Fat Rolls

Posted on 08 October 2010 by Tomas Webb

Fat rolls. The bane of medium format toy shooters. Think you’re immune? You’re not. They occur when you least expect it. So here’s some tips on how to avoid them as well as what to do when the inevitable occurs.

What is a “fat roll”?

Fat rolls are the result of the film not winding on tight enough to the take up spool in medium format cameras. Most serious cameras have mechanisms that prevent this, but the cheaply made Dianas, Holgas and so on are not often blessed with this luxury; “the Holga has a sponge!” I hear you exclaim. Correct. But this sponge can often be the cause of a fat roll in the long run — the sponge becomes unattached eventually, and the more attentive of you may notice it wind by the little red window…

Fat rolls result in substantial light leakage, and it often appears as if the developer has spilt chemicals on the negatives. Occasionally you’ll get lucky and you might get a cool defect effect such as numbers from the backing paper appearing in the shot. Believe it or not, some people actually like this result so much they try and recreate it. Squarefrog states:

So the only way to inject some tasty leaks into your images is to obtain a fat roll. A fat roll is where the film base and backing paper overlap the top and bottom of the spool. Normal tightly wound spools have protection against leaks by the design of the spools, but fat rolls have no such luck. Light can come pouring in at the top and bottom [...] Once you have your fat roll, if you are feeling especially brave, you can give it a little squeeze to increase the risk of leaks.

Which Camera?

As far as I’m aware (and based on years of personal experience) the only susceptible cameras are the toy cameras that belong to the Diana and Holga lines (inclusive of both the new and the old, as well as clones). (Surprisingly enough even the cheap folders I’ve used have never resulted in a fat roll.) There are a few possible reasons for this, including user error as well as manufacturing defects quirks. In the case of the LSI Diana, the feet which hold the film in place just aren’t strong enough to keep both the film and the take up spool tight enough; the Holga suffers from the phenomena (previously mentioned) known as “Ack — just saw my foam roll by”.

Help is at hand!

As always, the internet is full of wonderful people who have documented their experiences about almost everything imaginable. In the case of fat rolls, the question is asked regularly in numerous places all over the internet, with one of the latest being in the Holga flickr group (examples of what to look for in the link).

Squarefrog suggests using cardboard under the spools to help with film tension, but I have read elsewhere that people trying this technique have found the winding a little harder, and I read of one account where someone wound so hard on their Holga that the winder broke off! Of course, since it was glued on originally, it was (apparently) a simple task to re-glue it back on. But do you really want to take the chance of that happening?

Personally I normally travel with a darkbag/changebag since I generally have a 4×5 field camera with me. That way I can open up the (possible) offending camera in the safe confines of the bag and re-roll the film tighter is need be. Here’s a video guide for thos eof you who are new/unfamiliar with 120 film:

In the case of my latest fat roll, it was way too fat for even the above method to work. So what did I do? I opened the back of my Holga and here’s how my thought process went:

Oh, a fat roll.
Maybe I should put the back back on.
No, hang on, it looks like it’s maybe just a loose leader. I’ll pull it out and have a look.
*pulls film out*
Oh, it really is a fat roll. Or is it? Maybe it just looks that way but it’s not?
*squeeze film hard a few times*
Hmm. I guess it is a fat roll then.

Sometimes I just don’t think… I stuffed it in my jeans pocket, then used a rolled up jumper as a makeshift changebag to unroll the entire film and re-roll it again — tight this time. Had I put the back on when I first thought it was a fat roll, I could have saved it. Had I not squeezed it, I could have saved it, had I not… well, you get the point.

Any other sage words of wisdom for suffers of fat roll?

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Brian Auer Says:

    I get slightly fat rolls sometimes on the Diana+, but usually never enough to ruin any shots. I tried the shim trick, but it made the roll way to hard to wind and I felt like I was going to break something (even with just one layer of cardboard). But if you have a really sloppy fit in the camera, the shim might be just right.

    Another option is to not unload the film in light if you have a history of fat rolls. Kind of inconvenient though.


    Tomas Webb Reply:

    Yeah I tried the cardboard trick on my Holga yesterday – it made a nice tight roll and the winding was fine, but the cardboard came loose and made the back pop off. I lost 3 frames.


  2. Daniel Says:

    I had this problem a while ago and ended up with light leaks for my troubles, guy at the photo lab said my roll was loose in the center not at the end of the roll. Though this was my fault not the camera.

    If you use Fuji (maybe others i’ve not shot others) 120 roll film, their 120 “easy loading” spools have a little “hook” in the middle, and the roll of film has a hole on the start of the leader. You wriggle the hole over the hook and it makes keeping the start of the roll tight much easier. Don’t know if Kodak or Ilford have this but you could easily do it with a paper hole puncher and a spare easy loading spool.

    If you have some spare black 35mm film canisters you can cut two of them up and tape them together (i use black electrical tape) to make a light tight 120 roll holder. Useful if you’re out and about and worried about light leaks on a loose roll, or like me just till you get to the lab for developing. The lab tech said Rollei used to make 120 canisters but for the life of me i can’t find any or anywhere that sells something similar.


    Tomas Webb Reply:

    Thanks for the tip on the Fuji spools – I have lots of them.

    As for the canisters, these would work.

    EDIT: In the restoration from the hack, lost the link, and it seems someone bought the canisters I linked to anyway. They occasionally pop up on ebay, and I think Japan Exposures sells them occasionally.


    @nibes Reply:

    for those in Europe,


    I guess those are the containers.

    Every time I get a fat roll or a slightly shifted roll, I just put it in my jeans pocket and carry on with my journey until I get home. Sometimes If I have the wrapping foil, I just use that to store the roll.


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