Should I Shoot Expired Kodak Film?
That film in the familiar little yellow box? Look on the side of it and you’ll see printed there a date; an expiration date to be exact. Just about every large-scale film manufacturer prints this date on all their film packaging to let you know when you can develop your film without worries that it’ll give bad results. (Note that modern Kodak movie films have batch numbers – not expiration dates) But what if I told you that there are some films that can survive quite a long time after that date, and still give fantastic results? Would you believe me if I said decades--not months--after the expiration date? Well, I am telling you that, and you better believe it.
It’s been a well-known fact that film stored in a freezer or fridge can last far beyond its expiration date. The cooling/freezing process keeps the film from deteriorating and losing the properties that allow it to produce quality images. Film that hasn’t been stored in a fridge will, overtime, lose sensitivity - its ability to capture images--and that’s especially true if it’s kept in a very hot environment like a car or an attic. However, the type of film is another important factor in determining whether that roll of film you found that expired in 1975, will yield any results. The truth of the matter is, if it’s color--you’re likely out of luck--but if it’s a black and white film from Kodak--you may have found a gem.
above: Expired BW film. Left: EFKE KB21 35mm expired April 1977 shot with Canon FT camera / Right: Kodak Verichrome Pan bw film (expired June 1975) shot with Konica 261 Auto S 126 Rangefinder Camera
Ask anyone who has shot expired film and they’ll tell you almost immediately not to waste your time with old color film unless it’s been stored in a fridge. That brick of 1980’s Kodacolor (heck, even 1990’s and early 2000’s Kodacolor) you found at the thrift store is likely just that--a brick. Unless color film is fridge stored, it has a short lifespan beyond its expiration date. Black and white film however, seems to hold up extremely well--far past its printed death date. Kodak films in particular, seem to have the most success, and that shouldn’t be a big surprise to fans of the FPP. Expired and hard-to-find Kodak black and white films are still very popular on the online store.
above: Expired color film. Left: Poorly stored Kodacolor II 126 film (expired September 1978) shot with Kodak Instamatic 100 camera. Right: Kodak Ektar 25 (properly stored film expired 9/1998) shot with Canon AE-1 Program camera.
If you’re looking for a technical understanding of why this is--I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m no chemist. If it’s proof you’re looking for, that I can help you with.
above: The genesis of this blog? This roll of 1976 expired Kodak Plus-X 16mm movie film
FPP’s Michael Raso sent me a 100ft roll of Kodak Plus-X 7231 in 16mm format--which is a negative film. The film was double-perfed, which was perfect for my old Ciné Kodak Model K from the 1930’s. The film expired in 1976 and like many old films that you run across, it’s storage history was not really known. It could have been stored in an arctic freezer, or an attic in Houston for all I knew. Keeping my fingers crossed, I loaded the Kodak up and went out to capture some shots around my hometown of Cleveland.
Before we talk about the results, let’s briefly talk about this film because, well, why not?
Kodak Plus-X 7231 was first introduced by Kodak in 1938 as Plus-X 1231, and had a nitrate base. The emulsion was improved upon over the years, first significantly in 1941 when the name was changed to Plus-X Panchromatic film 5231. That number (which was for 35mm format designation; 7231 was the designation for the 16mm size) stayed around for a long time. In fact, you can shoot some in your 35mm camera today--the FPP store sells it in 35mm cartridges!
It went through another improvement in 1956 and stayed on the market for another 54 years before Kodak sadly discontinued the film in 2010. It is rated with a daylight ASA of about 80 which made it super-fast for its time.
With expired film, the rule of thumb is to go down one-stop for every 10 years that has passed since the expiry date on the box. Since I didn’t know how this film was stored, and considering it was a black and white stock from Eastman Kodak, I decide to live dangerously and stick to the recommended settings printed on my camera--and the results were very awesome.
Above: Film Photography Project movie scan services! Introduced in October 2018.
Kodak recommended processing Plus-X 7321 in their D-96 developer--which I didn’t have. I did have my trusty Photographers’ Formulary D-19 substitute which I use for just about any kind of black and white movie film I process--negative or positive. I processed the film at 70F for 8.5 mins in the developer, did a stop bath, a fix, and a wash. I dried the film, replaced it on it’s reel, and sent it over to the FPP for scanning--and waited patiently.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured that at the very least, I was going to get a very grainy result. When Mike sent over the high-resolution scan however, I was amazed at what I saw. Granted the film is grainier than it would have looked if it had been shot and developed fresh in the early 70’s, but the results 44 years later, were surprising. The image was sharp, the black, whites, and greys were well defined, and it scanned beautifully.
above: Results from 1976 expired 16mm Kodak Plus-X shot with the Cine-Kodak Model K camera.
I can’t say that all expired black and white film made by Eastman Kodak will give you perfect results like I got, every single time. However, when I’ve asked around to my fellow film shooters about their experience with using expired black and white emulsions, everyone agreed that Kodak was the most reliable and the most stable.
If you’re looking to shoot some great old Kodak films, your number one stop should be the FPP--and I’m not just saying that because the FPP is near-and-dear to my heart. The fact is, Mike and the folks at the FPP are always doing what they can to offer great and rare emulsions on the online store whenever they can. If you don’t see anything that tickles your fancy there, eBay can be another great resource too. The FPP also just added a variety of 8mm and 16mm movie films. Most expired movie films are even batch tested!
Shooting expired film can be a lot of fun, and provide results you can’t get with other stocks available. Do be cautious though--results are never guaranteed. It’s best to process these old films yourself if you can (the FPP sells a great starter kit if you’ve never developed film before) and if you Google the film you’re shooting you’ll likely find some tips about developing that will help. Since results vary, it’s probably best not to use a 44-year-old roll of film to shoot Johnny’s first steps, or your sighting of Bigfoot.
At the end of the day, the experience of shooting a classic expired film was fun and adventurous--but also reassuring that my faith in that ‘film in the familiar yellow box’ is well placed.
Owen McCafferty is a native Clevelander who has been shooting analog movie and still film since the age of 12 in 2002. When he’s not out shooting, he works in product development and innovation for a firm in Cleveland.