The Hidden Costs of Shooting Expired Film

#638. Colour shift. Konica Centuria 100, Canon Canonet QL17 Giii.
I re-discovered film photography back in 2013 when I decided to buy myself an Olympus Trip 35 and a few rolls of film. After many years without a camera, I was excited to be shooting film again. Wandering around Calgary with my Trip 35 re-ignited my passion for photography and I started to buy more cameras and more film. Back then, film was cheaper. You could find a lot of expired film up for auction on eBay and it was still possible to win with a decently priced bid. Naturally, I bought a lot of expired film.

Fast forward to 2023 and film is much more expensive. These days, you can expect to pay $20 USD[1]Analog.Cafe has an excellent Film Price Tracker in case you’re curious about the changes in film prices. for a fresh roll of slide film like Kodak Ektachrome E100. But the biggest sticker shock has to be the increase in the price of expired film. It’s not uncommon to see film sellers on eBay asking $25 for a single roll of expired film. And I’m not talking about a rare film that’s been carefully frozen for the last two decades. I’m talking about a dubiously re-branded 12-exposure roll of film that’s been battered, bruised, and baked. And that doesn’t even include the cost of shipping! The days of expired film being a cheaper alternative are long gone.

And that got me wondering: which film is the better value, fresh or expired? At today’s inflated prices, it’s obvious that fresh film is the better value. But what if you received a roll of expired film for FREE? Would it then be a better value?

Why Bother With Expired Film?

As you can tell from my blog, I shoot a lot of expired film. I often shop online for film that I’ve never shot before and over the years I have amassed quite a collection of expired film. So what’s the attraction? Well, first of all, I love to try something new. There is a great variety of expired film available and I can always find something unique that I haven’t seen before and want to try. Sometimes I’m inspired by what someone else has accomplished with an old film and want to try it for myself. I often get excited when I discover a hidden gem: an old film that has endured the test of time and can create interesting photos with a vintage colour palette not found in today’s current film offerings. I’m always chasing that elusive prize.[2]And I found it! I recently acquired five rolls of expired Kodak SO-553, an ISO 100 film that was supposedly special-ordered by a now-defunct photography studio in Hamburg, Germany.

oriental lily in bloom close-up
#1787. Agfa Optima 200, Mamiya C220. Unicolor C-41 Powder, 3:30 min @ 39 °C.
Another reason I shoot expired film is because some old film emulsions are legendary and greatly missed by the photography community. I missed my chance to shoot with them when they were available and can only hope that someone has a frozen batch hidden away that they are willing to part with at a reasonable price. I’m talking about films such as Kodak Technical Pan and Agfa APX.[3]Agfa APX should not be confused with AgfaPhoto APX. They are not the same emulsion.

The truth is that not all expired film is bad. Some of it has been well stored over the years and still yields excellent results. I shot a roll of 20-year-old Agfa Optima 200 last year and the photos look great!

The Risks of Shooting Expired Film

While there is a lot of old film out there that is in great shape, the reality is that when you buy expired film, there is no guarantee that it will be any good. As film ages it can become fogged, the colours in the dye layers start to shift and change, and the film loses its sensitivity. Sometimes, the emulsion can become infected with a fungus, and sometimes the entire roll could come out blank when developed![4]I recently shot a roll of Ferrania Solaris FG Plus 100 that came out completely blank. The lesson: Don’t use expired film when testing a new camera or else you won’t be able to tell if the camera failed or if the film did!

The only way to avoid buying crappy expired film is to be diligent in your research. Always ask how the film has been stored. Film that has been stored in a freezer for a decade will perform better than film stored for a year in a car that’s been baking in the sun.

But even when you’ve been diligent, have learned everything you can, and feel you can trust the seller, you can still end up wasting good money on bad film. Knowing you’ve paid a small fortune for bad film that you can’t return or ever use (or sell with a clear conscience), can leave you with a sinking feeling in your gut. Losing your money is probably the most obvious cost of buying expired film, while another obvious cost is that your photos may not turn out. But there are other hidden costs to shooting expired film. Let’s take a look at each of them in depth.

fungus-infested film
#1960. Fungus-infested Agfa CT Precisa 200, Canon Rebel 2000.

The Hidden Costs

There are 5 hidden costs that I wish to review.

Hidden Cost #1: Wasted Film

When you have no idea of how expired film has been stored, you have two options available to you when shooting that film. Both are more or less the same, but the second option involves spending more money.

Option #1: You can bracket your shots, shooting the same scene at box speed and at +1 stop for every decade the film is expired. The hidden cost here is that a roll of 36 exposures rapidly becomes 18, 12, or even 9 photos depending on how you bracket your shots. And if you guess wrong or don’t bracket enough, none of the photos may turn out. The best case scenario when bracketing is you end up with half a roll of useable photos.

Option #2: You buy at least two rolls and shoot the first roll as a test. This involves even more bracketing than in option #1, but it means you should be able to learn the best speed at which to shoot the remaining rolls you purchased.

The hidden cost of both options is that you don’t get full value for the rolls you bought. You have to waste valuable film doing testing.

Hidden Cost #2: Lost Memories

Okay, this is actually rather obvious, but I want to be clear how important this is. When you shoot expired film and the photos don’t turn out, you’ve lost a record of the event. Never use expired film to shoot anything important like a wedding, a child’s first birthday party, or a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. It isn’t worth the risk. If the photos don’t turn out, you can’t go back and reshoot the moment. Not only do you lose memories, but you’ve also lost the money spent purchasing and developing the film, not to mention your time and effort. And then there’s the feeling of disappointment and regret that comes after the joy and excitement of taking those photos. It’s a big letdown and it really, really sucks.

If you still want to shoot some expired film at an important event, my advice would be to take two cameras and shoot the same scenes with both cameras. You can shoot expired film in one camera and shoot fresh film in the other. Or your second camera could even be digital. The point is, the second camera is your backup in case the expired film you shoot is crap. Traveling is already expensive enough, so don’t take risks with your photos.

#1045. Valca Grano Fino Positiva 6, Canon EOS 3. Caffenol Concoction, 15 min @ 20°C.

Hidden Cost #3: Developing

Whether you develop your own film or use a lab, developing expired film can incur a rather hefty cost.

First, some thought and planning is required — preferably before you’ve bought expired film. You don’t want to rush into this without considering the cost. If you’re using a lab, will they even touch your roll of expired film? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I once sent a roll of Valca Grano Fino Positiva 6 to a lab for development, only to have it sent back with a polite note that said “sorry, this requires specialized development that we don’t do”.[5]That note is the reason why I started developing my own film. And if the lab is willing to process your film, it will cost extra if you want them to push process it by a stop or two. This of course depends on how you shot that roll of expired film, but again it’s something to consider before shooting.

If the lab won’t develop your film, then you can send it to a lab that specializes in old, expired film (like Film Rescue International), but the cost will not be cheap! Specialized developing often has to be done by hand and this is why it costs more.

Now if you choose to develop the film yourself, there are extra costs here as well. The obvious one being that if you’ve never developed film before, you will have to buy all the needed equipment and chemistry. In for a penny, in for a pound as they say. But even if you’re an old hand at film development, that roll of expired film could require special chemistry to develop it. For example, Kodak’s Tech Pan is legendary for its sharpness, but to get that sharpness, you need to use an appropriate developer. Kodak no longer manufactures or sells Technidol, its recommended developer for Tech Pan, so you’ll need to find a suitable alternative. Fortunately, Photographer’s Formulary TD-3 will do the trick, but it’s a little overkill when you have just one roll to develop. So now, in order to get full value out of your developer, you’ll need to purchase and shoot other film that works well with TD-3. Plus, it takes time to shoot all that film and that’s just another hidden cost.

Environmental Education Centre at Ralph Klein Park in Calgary, Canada
#1434. Kodak HCP 5369, Canon Rebel 2000. Xtol (stock), 5:45 min @ 20 °C.
And speaking of time, if you shoot a roll of film for which no development times exist, then you’ll need to spend a lot of time researching how to develop that roll. I went through this when I developed a roll of Kodak HCP 5369. It took forever for me to find Kodak’s datasheet on this film, and even then it didn’t help. In the end, I chose to develop it in Xtol based on some information I found online — which turned out to be wrong! I got lucky. The film turned out great, but had I got it wrong, I could have lost the entire roll. And that’s a high cost to pay.

Hidden Cost #4: Scanning

Scanning your negatives is another cost that can grow exponentially, both in money and time. Film scanners are not cheap, at least not good ones. I own an Epson Perfection V600. It does a decent job, but I don’t use the film holders that came with the scanner. Instead, I bought aftermarket holders with special ANR (anti-newton ring) glass. Then there’s the software. I went from using Epson Scan to purchasing and using VueScan to purchasing Negative Lab Pro and Adobe Lightroom last August. All this because I wasn’t satisfied with the colours I was getting from my scans — and that was with fresh film!

But even if you choose to digitize your negatives using a digital camera instead of a scanner, that’s not necessarily a cheaper alternative. You’ll need a digital camera, a good macro lens with a flat field of view, a copy stand, film holders, a light box, and software like Negative Lab Pro and Lightroom. There is no easy out here.

Scanning is an art in itself and scanning expired film can be a lot more work. As I said at the beginning of this article, expired film is often grainy, fogged, and can have some serious colour casts. Trying to remove any of these issues (if they can even be removed) with scanning takes time and patience. In the end, if all goes well, your photos will be no better than if you had used fresh film in the first place!

Hidden Cost #5: You’re Not Supporting Film Manufacturers

When you pay $25 for a roll of expired film, not a single penny of that goes to the film’s manufacturer. Sure, all the sales of expired film and used cameras may convince manufacturers that there is a demand for new film, but bringing any new film to market is an expensive endeavour. The more we can do to support film manufacturers, the longer they will be around and the better chances will be that they will invest in developing new emulsions for us to enjoy. Besides, expired film can only continue to exist if fresh film is being made.

River rafting in Yangshuo, China
#1451. Perutz Primera 100, Olympus Trip 35.

Summary & Conclusion

In summary, expired film…

  • Requires a bit of research before you buy it;
  • Makes no promises it will produce an image;
  • Requires you to double down and buy an extra roll or two for testing;
  • Requires you to use exposures to bracket shots;
  • May require special developing or chemistry;
  • Forces you to shoot other similar films to avoid wasting said special chemistry;
  • Can be a challenge to find relevant data sheets and development times;
  • Makes scanning or digitizing the negatives a headache;
  • Does not produce images better than fresh film; and
  • Does not support the manufacturers of new film.

So… is a free roll of expired film worth it? The short answer is no. Given all the costs I’ve talked about, there shouldn’t be any reason to shoot expired film — except I still do.

Shooting expired film is always a risk. You could end up with something delightful and delicious, or you could end up with something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. To paraphrase Forrest Gump:

Expired film is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

And therein lies the hidden joy of shooting expired film. It’s about the adventure of discovering something new, of solving technical issues, and the exhilaration of being able to say “I made it work!” — because, in the end, it is about the process as much as (if not more than) the product. And that is why I continue to shoot expired film despite the costs.

TIP: If you still want to shoot expired film, my advice is to check out my results with the films I’ve used (and look at other people’s photos as well) before deciding if it’s a film you’d like to purchase.

Footnotes[+]

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