The Three Faces of Expired Film Photography

“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.

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Pentax MX, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 film expired 2010
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Canon Sure Shot Tele, 40mm f/2.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film
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Pentax Spotmatic F, Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.7 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film
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Contax 139 Quartz, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

2. It produces interesting colour shifts, sometimes purples and greens, but also amber tones.

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Minolta X-700, Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 lens, Truprint FG+200 film expired 2006
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Contax 139 Quartz, Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, York Photo 100 expired film
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Minolta Dynax 7000i, Tokina SD 28-70mm lens, Truprint FG+ 200 expired film
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Contax 139 Quartz, Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, York Photo 100 expired film

3. It looks washed out, overly grainy and lacking in contrast and detail.

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Pentax ES, Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, Solution VX200 expired film
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Fujica ST701, Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, Solution VX200 expired film

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.

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Konica AutoReflex T, Hexanon 52mm f/1.8 lens, FujiFilm Superia 100 film expired 2003

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.

Three Precious Things

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Pentax MG, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8, FujiFilm Superia 100 

As my photography has evolved, it’s gradually become apparent to me what I value most about it as a pursuit, as well as what I best appreciate in the cameras I use.

Whilst I’m still growing and learning, I’m far more knowledgable now about the “magic formula” I need to enjoy film photography as much as possible.

Three precious things come to mind –

1. A beautiful viewfinder. 

For me the essential joy of photography is being able to see a tiny snapshot of the world, in a specific moment, and for that moment it be the entire world.

When I’m focused on a single composition through the viewfinder (VF), as I squeeze the shutter button (and for a second or so after), my entire relationship and connection with the world is simply what’s captured in that little rectangle.

It’s meditative, spiritual and visceral all at once, and one of the greatest experiences of life.

So, it follows that for these vital moments, one has a viewfinder that heightens the experience to the full.

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Minolta X-700, MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4, a gorgeous lens/ viewfinder combination

Pretty much all of the SLRs I use have very good viewfinders. The combination that is king of the mountain is my Minolta X-700 paired with my Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens.

The huge front surface of the glass allows a great amount of light into the also huge viewfinder of the X-700 and the result is wonderful, and often literally breathtaking.

Recently I got an AutoFocus (AF) Minolta Dynax 7000i, which has a surprisingly great VF too. Not as vast as the X-700, but not that far off, and the view I get with my latest lens, a Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7, is very enjoyable. I’m become quite attached too, to how the lens snaps into focus, and the VF view changes accordingly.

Presently, I can’t see myself returning to compacts or rangefinders any time soon, because the VF experience of an SLR is just too intoxicatingly joyful.

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Minolta X-700, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4, FujiFilm Superia 100

2. How a camera feels.

This is a far more subjective one, and has a few component parts. It begins when you pick up a camera, before you even raise it to your eye. How your hand moulds around the camera’s body, the texture and temperature of the materials, the width, the weight, the girth.

This has to combine with the lens the camera has attached. Staying with SLRs, the lens you use can make quite a difference to the overall feel and balance and pleasure of a camera.

As one hand is almost constantly around the lens, that tactile experience is very important.

Again for me, Minolta come to mind, with both the aforementioned X-700 and 7000i. The latter especially is very well shaped for my hands and has a reassuring weight. With a zoom lens it can feel a bit too much, but with the little 50/1.7 AF it feels far more compact and balanced.

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Minolta Dynax 7000i, Minolta AF 50/1.7, very satisfying to hold and use

All of my Pentax cameras feel great, well balanced and bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I prefer the weight and size of the older Spotmatic F or K2, and others the compact lightness of the little MG is just what I’m craving.

Bottom line is if a camera doesn’t feel good in my hands, even if it’s the most capable and expensive lens/body in the world, I’m not going to enjoy it much.

Which brings us to…

3. The photographs.

I have commented in the past that even the few times I’ve shot a roll of film only to find the film hasn’t wound on and I’ve shot 24 or 36 blanks, I’ve not enjoyed the experience any the less. And those 24/36 shots I took, I still captured with my eyes, mind and memory, even if they weren’t recorded on film.

Elements 1 and 2 above are the most crucial, and 3 is the chocolate sauce on top.

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Pentax MZ-5N, Pentax-M 50/1.7, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200

I’ve learnt, via a series of revelations, not least of all realising that when you put a len-less SLR on B mode, open the back, press the shutter release button and look through, there’s nothing but fresh air, that cameras are really just boxes.

In other words, and at the moment of exposure, it’s the lens only that dictates the characteristics of how the light lands on the film.

Then there’s film of course. Again via endless experiments, I’ve found the films I enjoy most – the super cheap, readily available and surprisingly capable AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200, the rich and colourful Ferrania Solaris 200 and, my most recent discovery, the fantastic FujiFilm Superia 100, which even ten years expired produces a beautiful balance of sharpness and grain.

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Pentax K1000, Pentax-M 50/1.4, Ferrania Solaris 200

Two out of three isn’t bad, and a camera with a wonderful viewfinder and lens will give a rewarding experience out in the field. But combined with poor film it’ll disappoint in the final image.

So to have the optimum experience of the delight that is film photography, I need all three elements – a camera with an excellent viewfinder, and that feels wonderful to hold, plus a lens and film that I know will give pleasing results.

What are the three most precious things for you in the magic formula for rewarding film photography? 

Gathering For The Winter (Spring, Summer, Autumn)

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With the range of available 35mm film on the whole reducing, I’m always keen to stock up on my favourite emulsions.

My freezer contains an ever dwindling supply of Ferrania Solaris 200 and Solution VX200, both of which are now difficult to source and I’m virtually all out of Kodak ColorPlus 200.

Stocks of AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 (rebranded FujiColor C200, which I’ve also shot extensively rebranded as Tudorcolor XLX 200) remain healthy though, and I expect this to continue to be the film I shoot with most.

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Recently I’ve come across the opportunity to purchase some expired FujiFilm Superia 100, a film I’ve only used a roll of two of before, but with really lovely results, as shared here.

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Because it’s slower film, and therefore deteriorates more slowly, I’m not concerned at using decade expired film. I’ve seen fabulous results from others using similarly expired Superia 100 also.

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Superia 400 of this age I would be far more careful with buying and using, being two stops faster, ie four times more sensitive to light, than ISO 100 film.

I have another batch of Superia 100 on the way, of much fresher vintage (circa 2012), so in the coming months (and years) I expect to use plenty of this delightful film…

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The future in my film world at least, belongs to FujiFilm…