Shooting Very Expired Film - You Really Shouldn't
Over the last couple of months, I have been hoarding discontinued film with expiration dates no earlier than 2014. You see, now that I have stopped buying gear indiscriminately, I needed to occupy myself with another purchasing distraction in order to keep my boredom at bay. The only problem is, there is only so much discontinued film with good expiration dates. Given a scarcity of good buying opportunities, I started to dip below 2014, especially for film that were discontinued before my cut off date.
As a couple of readers have mentioned to me, I am doing a disservice to the film community for sharing the photographs which I have taken with expired film. If anything, I am demonstrating how uncertain the outcome of film photography can be. I mean, let us face it. When the photos I have taken start to reveal obvious color shifts, lost of dynamic range, and overall softness in rendering, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence on those on the fence wondering if they should take the plunge into the analog world.
Of course, for the truly initiated, a little degradation in quality is part of the fun in shooting expired film. I mean, where is the challenge in getting exactly what you want from the photos you capture? Surprises are the spice of life that alleviates boredom from behind the lens. And, so what if you don’t get what you actually want from the photos you take. Seriously, live on the edge a little. Thing is, you might even like your photos more if you ruin it a little. It might just give your photos that extra something to make it special.
That said, you should never shoot with expired film if your life depends on your photos. If you are on a once in a lifetime trip to far off parts unknown, taking documentary proof-of-pilgrimage with expired film might not be in your best interest. Living on the edge is one thing. But putting your holiday photos on the line for the sake of extending that thrill might just be unreasonably ambitious. What one needs to know before using expired film is that your efforts in shooting it might just end up as a complete waste of time.
You see, I know from experience. Recently, I decided to tempt fate just a little. So, I shot three rolls of Kodak Ektachrome 100 VS from 2004 (the VS is for Very Saturated). I figured, how bad could it be? I mean, I shot with expired Fujifilm Portra 400X well past its best before date of 2008 with only some degradation in quality. So, how bad could an extra four years of expiration be? At most, it could only be four years worse in degradation - so I thought. However, what I never imagined was what an extra four years might actually look like.
When I got my film back from Color Resource Center in New York City, my heart dropped. Looking at the results on a light table for a cursory inspection, I saw what those four years meant. Any evidence of contrast was gone, as was the film’s promise of increased saturation. Where I had expected to see vibrant colors from this discontinued film, all I saw was the passage of time in washed-out sepia. Clearly, I went a little too far with my curiosity in wanting to bring back the magic of this discontinued film.
In a manner of speaking, my desire to shoot with expired discontinued film is a demonstration of yearning for a time long before when we had more choices in film variety. It is disheartening that any attempt to enjoy a wide selection of film variety depends on one’s willingness to be industrious in sourcing and hoarding film for that proverbial rainy day, and then storing it in deep freeze to prevent it from deteriorating any further. It is just I can’t accept that the film variety that we once loved are no longer around.
So for all the many wonderful film variety with an expiration date more than five years past the present year, you really shouldn’t get it. What’s worst, most sellers of expired discontinued film are unreasonable with regards to their listing price. For example, a seller on eBay wants roughly US$25 per roll for Fujifilm Provia 400X expired in 2010. And for that, you get no guarantees on how the film was actually stored. You just have to take the seller’s word for it that the listed film was stored long enough in a freezer.
And what if it wasn’t stored in a freezer for long enough? What if the photos captured on that film doesn’t turn out? What if the images in-frame are all faded in definition with the telltale signs of decay indicating the cruel passage of time? It’s not like you can get your money back from the seller, or get back that much anticipated photo lost on that roll of expired film. It’s gone. Personally, I just don’t think it’s worth it to take your chances with expired film - even for the sake of using discontinued film that will never be made again.
A while ago, I was criticized by a reader for constantly using discontinued film on this blog. At the time, I did not think much of that criticism. But over the last couple of weeks - while I was away from this blog shooting expired discontinued film in the mountains of Oregon - it occurred to me that my efforts in reviving the past made very little sense. Essentially, you’re taking a chance on your photo opportunities, just for the hopes that your photos will be sprinkled with pixie dusts found in the grains of these discontinued film varieties.
Frankly, it is tragic that we no longer have the film variety that we once had. Clinging on to what we no longer have can only lead to heartache. Fact is, many of our once most cherished film varieties are gone forever. No amount of sourcing and hoarding will ever bring back the joy of shooting these long discontinued film. In the end, shooting expired discontinued film is just too expensive a proposition (given the unreasonable list prices from sellers), and too risky an undertaking (given almost certain degradation in quality).
Still, for the truly initiated, tempting fate with expired discontinued film can be rewarding from an experimental perspective. By experimental, I mean to say that an acceptance of one’s efforts in documenting with film (which is almost certainly degraded in quality), can be a waste of time. But if experimental is expected, the results can be rewarding if the captured images are usable. That is to say, if the photos look aesthetically unique, the risk might actually be worth the added expense and uncertainty of outcome.
I suppose I could say that my three rolls of very expired and discontinued Kodak Ektachrome 100VS offered me that aesthetically unique look. However, the photos on this blog entry did not start out looking the way I presented them. It did require a fair amount of reconstructive surgery to salvage what I could from the film. Instead of digitizing on my default Fujifilm S5 Pro, I opted for the Nikon Z6 instead. From experience, I remembered that the Nikon Z6 tends to render with more saturation than the Fuji S5 Pro.
Digitizing with the Nikon Z6 also had the benefit of shooting tethered to Adobe Lightroom. Given the obvious uncertainty of getting usable images from such unpromising film capture, I didn’t want to encumber myself further without the use of live view and contemporary autofocus. For all I knew, the entire undertaking could have been futile. Like I said, the film capture were unpromising, given the state of deterioration of the film. So in all, the digitizing process of three rolls of film took less than ten minutes to do.
Immediately, I had to bump up the contrast and saturation of the digitized image files. That did not work. Then I had to bump up the black and white values. That also did not seem to be enough. The color shifts still made the image files unusable. Then finally, it occurred to me that the blue values of the image files had lost most of its dark values. So, then I cranked the luminescence value all the way down. In doing so I was able to revive the true black values in the photo, which in the end, made the image files usable.
But to be very clear, bringing back these photos to a state of usability isn’t an easy process. You really need to have a firm understanding of subtractive and additive color theories and how three-color-separations works. After that, it’s a matter of trial and error, and fine tuning the changes so that others would find the editing to be believable or acceptable. And even after all the effort, the final results will never appear as if the image was captured optimally. Though to be fair, I suppose that imperfection is the point of shooting expired film.
Regardless, I truly believe that shooting long expired discontinued film isn’t for the faint of heart. Frankly, you really shouldn’t. Those glory days of plenty in film varieties are over. Besides, there are enough existing film stock still in production. Support those film manufacturers instead of those sellers on eBay hoping to unload what they have left at unreasonably high premiums. Seriously, the uncertainty isn’t worth the effort and added expense.
As for me, I will continue to shoot with my expired discontinued film. I mean, I already have a freezer full of it. After all, I have been sourcing and hoarding it. And, if I don't use them up, they will surely go to waste.
All images were edited extensively on Adobe Lightroom and digitized on a Nikon Z6 + Nikon AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G + Bolt VM-210 + Nikon ES-2. The final image below is an example of a raw digital capture before I edited the image to the standard of the preceding thirty four images (including the title image).