 111a base off

Leica M2

M-series film Leicas (since 1954) have a flip-open back so you can check the seating of the film on the transport sprockets. On early ones, you have to pull out the take-up spool and fix the film; on current ones, there's a sort of three-pronged fixed socket that you just push the film into; and this camera has an intermediate, accessory after-market rapid loading spool. Entertainingly, the M8 digital has a removable base for changing batteries and SD cards.

Leica IIIa

Leicas with screw lens mounts (up to the late 50s -- the IIIg screw mount was actually introduced after the M3 bayonet mount) have pull-out take-up spools. You tuck the end of the film under the clip on the take-up spool and load the cassette and spool together. Note the extra-long tongue on the film (cut with scissors). A modern short tongue usually works but runs the risk of film chips breaking off and getting into the works, necessitating a moderately expensive strip-and-clean.


6a   Set the film counter


Most cameras have auto-resetting additive counters, that reset to minus 3 (see step 6 above) when you open the back, and do not start counting again until the back is closed. A few have counters that you have to reset yourself; set them to 0 when you have completed step 6 above. A very few (such as most or all Kodak Retinas) have subtractive counters, where you set the number of frames on the film and the counter goes down to 0. Obviously these have to be reset manually as the camera has no way of knowing how many frames you have loaded. If the counter does not appear to work on some older cameras, do not necessarily worry: many will work only with film in the camera -- another use for a scrap film and a film retriever (10a below).

Samoca 35 counter, currently indicating that 30 exposures have been made

samoca counter


7a   Setting film speeds

Usually, there are two dots between each marked film speed. These correspond to intermediate (1/3 stop) speeds, as follows (marked speeds in bold) 25 - 32 - 40 - 50 - 64 - 80 - 100 - 125 - 160 - 200 - 250 - 320 - 400 - 500 - 640 - 800 - 1000 - 1250 - 1600 - 2000 - 2500 - 3200. Many people find that they prefer the results if they set the speeds for negative films a dot or two below the speed of the film that is marked on the box. The free module on ISO speeds explains why, though this may be a bit complicated for the beginner; you may prefer to take it on trust instead, at least for now.

10a   Film retrievers

These are thin strips of stainless steel for retrieving the leaders (tongues) on films that have been wound fully into the cassette. They are normally used if you get step 5 wrong, but they can also be used to recycle scrap films for practice when you are loading. If you are using them with 'real' film that you intend to use for taking pictures, be careful, and work in very subdued light, as there is an obvious risk of light-strike through the lips of the cassette. There's no picture because although we have one somewhere, we never use it!

Note also that you can simply pop the cassette open to recover the leader, as in the How Do I...? modules on choosing 35mm cassettes and bulk loading 35mm cassettes.

The Bottom Line

Like so many other things in photography, using a 35mm camera isn't difficult. How could it be, when it was the dominant snapshot medium for decades? The same is true even of 'difficult' cameras such as those with detachable backs or that load through the baseplate. Anyone of normal intelligence and dexterity will have no problems -- though equally, at least at first, those of normal intelligence and dexterity will have the occasional problem with failing to secure the tongue to the take-up spool, or forgetting to rewind and opening the back with the film still on the take up spool. Think of it as aversion therapy...


india bazaar


Bazaar, South India

The great thing about a mechanical-shutter, manual, battery-independent camera is that you can find 35mm film, of one sort or another (usually colour negative) almost anywhere in the world. After that, it's just a question of taking pictures. You'll even learn, eventually, how to guess exposures (shutter speed and aperture), sometimes more reliably than a meter could read them. Compare that with your memory cards and batteries and battery chargers with a digital camera -- especially if you are somewhere that the power goes out for 10 days, as once happened to us in India -- and you can see that 35mm cameras have their advantages. Roger shot this with his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux.

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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks