Much like your yogurt or batteries or your dog, film stocks eventually expire. Over time, depending on how they were stored, they may produce interesting effects such as colour shifts, fogging and more pronounced grain. It can also present an opportunity for people to try out film stocks that are no longer in production, or perhaps even be able to obtain film for cheaper than new stock.
Why do films expire? To understand this, you will have to understand what exactly film is. To put it simply, it’s plastic strips with gelatin emulsions that also contains silver halide crystals sensitive to light. Colour film also contains dyes. Over time, especially in hot and humid conditions, these emulsions deteriorate. This is why film is stored in the fridge to help counter the slow deterioration. This is also why film has an expiry date, usually two years from the date of manufacture for optimal results.
Film that has been stored well in cold storage tend to not differ much from when new, except maybe being more sensitive to light. However, this isn’t the case with films stored in poorer or less than optimal conditions. They may present colour shifts. Expired Fuji Velvia, for example, becomes incredibly orange while old Kodak Ektachrome becomes quite purple. Colour negative film tends to be more grainy while lacking detail and losing saturation in the shadows to produce more contrast and a faded look.
So why would you want to shoot expired film? It offers an avenue for experimentation, and since expired film is already unconventional, it’s great to throw into your camera for funky effects. It’s also great if you are going to further play with the development process. A popular development process is to cross process film, which involves developing film with a different process. For example, developing E-6 slide film with C-41 colour negative film chemicals. (It would be a lot cheaper to try this with expired film rather than new ones.) What this does is produce colours that are quite saturated and heightens contrast, causing colour shifts unique to each roll. Different film stocks producing different looks – some provide quite a surreal look to the world.
And of course, there is the look. Some expired film will provide a faded look that presents a nostalgic memory of old prints in family albums. Some will give off an other worldly vibe, like a visual representation of a Dr. Seuss book and some will simply be somewhat normal looking, like any other film. Part of the fun is in the surprise, while part of it also the cost.
Of course if you are seeking consistency in your photos, stick with getting new rolls of film. Expired film is very hit or miss, as after all, it is film at its least optimal. But if you are looking for a change of pace, or just something fun to throw in your point and shoot for a party, perhaps get a few rolls just for those moments. Which is why we an entire bowl here for you to go through and surprise yourself with!
Here’s a sample of what you can get out of expired film that Nicole and I have done over the years!