Cheap, unpredictable, and mysterious: using expired film can either bring a new touch to your photos, work as any other film, or screw everything. But should you rely on it? How do you know if you can? Here's my personal experience and some basic tips on this topic.
When I first got into analogue photography, my first film was the Kodak Ultramax 400 – “ultra reliable,” as I call it, since you can count on it for everything. But a roll costs R$20,00 here in Brazil (around $10) so I just can’t get out and get a ton of it.
Some weeks ago, when I went to my local lab, they were going to dispose around 6 rolls of Superia 100 which expired in 2005. I asked nicely and got them for free (now the owner will keep an eye on expired film for me as he knows that I’ll put them into good use!).
The first thing I thought was, “What will happen?” I’ve heard about using expired film and what could happen, but as I said, the effects are unpredictable. So I had to try one in order to see the output. Since they are from the same batch, if the first one works, then everything shall go fine.
The first expired roll was shot using a Kodak Star 235. Unfortunately I couldn’t manage to scan the photos from that roll yet. Anyway, it worked fine and I have some samples below, from my third roll.
Here are the shots I mostly liked and that came out fine:
The biggest issues – if we can even call these that – are that, firstly, the grain gained a boost from all those times sitting down. And secondly, underexposed photos had a strange red cast over it.
The film rolls were from the lab and couldn’t be sold anymore as they were already expired. But they were stored correctly so I know I can use these rolls without any problem. Anyway, here are some tips I found in many places over the Internet and while talking to other photographers:
- Analyze how bad the situation is. Consider the expiry date, storage conditions, and the film sensitivity. The higher the ASA, the higher the degradation – maybe that’s why my Superias are so usable. Also, if the films were stored in a cold and dry place, it’s more likely that they will be okay.
- Store them in your refrigerator. Mine are inside a closed plastic bag with a silica gel inside it to prevent humidity. If you finish your roll and you know you won’t have it developed immediately, throw it back in the refrigerator (but don’t put it in your camera while it’s still cold!)
- If you find similar rolls – that is, manufactured during the same date and from the same place – then just test the first one. Chances are they will all behave like each other.
- Maybe overexpose them a bit. Consider at least 1/3 stop. There’s a general rule where you should overexpose 1 stop per decade – so, if you have an ASA 200 film that is 10 years old, you should treat it as ASA 100.
- Keep an eye on the developing process so you don’t end up with film that can’t be developed anymore.
So basically, the risks for using expired films are more grain, color shifts, fogging, light leaks, loss in sensibility, contrast reduction, and such. So far I experienced a little tone shift and an increase in grain, but not anything that may compromise the final result.
Should you take the risk? It depends. Remember it can screw everything up if you aren’t lucky. But for the price you pay for it and the possibilities it offers, my word is: go for it.