Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Film Experiment Gone Bad

Shooting long-outdated film can give you some fabulously incorrect results. At left is an example of what you could end up with. While I’ve had great luck over the years with long outdated slide film (which is the origin of the image at left) and black and white negative film, I only recently shot my first roll of outdated Kodak Vericolor III color negative film. It had been freezer-kept and was outdated as of 1984. (For the record, I’m writing this in 2013, so the film was 29 years out of date!

Back in the fall of 2012, I walked through Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia with some friends who had never been there, so it was really a multi-purpose visit. I was experimenting with the Vericolor film on a wonderfully sunny Sunday morning. They quite enjoyed the scenery, and I liked playing tour guide. The cemetery is quite picturesque, with most of it still being wildly overgrown. (For the record, the cemetery is no longer abandoned, but it has no legal owner at this point in time. The situation is being hashed out in court as I write this.) One of my friends was shooting some outdated Kodak black and white slide film in her SLR. Her images came out blank, and mine were almost as bad.

Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse
My friend Bob at Mount Moriah
I was using an old Canon AE-1 SLR with a flea market-purchased 18 – 70mm lens (I paid a quarter for it!). I was expecting fabulous results with this super wide angle lens; however, the camera battery started dying about ten exposures into the 36-exposure roll. I’d compose a shot, set the exposure, trip the shutter, I said, trip the shut.... half the time the shutter wouldn’t release because the batteries were low. Of course I had no spares. Argh. I spent so much time getting through this roll, that I barely made any digital images. So after about four hours of traipsing through the thicket, we called it a day.

When I got my film back from the lab (Philadelphia Photographics, which handles all my quirky film needs with great skill and diligence), I found that I was the proud owner of no useable images. Pretty much all of the emulsion washed off the film substrate during development, resulting in a “thin” negative – so little emulsion was left that there was barely a ghost of an image to be printed. Seems appropriate for a cemetery, right? Well, such a result can lead to immense frustration, if you spent hours shooting the roll and exposing every frame carefully.

The reddish and purplish images you see here are scanned from my negatives – very grainy, not much contrast. Colors all wrong. Scanning the negatives and working with an image editing program could possibly salvage the images to a small degree, but don't expect a miracle. Desaturating the images (making them B/W) so that you're only working with shades of grey might yield something better, but there's a subtle technicality when it come to manipulating a scanned image, which prevents you from wreaking all the magic on it that you could otherwise wreak on an original digital image. An electronic scan of a negative holds far less digital information than if you had shot the scene with a digital camera in the first place. So for example, brightening the shadow areas to bring out detail is not as easily done with a scanned negative - there simply is no information there to manipulate! In fact, most of the photo editing capabilities in such a program as Adobe Photoshop become far more limited in their effectiveness when your original image is not digital.

My advice? Never experiment when your results really matter! Using outdated film is just that, an experiment. In my case, I went back to Mount Moriah a few weeks later and performed the same exercise over again, but this time with tried-and-true Ektachrome slide film, which always gives me great results – even if it is twenty years old and I cross-process it! An example from that roll is at the top of this article (mausoleum through the weeds) as well as the Mount Moriah gatehouse below.

Gatehouse shot later on outdated Ektachrome film
In my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, (available from, I go nowhere near the subject of experimenting with film, alternate development processes, or experimental printing. Its a wild world out there, and not for the faint of heart. You can get wild results, but these adventurous areas can be wildly complicated - and often the results are not reproducible (which is one reason it is difficult to give step-by-step instructions in these areas of photography)! An example of that last statement relates to the age of outdated film: five year-old-film can yield drastically different results from ten-year-old film, even if it is the exact same film and both have been freezer-kept.

Ed's book, available from
Attempt to bring out shadow detail
Original image
 As I said, I've had much better luck with outdated slide film and black and white negative film than I had with color negative. Therefore, it can do no harm to note in passing that when I was recently offered about a hundred rolls of outdated film, I only took the half that were not color negative! So I’m well-stocked for further photographic adventures with 35mm Ektachrome and 120mm [BW] Plus-X.

Some readers out there are probably wondering, “Where can I get outdated film?” Your friends may be a good source. Some photographers still have rolls in their freezers from before they went digital. Some non-photographers might have film left from a college photography course they took years ago! Most are happy to give it away. Ebay is another source, and sometimes camera shops will sell outdated or near-dated film at half price. B and H Photo in New York usually does this. Outdated film - use it sparingly or use it daringly!