Expired Film & You
I was recently browsing the online shop of a local camera seller who had started to bring in large batches of expired film. They had the usual selection of black & white and colour films from Kodak, Fuji, Ilford, also a mix of Agfa, GAF, and third-party rebrands. But I also saw two rolls of Soviet film from the iconic film factory Svema. I’m not talking about the new Svema film from Astrum and the Film Photography Project, but the OG stuff from the Shostka plant in Ukraine. Most of my experience with expired film is in the realms of Ilford, Agfa, Fujifilm, and Kodak, so digging into a film that expired in the mid-1980s from Ukraine offered up a unique challenge. Thankfully there’s enough information online to help guide my steps, and rather than keep it all to myself; I want to share it with you.
Why Shoot Expired Film
In a world where you can still buy fresh film that has excellent quality control and solid performance, why even consider buying expired film? The main reason I like shooting expired film is that there are several film stocks that aren’t made anymore that I enjoyed shooting in the past and want to try and continue to shoot them as long as there is stock available. I do know that these stocks are limited as Panatomic-X, Plus-X, OG Acros 100 and many more are simply not made anymore and some like Panatomic-X which ceased production in 1987 haven’t been made in a long time. Whereas stocks like Plus-X, Acros 100, and Agfa APX 25 were produced into the 21st Century. Meaning not only is there more available, but it’s also isn’t too far expired. While about 90% of my shooting is with fresh films, I keep the expired stuff around as a treat because these are some of my favourite old stock films that I want to shoot for the fun of it and my own personal enjoyment.
Before You Buy
Like buying a used car, there are several considerations to buying expired film. While you cannot easily take the film out for a test drive, there are a couple of things you can do before putting down some money. The first thing you can do is look at the expiry date. A film that expired in the 2000s will have a much better chance at giving good results than one that expired in the 1980s or older. Second, look at the film speed; faster films tend to suffer more the effects of time than a slower film. I’m more likely to buy a roll of Kodak Panatomic-X that expired in 1979 than a roll of Kodak Royal-X Pan that expired in 1985. Generally, I find that films rated at less than ISO-200 are less likely to age poorly and the slower, the better, ASA-100 and lower you can generally expect to perform well even at extreme age. Related is the film format; paper-backed films can have transfer from the backing paper or developed mould than 35mm, which is secure inside a metal canister. The final thing to check on the film is the packaging. This check is essential because it may give hints to the condition of the film inside the box. A box that shows water damage or physical damage might not be worth your time as the film stock itself may be suffering from damage caused by water or potential unwanted biological growths (fungus and mould). While these are things you can easily check out while browsing expired film, at least if you’re shopping in person, there are a few things to ask the seller. The number one thing with a seller is to ask yourself do you trust them? If you trust them, then you’ll know they will answer the questions you pose honestly. The thing to ask the seller is the film’s provenance, that is, the film’s origins. A good seller of the expired film has some clue about how the film got into their stock, including how it was stored and how they stored it before selling. An honest seller will tell you the truth, even when I don’t know the answer to some of the questions. You do want to get a film that has been properly stored for best results, which means cool, dry, and dark. And yes, that can include a fridge or freezer. If the film is on a bulk roll, you can also ask if the seller rolled a test to see the condition (took it for a test drive, so to speak), or if part of a large batch, ran a test roll or two before selling. To recap on what to check before buying.
- The film’s provenance – source and storage
- Film format – 35mm, 120, Large Format
- Film Speed – Fast or Slow
- Condition – Any visible damage to the box.
- Expiry Date – How long has the film been expired.
Shooting Expired Film
Within the film photography community, there is a particular rule of thumb for shooting expired film. And that rule is to over-expose the image one-stop per decade expired. In short, that means if you have a film that has an original box speed of ASA-100 and expired in 1981, you’ll need to over-expose it by four stops or meter the film for ASA-6, which is not outside the realm of possibilities but can be a pain for some photographers. I’m here to say that you don’t always have to do this to get the best results from the film. Going back to the first paragraph, one thing about slower films (ASA-160 or slower) is that they are far more stable than faster films. And can be shot at box speed far more straightforward than a faster film. This means that you don’t have to over-expose the film and easily shoot them at box speed. I have easily shot films like Panatomic-X, Plus-X, APX 25, and other slower films at full box speeds without real problems. Of course, many of these films were well stored. If the film is poorly stored or you’re unsure of the film storage or provenance, you can always over-expose and shoot slower than box speed. With faster films and colour films you will want to start to consider over-exposing, there are some benefits. The biggest issue faced with older films is fog due to radiation and simply age, this base fog will make it difficult to scan/print as in some cases you cannot see the image from the base. It can also reduce the amount of visible and heavier grain. With colour films, it can help reduce the presence of colour shifts due to age. And when it comes to colour shifts, every company shifts differently. You’ll notice a strong magenta shift with Kodak films, especially Ektachrome and more green with Fujifilm. And while the slower films in colour will be more stable, they will shift in colours far easier. The best thing to do is trust your gut and how you plan on developing the film.
Developing Expired Film
Developing your expired film presents a couple of problems first in finding developing times, finding working developers and find a way to compensate for the age of the film. And how long to develop the film! When it comes to finding developing time, in some cases, the information isn’t there, the film doesn’t come with a datasheet in the box, and the information has yet to be shared online. Thankfully these days, there are plenty of other expired film shooters who have openly shared their information online, and many historic datasheets are readily available through a Google search. Some sites collect and share user-created film developing times and recipes. And a well tagged and documented image on Flickr or Instagram can also help. I know it has certainly helped with developing the rolls of Svema films. I did have some developing times included inside the one box, but everything was written in Cyrillic, and the Google Translate app was having trouble locking on. Thankfully, I found some developing times online in English using developers that I had on hand. And if you still can’t find anything, you can always go with some tried and true methods. The first is stand-development using Rodinal at a 1+100 or 1+200 for a 1 or 2 hour development time. Another option is 45 minutes using HC-110 Dil J or 1+150. And, of course, you have universal developers like Diafine. Plus, there are some developers that you cannot get anymore. Thankfully companies like Kodak and Ilford haven’t changed their developers much in the past century; you can still get D-76 and HC-110. Microdol-X is available through LegacyPro as Mic-X. And similarly, Ilford ID-11 and Ilfotec HC are readily available. But the real question is which developers are the best for older films? Well, if you can find a time for an available developer, go for it! One of my favourite developers for expired films is HC-110 or Ilfotec HC, as I can easily scale the dilution for better results. But one of the best types of developers to go for is compensating, TMax/DD-X, Acufine, FA-1027/Clayton F76+, Diafine, more dilute versions of HC-110. These also have some solvent actions that help to reduce grain. When it comes to helping with fog reduction, is the addition of Benzotriazole to your developer. You can purchase this chemical from the Photographer’s Formulary. The one thing to keep in mind when over-exposing the film is developing if you want to pull the film in development. Most people say don’t when it comes to expired films, but in the end, try it and see what results in you like the most and run with your method.
Expired film isn’t for everyone; it’s unpredictable, often costs the same as fresh film, and the results are not always guaranteed. While I love certain film stocks that aren’t in production anymore and do buy and shoot expired stock, these aren’t films that I would even consider shooting in any critical situation. Vacation, Client Work, or Review work. For those, I buy fresh stock from Kodak, Ilford, Rollei, Foma, and Fujifilm. And I also make sure to buy from my local merchants like Downtown Camera, Burlington Camera, Film Photography Project, Freestyle, and Argentix. First, it ensures that these companies realize that people still buy their films which means they will keep making them and secondly, supporting your local stores are more important than ever and keeps them in business. And that keeps the fresh film in all our cameras.