If you have a darkroom or changing bag, it’s pretty easy to reload 126 cartridges with 35mm film. Here’s what you need to know.
Selecting which film/126 cartridge to use
You can pick any 35mm film you want, just be aware that each 126 camera has its own requirements for which ISO speed film they use. The 126 cartridges had notches indicating the film speed and the higher end 126 cameras could automatically read the film speed from the cartridge notch. The cheaper 126 cameras often just assume ISO 160. Given the wide latitude of modern film, I haven’t had a problem using ISO 100 or 200 in the 126 cameras I’ve tested. If your 126 camera doesn’t have a cartridge inside it, buy one off eBay. Try to get a 126 cartridge that is an ISO speed close to what your 126 camera is able to use. Since the film will be a tight fit inside the 126 cartridge, use a 24 exposure roll of new 35mm film or half of a 36 exposure roll.
Preparing the cartridge
You need to first break open the 126 cartridge. This is scary, but works pretty much every time I’ve done it. Hold it in both hands with the printed top up and the bigger portion in your right hand. Now slowly and firmly twist it until the plastic breaks one side. Then pry it apart and you now have two halves. Put the two halves back together and put a piece of black electrical tape on one side to act as a hinge.
126 film originally had a paper backing so that you could see the number of the frame in the rear window of the camera. Because 35mm film has no backing paper, you need to put a piece of black electrical tape over the outside of the window on the back of the film cartridge to keep the film from fogging. Also put a piece of black electrical tape over the inside of the window on the back of your camera.
Take note of the size of the smaller end of the 126 cartridge. You’re going to have to roll down your 35mm film to that size to fit in the 126 cartridge per the instructions below.
Loading the film
Open the cartridge again (keeping your hinge in place) and remove the spool. Cut off the tapered portion of the new film leader so it has a squared off end. Tape that end to the spool such that it will wind smoothly onto the spool.
These steps must be done in a completely dark room or inside a light proof changing bag
If you’re using a changing back, put the open cartridge, the new film taped to the 126 spool and a scissors into the changing bag. If using a darkroom, have these items laid out where you can grab each one in the dark. If you’re very careful and handle the film only by the edges, you can try this without gloves, but I’d recommend putting on a pair of white cotton gloves.
Grab the end of the film taped to the 126 spool and pull out all of the 24 exposure roll or two thirds of the 36 exposure roll (about an arm’s length). Let the 126 spool dangle down and hold the end of the 35mm film just before it enters the 35mm canister. Use the scissors to cut the film between where you’re holding it and the 35mm canister. Leave at least an inch of film sticking out of the 35mm canister as that will be important for developing later.
Now use your gloved hands to tightly roll up the loose end of the film. You have to roll it tight enough to fit in the small end of the 126 cartridge. Keep rolling until you’re 3 inches away from the 126 spool that you taped the other end of the film to. Try inserting the film you rolled into the small end of the 126 cartridge. If the roll is too big, hold it with your thumb and index finger on the open ends and then pull the end taped to the 126 spool to tighten the roll until it fits. Place the roll in the small end of the 126 cartridge, place the spool into the large side and then close the cartridge. Make sure it’s fully closed and light tight and keep holding the cartridge closed while you turn on the lights or remove it from the changing bag. Now tape the other end of the cartridge shut.
Using the film in your camera
126 film had only one sprocket hole per photo and there is a little feeler inside your 126 camera to control how far the film got advanced and prevent double exposures. Because 35mm film has sprocket holes all along its length, you’ll need to do a little trick to advance the film and not have the advance mechanism get stuck. This varies by camera.
For my Kodak Instamatic 104 and 500 models, after you take a shot and before you move the film advance lever, you need to make sure you hold down the shutter button, then use the film advance lever for two full pulls, then let go of the shutter button and move the film advance lever for a partial stroke until it stops. If you forget to keep the shutter button held down and just use the film advance lever it will get stuck and your only remedy is to go back to the darkroom/changing bag, open the camera, remove the film cartridge and play around with the little feeler lever along the film path, shutter and advance lever until you get it to fully trip the shutter. Then put the cartridge back in the camera and close it up and you’re set to go again.
For my Argus Instant Load 284, it’s a bit easier. After you take one shot, advance the lever once. Because of the more abundant sprocket holes on 35mm film, this won’t be enough to prevent overlapping pictures, so press the front of the camera lens fully onto your body and click another picture with the lens covered then work the advance lever one more time. No need to hold down the shutter button while advancing the film.
Because you taped over the window on the back of the camera and the 35mm film has no backing paper, you won’t get a visual indication of which frame you’re shooting, so you’ll need to keep track in your head. It’s hard to feel when you reach the end of the roll so just keep shooting a few extras.
Developing the film
If you develop your own film, go to your darkroom/changing bag, remove the tape from one end of the cartridge, remove the take up spool and load it onto your developing reel.
If you send your film out for developing, they won’t know what to do with a 126 cartridge plus you want to keep the cartridge yourself for the next time you shoot 126 film. The most hassle free way to handle this is roll your film back into the 35mm canister you originally took it from. Grab your 126 cartridge, the original 35mm canister and a 1.5-inch piece of scotch tape and take it to your darkroom or changing bag. In the dark, remove the tape from one end of the 126 cartridge and remove the take up spool. Then carefully scotch tape the end of your exposed film to the stub of film sticking out from your 35mm canister so they line up well and carefully roll it back into the 35mm canister and send it off to be developed like any other 35mm film.
Regardless of processing yourself or sending it out, you'll get these lovely square pictures with sprocket holes as you see from this Kodak Instamatic 500: