I have a confession to make. I like to gamble… With expired film emulsions. What follows is the largest gamble I’ve made so far, and the images it delivered.
This latest expired roll was made in 1963/64 by East Germany’s former Kodak factory, which was renamed to VEB Fotochemische Werke Berlin. The film expired in August 1966, and was hidden away for nearly 60 years, waiting to fulfill its purpose.
The older the emulsion, the higher the stakes. And, when you have little or no idea about the film’s previous storage, things get exciting. It all combines to make for extreme satisfaction when things turn out in a ,well, satisfying way.
That said, satisfaction is relative. There’s no right or wrong. For some, satisfaction results from colour shifts or unanticipated effects. Personally, I’m delighted when the image is still technically quite good, giving a taste of the emulsion’s original flavour.
The imperfections and blemishes in the image invite questions and discussion on how a 60-year-old emulsion traveled through time, the conditions and places it was stored in, and the people who had the film before me.
Isn’t debate and discussion the point of art?
The story behind Dekopan is wild.
It began as Glanzfilm, becoming Kodak Germany (Deutsche Kodak, panchromatic film = De-Ko-Pan), and was later seized and assigned to Germany’s World War II effort, becoming a state-owned GDR enterprise called VEB Fotochemische Werke Berlin. In 1991 it returned to Kodak’s ownership only to shut in 2010. The facilities lay abandoned until recently and are now transitioning into housing.
It’s a super cool story that I encourage you to read here and here.
Taking receipt of the film
The original film boxes were yellowed with age but in good shape with only a few signs of wear. Someone had taken care of these or put them in a spot and forgot about them for 50+ years.
The expiry date of AUG1966 was stamped on the carton. Each carton included the original film information leaflet outlining its recommended developing times — between 7 and 9 minutes in 1:40 Rodinal (R09) at 20c.
The film was wrapped in foil, but wasn’t airtight. Moisture had entered the wrapper, as I could see some rust on the metal ends of the film spool. There were tiny specs of rust left in the wrapper when I removed the film too, suggesting the chances of successful development might be remote.
Absolutely not what I was hoping for.
There was never a question about what camera to pair up. Obviously a Praktisix IIa produced around the same time is a perfect match (which preceded the Pentacon Six). The Flektogon is 1980’s vintage.
Rating and development
Loading a film that’s been wrapped for 60 years into a film development reel is a massive pain. It took several attempts to load it onto a Patterson reel. Not fun.
There’s a lot of Internet advice on developing expired film. I generally do two things:
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- Expose the film 1-2 stops lower than it’s box speed, and
- extend development times very slightly.
While many authors recommend adding one stop of exposure for every decade expired, I’ve never found that truly necessary. And in this case, that would have been 5-6 more stops on an already ASA40 film.
I decided to rate Dekopan F17 at 25 (2 stops).
For development, I followed the info sheet’s recommendation of 9 minutes in 1:40 Rodinal at 20c. I used constant gentle inversions during the first minute and 5 seconds each minute remaining thereafter and fixed for 7 minutes.
During the wash — around 10 minutes in — an aquamarine/blue dye emerges. It’s beautiful and subtle. It’s a nice change from the usual purple dye I see in modern emulsions.
The negatives were marginally thin. I’ll do 9:30 next time.
The moment of truth
Removing it from the reel, the film surprised me. I was fully prepared for no images, and if there were any, I was sure they’d be heavily fogged, even unusable. Perhaps even stained by rust.
What I got, were contrasty, unfogged, technically good-looking negatives.
My gamble was paying off.
A couple of hours left drying, and the film curled into a vertical cylinder like a broom handle (yikes). After cutting and sleeving under a heavy book for 48 hours, the negatives were no worse than modern film. The curl flattened, and scanning was fine.
The images shown are unadjusted for contrast and not corrected. They are straight off the Epson Perfection Pro v850 and sized for website use. No fancy presets, no adjustments.
Look at the integrity of the images. They reflect a well-made, quality film, and suggest favourable storage conditions, albeit with some humidity along the way.
The images speak for themselves, so this conclusion takes a slightly different tone to what you might expect: reconsider the role and story your film plays in your storytelling and artistry.
In other words, go ahead, use an expired film. Let the viewer appreciate the film’s unique and parallel narrative.
Don’t be afraid to try an emulsion you’ve never used, especially one that is older than you! That film might have been waiting all this time for you to discover how great it can be.
Thanks for reading,
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That’s really cool, and I’m amazed at how well they came out. There does look to be a bit of mottling in the clearer sky areas, but the tonal range is still good. Nice work!
This is a fantastic and informative article – thanks for writing this! I recently inherited a 1953 Leica M3 from my grandfather. It hasn’t been used in 40 years, and when I wound up the advance all the way and opened the backplate, there was still a roll in film in there. I really wonder what’s on it – you’ve inspired me to figure out what!
Thanks Nicholas! Not sure what the film is, and be prepared for heavy fog or surprises, but likely a similar development time/developer should work. Perhaps provide more details on this site and ask for input. I truly hope it turns out for you, so you can complete the film’s journey.
wow, such a beautiful results for the old film which sure wasn’t stored properly.
and ofcourse beautiful frames
Victor, thank you for your kind comments. Your work is very captivating! I’m excited to photograph in Israel one day.
Thank you for sharing, your care in taking, care in processing and in telling the story about this film. Kudos! Just wonderful images all of them.
Thank you Robert! Appreciate that. On that particular day, I took my 2 year old Springer Spaniel with me, and she now understands enough to wait for me while I shoot. There might be some treats involved to help train her.
Excellent story, excellent result, excellent film! Thank you!!
Thank you Jak! I’m tempted to take a roll with me to Paris when I am there in mid-June. I love that city. I feel the random imperfections of the film combined with the subject matter there might increase the images’ narrative.