“Using expired film is risky, foolish and virtually always ends in disappointing, unappealing photographs, so why bother?”
This might be the kind of advice you hear from some quarters, but it’s certainly not been my experience, very far from it.
In fact, over the last three or four years, I’d estimate over 80% of the 35mm film I’ve shot has been expired.
In my experience with expired film, it tends to go one of three ways –
1. It looks indistinguishable from fresh film, possibly slightly more saturated.
2. It produces interesting colour shifts, sometimes purples and greens, but also amber tones.
3. It looks washed out, overly grainy and lacking in contrast and detail.
The high proportion of rolls that end up as 1 and 2 for me outweigh the disappointment of the few that turn out like 3.
Of the expired film I’ve shot, only maybe one roll in every 12 turns out poorly.
Recently it’s been even less than that.
Here are the basic guidelines I follow to ensure I get often pleasing and frequently delightful results using expired film –
1. Stick to colour negative film.
Modern colour negative film is very robust, and most consumer film has a fantastic latitude of around -1/+3. This means you can under expose by a stop or over expose by three stops, and still get very decent results.
It follows, by my logic, that even if it’s expired and you follow the general rule of thumb that film loses sensitivity by one stop every decade, there’s still plenty of flexibility there, before the film will start to struggle.
2. Use only ISO100 and ISO200 film.
Following on from the above point, these films are very tolerant. The faster the film, the faster it deteriorates.
I don’t bother using expired ISO400 film any more as I’ve been disappointed far more often than not. But with ISO200 and ISO100 they’re rarely a let down.
3. Stay within ten years expired, or less.
The older the film, the more it will have deteriorated, so the greater the risk it will be grainy, washed out and low contrast.
If you stay within 5-10 years expired, there’s little chance the film has significantly lost any quality. Especially in the UK, where most unused film is sitting in the back of a cool drawer or cupboard, and not in sunlight or heat, which rapidly increase the rate of deterioration.
These simple guidelines work for me, and I enjoy the results I get from expired film.
If you like some of the samples above, feel free to follow these suggestions and experiment with expired film yourself – especially if you never have before for fear it’s guaranteed to end in disaster.
Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.
29 thoughts on “The Three Faces of Expired Film Photography”
Got to try some expired film. Never bothered because I’m stares to waste a good photograph… if I happen to make one.
Will try now
Scared of course, not stares!!
I think a lot of people feel similarly. Also, the whole Lomo movement which often celebrates photographs that look pretty rubbish to most of us, and extol the virtues of expired film, must have influenced the sort of images many of us associate with it.
Destroy the myths and enjoy expired film!
I really like the lighting in theses shots. Thanks for the guidelines!
Thanks for your comments. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do like many of the photographs that emerge from the film I use, so I’m always pleased when others do too!
I prefer unexpired film, but have used three kinds of expired film: film I bought new but expired in the fridge before I used it; film I bought expired but was said to be cold stored the whole time; and film I found in the bottom of a bag that contained an old camera I just bought. I can seldom tell the difference from fresh in the first two cases. The last case is a total crapshoot!
I’ve actually had good luck shooting old b/w film. I shot a roll of Verichrome Pan recently that expired in the 80s, and it was fine. I also shot a roll of Tri-X, found in a camera bag and expired since the 80s, and it was indistinguishable from fresh.
I rarely use expired film now where I can’t at least have a good guess that it will turn out ok, following the guidelines above.
That’s very interesting about b/w film, I wonder if it’s even more tolerant to expiring than colour negative? I don’t think I’ve used any expired b/w, other than the CN stuff like Kodak BW400CN and Ilford XP2 Super, which has worked out just fine.
I love Kodak Plus-X and the only way to get it now is expired. I’ve shot cold-stored Plus-X and I can’t tell it from fresh. I shot one roll of Plus-X where I had no idea how it was stored, and it turned out fine too.
I’m going to have to look out for some of that Plus-X Jim! Do you shoot it at box speed, or over expose at all?
Box speed. I shoot pretty much all film at box speed!
Nice post Dan. Worth noting you can get a few bargains this way (there was a shed load of 2014 BW400CN from the US on sale on eBay last year that you could get for around £3 a roll inc postage – order needed to be under a certain level to avoid taxes).
Fridged and frozen film does degrade a lot slower as others have mentioned. If you get film like Truprint FG+ that isn’t dated I try to get a few rolls and bracket one at least in part (I’ll usually shoot the rest of that roll at 2 stops slower). Bear in mind in mind that DX coding wasn’t introduced until 1983 but probably wasn’t in full use until the end of the 80’s
Alan, why do you think I shoot so much expired film – it’s nearly always cheaper than fresh film!
Yes I keep most of my film in the freezer, it does slow down or even virtually stop the deterioration.
I really like Truprint, and I’m down to my last roll. Going to have to seek out a little more on eBay!
[…] I generally shoot fresh film, but Dan James shoots expired film 80% of the time and has had pretty good luck. He tells his secrets. Read The Three Faces of Expired Photography […]
I haven’t had problems yet,…but I limit it to film that is no longer available new. Usually off of Ebay. But since they still sell Tri-X, various Ilfords and even new Fujifilm and Kodak formulas, and the difference in price per capture is not that advantageous, (if you think of it per capture), I usually don’t bother. Unless you have a gambling problem. 🙂
The expired film I shoot most is Fuji Superia 100, which is a gorgeous film and sadly is no longer available. It seems incredibly robust, as I’ve used stock from 2003 that gives brilliant results.
Yeah, great film. B&H still sells Superia X-TRA but only in 400 and 24 exposure rolls. Kind of weird. Except for Fuji’s 400H, that was the only Fuji negative color film that could handle skin tones. The 400 is a little garish.
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So when it comes to expired film, do certain brands have different levels of deterioration? Like would expired Kodak be better/worse than Fuji or Tri-X? I appreciate the comment on using ISO 100 or 200 film I was wondering about that! So should the expired ISO 100 film be over exposed by one stop? How many stops would you suggest? I have not used expired film yet but I plan on doing so as it is much cheaper. Thank you!
Hi Cavin, thanks for your comments.
I don’t think the brand of film is the major factor – the age of the film, its latitude (how many stops you can over/underexpose it and still get usable results) and how the film has been stored are all far more significant.
The speed (ISO) of the film is important too, it’s generally accepted that the faster the film, the quicker it deteriorates and becomes unusable. Because of this, I would avoid ISO400 and above.
To get started, try a slightly expired consumer colour film like Kodak Color Plus 200 or Fuji C200 and expose it one stop over, ie set the camera ISO to 100. Then based on the results, try another.
Also I wouldn’t by bulk packs of expired film unless they’re only very slightly expired (less than two years say) and you know they’ve been stored well. I bought a bunch of Solution VX200 that was fine initially, but a year later I went back to try again with the rolls I had left and results were awful – I didn’t shoot another roll, and had a bunch of it left that was next to useless.
Expired film is probably most fun when you buy small mixed batches and every roll is a lucky dip! But if you want more stable results, then as I said go with a standard consumer film that’s not far expired and over expose maybe a stop. If you can buy a couple of rolls from one source, and they work well, then if you can go back to that source and get more of the same, it’s makes a lot of sense.
Oh just finally, Tri-X is a type of black and white film made by Kodak, it’s not a different brand. I haven’t used expired b/w film much, so can’t really make any recommendations other than that general rule that the faster the film, the faster it deteriorates.
Thank you so much! I will get small batches of film then. Is film that is over a decade old worth trying or is it too far deteriorated at that point? Also does using a flash have any adverse effects on older, expired film? I don’t see why it would but I have no idea haha. I’m new to film photography I have only been doing it about a month now. It is so fun though and quite addicting!
Cavin, again it depends on the film and how it’s been stored. But obviously statistically the older the film the greater the chances it not being much use.
I’ve used a fair bit of Fuji Superia 100 expired in 2003 and it’s probably my favourite colour film I’ve ever used.
Have a look on Flickr for expired film shots –
Sometimes it comes out beautifully, sometimes gives intriguing colour shifts, sometimes looks washed, grainy and horrible! That’s part of the fun.
I have no idea with flash, I’ve never used flash on a 35mm SLR, I only shoot in good daylight.
Yes it becomes very addictive, hope you enjoy your expired film experiments!
[…] the online stores give us a far wider choice of film – fresh and expired – than we would have just down our local camera shop, chemist or […]
[…] That I was using such a range of new (to me) kit so if the photos weren’t much good, I always had an excuse to fall back on, like my unfamiliarity with the camera or the fact it was partly broken or that I’d used a far too long expired film. […]
Not gonna lie, I kinda like the overexposed, grainy look, although it certainly has its place. I wouldn’t want to use it for anything of importance. But plug it into a point and shoot and shoot around the backyard during a barbecue? Instant vintage look.
Also, I understand that film is nearly immortal if kept in the freezer. I have a mini-fridge cranked as cold as possible just for film. It isn’t freezing, but it’s close.
Hi Matt, yes the lower the ISO, the slower it deteriorates, so the longer the film will keep. I’ve used 10 year old Superia 100 that’s been refrigerated and it worked beautifully. I haven’t such luck with ISO400 or 800 film. Stick with ISO100 and 200 and you should get away with 5-10 years, if not more.
If you want grainy and shifted colours, you’re better off underexposing. Overexposing with expired film tends to saturate the colours more. Grain appears rapidly if the film is underexposed by a couple of stops.
[…] loved experimenting with expired film, deliberately under- and over-exposing, making my own redscale film, cross processing, and making […]