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Tips for Shooting with Expired Film: Why You Shouldn’t Throw Out Film That’s Past Its Due Date

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

For most photographers, film is a thing of the past. It is long gone thanks to digital and the wonders of technology.

But older photographers may have a roll of film hanging around their studios which has long since expired. (Yep, film has an expiration date of about two years). If you are reluctant to throw it out…don’t. Expired film can be put to good use.

Here are some things you can do with your expired film.

How Does Film Expire?

Film is made up of thin strips of plastic that are coated with a chemical emulsion that contains silver halides. The halides react when exposed to light making the final photo.

In time, the chemicals on film will lose their potency. They may still produce photos, but the colors will not look as vibrant, and the picture will look grainy. This is an effect that some photographers covet.

It’s important to note that film will eventually get to a point where it will be unusable. It’s impossible to tell how long it will take film to deteriorate completely. Therefore, you are looking for the expired film effect, it’s important to keep track of the film and take note of the expiration date (this is typically written on the box).

Use a Test Roll Before a Big Shoot

Since it’s difficult to determine how ‘expired’ the film is, it’s best to start out with a test roll. This will only work if you have purchased multiple rolls of the same type of film at the same time. Take one roll out with you on a test shoot and determine your results before capturing the important stuff.

No two rolls will be exactly the same, but if one roll provides the look your after, it’s likely the other rolls will come pretty close.

Shoot in Strong Light

As film deteriorates, it becomes less sensitive to light. This means you will need a lot of light to make your pictures come out well.

The best thing to do is shoot in broad daylight. A flash will also help to brighten up your photos.

The further past the expiration date your film is, the more light you will need. If you fail to bring enough light, your photos will be grainy, and details will not show up.

Push Processing will Add Light

To make up for the film’s lack of sensitivity to light, you can set your ISO lower. This is a method called pull processing.

As a rule of thumb, it’s advisable to lower the ISO by one stop for every decade the film is past its expiry. So if the film has a 400 ISO and it’s ten years out of date, set your camera to 200.

It should be noted that some older film cameras will not allow you to set your ISO below 100 so this strategy may have limited results.

Exposure Bracketing Can Be Used to Test Expired Film

To bracket your image, take three shots of the same scene. The first shot can be taken with a standard exposure. The second one should be taken with the exposure down one (f stop turned to -1) and the third one will be taken with the exposure up one (f-stop turned to +1).

Once you develop your print, you can determine which one works best.

If you don’t have time to bracket, you may just start shooting. Keep in mind that expired film will look better if it’s overexposed as opposed to underexposed. But don’t go too crazy with the light or you may end up with white photos.

So the next time you find expired film in your bag, think twice before throwing it out. You may just get some terrific shoots out of the deal. How will you be using past due film to get the most out of your shoots?

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