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How to Shoot Expired Film: A Complete Guide

Film photography - it’s a world of its own, filled with charm and challenges. It can be a bit heavy on the pocket, but hey, who said you can’t be a bit savvy and still get those amazing shots? Enter the world of expired film. It’s like the wild child of the film family, past its “use by” date and full of surprises. This article is your guide to navigating this exciting terrain.


Why Expired Film?

Think of shooting with expired film as a photographic adventure. It’s like adding a dash of spice to your images - unpredictable and full of character. The type, age, and how the film was stored can give you a variety of results - different hues, tones, contrasts, grain, or even light leaks that can add a unique touch to your photos.


Some photographers are drawn to the retro or nostalgic vibe that expired film can bring, while others love the thrill of not knowing exactly what they’ll get. It’s like a surprise gift with every click! Plus, it’s a great way to experiment with rare or discontinued film stocks that aren’t available anymore or are too pricey when fresh.


So, ready to dive into the world of expired film? Let’s get started!


Choosing Your Expired Film – A Handy Guide

So, you’re ready to dive into the world of expired film. But where do you start? Here’s a quick guide to help you pick your film like a pro:

  • Film speed: Think of film speed, or ISO, as the sensitivity of the film to light. The higher the ISO, the less light you need. But remember, faster film degrades quicker than slower film. So, unless you’re after some really out-there effects, you might want to steer clear of expired film with high ISO ratings (above 400). Slower film (below 200) tends to hold its quality better and might give you more subtle changes in colour and contrast.

  • Film type: You’ve got two main choices here: colour and black and white. Colour film has multiple layers that react to different wavelengths of light, while black and white film reacts to the overall brightness of the scene. Colour film can give you colour shifts, fading, or cross-processing effects when expired, while black and white film might increase in contrast, grain, or fog. Some photographers love the unpredictability of colour film, while others prefer the consistency of black and white film.

  • Expiration date: This is the date that the film manufacturer guarantees the film will perform as intended if stored properly. It’s usually printed on the film box or the film canister. But don’t take it as gospel. It’s more of a guideline to help you guess how much the film has deteriorated. Generally, the older the film, the more likely it is to have noticeable changes in quality and appearance. But some film stocks age like fine wine. For example, some Kodak Portra films are known to produce warmer and richer colours when expired, while some Fuji films might lose saturation and turn greenish or magenta.

  • Storage history: This is the biggie. Film is sensitive to heat, humidity, and radiation, which can speed up the chemical reactions that degrade the film. Ideally, film should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark place, like a fridge or a freezer. But let’s face it, most expired film has probably seen the inside of a garage, a basement, or a car trunk. The storage history is often a mystery, so you might have to take a gamble and hope for the best. If you can, try to buy expired film from sellers who can give you some info on how the film was stored, or at least check the film box and canister for signs of damage or leakage.

 

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A set of photographs taken on expired slide films, such as Agfa CT Precisa 200, Boots 100 ISO Slide Film (aka Fuji Sensia 100), Kodak E100SW and Kodak E100s. As you can see, when used correctly, slide film still renders colours broadly accurately, though absolute ISO sensitivity and dynamic range is affected. All of these were either shot at box speed or 1/3 of a stop slower. Photo credits: Michael Elliott


Using Your Expired Film – Step-by-Step

So, you’ve got your hands on some expired film. Now what? Here’s how to get the most out of it


Exposing Your Expired Film

Exposing expired film is more art than science. It’s all about trial and error. A good starting point is to overexpose the film by one stop for every decade since it expired. So, if you’re shooting a 200 ISO film that expired in 2010, set your camera to 100 ISO. Why? Because expired film loses sensitivity over time and needs more light to get a proper exposure. But remember, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. You might need to tweak it based on the film speed, type, expiration date, and storage history. Some expired film might need more or less overexposure, or even no overexposure at all. The best way to figure it out is to play around with different settings and bracket your exposures. You could also use a light meter or a digital camera to meter the scene and compare the results with your film camera.


Developing Your Expired Film

Developing expired film is pretty much the same as developing fresh film, though a few adjustments might need to be made. For colour film, you can use the standard process for the film (C-41 for colour negative film, E-6 for colour slide film), or you can cross-process it for more dramatic effects. Cross-processing is when you develop film in a different chemical than it was designed for. This can give you some really cool results, like colour shifts, increased contrast, or increased grain. For black and white film, you can use the standard process, or you can push or pull it for more control over the contrast and grain. Pushing is when you develop film for longer than recommended, which increases the contrast and grain, but also compensates for underexposure. Pulling is when you develop film for less time than recommended, which decreases the contrast and grain, but also compensates for overexposure.


Scanning Your Expired Film

Scanning expired film is much the same process as scanning fresh film, but you might need to make a few adjustments. For colour film, you might need to correct the colour balance, saturation, and contrast, as expired film can produce colour shifts, fading, or fogging. You can use the software that comes with your scanner, or a photo editing program like Photoshop or Lightroom, to make these adjustments. For black and white film, you might need to adjust the brightness, contrast, and sharpness, as expired film can produce grain, fogging, or scratches. You can also use the software or program to remove dust, spots, or other imperfections from the image.


Storing Your Expired Film

Got some expired film you want to keep for later? Store it in a cool, dry, and dark place, like a fridge or a freezer. This can slow down the chemical degradation and limit exposure to light and radiation. But remember, let the film warm up to room temperature before you use it to avoid condensation and moisture. Keep the film in its original packaging or in a light-tight container, and label it with the expiration date and storage conditions.


A set of photographs taken on expired black and white films, such as Fuji Neopan Acros 100 (original), Agfa Scala 200X, and Fuji Neopan 400PR. The vast majority of expired black and white film you shoot will produce perfectly usable images even at box speed. Most of these, apart from the Neopan 400PR which was shot at 200, were shot at box speed. Photo credits: Michael Elliott


What Can You Expect from Expired Film?

Shooting with expired film is like a rollercoaster ride - thrilling, unpredictable, and sometimes a bit scary. You never know what you’re going to get until you develop the film, and sometimes the results might not be what you were hoping for. Here’s a sneak peek at what you might expect


Colour shifts

Expired colour film can give you a whole new palette of colours compared to fresh film. This depends on the film type, how it was stored, and how it’s developed. Common colour shifts include green, magenta, yellow, or blue. These can affect the whole image or just parts of it. Sometimes you can tweak the colour shifts in post-processing, but sometimes they might be too strong or too inconsistent to fix. Colour shifts can add a unique mood to your photos, or they might just ruin them. It’s all about your personal taste and how you feel about surprises!


A colour photograph of the Medway at Rochester, on expired film, showing magenta shift.
Heavily expired Kodak Portra 400VC, showing quite significant magenta shift. River Medway at Rochester. Photo credit: Michael Elliott


Fading

Expired film can lose its mojo over time, leading to faded or washed-out images. This can happen with both colour and black and white film, but it’s more noticeable in colour film. Fading can give your photos a vintage or old-school look, or it can make them look dull and lifeless. But don’t worry, you can control the fading by tweaking the exposure and development time, or by using filters or post-processing. So, even if your film is faded, it doesn’t mean your photos have to be!

A colour photograph on Fuji Superia 400 near Blackfriars demonstrating fading and banding.
Medium format Fuji Superia 400 shot at EI100 - showing heavy fading and banding. This wasn't due to poor processing as fresh rolls were developed in the same tank, but 120 (and 220) film appears to also demonstrate heavy banding when expired. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Grain

Expired film can get a bit grainy over time, especially if it’s been exposed to heat or radiation. Grain is the texture or noise that you see in film images, caused by the random distribution of silver crystals in the emulsion. It can happen with both colour and black and white film, but it’s more noticeable in faster film or in darker parts of the image. Grain can give your photos a bit of character or grit, or it can make them look noisy and low-quality. But don’t worry, you can control the grain by choosing the right film speed, exposure, development process, or by using filters or post-processing.


A colour photograph of the interior of a Korean supermarket off Charing Cross Road, London, showing high grain.
Heavily grainy expired Portra 400VC. Even if this was shot at EI100, the heavily expired nature of the film meant that it was difficult to get the image out of the fog. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Fog

Expired film can get a bit foggy over time. This is a uniform veil of density or haze that can make your images less clear and contrasty. Fog happens when the film is exposed to light or radiation, either before or after shooting. It can affect both colour and black and white film, but it’s more noticeable in slower film or in lighter parts of the image. Fog can give your photos a mysterious or atmospheric feel, or it can make them look flat and blurry. But don’t worry, you can prevent or reduce fog by storing the film properly, shielding the film from light, or using filters or post-processing.


A black and white photograph of a field near Ashdown Forest demonstrating fog and grain
Fuji Neopan 400PR in medium format demonstrating heavy grain and high fog levels. Shot at EI200 and developed in D23 1+3. Photo credit: Michael Elliott

Light Leaks

Expired film can sometimes give you light leaks. These are streaks or spots of light that show up on the image, caused by light sneaking in through holes or cracks in the film or the camera. Light leaks can happen with both colour and black and white film, and they can pop up anywhere on the image, in any shape, size, or colour. Light leaks can add a bit of drama to your photos, or they can be a total photo-wrecker. You can avoid light leaks by checking the film and camera for damage, loading and unloading the film in the dark, or using tape or gaffer to seal the camera. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can create light leaks on purpose by intentionally exposing the film to light, or using filters or post-processing.


Other Effects

Expired film can also give you some effects that don’t fit into any neat categories. Think streaks, spots, blotches, bubbles, scratches, or patterns. These can be caused by all sorts of things, like chemical reactions, physical damage, moisture, mold, or even fungus. These effects can happen with both colour and black and white film, and they can vary in intensity, frequency, and where they show up on the image. These effects can add a bit of texture or interest to your photos, or they can make them look dirty and damaged. These effects can be random or intentional, depending on how you store, handle, or treat the film.

The Ups and Downs of Shooting Expired Film

Shooting expired film can be a bit of a mixed bag. Here are some of the pros and cons:


Pros

  • Shooting expired film can be a real money saver, especially if you find some bargains online or in thrift stores. Plus, you can use expired film to try out different film stocks that aren’t made anymore or are hard to find.

  • Shooting expired film can be a blast. You never know what you’re going to get, which can lead to some really unique and artistic photos. You can also try different techniques like cross-processing, pushing, pulling, or redscaling to enhance the effects of expired film.

  • Shooting expired film can give your photos a vintage or nostalgic look. Expired film can produce faded, grainy, or color-shifted images that look like they’re straight out of a time machine.

Cons

  • Shooting expired film can be a bit of a gamble. You might end up with photos that are unusable or poor quality. Expired film can be damaged by heat, humidity, light, or radiation, which can affect how it performs and looks. You might also run into problems when developing or scanning expired film, as some labs might refuse to process it or charge extra.

  • Shooting expired film can be a challenge. You might need to adjust your settings and expectations. Expired film can lose its sensitivity and need more light to expose properly, which can limit when and where you can shoot. You might also have to deal with inconsistent or unpredictable results, which can make it hard to get the look you want.

  • Shooting expired film can be wasteful. You might end up throwing away a lot of film that could have been used. Plus, expired film can have a negative impact on the environment, as it contains chemicals and materials that aren’t biodegradable or recyclable. So, you might want to think about the ethical and ecological implications of using expired film.

A set of photographs taken on expired colour negative films, such as Kodak Portra 400VC, Kodak Portra 400NC and Fujifilm Superia 400. All of these were either shot at around 1 to 2 stops slower than box speed (between 200 and 100 ISO). Photo credits: Michael Elliott


Finding and Buying Expired Film

So, you’re ready to start shooting with expired film. But where do you find it? Here are some tips:

  • Online: The internet is your friend here. You can find loads of expired film for sale on platforms like eBay, Etsy, Amazon, or Facebook Marketplace. You can also check out online communities like Reddit, Flickr, or Lomography, where you might find other film enthusiasts who have expired film to sell or trade. But be careful when buying online. You can’t always verify the condition or storage history of the film. Make sure to read reviews and feedback, and ask for photos or samples if possible.

  • Thrift stores: Keep an eye out for expired film in thrift stores, flea markets, garage sales, or charity shops. You might score some cheap or rare film stocks. But remember, the quality and reliability of the film might not be the best. It might have been stored improperly or exposed to light or moisture. Always inspect the film for any signs of damage or leakage, and avoid buying film that’s too old or too expired.

  • Friends and family: Don’t forget to ask your friends and family if they have any expired film they’re willing to part with. You’d be surprised how many people have old film gathering dust in their drawers or closets. Just remember to be respectful and grateful for their generosity, and don’t expect them to give you their film for free or for a low price. And be honest about your intentions and expectations, and don’t blame them if the film doesn’t work out for you.


Conclusion

Expired film can be a thrilling and economical way to explore photography, but it can also be a tricky and uncertain one. Expired film can create a variety of effects, from mild to wild, from gorgeous to grotesque, from intentional to accidental. The choice is yours, whether you want to accept the mystery of expired film, or reject it altogether. If you decide to experiment with expired film, we hope this article has provided you with some helpful information and tips on how to select, use, and appreciate expired film.

 

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Feb 28
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