Shooting expired film

Photographic film is a strange, magic thing. A flimsy strip of brown, that somehow traps beautiful scenes as images. Film does have to be handled with care - it works through a series of chemical reactions and so, as a consequence, is easily affected by factors such as temperature, light and radiation. Over time the sensitivity of these chemicals begins to degrade, hence the expiration date on a box of film - a use by date that ensures the film achieves a uniform look and quality.

However, just because a film has past its expiration date, doesn't mean you can't still use it. Maybe you aren't after a uniform look, or want to experiment with interesting and unexpected results. Expired film can provide this, although bear in mind it does come loaded with uncertainty. You don't know how each roll has been stored or how it will react, but I find there's something fun about not being able to predict the final result. 

Photo by Parallax Photographic Coop


Shooting expired film 

  • The older the film, the more factors there are to consider. Slower films also degrade slower so a roll of 100 ISO is going to be stable for a lot longer than an 800 ISO film. These slower films also tend to fog less so you'll have a clearer image with more obvious contrast.
  • Always handle expired film with care. Old film can become brittle, so use a camera with a simple film path.
  • Expired film will need lots of light for best results, so shoot on a sunny day or in a well lit studio.
  • As the chemicals degrade, film will lose sensitivity and so you will need to compensate for this. When you're shooting, the general rule is to rate one stop slower for every decade since it expired.


Photo by @atomic.mildred

  • Black and white film holds up much better than colour, so it can be rated down a stop for every 20 years since it expired instead.
  • Older, more established brands like Kodak and Ilford are more reliable and tend to stand the test of time. Alongside this, professional films age far better than consumer ones, which will produce a very pronounced grain.
  • Instead of overexposing when you shoot, you can push expired film in development. When dealing with particularly old film, you may want to use a combination of the two.
  • Prepare yourself for the possibility of bad results, or blank film, unfortunately it is part of the roulette of shooting expired film - you might get lucky, but other times the film is no longer suitable for use, and you won't know until you've shot it.


Photo by Alastair Bird


A note on storage 

Regulating how film has been stored is critical to preventing degradation. It's best to keep your rolls somewhere cool and dry; a fridge or even freezer will protect the chemicals and keep the dyes from deteriorating. If you have been storing your film in a freezer, make sure you allow it to gradually come up to room temperature before you shoot it.

Although this isn't always in your control, if expired film has been stored properly, you are much more likely to get better results. Alongside temperature, expired film is more sensitive to radiation - something to keep in mind if you frequently travel. Try and limit the amount your film passes through airport X-ray scanners to lessen any damage.


Photo by @analognorbi


Where to buy

Have a scroll through online marketplaces like etsy, ebay and depop for rolls of expired film- it's easy to find listings with an assorted bundle of stocks so you can experiment with different film speeds and brands. Camera and film shops might also stock expired film, and it's always worth keeping an eye out at vintage markets or charity shops.


Photo by @signedoffsick


Effects of expired film 

Shooting expired film is a bit of a guessing game. As you can see by the variety of photos included in this post, there's no set "look" you will achieve and no way to predict what effects you will end up with - or how pronounced these will be. You might get colour bleeding or shifts - sometimes subtle, other times producing an almost surreal effect. Generally, expired film shows decreased contrast, a softer image with slight fogging and more grain. Sometimes you get reduced saturation, and a slight unevenness to the final image with spotting and streaking. 


Photo by @shamifoto


Why should you shoot expired film? 

With all this uncertainty and a high chance of failure, why should you bother shooting expired film? Firstly, economic reasons - old film can often be found pretty cheap, and some places might even want to get rid of old stock for free. Some old film stocks aren't available anymore, so shooting expired rolls will be your only opportunity to have a play with vintage and discontinued brands. More than anything though, the beauty of expired film lies in its unpredictability, in the variety of effects you can achieve, sometimes even across a single roll. Not knowing how the results will turn out and the possibility for the truly unique is part of the fun of shooting film.


Photo by Kleinjan Groenewald


More expired film examples: 


Photo by @bygone_flamingoid


Photo by Brian Smith


Photo by Parallax Photographic Coop


Author : Becca Knight 

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