In 1963 Kodak introduced the Instamatic camera and the 126 cartridge film format was born. 126 film cartridge cameras, mostly Kodak Instamatics, sold in the millions. There are literally thousands of used Instamatic cameras for sale at any moment of the day.
Unfortunately 126 cartridge film was discontinued in 2008. Everything that can be found for sale now is expired, most of it by a long time. This causes a problem for anyone that wants to use one of these many cameras, as without film they are ornaments. That is a real shame as many do work, due to the fact that most are quite a simple design.
I have an Instamatic 133 which I purchased with some film, that even though it had been refrigerated, had expired in the 1990’s. After shooting with it, which I’ll cover in my next review, I wanted to try and shoot some fresh film.
I had read that you can load some replacement cartridges which have been 3D printed, but for a once or twice adventure it is a little expensive. These use 35mm film, so that got me thinking if it was possible to reload a used cartridge. Based on that thought, I asked the lab to break open the expired one when I took it in for processing, in a way where it did not destroy it. They came through on that, which gave me the main ingredient for this experiment.
Reloading a 126 film cartridge does have similar elements as loading a subminiature camera I wrote about here.
126 cartridge film was designed to be easily put into a camera without any threading and without any risk of inserting incorrectly. The cartridge takes film that is 35mm wide, but unlike 135 film it only has one sprocket hole per frame and only on one side. This is used to let the camera know that the film has advanced to the next frame.
Speaking of frames, the original design for the frames was aimed at 28x28mm, but most cameras settled into a 26.5×26.5mm square format.
The cartridge works by having the film attached to an empty spool and rolled freely at the other end. As the film is advanced, it pulls the film through onto the spool. It is not rewound back at the end. The original film has a backing paper, which is also used to display the frame number through the back window of the camera.
126 cartridge film was manufactured from 1963 until 2008.
To reload a 126 film cartridge you will need the following items:
- An empty and intact 126 film cartridge that has been split back and front
- A roll of 35mm film
- A pair of scissors
- Some masking tape
- Some duct or electrical tape
- A dark bag or dark room
- Cotton gloves, to avoid handling the film and leaving fingerprints
- A 126 camera, like an Instamatic, to load the film into
Using the duct tape, cover up the back window of the camera. As the reloaded film will not have backing paper we need to stop the light entering the back of the camera.
Pull apart the film cartridge allowing you to release the film spool.
Cut a piece of duct tape and cover the little window at the back of the film cartridge. Even though we have covered the back of the camera, it is worth doing this to ensure it is light tight.
Cut the leader of the 35mm film so that the end of the film is straight across.
Tape the end of the film to the spool, but don’t pull out the film just yet.
From this point, the next steps have to be done either in darkness so it is in the dark bag or dark room.
Wind the film from the 135 cassette onto the 126 spool. As the 126 cartridge was only designed to carry 24 square exposures, it will not be able to take a full roll of 36 exposure or even 24 exposure 135 format film. Allowing for the space in between, wind on about 68cm (26.5 inches). This equates to roughly 18 24x36mm frames length.
Next, put the spool into the 126 cartridge.
Still in the dark, wind the film into as tight a roll as you can off the spool, leaving the length of the cartridge to stretch the film across. Place the tight roll of film into the other side of the cartridge.
Place the back of the cartridge on, and make sure it clicks into place. It now has the film in place ready to be used. Note the sprocket holes, the ones at the bottom will become part of the photo, at the top of the frame.
Put the film cartridge into the camera and close the back. After this you bring it out of the dark bag.
Go out and shoot!
There are a few things you need to be aware of. Firstly, the sprocket holes at the top of the cartridge are there to let the camera know you have advanced one frame. As the 135 film format has many holes, it confuses the camera and you may shoot overlapping frames.
I found that shooting a couple of blank frames after each shot takes care of this. This involves shooting a couple of frames with the lens covered and advancing. Just don’t wind too quickly. Do note, this works on the Instamatic 133, and not all cameras are the same, so some experimentation is required.
Another thing to take note of is that it may be better to take the film out in a dark bag at the end of the roll and place it into a black canister. I also wrap it in aluminium foil to be safe. The lab won’t know the cartridge has already been broken open and accidents can happen an expose the film to light. You do need to let the lab know you have unwound, or naked, film in the canister.
Apart from these little niggles, you are well on your way to shooting and having the fun that the Instamatics and other 126 cameras were made for.