There is a “rule” for shooting expired film. This “rule” states that when shooting expired film, one should add one stop of exposure per decade it has been expired. The rule is wrong and by blindly following it, you are doing yourself, your film and your subjects a disservice.
No-one knows where the rule came from, no-one. Perhaps it was always there, lurking, waiting. Somehow, every expired film shooter I’ve met over the years has either heard or repeated “the rule” at least once in their lives but they all have a hard time telling me where they learned this magic equation. It’s the devil’s work, obviously.
To understand the absurdity of “the rule” and to try and add some sense to its meaningless equation, I’ve put this article together. In it, I explain:
- What photographic film is and how film ages.
- How to shoot expired film in general terms based on age and storage.
- How to shoot specific types of expired film based on age and storage.
The contents of this article come with a 100% money-back guaranteed that they will better inform your approach to shooting expired film than “the rule”, which is ultimately best described as the film photography equivalent of trying to eat a big bowl of soup using a single chopstick.
This article was originally to be a quick rant but as usual, has turned into something a little longer and I hope, more useful. Here’s what I cover:
Table of contents
- 1 What is photographic film and why do film stocks expire?
- 2 Stopping film expiring
- 3 How to shoot expired film
- 3.1 General advice
- 3.2 Specific film type advice
- 4 Final thoughts
Before we get onto all of that, here’s something super-important: photographic film is chemical not magic.
I should also say that I thoroughly enjoy shooting expired film. It accounts for about a 20-30% of the film I shoot and varies from stocks that have just hit their expiry date to stocks that have been expired for 50 years or more. I’ve made mistakes, some of which, through trial and error have been corrected and others which were completely unrecoverable.
What is photographic film and why do film stocks expire?
Let’s begin with a highly simplified look at why film stocks have an expiry date and what happens to photographic film as it ages. Please be aware that this is not an exhaustive description and is meant only to provide a broad brush of context for what follows.
To make photographic film, layers of gelatin, some of which are packed full of silver halides (the combination of silver and halogens) are coated onto sheets of flexible plastic. The silver halides are the light sensitive bit of photographic film and react to exposure to light. Anyway, these coated sheets are dried, cut into smaller pieces, put in boxes and sold to people like you and me who go and expose said pieces of film to light before dunking them in chemicals. Brilliant.
In the form of two highly simplified illustrations, here’s the end result:
Remember: highly simplified.
Photographic film has an expiry date because – speaking to black and white film – the halides lose their sensitivity over time. Time, heat, humidity, nuclear fallout, even the afterglow of creation all have a hand in this. Together they cause changes in the silver halides making them less or unpredictably sensitive to light. We generally refer to the effect as fogging.
Colour film adds a bit more complexity into the mix with its use of dyes and masks, which sit with/between the silver halide layers like a harlequin lasagne. The dyes break down pretty quickly in comparison to the silver halides and sometimes, pretty quickly in relation to themselves as well. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to just photographic film. Probably the most famous and well-documented example of changing nature of dyes and pigments is Van Gogh’s painting, Sunflowers, which started becoming discoloured during the painter’s own lifetime.
For film, these changes are best characterised as “crazy color shifts and unexpected effects”. Now, where have we heard that before? 😉
All these problems with sensitivity loss and relatively short-lived colour dyes, etc., are known to film manufacturers and as such, all films have an expiry date — actually, a best before date — normally 2-3 years after it left the factory. You may continue to use the film after this date but the company wants you to know that you will probably need to think about how you expose it.
I should mention another factor in film expiry: speed. Regardless of film type, faster (higher ISO) films will generally degrade faster than slower films (lower ISO), as the arbitrarily constructed graph below demonstrates.
The three factors – lower silver halide sensitivity, dye ageing and original film sensitivity – provide the beginnings of a method to assess how a specific expired film stock could be shot:
- High-speed films degrade faster than slow films.
- Colour films degrade faster than black and white films.
- High-speed colour films degrade faster than high-speed black and white films.
- Medium-speed colour films degrade slower than high-speed black and white films.
- Low-speed black and white films degrade slower than low-speed colour films.
- …and so on and so forth.
Thus, we arrive at the point of this article: just because a film is expired, it does not automatically mean you need to add a stop of exposure for every decade. In short: know your film.
I’ll be coming back to this and an expanded expired film assessment a bit later.
Stopping film expiring
Technically you cant but you can minimise the effects of ageing without the help of Q-10. The way you store your films (from fresh) is crucial.
If you have a roll of expired film that was cold stored (ideally in a freezer) from brand new, you can go ahead and shoot it as if it just came off the production line. Even if the film expired a decade or two ago, you’ll still likely get a result that’s 95-100% that of a fresh roll. Different considerations need to be made for true black and white infrared films like Kodak’s HIE, Konica Infrared and Efke Aura but I’ll get into these further down.
So, that’s frozen, perfectly stored film. What about the other storage methods?
Truth be told, film that’s been refrigerated from fresh won’t deviate too much from the above. Go ahead and try it out for yourself. For film stored at room temperature (not exceeding about 25C), your results will vary based on location. Film stored in the tropics will have likely aged wildly differently to film stored in temperate climates. Bear this in mind when you’re testing out your film but do test your film if you can.
There is (in my humble opinion) no point buying film only to leave it in a sweaty drawer for a few years before deciding to pop it in the fridge until you want to shoot it. The damage has been done. Leave it in the glove box of your car over the height of Summer and that fresh film could be dead in a few days or weeks.
How to shoot expired film
The most important advice I can give you: Know. Your. Film.
Where did it come from? How was it stored? What kind of film is it? What’s the native speed (ISO) of the film? Answer some or all of these questions and you’ll be better equipped to do your expired film justice.
Some food for thought, starting with the most general advice I can give you on shooting any well-stored (frozen or chilled) expired film. Details plus some of my own expired film photography follow.
The sections below are broken into (1) general advice for all film types depending on their storage condition and (2) advice for specific film types – black and white, colour negative, slide, etc.
You’ll see a number of photographs peppered through this article. Each was taken with expired film. Some frames were intentionally overexposed and/or cross-processed for a specific look, some were not.
This section breaks down my advice for well stored expired film, expired film with uncertain/no storage history and poorly stored/damaged expired film.
Shooting well-stored expired film
Generally speaking, for all ISO 200-400 film that’s been cold stored and expired anything up to 10-20 years, go ahead and shoot your film it at box speed (its native ISO). That covers colour negative, colour slide and black and white negative and slide film. See further down for black and white true infrared film.
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For film that’s 20-40 years expired, I would recommend adding half a stop of exposure. For example, instead of f/8 and 125 sec, shoot at f/8 and 1/90 sec (or set your aperture to a half value, if you can).
For film that’s 40-60 years expired, add a single stop of exposure (although it’s perfectly possible that the same ½ stop extra exposure 20-40 year expired film might work).
All film over 60 years past expiry might well be a crapshoot, especially if it’s 120 or another paper-backed roll film format. In these situations, I would recommend starting with 2-stops of overexposure and bracketing a few exposures on the roll. There’s a great recent example of this in practice with ~100 year old Primor B2 film right here on EMULSIVE.
In any case, if you happen to have multiple rolls of the same expired film, my advice to you would be to experiment with a full or partial roll FIRST. Make a few bracketed exposures and develop the film to directly understand the results from there. You might want to start with something like this:
- Shot as per the meter reading, eg f/8 + 1/125
- Shot with the next faster shutter speed or next smaller aperture, eg f/8 + 1/250 or f/11 + 1/125 (less light).
- Shot with the next slower shutter speed or next larger aperture, eg f/8 + 1/60 or f/5.6 + 1/125 (more light).
This basic +/-1 stop bracketing will give you a baseline to better understand your film, and you can go ahead and use +/- 0.5 or even +/- 0.3 for your baseline. It’s your film and your choice but understanding what you have will be a massive help.
Shooting expired film with no storage history
Things get difficult here if you’re shooting film with an indeterminate history but with a bit of sleuthing, you can inform your decision. First, you’ll need to figure out where it came from. This will help you understand how it’s likely to have aged. Was it from a local friend? Did you buy it from a local store? Did you get it from an eBay seller? If so, where are they based?
Assuming the film was from somewhere in this planet’s temperate zones, you can assume you’ll need about ½ a stop of overexposure for every decade after its expiry date. If you purchased the film with no box and no expiry markings, a quick Google search will let you know if the film’s packaging design is current or not and you can start making slightly more informed guesses from there.
If the film was from the tropics or sub-tropics, you might be lucky and be able to use it based on the “½ a stop of overexposure” for every expired decade suggestion above. If the film’s coming from a store sale, you can be pretty much guaranteed that the location was at least air-conditioned but as this is all potentially a total crapshoot, I would go with the +/-1 stop bracketing described in the previous section.
Shooting poorly stored/damaged expired film
Honestly, don’t. At least not for critical photography or a situation where you’re documenting an important milestone. It’s not worth the heartache and THERE WILL BE HEARTACHE.
By poorly stored, I mean left in the car, flood-damaged, kept in a garden shed, rolls from a shop’s window or display cabinet above a photocopier. Nothing stored in a restaurant kitchen. The last example might be a bit out there but these are all examples I have personally come across and kicked myself every single time. I’m obviously a glutton for punishment.
Specific film type advice
This section breaks down my guidance for shooting different expired films by type – colour negative, colour slide, black and white negative and slide film, as well as true black and white infrared film and colour infrared film.
Let’s start with black and white negative.
Shooting expired black and white negative film
Follow the examples in the “Shooting well-stored expired film” section. To summarise:
- If it’s been cold stored and expired anything up to around 20 years, you can probably go ahead and shoot your film it at box speed (its native ISO).
- Older than that and up to 60 years old, I would recommend adding half a stop of exposure. For example, instead of f/8 and 125 sec, f/8 and 1/90 sec (or set your aperture to a half value, if you can).
- Black and white film over 60 years old might well be a crapshoot, especially if it’s 120 or another paper-backed roll film format In these situations, I would recommend starting with 3-stops of overexposure and bracketing a few exposures on the roll.
ISO 100 and slower film will need much less in the way of overexposure and I would encourage you to shoot at box speed for any film up to 60 years expired.
By the same measure, if you’re trying to shoot that expired (old) Kodak T-MAX P3200, you might not be in for a great time, regardless of how you expose it. I sadly speak from experience here.
Shooting expired colour negative film
Frozen/chill stored ISO 200 and slower colour negative film usually reacts somewhat more true-to-the-original-rating than not (in my experience). ISO 400 film will likely need to be rated at 320 or 200 if older than 15 years expired. Test (bracket) high-speed (>800 ISO) colour films regardless of storage for critical work.
Shooting expired black and white or colour slide film
Again with the assumption that the film was well stored:
- Frozen/chilled from new and up to 20 years expired: shoot it at box speed.
- Frozen/chilled from new and 20+ years expired: overexpose ½ a stop, bracket important shots, prepare yourself for a slight colour shift.
Shooting expired true black and white infrared film
True infrared black and white films will exhibit much more base fog than modern near-IR films such as Rollei Infrared 400 or ILFORD SFX 200. Anything over 15 year expired regardless of storage is going to have quite a bit of base fog.
Even stored in the freezer, true black and white IR film is susceptible to cosmic radiation and anything over 30 years expired might be so fogged that it won’t work. The left image above is from a 20-year roll of expired, freezer stored Kodak High Speed Infrared (HIE). It is one of only half a dozen useable frames on the roll.
Shooting expired true colour infrared film
There are really only two you need to worry about Kodak AEROCHROME and Kodak EKTACHROME INFRARED. You don’t need to worry about these films as the way they capture and represent IR light is a function of the dyes/couplers in the film and not a sensitivity in the same way as black and white IR film. Follow the same suggestions for shooting expired slide film above.
Some important takeaways upfront:
- There is no “rule” to all shooting expired film. There are so many variations in stocks, age and storage that your only hope is to…
- Know. Your. Film. I cannot overstate the importance of this. Film photography offers opportunities to learn and expand knowledge with every sheet/roll you load and every time you fire the shutter. Understanding what you’re shooting allows you to take control and switch things up creatively. Sometimes that means sacrificing a few shots to give you the information you need.
- These suggestions are not intended to be new “rules” to follow. All I’ve done it collect my experiences along those of a few others I’ve met over the years and presented them here. Use them to help inform yourself and then go out and shoot!
Finally to the inevitable question some will be asking: if it’s so much trouble, why bother shooting expired film? Shouldn’t we all support the industry and buy new film?
Here’s my answer. Yours might be different. There are certain expired film stocks that while long gone, are still perfectly viable for photography 10, 20, 40 years after they were discontinued. Why not shoot them? Some photographers have large bodies of work dialled-in to specific film stocks and more extensive processes, so why not continue? Some photographers receive expired film as part of a family/friend “windfall”, so why not have a go? Some people just like shooting expired film (which may or may not be cheaper than fresh stock), so why not let them. Some people just like shooting film period and (like me) treat every press of the shutter button and the results that follow as a learning experience, so why not let them learn?
I know this is a little snarky but it’s inevitable that there will be a few people who will only read the article headline or see social media previews and then jump straight into the comments section saying something along the lines of, “this is why I don’t shoot expired film”, or “support the industry by buying fresh film”.
If you see any comments like that, be assured that the commenter has not read this article and will likely be knee-jerking themselves to an early grave.
It seems to me that certain corners of our community turn their nose up at the thought of shooting expired film because of some strange discriminatory attitude towards the “Lomo aesthetic” and what that means to them. Mostly, it’s a diversionary tactic to avoid saying what they really mean: they don’t understand or like experimental photography or photography made by young people. Dig deeper and you’ll find that many of these people strangely also believe that if it wasn’t shot on a tripod at f/64 with the shadows placed in Zone-whatever, it’s not photography. If only Ansel, Picker, et al were alive today to tell them otherwise.
In my humble opinion, while buying fresh film absolutely directly supports the industry and future production, shooting expired film is not going to shift the needle for film manufacturers or the distribution chain in any meaningful way. If you’re not getting your expired film for free – i.e. you’re buying it from another film shooter – you’re supporting someone who’s probably going to use that money to… buy fresh film.
There’s a thought.
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