Why No 126 Film?

Posted 2011.07.30 19.45 in Photography, Pointless Blather

The other night I was looking at my Rollei A26 and the half dozen 126 cartridges I’ve managed to hoard. After that handful of film…nothing. Since the last manufacturer ceased production in 2007, it’s become extremely rare and when you do find it, very expensive.

126 Film

Then I got thinking of The Impossible Project – IMHO a truly remarkable story. When Polaroid went away and stopped making film, millions of perfectly good instant cameras became useless. (You can see them all over eBay!) But this collection of people determined to resurrect Polaroid instant film, and they’ve actually done it!

So back to the 126 film cartridges. The Impossible Project really was impossible – they had to make not just film, but instant self-processing film. On the other hand, 126 film is basically just 35mm film in a special plastic case. It’s somewhat common practice now to respool 35mm film into 126 cartridges. I’ve done it myself.

To resurrect 126 film, you don’t have to re-invent anything, really. You can buy bulk spools of 35mm film (colour or black & white) and you can even get that film without the standard sproket-holes. Unperforated or whatever they call it.

Cartridge Parts

Then all you really need is a plastic mould to make the cartridges and the spool. Oh and strips of backing paper. All that’s left is a machine to tape a strip of film to a strip of backing paper, punch the index holes in the film and paper every 30mm or so, then roll it up and put it in the cartridge.

Why isn’t anyone doing this?

I mean, I can accept that demand for 126 film is not as high as for Polaroids – but when a single roll of way-past-due expired film is going for over $25 plus shipping, I think there must still be a market for the stuff. My mind is boggling here, so I’ll repeat the key points: Making 126 film does not require making custom or unique emulsions. No chemistry required at all, just buy bulk film (35mm unperforated) from Kodak or Fuji. All you need to do is make the custom plastic pieces, and the paper backing strip. The only tricky bit is assembling the pieces and perforating the film in darkness.

I’ve been thinking this over and over. The hardest part is mating the film and paper, and getting the index holes in the right spot. I can almost envision a very simple machine (basically just a crank and some rollers) that would punch the holes. It’d be something small, like you could clamp it to a desk or counter. Not industrial-sized but enough for one person to run it for their own needs, or a small sideline business. If I had access to machine tools, and if I was more handy with machine tools, I’d almost want to try this myself.

Take another look at what The Impossible Project has accomplished… and I ask again, Why isn’t anyone doing this for 126 film?

27 Comments

  1. Cat Daddy says:

    I agree. Why is there no one making this film. There are still a lot of 126 cameras around. What a joy it would be to shot with them!

  2. David Chambers says:

    Why not produce 126 film? I would regard the Instamatic camera as being like the Renault 4 of cameras: simple to work with yet full of character. Also with all the talk of austerity in the media this format could really come into its own.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I’m still bouncing this around in my head. I have some ideas, but I lack the confidence and chutzpah to push ahead with them.

    Also, I’m easily distracted.

  4. David Foy says:

    Hi Stephanie–
    reason 1: Molds of that complexity are extremely expensive. You would have to sell tens of thousands of rolls a year to even come close to being economical. It’s true that “all you need is a mold” but I invite you to take a sample 126 shell to a molder and ask about costs and feasibility. You will be shocked.
    reason 2: Neither Kodak nor Fuji will sell unperforated 35mm film in bulk rolls. Not in practical quantities at practical prices.

    Ferrania was the last manufacturer of 126. At the end, they were making up batches in the high thousands, about once or twice a year. They stopped when their molds and packaging equipment needed major repairs. The 75,000 Euro estimated repair cost meant, basically, 126 would never again be profitable because they’d never get the investment back.
    The Impossible Project picked up an essentially complete factory that was still serving a very large worldwide market. They had to re-invent the chemical technology but the factory required relatively little investment. The sales volumes were already there and allowed them to make a realistic business plan. 126 had fallen to less than 1/3 of 1% of Kodak’s film volume when they finally pulled the plug. There is very little business there. I’m very sorry to say that, because I really enjoy my Instamatics, particularly my Kodak 500. I still have 70 rolls frozen and they’ll last me about ten years.

    1. Stephanie says:

      Hi David,

      Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful post. It certainly puts my daydreaming and speculation into perspective.

      I had no idea the molds were so costly, nor that the unperforated film is so impractical to source. I’ve seen unperforated bulk rolls on eBay now and then, so just assumed that the stock was out there. Even B & H sells (one) unperforated 35mm bulk roll.

      For now, I’ll keep dreaming, and continue using my old-stock 126 cartridges, and reloading them myself.

      Cheers!

  5. david says:

    i have a 10 year old son who wants to make a pin hole camera. when i learned a long time ago, we used the 126 catridge. any thoughts on the next easiest way to go?

    1. Stephanie says:

      Hi David,

      There’s all kinds of simple 35mm pinhole options. There are also some kits that use cardboard or heavy paper, or free plans you can print then cut out. Try doing a search for cardboard pinhole camera and that should give you lots of options an ideas.

      Cheers!

    2. Mike says:

      I built one of those back in 1976. Funky. You can use 4×5 sheet film and even a real 4×5 film holder to make a large pin hole camera. Sheet film is sort of readily available because some professional and hobbiest photographers still use large view cameras. By now your son probably wants a digital camera. That is about all I use today. Put the pin hole in heavy foil and mount it on a sealed box. You can find instructions on the WEB.

  6. Pete says:

    There now appear to be two factories in China making new 110 cartridges – one for Lomograph and one for another firm which brands its products as Fukkatsu (Japanese for reborn apparently), so I doubt if the cost of making a mould is that expensive, especially when you think of all the thousands of cheap plastic products around (which would presumably all have needed moulds). Ferrania/Solaris had decided to get out of the photographic film business anyway – they seem to have stopped making all formats, so probably the tale about expensive moulds was just an excuse. Anyway the point of all this, is that if the relaunched 110 format is a success, it is quite likely that someone will do the same for 126, but we may have to wait a while. Meanwhile my Kodak Instamatic Reflex waits in a cupboard!

    1. Stephanie says:

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for writing!

      I was really surprised to see Lomography revive the 110 format. On top of needing those plastic cartridges, it was never a great format to begin with due to the super-tiny negatives, and I can’t imagine there’s many places who’d still have the gear to develop it.

      I do agree with you though, seeing 110 come back gives me hope that someone will bring back 126.

  7. David Foy says:

    If you think molds are cheap, and cost is “just an excuse,” you can find out the facts for yourself: contact a mold-maker, and ask for a price. You’ll be shocked. I know, because I’ve done it.

    1. Stephanie says:

      Hello David,

      I think your comment is directed towards Pete, but I’m jumping in 🙂 I know molds aren’t cheap, but that’s something that one would have to take into account if trying to revive the format.

      A friend mentioned that having some custom molding done in China cost $6,000 to $10,000 to get the molds machined, and of course they don’t last forever. So it’s a matter of whether or not one could make enough film and find enough customers, to justify the cost of that initial investment.

      I’m still curious about Lomography’s ‘new’ 110 production. I haven’t gotten through my first roll yet but I am wondering if they’ve saved a bit by omitting the backing paper. I.e. their B&W 110 has the numbering window covered up, and the only reason I can think to do that would be if there’s no backing paper.

      I also wonder about the stock, like if they’ve taken 35mm stock and slit it down to size. The film does have the index holes though, so it should work in any 110 camera.

      And as I said before, if they can bring back 110, maybe they can bring back 126 as well, if there’s enough demand for it.

      Cheers!

      1. David Foy says:

        Hi Stephanie — A 126 cartridge takes three molds, one for each half and one for the spool. Each has relatively expensive features like cutouts and, in the case of the spool, an indent on each end. The last quotes I got suggest the total from a Chinese mold-maker would be about $25,000 to $40,000 for aluminum, more for steel. Chinese molds are usually excellent, by the way.

        Backing paper is a major, major problem, as the Lomo folks have discovered, since it must be 100% opaque, extremely thin, and chemically inert. The ink used to print it must also be chemically inert. Every mill that used to make it has now discontinued it so if you’re not drawing down existing stocks, you need to do some very creative sourcing (thin plastic, probably). Finding a printer who can print roll-to-roll at the appropriate cutoff length is a challenge.

        Locating long rolls of unperforated 35mm film, which you’d need for 126, has become extraordinarily difficult now that the school studios have finally dumped all their surplus old film. In theory you can get Kodak or Fuji to make it for you, but they aren’t really interested unless you’re buying it by the mile at full price.

        Your point about demand is valid. Assuming $3-$4 per roll as net revenue from wholesale sales, you’d have to sell a lot of film to recover the investment. I seriously doubt the investment would ever be recovered. I doubt you could sell as many as a thousand rolls a year. Maybe I’m wrong, but not by much. You’d need to move a thousand rolls a month, and that’s extremely unlikely.

        I don’t mean to sound 100% negative or to suggest it’s impossible. Of course it’s possible. But to solve the problem it helps to start with a realistic picture of exactly what the problem is, which is the point of all the above negativity.

        One possible new approach is working out a way to make substitute 126 shells using something less expensive than injection molding, such as vacuum-molding, which is very, very cheap. A vacuum mold costs next to nothing. It’s a slow process, but high productivity is not necessary. Or re-useable shells from pressed sheet aluminum…or whatever. I’m sure you get my drift. The problem with vacuum molding seems to be getting good, accurate trim so the shell halves fit together correctly, but it’s a problem that will eventually be solved.

        I’m in the process of reviving 110 right now for Frugal Photographer (shooting for the end of the year), but 126 is next on my list.

  8. Pete says:

    I don’t understand David’s comment about backing paper. Ilford, Kodak, Fujifilm, Foma, Efke et al are still able to obtain it for 120 rollfilm and I’ve read no rumours about these films having to be discontinued because of lack of the right type of paper. I wouldn’t dispute that there may well be less sources for the paper but clearly someone is still making it. And, as I understands it, the paper used for 110 & 126 was the same except for the numbering etc on the back.

    In the case of the 4 newly introduced 110 films, it is true that the first run of the Lomography Orca B&W film lacks backing paper. However that seems to have sold out and I would expect the next run, if there is one, to have the backing paper because the 200 ISO colour film they recently introduced does have backing paper. So do the two Fukkatsu films.

    It has been suggested that the Orca B&W film comes from Orwo 16mm motion film because the developing times are the same. The Fukkatsu 400 ISO colour film is said to be a Kodak stock. I don’t know about the others.

    As the Frugal Photographer has been mentioned, it might be worth pointing out that despite some of the new 110 films having been on the market for weeks, their site makes no mention of these and is still trying to sell off long outdated 110 film at quite high prices.

    1. David Foy says:

      Hi Pete — Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
      Here’s my guess (and it’s a guess, although a relatively well-informed guess): Ilford, Fuji, Kodak, and the others are probably using existing stocks of backing paper. I doubt they would be able to buy a new supply. I can’t. The US and European mills have discontinued it. If you can locate the hypothetical source who is “still making it” please let me know. I’ve been unable to find them, and I went to Europe two months ago specifically to find them, with no success.

      Kodak’s dilemma is probably instructive. When digital hit circa 2001 they were operating something like a dozen plants worldwide, 24-7. Something like 96% of the film they made went to snapshooters like you and me, and 4% to the movie industry. Latest figures show about 94% movies, 6% snapshooters (and by six months from now all Hollywood films will be distributed as digital files, zero as film). Draw your own conclusions.

      I’m guessing that all of the current film manufacturers are drawing down warehouse stocks of backing paper. Just as Kodak is drawing down frozen stocks of b/w films: Plus-X comes to mind. The reason PX was recently discontinued is that they had finally used up everything in the freezer, and it made no sense to run another coating of a 52″ roll several miles long. They’d never sell it out, and would end up a dozen years from now scrapping most of it. TX will be next, is my (pessimistic) guess.

      I raised the backing paper issue as an example of a difficulty, and clearly there are ways of getting around it. Maybe Kodak, Ilford etc. have sources that are closed to the rest of us, but if so, there are no insiders in the European film industry who are able to point me to them, and I’ve asked, more than once. My guess is (based on the economics of buying from specialty printers) that they have many, many years worth of backing paper in the warehouse. What I know for sure is the specialty printers who formerly supplied backing paper no longer do so. Period.

      Sorry if my comments seemed negative — it was an attempt to show the barriers to success, not to imply they’re impenetrable. I have overcome that barrier (I have a lot of backing paper on hand, and a substitute lined up) and I’m pleased others have too. The Lomo people clearly have solved the problem. Good!

      Frugal Photographer will not offer fresh 110 for purchase on the web site until it’s ready to ship. Until then you can choose to buy the deteriorated rolls on offer, or not buy, at the prices offered. Your choice. I’m just pleased there is now more choice. We all benefit.

      1. Antonio Marques says:

        Hi David,

        Do you have any idea if 3D printing – of which I’m quite ignorant – be a possible solution to produce some of the components that aren’t economically viable in their traditional guise?

  9. David Foy says:

    I forgot to mention, Kodak’s seven or so plants, operating 24-7 worldwide ten or twelve years ago, are now down to one plant (in Rochester) that operates one shift, fewer than 50 weeks a year, and the volume they produce is dropping like a stone.

  10. David Foy says:

    Just to comment, it’s the Ilfords and Orwos and Fomas and Efkes of the world who will keep film alive when Kodak and Fuji shut their film factories down. I support them by buying their products and I hope you do too.

  11. Pete says:

    Hi David

    I understand what you’re saying and it explains the Plus X situation, which did puzzle me. I think Agfa in Germany had the problem too of having to do either long runs or nothing at all. It would seem Ilford are able to use their large coating machine for relatively small runs. I gather this from what I have read on the APUG site.

    Regarding backing paper, I don’t have the knowledge you have, but again judging by comments made on APUG by Harman Technology (Ilford) they have had to make adjustments so I suspect they have changed supplier. One of the problems was the ink used for frame numbers wasn’t/isn’t very distinct. At the end of the day most things can be done if someone is prepared to meet the cost and Ilford have said they are in the analogue business in the long term, so I would be surprised if they are relying on vast stored supplies of paper. They would not, I suspect, have the capital to carry that sort of inventory. But certainly we can expect the cost of materials to continue to rise.

    Have you spoken to Simon Galley at Ilford? He is very helpful and Ilford don’t see other film makers as threats, rather as strengthening the analogue market. (Black & white seems to be holding its own). He might well be prepared to tell you where he sources his backing paper supply. Also in China there are at least two companies making rollfilm ie Lucky & Shanghai. And it would be interesting to know where the backing papers for the new 110 films came from. Would a company hoarding its remaining supplies, release some for these films? I don’t know the answer! Might also be worth asking the new Adox in Germany as they have started manufacturing a rollfilm there in their little factory and have others lined up, so they must be getting their backing paper from somewhere. There is someone else in Germany too who finishes rollfilm but can’t remember the name. I think both Adox & the Rollei/Maco outfit have used them in the recent past.

    As to Efke, because its machinery is so old, it seems it is stopping making conventional photo paper and even the films might cease, as their are problems as they don’t own the factory site (A bit like the situation that closed Forte in Hungary a few years ago). That would be very sad.

  12. David Foy says:

    Hard to tell about Ilford’s inventory of backing paper. A mill roll is gigantic and will provide backing paper for many years worth of film at current volumes. You reminded me that I have not yet exhausted all of the potential European contacts, for which I thank you.

  13. Stephanie says:

    Loving the ongoing discussion here – clearly shooting film is something we all love and feel quite strongly about.

    David I’m glad you are continuing to work on the problem. I remember when I first got interested in vintage cameras and yours was the only shop that I could find selling the 126 stock. Unfortunately at that time I was only able to process black & white. When I did eventually start developing colour at home I immediately went to your site to grab some 126 only to find out that I’d missed the last of it by several months. C’est la vie! 🙂

    I just shot and developed my first roll of the 110 Orca film today, and I have to say, it turned out a lot better than I expected. I was using it in a Pentax 110 SLR and the negatives are bright and crisp and sharp. Sadly, my scanner is not up to the task and I’m losing some of the clarity when I try and scan it.

    Apart from there being no backing paper, the film seems to be ‘proper 110’ in that it has the frame mask exposed on it, and it has frame numbers, and it even has along the top the name ‘Lomography Orca BW 110’ and a tiny whale icon. If this is repurposed 16mm motion picture stock, they’ve done a good job converting it to 110.

    For 126 – if someone brings it back, I’ll certainly buy it. Colour or B&W or both. I love my Kodak Instamatic 500, and my Rollei A26. And my Minolta Autopak 700. All three have given me passable results with old stock and with 35mm film in a 126 cartridge. I hope there’s enough others like me, like us, who’d buy it and use it if it were available.

    Cheers!

  14. KevinB says:

    Another approach, why not a 126 reloadable cassette? I have not looked at one in years but I do not remember them being that complicated. Then It would just require cutting down and punching 120 film. For the addventrous a variant could use just paper leader as in 220 film with the tighter specs to keep it flat and without the backing, longer lengths could be used. I could make one but no reason to as I haven’t a camera worthy of the effort.

  15. Peter says:

    I understand if they are carefully opened, the cassettes can be reloaded, although I have never tried this (life is too short etc). You don’t need 120 film, 35mm film is the correct width and you could reuse a 126 backing paper. 35mm film is also I believe the correct thickness; 120 is slightly thinner. Apparently the same master rolls were used for both 35mm & 126 film, but of course you still have the problem of punching the correct holes in the film intended for 126 use. Although it may be that not all 126 cameras depend on these – I’m not sure.

    It seems there is now a second run of the Orca 110 B&W film and this has backing paper.

  16. Stephanie says:

    I’ve reloaded 126 carts with 35mm film a number of times.
    The biggest issue is the sprocket holes. On one edge you will have sprocket holes in your image (or you’ll have to crop them out and wind up with 26mm x ~18mm rectangle) and on the other edge, the 35mm sprockets do not evenly line up with the spacing for 126 film.

    I’ve found this causes the shots to be inconsistently spaced on the negative, and out of a 12-frame roll, there’ll be at least one or two pairs of negs that overlap.

    As long as you don’t mind the Lomo-esque results though, it’s fine.

    As for opening the 126 cartridges, out of about a half dozen, I’ve only broken one trying to cleanly pop it apart. I do re-use the backing paper, I’ve figured out a fairly adequate technique of loading from a 35mm cannister to the 126 spool then getting that into the cartridge and sealing it with electrical tape, all inside my darkbag.

  17. special monkey says:

    Why not just forget about the backing paper and tape the hole, or use some other paper (who cares if it acidic, reactive, etc.) – if you use the film fast enough, it shouldn’t matter. Anyone know if the Instamatic 500 can use re-spooled cartridges? I am wondering if I’ll need to snip the little booger that grabs the sprocket, or just advance a frame or two between shots? I have yet to reload a cartridge, so can’t just try it (yet).

    1. Stephanie says:

      Hello Special Monkey!

      I’ve used some respooled 35mm in my Instamatic 500 and the results were pretty good I think. Good enough for me, anyways! 🙂

      http://planetstephanie.net/2011/10/11/instamatic-500-by-kodak-ag/

      Taping over the window certainly works, I’ve tried that too. It’s more of an issue if you don’t plan on shooting the whole roll at once. Unless you mark it on a post-it note, 3 months later you have no idea how many frames are left to go.

      For that matter, even if you are shooting a whole roll, without backing paper you can fit almost a whole 36-frame roll into the cartridge. I don’t know about you, but for me, an hour or so into the day and I’ve no idea how many shots I’ve taken.

      The only final caveat, though I think it’s a non-issue, is the thickness of the backing paper might make a difference when it comes to focus. I’ve read that somewhere anyways. Maybe only an issue doing close-ups at f/2 with an SLR? The point & shoots and scale focus instamatics won’t be much affected I bet.

      Cheers!

  18. jim says:

    I was reading about your backing paper problem, and thought that I’d pass on an idea given to me.
    Cartoon paper..

    http://www.cartooncolour.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=302

    I’m just passing on an idea given to me.
    I haven’t tried it yet.

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