Written by Brian Smith
I never had much interest in expired film as I was learning. I didn’t want the unpredictability of it. But as I began to hone my film photography skills, I became intrigued by the grain and grit of expired film.
I love grain in photos. I love a bit of crushed contrast and color shifts. These are some of the reasons why 35mm film is my favorite medium. In the perfect light, 35mm is beautiful, but in less controlled conditions, 35mm is a bit unpredictable and gritty.
Shooting Expired Kodak Ektachrome
I received 2 rolls of 15 year expired Kodak Ektachrome E100SW in an eBay auction for a Contax T3. I did a little research on the film and brought a roll along for a bridal shoot in a golden grass field. I thought the warmth would bring extra life to the golden landscape.
This was also only the second time I shot color positive film. The first time was through an old TLR when I was just starting out shooting film. Let’s just say the results were terrible. Fast forward to this roll of 15 year expired Kodak Ektachrome E100SW shot through my Canon EOS 1V, and I was blown away by the results.
The colors were perfect and, til this day, remain my favorite color palette I have ever experienced from a roll of film. The tall grass was a beautiful shade of yellow gold, while the greens remained a true to life color. The warmer tone colors, like the red in her hair, seemed to glow with this magnificent shade of orange. Honestly, If I could buy 100 rolls and have them guaranteed to look like this, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Color positive film is a sensitive beast. The colors change slightly depending on the direction of lighting you are shooting in. Shot side lit and the tones were a bit less vibrant and slightly cooler. Purple/blueish tones could be seen in the highlights. All of this is pretty standard for Ektachrome film, as I have come to experience.
Again, here we are slightly more side lit and the colors are less vibrant, but still pleasing and beautiful.
Shooting Expired Film with Unknown Storage Conditions
Now, we take a look at the other side of the expired film coin. What happens when it is less well cared for, when it isn’t stored cold or frozen?
After getting my 35mm results back, I immediately purchased 20 rolls of medium format 120 Kodak Ektachrome E100SW off eBay with unknown storage conditions. I brought one roll with me on a trip to the Canary Islands.
This time, I wasn’t quite so lucky with the end result, but I actually liked the rendering. It had this surreal pink and blue split toning, likely from a fogged base layer of the film. A tiny bit of color correction, mostly reduction in magenta, and the images were beautiful. The below two images were shot on my Fujifilm GF670 folding rangefinder.
All of these medium medium format, Canary Islands images were shot metering for highlights -1 stop.
See how beautifully surreal the results were! Now, fast forward a few months and I had the idea that the film stock would make a cool portrait series. I loaded up a roll in my Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex TLR, and shot a few portraits of friends, indoors and out. The results this go around were far from pleasing.
The base layer of the film appears heavily fogged here. This roll was from the exact same pro-pack as the landscape shots. In the shot above, there is only about 1.5 stops difference between the highlights and shadows. I metered highlights -1 again.
Here is an outdoor shot in late morning sun, front lit.
Before I received any of the above shots back from the lab, an idea struck me for a shoot that blue and pink tones would be perfect for. I wanted to do a portrait shoot, mimicking the mind of a child, and I thought this color pallet would be perfect for the job.
I wanted a slightly surreal result, but was still expecting something closer to the landscape shots than the above two portraits. Here are the results, straight scan and corrected. All metered highlights with 1 stop difference between shadow and highlights.
A bunch of split toning later, and I salvaged something closer to what I had originally intended.
I will be hestiant to use this batch of film again, as the magenta tones were just so overpowering to really salvage any decent color rendering. Next time I shoot it, I will do it through one of my more modern cameras. My Zeiss Ikoflex Favorit TLR has never given me reason to think the shutter speeds aren’t timed perfectly, so I don’t want to blame it, but it’s possible it was off by a stop.
Looking at the negatives and checking with Photovision Prints techs, the images appeared overexposed, exacerbating the fogging of the pink base layer. I was quite surprised at how dense black the negatives were, indicating overexposure on color positive film, given there was only 1 stop difference between shadows and highlights in the studio.
I’ve got a lot of rolls of this stuff left, so I want to find a use for it. Next time I will expose it slightly less and see what I get. I also have another pro pack, from a different purchase, of E100SW medium format I am anxious to try. That’s the thing with expired film, I suppose…it can be so rewarding and unpredictably beautiful. However, if you are spending so much hard work and time to put together a shoot or capture the right light over a landscape, do you really want to risk it?