I write this after a chance discussion with my young, ten year old, daughter. She has been teaching herself gymnastics for some time now and is really very good at it. I’d go so far as to say she perhaps has a talent for it. Like all good parents, we are trying to persuade her to join a gymnastics class, so she has something extra to enjoy doing, gets some exercise, meets like minded children, and perhaps one day she may enjoy the fruits of being a champion. But she keep saying she does not want to join a gymnastics class.

This evening we had a chat, and I asked why she didn’t want to join, and tried to explain to her that she could only achieve so much on her own. I certainly do not want to force her to do it because she won’t enjoy it if she does not want to do it. After several exchanges of chat, she eventually said “But I am the only kid in my class who is entirely self taught. I like the fact that nobody has shown me how to do it“, and it resonated with me because I am also a proud, self-taught, photographer, and I also like to learn things myself rather than have them taught to me, even if it is harder and takes longer. I’ve never studied photography at college; never been shown how to do it. And being a film photographer, it has been an expensive journey of self-teaching, which continues every time I pick up the camera despite doing it for over 25 years.

However, I wrote recently about a friend of mine who, until just before Christmas 2018, was an entirely “web based photography friend”, in as much as we got chatting via a discussion forum back in 2008 and had periodically exchanged pictures and notes ever since, until last year when we were both in London at the same time and we met up for a coffee, in real life!

Over the years, he has given me a few tips here and there regarding film choices, enlarger equipment, camera equipment and so on. And I guess in many ways he has been somewhat of a virtual teacher, in a virtual sense. When we met for the first time it was such an honor to meet someone I knew was a very wise photography wizard. There was lots I wanted to ask, and did ask, but there was one small issue in particular that was burning me up that I had to get an answer to. I asked him for some advice regarding loading medium format 120 film onto steel reels. I explained to him that for well over a year I’d been trying to do it, and I had watched YouTube videos about it, and read articles about it. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I always seemed to mess it up and at least one frame of every role, and sometimes several frames, were ruined as a result of the film touching in certain parts of the reel. And then the chemicals did not sufficiently flow around the film. I failed to understand how this was once standard practice, thinking the people who did this professionally in the 1970’s and 80’s must have been wizards or elves.

It had got so frustrating, and I had ruined so many frames, and wasted so much film, I actually began to give up, and as a result I was using my Hasselblad less because the only way I could get reliable results was to pay even more money to have them developed by the lab I use. The image below is one such example of a ruined negative caused by my mis-loading of the film onto the steel real.

Ruined negative caused my incorrect loading onto steel reel

As we were sitting there, I explained my problems, and he had with him a “burner roll” (an old expired roll of film with no photos) that he brought to show me (as I had told him in advance I would ask him for some help). He asked me to show him how I was doing it, and straight away he identified the problem. He explained “you are not crimping the film at the sides; you need to make the film slightly concave as you offer it up to the reel, and keep it that way all the way around as you load it“. I tried it there and then, and it seemed to work OK. He gave me the burner roll, I went home the next day, and used his technique using the burner roll about 30 times, over and over again, with my eyes shut or as I watched the TV, or whatever. Every single time, it went on perfectly. No creases. No touching. No overlapping. I was in disbelief. Maybe my problems at loading film onto the steel reel, which I had been so determined to master, were solved?!

The next day, I tried it out “for real”, with an exposed roll I had waiting for development. It worked perfectly. All 12 frames, perfectly developed. When I unloaded the film after development I jumped for joy. “Have I cracked it?“, I asked myself? So I tried it again with another roll. Same, perfect, result.

Since then I must have developed a roll at least once a week for the last 7 or 8 weeks, and every roll has come out perfectly. So the only thing I was doing wrong, which I found no reference to anywhere, was a slight pinch of the film at the sides to make it concave, and I have him to thank for that.

The image below is an example of me getting ready to load the same burner film; notice how I am holding it, pinching it slightly at each side to make it ever so slightly concave with my thumb and middle finger, with my index finger rested gently on the top? After loading the end into the clip on the reel, my hand stays like this as I load the film onto the reel, always keeping the same pressure at the sides, and the index finger gently rested on the top (obviously make sure your hands are clean and free of grease, dirt etc, or better yet, wear some cloves).

So I used this story today to my daughter, to help her realise that whilst it is a great feeling to teach yourself something, and it is something to be proud of, there are some things you just can’t teach yourself, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes, you need a teacher; a guide, to see you through to fruition.