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Adding Index Tabs to your film holders, rev 2.

Tim Gilbert

We all know that we're supposed to record exposure data in a beat-up old notebook along with any relevant information about composition, lighting, and whatever. (Frankly, if you can't take the time to record such information, you should probably stick with digital.)

However, I know that I'm not the only one that has trouble keeping track of which negative is which after pulling them out of my SP-445 film tank. Granted, it's not a problem if you've only shot four negatives of four completely unique subjects. But take four shots of similar subject matter, say the same mountain valley, and it becomes almost impossible to keep things straight.

Last year we started experimenting with adding an ID tag to our film holders. We wanted to put an index in the unused edge of the negative. Then you could track which negative came out of which film holder. Pretty simple, just add a small tab to the film holder gate, like this:

They worked great! Each negative now had the film holder number/side permanently fixed in the unused edge of the film.

However, there were several issues:

Assembling the tabs was awkward and time consuming. Any plastic heavy enough to work as a tab was too thick for our printers. Thus the prototypes were printed on clear labels using a label maker and stuck to a strip of clear plastic. This involved lots of cutting, trimming and unsticking labels from our fingertips.

They weren't as robust as we would have liked. Notice the “raised area” under the gate. (It was just by chance that I grabbed the only four film holders I have that has this extra area, the majority do not have it.) This meant that the glue contact area for the ID tab was limited as shown by the orange rectangle. While they held on pretty well, they would eventually snap off.

You had to modify your film holder. In order for the tab to fit, you had to trim the corner of the gate. This isn't particularly hard but it is a hassle.

In spite of these issues, people loved the idea and we investigated having tabs printed commercially and then die cut to shape.

Unfortunately, it got expensive fast and we didn't think it would be financially feasible. So we more or less dropped the project.

For reasons that no one would probably care about, we needed more film holders with index tabs. Rather than struggle with the old process (truth be told, we were out of clear label tape), we decided revisited the concept.

First, after examining more film holders, we noticed that the vast majority of them are mostly flat under the gate. And they all had a recessed area just begging to have a tab glued in. (You'll need to check your film holders to be sure they'll work.) This eliminates having to make any permanent changes to the holder.

Okay, we know what you're going to say, “But the index will be in the picture!”

So what?

If your compositions are so precise that you never need to crop, even just a bit, then you're probably too advanced for this blog. You need to find a better class of photogs to hang out with. (By the way, I once read that Ansel Adams cropped virtually every picture he ever took.)

Frankly, it isn't really very noticeable. Of course, those of us that scan our negatives, can fix this in post processing. That said, folks making contact prints might have something to complain about, but even then the index isn't very distracting.

Now we just needed an easier method for manufacturing the tabs. Sometimes the right answer is staring you in the face, literally. I had a pile of old test negatives littering my desk when it hit me: just shoot a picture of the tabs on large format film! We generated the desired artwork using a spreadsheet at 2x the desired size (download it here). One sheet of 4x5 film will yield enough tabs for fifty film holders.


We tried black letters with clear background and clear letters with a black background. Obviously, the effect on the negative will be, well, the negative of whichever tab you chose. You can download the pdf files here: Clear/black letters   Black/clear letters

Before you ask: I prefer the clear/black letters (light colored letters on the final negative.) It is less intrusive than the black/white letters. However, the black/white letters is much easier to read. Try and both and see which one you like, it's only going to cost you the price of a sheet of film.

Here's what it looks like with the tab glued on; notice that the tab is glued in with the text readable from the bottom.

And here with the gate closed on a sheet of film:

Comments and suggestions:

When photographing the black/clear letters; underexpose by at least three stops; if photographing the clear/black letters, overexpose by at least two or three stops.You'll probably need to experiment just a bit.

Just cut the tabs apart with a scissors. I mitered the corners of the tabs to keep them from catching on things. This is not a precision operation and you could certainly trim it much closer.

I just use super glue to attach the tabs. A tweezers really helps and use as little glue as you can get away with. Too much super glue can actually weaken the bond.

We've provided the spreadsheet file above. You can adjust the numbering scheme to fit your requirements. We stopped at 50 because I only have 48 film holders.

Make sure your printer can print really black if you're using the black/clear letters.

It's probably obvious, but you'll need to mark the film holder to match the index. You can make a fancy label if you'd like; I just use a silver felt tip marker.

Bear in mind that if the scene you're photographing puts very dark shadows in the corner with tab, you might not be able to read the index. Sorry, but we can't fix everything.  If you're slightly paranoid, you could add two tabs to each film holder. If you're seriously paranoid, you could add one black/clear and one clear/black.

On most film holders, the tab will be far enough above the film that the index numbers will be a bit blurry. This doesn't bother me but if you'd like, you could add a spacer (a piece of scrap film) between the tab and the film holder gate.

We hope this makes your photographic endeavors just a bit easier. Please share your results on our gallery page:

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