Lessons learned shooting expired film

Old Tri-X box

It’s time to admit to myself that I’m insatiably curious to find out what things look like when photographed with various cameras on various films. I’ll shoot nearly anything. That includes expired film — despite my past declarations that I intend to shoot only fresh stock from now on. I keep buying expired film, and people keep giving it to me, and I keep shooting it!

Here are some things I’ve learned about shooting expired film.

Frozen film performs best

Try to get expired film that has been stored frozen since new. Freezing film slows its natural degradation down a lot. Let frozen film come to room temperature before you shoot it, though! This roll of Fujicolor 200 had been expired for a long time, but I put it right into the freezer after I bought it. I shot it at box speed and it looked terrific.

Stupid good
Canon Snappy 50, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 long expired, 2021

Lower-ISO films look fresh longer than higher-ISO films

The faster the film, the faster it degrades. I made this image with an ISO 400 color negative film that had always been stored frozen. It’s underexposed, and the colors are muted.

Woman with flowers
Pentax ME SE, 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M, Agfa Agfacolor Vista 400 long expired, 2022

It’s a good idea to overexpose expired film

The rule of thumb is to overexpose expired film by one stop for ever ten years it’s been expired. This is a good starting point, at any rate. The more rolls of an expired film that you have, the more you can play with exposure from one roll to the next to find the right amount of exposure to make it look good. Andrew Morang sent me several rolls of Kodak Vericolor III, an ISO 160 color negative film that expired in 1986. After a couple rolls I discovered that it looked best shot at no more than EI 80. That’s only one stop of overexposure despite this film being nearly four decades old.

Do not hit baseballs against this fence
Yashica-12, Kodak Vericolor III expired July, 1986, at EI 80, 2021

Kodak’s traditional black-and-white films perform well for years, even decades, past their expiration date

Kodak’s Panatomic-X, Verichrome Pan, Plus-X, and Tri-X films usually look great for many, many years after they expire. The lower-ISO films like the ISO 32 Panatomic-X are hardier than the higher-ISO films like the ISO 400 Tri-X. I’ve had good luck shooting 40-year-old Verichrome Pan at box speed when I have no idea how the film was stored. This image came from a roll of Panatomic-X that Mike Eckman gave me. He had no idea how it had been stored. I shot it at EI 25 and it looks as good as fresh.

Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Panatomic-X long expired, LegacyPro L110 Dilution B, 2020

Consumer negative films perform perfectly fine up to a couple years expired when stored at room temperature

For years I kept all of my film in a Rubbermaid tub on the floor a closet. I bought film in large batches when I found it on sale, and put it right into that tub. Sometimes film would hang out there for years before I shot it. I shot mostly Fujicolor 200, and it always looked great at box speed.

Brown Rolls, brown brick
Kodak VR35 K40, Fujicolor 200, 2011

Expired film is unpredictable, so don’t shoot anything that really matters with it

I bought a roll of 620 Verichrome Pan on eBay to shoot in an old Brownie on my 2013 Route 66 trip. The seller said it had always been stored cold, so I shot it confidently. Sadly, the whole roll looked terrible.

Wagon Wheel Motel
Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, Kodak Verichrome Pan expired 9/1985, 2013

I found this 50-year-old roll of Plus-X at the bottom of a camera bag. I shot it at EI 25 and hoped for the best. It must have been in a hot environment for a while as many images shows damage to the emulsion.

Lucas Oil Stadium
Olympus XA, Kodak Plus-X expired since the 1970s, HC-110 B, 2022

Expired slide film is a crapshoot no matter how it was stored

Stephen Dowling of Kosmo Foto sent me some film from his stash as a thank you for writing an article for his site. One roll was a Konica slide film expired since 2003. Stephen insisted he pulled the roll right out of his freezer, but the whole roll looked like this. Some people enjoy results like these, but I’m not among them.

Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN
Pentax Spotmatic F, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar, Konica Chrome Centuria 200 expired 12/2003, 2017

On the other hand, someone gave me a couple rolls of Fujifilm Velvia, the original version of the well-known ISO 50 color slide film. Despite its August, 2006, expiration, it looked fantastic.

Contemplating boy
Yashica-12, Fujifilm Velvia expired 8/2006, 2017

When the images really matter to me, I shoot fresh film. But for the many times I’m just making images for the fun of it, expired film can add to the fun.

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8 responses to “Lessons learned shooting expired film”

  1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    Interesting observations and lessons. Some thoughts:

    Panatomix-X is usually pretty reliable. But I used one roll of 35mm that was grainy and underexposed, even though the eBay vendor claimed all the rolls had been frozen.
    One Verichrome Pan was great, a second grossly underexposed. Who knows what happened to the emulsion?
    Some 1960s GAF Versapan 35mm looked grainy but amazingly viable.
    My dwindling frozen stash of 120 Panatomic-X from 1989 still looks perfect at EI=20 or 25. But I know it has been in my freezer all these years.
    For a modern B&W film, Fuji Acros is gorgeous. Can’t find some Panatomic-X? Use Acros.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This is the problem with expired film. It’s a little too much like Russian roulette.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Some interesting observations and good rules of thumb! Back in photo college, we were told that amateur films were shipped by the manufacturer “green”, and meant to age into their color range sitting around on the loading docks and warehouses of big box and discount stores. Professional films were tested at the manufacturer and shipped cold and expected to sit in a freezer, when their color and contrast were deemed best by the manufacturer. They were to be kept cold until use, and the processed shortly after.

    Of course, I have a life time of shooting professional films, and tossing anything out of date. Therefore, for the most part, I have a lifetime of seeing optimal results. You are correct in saying that anything you need to absolutely count on, should be shot, not only with fresh film, but fresh film that you’ve received from a professional dealer that’s been kept under cold storage, and that you’ve received and kept cold yourself until the day to week before use; and then processed very shortly after. The local “pro” dealers everywhere I’ve ever lived, always kept the pro films I a refrigerator at the stores, and not on the shelf in the open. In fact, seeing a refrigerator full of film is how you knew you were In a pro shop, and not the corner “snappy store”.

    A couple of points. The “dead” date on film is not only about emulsion change and spoilage, it’s about radiation and gamma ray bombardment as well. Fast films are far more susceptible to this than slower films and show marked fog and speed changes based on how long they’ve been out in the world! I would guarantee that if you found and bought those old style lead lined film bags we used to use when traveling at the beginning of x raying luggage, and put your fresh film in those as well as in the freezer, your see a lot less change in an emulsion than just putting in a freezer by itself.

    I can also say, judging color negative film for change is a crap shoot. Pro film is transparency film, what professional commercial photographers used to produce work with accurate color. Millions over the years were spent ensuring this, and you still needed to work on a color correct light box to judge, the same type of Lightbox your color prepress house was using to make their separation plates for printing. Professional color negative films were only shot by portrait houses and some wedding people, and were designed to give “pleasing” color, especially in the skin tones, and NOT color accuracy. Over the years, I’ve found some color amateur emulsions (like Kodak Gold 100 and 200) to be far more “accurate” to situation than alleged “pro” color neg. I guess what I’m saying here is that making a quality decision on whether color negative film is still “good” is really meaningless, since there are so many variables associated with the scanning and printing process. So much correction could be going on automatically with package printing machines or automatic scanners, that “your mileage may vary” wildly.

    Still, your observations are valid and interesting, and if everyone learns one thing, it’s to freeze that film as fast as possible and make sure the unfreeze to process time is as short as possible.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Interesting and useful point about color negative film accuracy and “goodness” after expiration.

      My scanner is amazing at pulling information out of an overly dense or fogged negative. Just crazy good.

  3. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Very helpful stuff and great shots too! Thanks Jim!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sonny!

  4. Galeotti Avatar

    Merci beaucoup jim

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re most welcome.

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