How to...use expired film

Whilst cleaning out an attic a couple of weeks ago, deep amongst the kids toy collection from the 1990s and a whole army of spiders, we stumbled across 9 rolls of mysterious film, still in their wrappers with an expiry dating way back to 2004.

9 rolls of FREE. FILM.

Nothing better.

BUT...it’s expired...and by a good amount too. Does that mean it now won’t work? Has its age rendered it completely useless? The answer’s no. But you do need to use your camera slightly differently. So, we’ll briefly cover the basic theory, explain how we set our cameras to compensate and then show you the results from our 15 year old, ‘attic roll’ experiment.

Quick Fire Theory
Without going too in-depth into the nature of emulsion, film is produced to achieve a certain level of light sensibility or ‘speed’, otherwise referred to as ISO (or ASA). Film can be ISO 100, 200, 400, 800 etc. The higher the ISO number the more sensitive the film is to light (For a more ‘technical’ explanation, give this a read). The sensitivity of the film can be affected over time by a number of transportation and storage conditions (temperature, light, humidity). With this in mind, as soon the film production process is finished, the manufacturers put an expiry date on each roll or batch. This date is the period of time that they can assure the film will not have lost a lot of its sensibility.

So. In short:

The main difference between fresh and expired film is that with fresh film you can trust its native ISO (light sensitivity rating i.e. ISO 200) and when using expired film you can’t.



How to compensate for expired film
The rule of thumb for colour negative film is to rate it as one stop slower for every decade that it’s been expired.

What does this actually mean?

Firstly, a stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light let in when taking a photo.

So, adjusting the ISO setting on your camera from ISO 200 to ISO 100 is halving the level of sensitivity, thereby producing a 1 stop decrease (Most cameras actually let you change ISO speed in increments of 1 stop so it’s nice and easy).

Therefore, following our rule of thumb, just spin that ISO dial to halve the number for every 10 years that it’s expired by and you’re all set.

Or as set as you can be...as you’ll know by now; when it comes to film photography you have to develop a level of tolerance for uncertainty...but that’s the fun of it!

In our own experience, you do have to take this rule with a slight pinch of salt. No two rolls of expired film are the same; they all warp and degrade differently. Storage conditions make a huge difference too. The colder you can store film the better. Frozen films (especially colour films) tend to degrade much more slowly as it prevents the dye from deteriorating. But critically, if you do put your rolls in the fridge or freezer, let it come back to room temperature slowly before loading it. This will avoid exacerbating age-related brittleness. Conversely, heat is films enemy. It can cause increased grain and all kinds of colour shifts.

Anyway, from what we could tell, our ‘attic rolls’ had been locked away in a super cold, dry environment for about 10 years so we assumed that the film may not have degraded as much as it normally would. Using our rule of thumb and taking these favourable storage conditions into account, we dropped the rating down one stop rather than the 1.5 stops that the theory would strictly point us to do. These rolls were originally ISO 400 so we spun our Pentax MG ISO dial to 200, loaded the film and went on a photography adventure...


Results
Well...the rule of thumb worked!

But straight off the bat it’s immediately obvious that you have to seek bright conditions when using expired film. All of our best exposures, across all 9 rolls came from the shots that had plenty of light. The shot below is a perfect demonstration of the films reduced sensitivity to light.

This was a searingly bright, sunny day and even with the film rating dropped down 1 stop to compensate, its still not as exposed as we’d intended. This shot also demonstrates 2 other classic traits you will most likely see from your expired rolls; reduced contrast and a slight fogging...but we think these make for some beautifully soft imagery!

As a side note; it’s worth paying attention to film speed. The slower films tend to fog less. 800 and up may deteriorate rapidly and be unusably foggy after a few decades dependant on storage conditions.

Finally, as you can see from the images above, any lower light levels produced heavy graining. As we went through the prints we quickly recognised that an increased level of grain was apparent in anything other than perfect lighting conditions, but again this adds a nice character to shots. 

So...to conclude; do not bin any old expired film you find lying around! Use our rule of thumb, taking into consideration its storage conditions (if you have access to that information) and go get some shots!

Let us know how you get on and tag @FILTRFILM on instagram!