Exploring expired film

When I started rediscovering film photography earlier this year, I went on a hunt — initially to find my Polaroid OneStep, and in the process, discovering all my old cameras, including my Minolta XG 1, and Canon Rebel G (500N). I also found something else.

Namely, this:

There was a slight issue, however:

Last time I checked, it’s currently 2019. Can you shoot 15-year-old-expired film? Google, the all-knowing oracle, provided the answer: yes.

One of the top-ranked search results was also the most comprehensive in speaking to the issues of expired film. Written by Colorado photographer Daniel Schneider in 2016, the article was posted to Popular Photography.

My results with the expired Gold 200 haven’t been very impressive:

This shot was taken with my Minolta XG 1 after loading one of the aforementioned rolls. You can click the image to go to Flickr and see it larger if you want, but color rendition is not great, it has a very vintage appearance, and the grain is very noticeable.

One roll from that box had been loaded all these years in my Canon Rebel G, which — based on the expiration date of the box — hasn’t been touched since at least 2003, probably 2002. I shot the rest of the roll, and here’s one of the scans from that processed roll:

The color is… horrible. Photoshop, of course, can correct a lot of that:

What you’ll still notice is some edge banding top and bottom. The center of the image is actually fairly good after some color correction, but it gets far less accurate as you get to the edges of the roll close to the sprockets.

The other thing is the grain:

This is 35mm film, and my experience with 35mm is dated enough that it’s entirely possible this is sort of the way it is. But in the train photo above, the graininess is evident even in the full frame image.

None of this stopped me from losing my mind at Englewood Camera a few weeks ago. I happened to be at the right place at the right time, I guess. The shop has a small plastic box that, when out on the counter, contains expired film for $3.00 a roll. Most of the time, the box is empty or not even out. But on that particular afternoon, it was piled with various and sundry rolls of 120 and 220 film. I picked through it, bought my limit of five rolls, then proceeded to go back the next morning and snag another few rolls of 120. (You can see them in the featured image at the top of the page.)

When I got one of the 35mm Gold 200 rolls back from the lab, I started to wonder what bonehead move I’d made buying all that expired film. The guy at Englewood said it was a professional photographer who’d brought the film in, and that while they didn’t know for sure, based on prior experience with the guy, they assumed it had been properly stored (i.e., refrigerated). Not exactly a lot of certainty there. I figured I’d just use it to be experimental.

In any case, all the photos above were shot as-is, at ISO 200 — box speed. Schneider’s article about shooting expired film suggests this:

The rule of thumb for color negative film is to rate it one stop slower for every decade since it expired, assuming you don’t know the storage conditions. Every expired roll is its own unique beast, so results may vary.

So when it came to load a roll of the expired stock I got from Englewood, I gave it a whirl. In the batch was a roll of Fuji Superia 400 (it’s the red-and-silver packaged roll on the right in the picture). It expired in 2002, and with nearly 20 years of age, I brought it down two stops, and shot it at ISO 250.

To be honest, I mostly just wasted the shots I took with it, not expecting anything. Then I got the film back from the lab:

Much to my surprise, the results are indistinguishable from fresh film. The colors are beautiful, accurate and vivid, the grain is undetectable, the contrast is excellent. I was amazed… And disappointed that I didn’t make more effort in choosing what I shot.

This was the only roll of long-discontinued Superia 400 120 in the batch, and that too is disappointing, as I’d love to shoot this film again if there’d only been a second roll in that box. There’s no more color negative film in the batch; there are a couple of rolls of T-Max black and white, and the rest is color reversal film; old Ektachrome S and SW, and a single roll of what appears to be original-formula Fuji Velvia 50.

I’m optimistic, based on the results with the Superia, that the rest of this film is actually in great condition and has been properly stored. But I’m also worried given what I read in Schneider’s piece:

Slide film has less latitude than negative film, generally speaking, so nailing exposure is even more important for fresh or expired film. While I have had good luck with expired slide film, most avoid it. “The blacks go to nothing. You can push it, you can pull it—it’s just bad,” says Frank. “I would steer anyone away from it if its origins and storage are unknown.”

Well, I don’t really know the origins of these rolls, but I already bought them. I’ll probably just shoot a roll at box speed, see what happens, and decide what to do with the rest of it based on the results.

I’m excited about the Ektachrome, though, both because it’s not currently available in 120 format (although that’s going to change soon), but also because these are the older S and SW formulations that are long-discontinued, and won’t be coming back. So if it works at all for me, it could actually end-up being kinda cool.

On the other hand, if the results suck, at least I can use an unexposed roll to practice loading film onto a developing tank film holder, right?

Stay tuned…