10 Common Film Issues and How to Fix Them by David Rose

Light Leaks on Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
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Written by David Rose

Shooting film can very much be a trial-and-error experience, especially when first starting out.

Even though I had been shooting on digital cameras for years, when I first picked up a fully manual film camera, in some ways, it felt like I was back to square one.

I had almost no idea what I was doing and ended up learning a lot of lessons the hard way… but in the words of the philosopher:

“Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

In this article, I’m going to break down ten common film issues I’ve encountered through the years. I’ll also share example images and potential causes and solutions to help you diagnose and troubleshoot in case you find yourself running into the same problems.*

*Editor’s note: Before we begin I just want to issue a disclaimer that not all of these are considered problems 100% of the time. A lot of the fun of shooting film comes from the fact that it can be unpredictable, and, sometimes, you might purposefully use things like multiple exposures or light leaks to enhance the ‘analog-ness’ of your photography. One person’s error is another’s art… with that out of the way, let’s begin!

10 Common Film Issues and How to Fix Them
10 Common Film Issues and How to Fix Them
10 Common Film Issues and How to Fix Them

Light Leaks

Light leaks appear as bursts of white or red/orange/yellow color on your film, often in a streak pattern.

Personally, I’m a fan of light leaks (most of the time), and there are even stocks of film you can buy that come pre light-leaked for all sorts of cool effects.

However, they can be a nuisance when unplanned and unwanted. In which case, you’re probably wondering how to avoid them. 

Light Leaks on Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Light Leaks on Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film

Potential Causes and Solutions:

A lot of things can cause light leaks, but the most common perpetrators are either (1) accidentally (or sometimes purposefully if you’re me) opening the back of the camera when film is loaded, or (2) bad/missing light seals.

For the first issue, the solution is simple… don’t open your camera while you have film in there. Unless of course you’re trying to add light leaks.

Bad/Missing Light Seals

If many of your photos are coming back with light leaks when you haven’t opened the back of the camera, then it’s probably time to have your camera serviced or CLA’d (Cleaned, Lubricated, Adjusted).

In most cameras (particularly 35mm), the light is kept out by foam seals which can naturally deteriorate over time. When this happens those pesky little photons will inevitably shoot through at 186,000 miles per second to be all up in your film.

If you’d like tips for creating light leaks on purpose, check out this article: How to Create Light Leaks on Film

Underexposed Film Images

For me, this is one of the most frustrating mishaps of shooting film––getting your photos back only to find out that they’re an underexposed grainy mess, and in many cases unusable.

The trademark indicator of underexposed film images are photos that have low contrast, washed out colors, and are muddy or grainy. (Film is supposed to have grain, but not that much grain!)

See some examples below:

Underexposed Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Underexposed Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film

Potential Causes and Solutions:

The causes for this one are not always immediately obvious. In some cases, it can just be poor metering or shooting a film stock that’s not rated for the ambient light (i.e. Ektar 100 indoors or in low light).

Another factor can be if the film you’re shooting is either expired or meant to be shot at an ISO lower than what’s on the box.

Other times, it can point to a more serious issue such as an inaccurate light meter or shutter calibration that necessitates a trip to the camera hospital.

Double check your camera settings and make sure you’re properly metered for the film speed.

If you think it might be an inaccurate light meter, you might be able to do a DIY calibration test by comparing it with a known-good light meter.

Film doesn’t handle underexposure well, so if you’re trying to push the limits and squeeze out some shots when your meter is telling you there’s not enough light, it probably won’t end well.

Overexposed Film Images

On the opposite end of the spectrum is overexposing, and truth be told it is actually reallyyy hard to overexpose most kinds of film (slide film being the exception). So much so that it was actually hard to find some example images in my 10k+ film photo library.

Most color negative and black and white film stocks will eat up all the light you give them, allowing you to overexpose by several stops and still get a perfectly usable image.

This is the opposite of digital where you can underexpose a shot when shooting in RAW and later recover it, but overexposed digital images are the bane of all existence.

If you do happen to overexpose your film, it will create a very dense negative and leave your images with low contrast and looking flat.

Overexposed Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Overexposed Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film

Potential Causes and Solutions:

Incorrect exposure settings at the time of shooting are the primary culprit for this one.

I’ve shot whole rolls of Fuji Provia/Velvia (slide film) before realizing I had forgotten to change the ISO selection for my in-camera light meter.

It is extremely hard, if not impossible, to salvage an overexposed slide film image, so take extra care when shooting these stocks of film.  

It never hurts to double and triple check the exposure before taking the photo when shooting slide film. The exposure latitude is so razor thin that you can be off by a single stop and ruin a shot.

You also want to be careful about shooting high contrast scenes with deep shadows and bright highlights, since, without using filters, you’ll lose half your shot by exposing for one or the other.

Multiple Exposures

This is another one that probably happens intentionally more often than not, but it can be accidental.

Pretty self explanatory concept here, but you’ll get a multiple exposure by exposing the same frame of film more than once, and it can actually turn out quite beautifully:

Light leaks and double exposure on film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
This was an unintentional triple exposure of an apartment in Paris, the Space Needle in Seattle, and a sunset in Southern California.

Potential Causes and Solutions:

If you’re getting accidental multiple exposures, you could have a film advance issue, the multiple exposure function might be flipped inadvertently, or you shot the same roll of film twice.

It’s always a good idea to mark your film and take notes to avoid accidentally shooting over the same film twice.

For the example shot above, I shot a few pictures at the beginning of a roll, decided to swap it out for another but didn’t properly mark the film. Then, a few months later shot it again thinking it was a brand new roll…

Frame Overlap

Similar to multiple exposures, sometimes you’ll encounter issues with film spacing where your images are not correctly spaced and begin to overlap on one another.

When this happens it can render part of your image unusable, which is not ideal since you’ll have to crop it in later and lose a portion of your shot.

Overlapping Film Frames - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Overlapping Film Frames - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film

Potential Causes and Solutions:

In most cases, this is caused by the gears in your camera not advancing the correct distance when you wind the film lever.

I’ve mostly run up against it when I’m trying to do double exposures, which causes the film to not advance far enough for the next picture in some cameras. 

If you’re getting consistent frame overlap, you might need to repair your camera. You’re most likely to encounter this issue on old beater thrift store cameras, so buying a new system might be the more cost effective “solution.”

Some cameras, such as the Pentacon Six TL, are more prone to frame spacing issues, so you may be able to avoid this problem altogether by choosing a different camera.

Half Frames or Blank Frames

If you shoot enough film, you’ll inevitably get half frames or even blank frames.

Half frames happen at the beginning or end of a roll where the film emulsion begins (or ends) mid frame. A portion of your image appears all white or sometimes a red/orange/yellow color.

I personally like them, and sometimes they result from squeezing out a bonus shot from the actual number of images your roll is supposed to have, which to me sounds like a bargain.

There’s even an entire film community on Instagram that features these images exclusively.

Film Burn - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Half frames with a visible line where the emulsion begins.
Film Burn - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Half frames with a visible line where the emulsion begins.

Potential Causes and Solutions:

Half frames typically happen from advancing the film too far (or not far enough) when first loading the film. Or from not connecting it properly with the film take-up spool, so it comes loose prior to advancing.

Mechanical issues with your camera can also cause it to either advance too far or not far enough (causing frame overlap or spacing issues). This can also result in losing images at the beginning or end of your roll. 

Make sure you are loading your specific model of camera correctly (tutorial videos and online manuals are common nowadays).

Also, if you get a roll of blank images back, it may mean that the film never attached properly. If you know your camera well, you can usually feel that something is “off” with the tension when advancing the roll, which may help you catch this in the moment. 

Blank Film Frame - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Blank image from an entire roll I shot that never actually fed through the camera.

Shutter Problems

You might find yourself asking why do my film images have a random dark/unexposed side?

I’ve had these phantom apparitions show up from time to time, usually on older cameras I’m testing out or haven’t shot in a while.

Shutter Problems with Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film

Potential Causes and Solutions:

These are usually caused by mechanical issues with the shutter of your camera sticking or slowing down. Getting your camera serviced is probably the only solution. Or you can “repair” it by upgrading to a new camera. 

Expired Film

Expired film can actually be really cool to shoot with. It’s unpredictable and can yield really cool vintage results.

You can find plenty of expired film for sale on eBay, often in bulk and for much cheaper than buying brand new film.

Expired film loses sensitivity to light, so, if not compensated for, your images will be underexposed. There will often be color shifts as well.

Expired Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
These were both shot on some rolls of film I found that had been sitting in my parents’ garage for a few decades…
Expired Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film

Potential Causes and Solutions:

Check the expiration date on the roll or box prior to shooting, even when buying new film. (Some unscrupulous online sellers will sell “new” film that’s actually past the expiration date.)

I’ve found that most films will still shoot fine a few years past the expiration date, especially if properly stored, but, once you get into the decades, the results will vary more widely. 

A common rule of thumb is to overexpose by one stop for every ten years of expiration. It’s not a guarantee, but it will help with the underexposure.

Heat Damage

While this is relatively uncommon, film is susceptible to heat and can be damaged if left or stored in excessive temperatures. Excessive heat can cause fogging, flatness, loss of contrast, and/or spots on the film.

You should always be careful of leaving your film in hot environments like your parked car or direct sunlight.

Heat Damage on Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Ever wondered what would happen if you purposefully left a roll of film sitting on your car’s dashboard for a few months of 100º F+ of Southern California heat? Well… now you know.
Heat Damage on Film - Common Film Issues by David Rose on Shoot It With Film

Potential Causes and Solutions:

This can be caused by not practicing proper long-term care and storage of film.

Most film photographers I know (myself included) regularly store rolls that won’t be used in the near future in a cool/dry environment, and refrigerators are a popular choice.

Just be aware you’ll need to let your film reach room temperature before use since shooting right away can cause condensation which messes with the chemistry of the film.

Film Breaking in Camera

When your film breaks in-camera, it’s never a fun experience.

No example images of this one since scanning broken or torn negatives is a fruitless endeavor. 

Potential Causes and Solutions:

I’ve broken a few rolls of film by advancing it too far past the end of the roll trying to squeeze out that one last shot, only to feel a gut-wrenching give that tells you you’ve gone too far.

This can also happen if you open the camera mid roll for some light leaks, which will reset the film counter on most cameras. 

If your film breaks inside your camera, you’ll need either a pitch black room or a light-tight film changing bag to extract it. By being very careful to not expose the film to light or mishandle it, you might be able to salvage whatever shots are on the roll.

Thank you so much, David! David is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, such as his Guide to Choosing a Color Film and 35mm vs 120: Choosing a Film Format.

You can also find more of David’s work on Instagram!

Leave your questions about common film issues below in the comments!

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David Rose

David Rose is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find his other articles here, such as Guide to Choosing a Color Film and 35mm vs 120: Choosing a Film Format.

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