Somewhat Analog Things About Photography

On Using Expired Films

I recently got some "new" expired films and since I'm not ready for a full review on anything, I thought that plopping down some of my thoughts on expired films would be interesting.

Box full of expired film.

Latest expired film haul. Mostly Agfa stocks in both 135 and 120 formats. There are black and whites, color negatives and color positives. Exciting.

There was also a 129 film that expired 60 or so years ago. Not sure what I'll do with that yet.

As much as we would like for films to be eternal - they all have an expiry date. But the same way how milk doesn't magically go bad the day after its expiry date — film doesn't stop being light sensitive after it expires too. It might lose some sensitivity. Color films may start to develop weird color shifts. Some fog may start appearing, robbing the photos from contrast and general niceness. None of it is instant and none of it is set in stone. If the film has been kept in the freezer then you might not see any faults 30 or more years after expiry date. You could also leave your in-date film in a hot car for a few days and experience severe degradation in the resulting images.

There are various thoughts on expired films:

  • expired films are not worth the risk;
  • we must support film manufacturers and buy new film;
  • expired film is great because it's cheap;
  • expired film is neat because it can give unexpected results;
  • expired film should cost as much as a car.

I subscribe to all of these. Apart from the last one.


Although there is risk in using expired films, I haven't had many bad experiences with them. There is a rule floating around that you should remove 1 stop of sensitivity from the film rating for every 10 years it has been out of date. For example if an ISO 400 film has been expired for 20 years then you should rate it as ISO 100 film. There is also a rule saying that you don't have to be as aggressive. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. There are two main factors impacting this:

  • Storage conditions. If the film was kept in the freezer then it would deteriorate much slower.
  • Sensitivity. More sensitive films ( higher ISO values ) will deteriorate faster.

Because film handles over-exposure better than under-exposure, I lean more towards the "1 stop of sensitivity for every 10 years" rule. At least for the first roll. After that I can look at the results and adjust them as needed. Some will recommend shooting test photos by bracketing exposure but I do none of that. I dislike "scientific testing" in my photography. I much prefer shooting the first roll like any other roll. With an understanding that it might fail.

Black and white photo of a radiator.
Asahi Pentax Spotmatic SPII
Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f1.8
Ilford FP4+ EI100
Kodak HC-110
Reflecta ProScan 10T

Majority of my black and white 135 format film is expired. You can sometimes find expired bulk rolls on Ebay for a good price and it's hard not to go for them. Black and white film is easiest to shoot expired because even if it's not in a great condition, you can usually find a way to alter development to reduce the negative effects.

The only exception is slide film. Because the latitude is much lower I will tend to shoot it closer to box speed and in general will prefer freezer kept slide film.

All that said, I await the day where some expired film will come out completely destroyed. For that reason I would never use expired film for photos that I really, really don't want to lose.

Photo of my wife and daughter petting a horse.
Canon Model 7
KMZ Jupiter-8 50mm f2
Tetenal Colortec C-41
Reflecta ProScan 10T

The worst results from expired film came from an unknown brand ISO 200 film. I had already bought it expired and had never kept it refrigerated. It always lived in a photo bag. For many, many years. The bag was often placed in hot cars and other non-ideal conditions.

Even with all that the results weren't a complete disaster.

Price & Support

It's safe to say that I would use expired film less if new films were cheaper. The price of film is always rising so it's getting more difficult to justify buying it. At the same time, companies producing new films should be supported otherwise we won't be able to shoot anything anymore. I believe in a healthy 50/50 balance. Expired film for experimentation and fresh film for things that I don't want to lose.

Apart from price, I also think that it makes sense to use what's already produced and not waste it. Leaving it to rot for even longer won't do any good for the world anyway.

Sometimes expired film can cost more than fresh film and that is something I can't subscribe to. There is no reason to ask for more, especially if the film is still in production. You're paying more for increased risk and potentially worse results. If that's something you're looking for then buy fresh film and keep it in a very warm place for a few days and you'll achieve the same.

You could try to justify inflated prices for expired film that is not produced anymore but even then it's not worth it 95% of the time. Or 100% of the time. There aren't that many super-unique films out there that would command sky-high prices. Sorry Kodak Aerochrome.

Use It With Caution

I like using expired film and would recommend other photographers trying it as well. If you're scared that it might ruin your photos then your worries are justifiable...but shoot expired anyway. There is fun to be had in experimentation. Not only because expired films can sometimes give unexpected results but also because cheaper prices mean that you're more likely to try new things.

Just don't go supporting sellers asking for insane prices for expired films. That won't do any good for any of us.


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