Expired Film Basics

I love expired film.

Almost all my images are made on expired film.

I love to hold ancient boxes of emulsions not produced for ages, wondering where they were bought and what kind of journey they made to end up in one of my cameras. They smell of forgotten secrets and evoke an air of nostalgia.

They reward with images seemingly out of the 70s or 60s, with colour shifts and huge lovely grain.  They are mostly cheap and exotic, relics of eras past.

As lovely as expired film is, there are some caveats to be observed, especially since almost all expired film has been poorly stored.

  • Loss of speed: Film, especially high sensitivity professional emulsions, lose speed over time depending on storage circumstances. Most high speed film you will find will not be very speedy anymore. You should rate it accordingly. This is more true for colour negative film and slide film, I have found, as you can sometimes push even long expired monochrome film to astonishing feats via stand development in Rodinal.
  • Base fog: Some old films are badly fogged when developed. Time is not gentle.
  • Loss of sharpness: With age, emulsions lose sharpness, something which often produces pleasing creamy, dreamy images, also a result of:
  • Loss of dynamic range/contrast range.
  • Grain: This is in part also a function of loss of speed. Some films tend to become grainier with time but some are also underexposed when used, due to speed loss, contributing to grainier images.
  • Colour casts/colour shifts: The pigments in the emulsion also deteriorate, producing often unexpected results, especially when cross-processing old slide film (see AGFA RSX example below).
  • No Development Available: Some emulsions cannot be developed as intended anymore, as the processes are antiquated and superceded, like C-22, or just not available anymore, like Kodachrome development K-14. Of course, there are always other ways, like monochrome development, but evidently they do not produce colour images and only poor monochrome negatives.
  • Instant Fim Destruction: Old instant films can suffer from drying out, which results in blank frames. Also the batteries may not supply sufficient voltage any more in integral packs. The worst is if the seals in the chemical paste pods have deteriorated resulting in the burning alkali paste exploding into the rolls and the interior of your camera.

To be sure, most these attributes contribute to the appeal of expired film. However, they also raise certain points to be considered.

  • Can you use it? If it’s an ancient roll for a process no longer avainle, or a format for which you don’t have a camera (e.g. 127, APS), you should perhaps think it over.
  • Do not pay too much for expired film. I have seen expired, often high-speed, films being sold for almost as much as they cost new. A bad bargain.
  • Test it. I used to laugh at this, but before you go snapping your once-in-a-lifetime backpacking tour on some ancient rolls you bought cheaply, maybe shoot a test roll first to see if it is any good at all!

That said, let’s have a look at some examples:

All images Copyright by A. V. Behrens, all rights reserved.

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