When deciding whether to use expired film or fresh stock on a personal project, it’s worth considering some practical issues. In this article, I use two personal projects to illustrate how I’ve made my choice for the best film stock for my photography projects.
That “my choice” part is important. The purpose of this article isn’t to tell you what the objectively best film stock is (there is not a universal choice), it’s to walk you through my process and rationale, and as a result, help you navigate and specific choices you might be making now or in the future.
Personal projects = creative freedom
It is pretty well documented now that personal projects are a valuable vehicle for a photographer to pursue ideas and expand their creativity. The joy of a personal project is that no one has commissioned it, so no one has expectations of the outcome and you can approach it any way you want – film, digital, moving image, sound, or even a mixture of all of the above; it’s all fair game.
Personally, I tend to stick with film wherever possible because my client work is all shot on digital, and I like to keep the separation between the two areas of my work.
Within film photography there are additional choices over digital formats: shooting colour, black and white, negative (print film) or slide (reversal). Additionally, there is the choice of factory fresh or expired (in my case, well beyond use-by date).
This very question is the subject of this article: when exactly is the right time to use expired film vs fresh film?
A new adventure with old film
My first major foray into film for a personal project was with “Saxonvale: What Happened Here”, the study of one brownfield site in my hometown, which I made over a two-year period and wrote about here on EMULSIVE back in 2019.
With that project, I was inching my way back into film after a 20-year hiatus. Digital photography had almost completely replaced film for commissioned work, and as I outline in that article, I tested the waters with a large, mixed bag of expired film of varying types and formats that I managed to acquire from helpful industry contacts.
Fast forward to the end of 2019 and I could no longer access Saxonvale as it had been acquired for development and was boarded out. However, the project did lead to the commissioning of a set of aluminium Dibond prints to adorn the hoardings used to secure the site, which was a great outcome for an entirely self-instigated project.
As the images are displayed on hoardings facing a car park, I like to claim that it’s the world’s first drive-in photographic exhibition. Given the length of time the construction planning process has taken, it’s also now the longest-running drive-in photographic exhibition.
But the securing of that site meant I was without a personal project and I was in need of something new.
So what next?
Having a think about where I wanted to go next, I decided I needed a different kind of challenge. I needed to push myself into an area I’d never worked before.
I’d never knowingly shot a landscape and wondered if I could take an approach different from the modern (mostly digital) norm of super-saturated colours and whooshy waterfalls. Could I find an editorial angle that would create a set of images with a common look, feel and theme?
And so the Salisbury Plain project (working title Beyond the Stones) started to emerge as a strong contender.
Salisbury Plain is best known as the location of Stonehenge, probably the world’s most famous prehistoric monument, but this is just a tiny part of the landmass of Salisbury Plain itself; a neolithic punctuation mark on the southernmost edge of the plain.
More interesting to me was the greater mass of the plain itself; Europe’s largest remaining chalk plateau and host to agriculture, archaeology, and military training.
Now, where I’d sort of stumbled on Saxonvale as a project and was able to approach it in a fairly open way, slotting it between other commitments, Salisbury Plain needed a bit more planning and thought. With Saxonvale I could drive there in a matter of minutes, where Salisbury Plain is, at its nearest point, a good 40-minute drive away.
And where I could cover the Saxonvale area on foot in around 20 minutes, Salisbury Plain covers approximately 780 km², with large areas being inaccessible during military exercises. Even when driving there, it entails an often arduous walk to get to the more remote areas.
All of this means there were some early decisions to be made about what kind of film I would use. I couldn’t risk spending time, effort, and fuel shooting film which might not bear fruit – I’d had one or two disasters on the Saxonvale project where the film I had selected was too old to register an image, so decided this was no time to be ‘playing’ with old film. Besides this, I wanted to keep medium format as an option, and I’m down to my last couple of rolls of very dodgy expired 120 stock.
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I also wanted more consistency for this project. Saxonvale worked well with its hotchpotch of film types and ages, often mirroring the random scenes and experiences which emerged as the project progressed. Plus there was a certain poetry in documenting a decaying industrial site using film which was similarly slowly breaking down.
Unexpected manoeuvres on the plain
In addition to the challenges arising from the sheer scale of Salisbury Plain, it has the added complication of the military exercises I mentioned earlier.
While the Ministry of Defence publishes firing times in advance, they also have the prerogative of changing their minds at the last minute. After all, they’ve got the guns, they can do what they like.
You can travel to a part of the plain in the belief that there’s no live exercise that day, only to be confronted with red flags, and it’s an offence to proceed beyond the Danger Area boundary when they’re flying. You not only risk arrest but also being shot or blown up.
If I am confronted with unexpected manoeuvres, I always have a backup plan which usually involves switching to one of the areas which are accessible even if training is going on (they don’t use live rounds here, but you have to be aware of armoured vehicles hurtling about). So with enough to think about already, I don’t want to be fretting about the state of the film I’m using.
Choices which make themselves
Having chosen to use new film stock, I could have gone with colour negative or even transparency, but Salisbury Plain just seems to cry out for black and white treatment. It’s a vast, often featureless expanse, and so for me the sky became an important character in the images.
This became particularly apparent after my first trip in February 2020. With my Canon EOS 1N, 40mm f/2.8 STM attached, ILFORD Delta 400 Professional loaded and cold drizzle pattering on my waterproofs, this was when I found the tone for the project.
Subsequent trips soon helped pull the ideas more into focus. I was going to document Salisbury Plain in all its eerie weirdness. But never one to make life easy for myself, I started packing at least one 35mm camera (either my EOS 1N or Nikon F2) plus my Bronica SQ-A.
I wasn’t done with adjusting my approach as I journeyed through film stocks from ILFORD Delta 400, to Kodak Tri-X and finally to ILFORD FP4 PLUS, which I’ve settled on. I decided to rate FP4 PLUS at EI 200 and then push the processing to compensate, resulting in a stark, charcoal-drawing aesthetic to the images.
Given how 2020 turned out, the project has suffered delays. Even as travel restrictions eased, my client work returned with such a vengeance that I’m only now starting to see pockets of time in my diary when I can plan personal trips.
It has been a frustrating wait, but it’s also given me time to think more about the direction I want the project to go and the themes I want to pull in.
In the end, consistency and cost do matter
Underpinning all of that, I’m glad I took the decision to use consistent, reliable film stock for this project. I still have a decent stock of expired 35mm film in my freezer for a possible follow-up on the Saxonvale story, but however I end up using that film, it’ll have to be for something more accessible and less logistically challenging than a military exercise area.
My decision to stick to one black and white film type also helps with consistency of results when it comes to digitising the negatives for fine art print sales (see takeagander.co.uk). No more battling with the vagaries of expired stock, wrestling with shifted colours or depleted contrast.
I suppose the final thought has to go to the fact that while ILFORD FP4 PLUS is not on the endangered list of film types, expired film is a very finite resource, and getting eye-wateringly expensive considering there is zero quality control.
My advice based on my own experience: by all means shoot expired film for anything easily accessible, replicable, or just fun, but it’s a tougher call if you’re going to commit to anything which is more involved in terms of time and logistics. Especially for something where consistency is needed from frame to frame.
In my case, it was the commitment of other resources and time that ultimately made the decision for me.
Thanks for reading,
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The photograph: ‘Stonehenge. Bronica SQ A Zenzanon S 150mm ILFORD FP4 PLUS’ is very good, striking in fact!
Thanks Ronald, I very much wanted to avoid the usual Stonehenge clichés. It’s such a well-known landmark, you barely have to see it to know what it is. Thank you for your kind comment.