Why every film photographer should own a dark bag

If you collect and use old film cameras, one day it’s going to happen: film will tear during winding or rewinding, or a wind lever will become hopelessly stuck. Your film will be trapped inside the camera. If you open the camera, some of the film will be ruined.

Such are the vagaries of old cameras. It happens to me from time to time, including recently. After shooting the last frame on a roll of expired Tri-X in my Yashica-12, the winder got stuck before the last of the film wound onto the takeup spool. Another time, while rewinding a roll of Kentmere 100 in my Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK, the film tore. Some of the film was on the takeup spool and the rest was inside the 35mm film cartridge.

Times like these call for a dark bag, also known as a changing bag. This bag is black and double lined so no light can get in.

You unzip it to reveal the inner bag, and then you unzip that. Then put the whole camera in the bag and zip both zippers. Then stick your arms through the armholes. Feel around for the camera until you’ve grasped it. Then you can open the camera and, entirely by feel, extract the film.

If the film tore, you’ll want to put some sort of light-tight can or box in there to spool the film into. For 35mm, some brands come in a black plastic can — save a couple of them, as they’re perfect for this. Label the can “Loose Film, Open in Darkness” and send it off to your lab. They should be able to handle that without much trouble.

Otherwise, you should be able to hand-roll 120 film onto the takeup spool, or (tediously) turn the spindle on 35mm film to draw the film back into the cartridge.

Buy a dark bag here or here or here. They’re not that expensive, really, and can sure save your bacon when something goes wrong with an old camera.

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15 responses to “Why every film photographer should own a dark bag”

  1. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    I’ve thanfully not had to use my changing bag for anything other than loading exposed film (that has correctly wound / re-wound) into my developing tank, but it gives a nice sense of comfort knowing I have it to hand in the event that disaster does strike at some point.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Rest assured, it will. Old camera gear eventually lets you down!

      1. fishyfisharcade Avatar

        Something to look forward to… :)

  2. Richard Armstrong Avatar
    Richard Armstrong

    I would second how useful one is, I would have used one every day when I managed a camera store.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I can well imagine!

  3. arhphotographic Avatar

    While recently testing a Chinon CX I finished the roll of film only to experience a stuck rewind lever and hence couldn’t rewind it back into the film canister. Changing bag saved the day!
    Many thanks

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Further proof that every film photographer should have a dark bag!

  4. Laurie Avatar

    Best investment I ever made! I started developing film again and this is the reason I can do it. And I have had plenty of moments when my film broke and I needed it too!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I bought one specifically because that roll of film tore in the Zeiss Ikon camera. I use it all the time now that I process my own b/w film!

  5. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    Timely, I have one arriving from Adorama in a few days!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar


  6. analogphotobug Avatar

    We have two changing bags. One is large enough for my husband’s 4X5 cameras….

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That bag must be giant!

  7. Sam Avatar

    Great post Jim! I should use mine more often I guess!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Here’s hoping that when you shoot film, you don’t have to!

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