“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.
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