Bad Film -- A guide to Expired Film, and a few ideas what to do with it.


Expired Film, Multiple Exposures, Crossprocessing, and other technical failures.

So, I’m typing this up as I wait for my supply of multiple exposure-based zines to arrive. Since I shot the project, my thinking and focus has changed a lot as far as photography is concerned. In my first three-ish? Years of my return to photography, I mainly bought lots (like lots the noun) of expired film off ebay, shot it, waited until I went home (to Maine) for a vacation, then spend like three weeks binning it out or deciding what I liked and didn’t. (four to six years later most of it is complete shit -- I’m working on sorting my first five years in LA out for a compilation zine. Most of it is garbage.) Honestly, in terms of *just shooting* and learning how cross process worked etc -- it was fine. It was totally fine.

If I’m being completely honest, I think the biggest turning point into using non-expired film came when I got called up by a (then) friend -- we don’t talk anymore -- to help shoot some fashion zine. I don’t think it ever actually aired or got printed or whatever -- at the very least I never heard about it. I don’t think the other photographer was particularly happy about me being there -- I can’t blame him (now, in 2019, as like a reasonable adult) -- but when I had to do that I think I dumped $100 bucks just on Kodak Ultramax at CVS -- I know this is dumb. Then had to go back to shooting expired film, and seeing how varied -- and often bad or inconsistent using single rolls of rando expired film was.

Anyway, fast forward three years, and my eventual opinion has shifted from militancy to ambivalence. I tend to be a no-holds barred kinda guy, and have put expired film back on the table for my own personal practice. That said, I’ve come across way more attitudes on expired film and other attitudes towards film and photography. That being said, I think often in film photography there are three distinct, mostly separate, schools of thought on “bad” film:

  1. You have the perfectionists, the Large Format Shooters, the Leica Owners, the Zone System cult. The typically macho dudes, who talk in terms of shadow detail and blown highlights, the term “sharpness” gets their dicks hard. (I’m being a little harsh here, but after having waded through enough APUG threads trying to find simple answers, and other forums like it, it’s a personal axe to grind. There are a lot of really nice, personable, technically competent photographers doing great work. For example you’ve got J. Fitzel AKA @FlyingMachines_ )

  2. You have your average shooter. Despite attempting to do a lot of technical research, and frequently not really abstaining from fighting with people, I’m typically not too bothered by technical details. I favor aesthetics over technique, because it ends up being a rabbit-hole (for me, personally). I’ll shoot expired film casually, I might even use it for a project it provided I know what it’ll perform like -- BnW film tends to be much more reliable on this front . Either way, the average dedicated film shooter tends not to get way too bogged down into details, but doesn’t typically seek out film with overt errors.

  3. You have the Alt-photo Crowd, The Lomography people, etc.. The people who actively seek out expired or “dead” film, who have no problem with the apparent failures and “mistakes” of cross-processing, artifacts from that expired film. At it’s best it can be a really interesting look into aesthetics and just making film do weird shit, a little off, it can be haphazard. Alter Analog does a good job of cataloging and talking about all of this, and of course you have the Lomography mothership too.

Anyway, here’s a loose primer on Expired Film, how to shoot it normally, and some odd experiments you can do with it:

For the Uninitiated — Tips For Shooting Expired Film:

  1. Expired Film is unpredictable -- unless you know exactly how the film was stored, preferably frozen, it’s going to be grainer and it may have some color shifts. It’s also going to lose sensitivity to light. You can take the same photo twice on the same roll and still get two very different looks out of the same film/roll.

  2. One Stop extra of  for every ten years old is a fine rule for C-41 film. Overexposed color film is never a bad thing. Giving BnW film extra exposure isn’t a bad idea, but BnW film seems to have a much much higher tolerance for being expired. Especially slow film. The higher the iso rating (color or bnw), the more likely the film is going to be to have gone bad.

    1. Ie if your film is 400 speed, but 20 years old, so you’d shoot it at 100 (2 stops down from 400).

  3. Slide film, like in every other case is bonkers, and the most unreliable. You can’t really give slide film too much over-exposure and process normally - it still whites out. I think giving *one* stop of over exposure is doable. Honestly cross-processing expired slide film is usually the safest bet with it.

So with all that said here’s some ideas of what to do with your expired film:

Multiple Exposure:

Multiple exposures are fairly easy to do provided your camera is y’know *capable* of doing them. Not every camera can do it, ironically, the “nicer: your camera is the less likely it is, but it’s pretty common on basic SLR’s -- pretty easy to check too.

To Check if your camera (assuming your camera is a standard order 35mm SLR/Rangefinder) can do multiple exposures:

  1. Take a photo.

  2. Flip the camera over, press the button to release the latch on your camera, as if you were to rewind your film, but don’t rewind it.

  3. Cock the shutter, normally. If you can hear/feel the film advance -- your camera probably can’t do multiple exposures. Go find another camera and try again. IF the shutter/latch moves like nothing’s holding it, then shoot again, but preferably a different image so you know what’s going on.

  4. Repeat the experiment a few times so you know what to expect, or just to have comparable results.

There’s lots you can do with this technique. Personally I’ve used it to create geometric compositions -- As seen in Crux.  My only real “tips” for shooting M-ex photos are two:

  1. (and this is a general photography “tip”) try and hold the first image in your head when you shoot the second -- it’s really useful for composing, and the results tend to be more predictable.

  2. Mind your exposure. Typically you can get away with whatever, or just shooting two images, it’s probably not going to give you a blank shot. But after the second exposure you’re going to be approaching whiting out in some areas (which can be part of the effect) but it’s something to be aware of. I typically recommend underexposing one stop for two, and that way if you end up adding more exposures, up to say four, you’re still only 2-4 stops overexposed at a given time rather than going beyond negative film’s nominal seven stop overexposure limit. This is also why I’d personally caution against using slide film for multiple exposures -- is the fairly limited exposure tolerance -- it can be done, but it’s not exactly easy to manage.

If you mind those tips, and understand the basic concept of superimposing images, you can do whatever you want.

That being said, there’s also the alternative method of Multi-exposure where you shoot an entire roll of film, then run it back through the camera. I don’t love the method because there’s no real way to exactly predict what image is overlaid on each other, and that drives me up a wall. I think a lot of people were using this technique to do the silhouettes overlaid with like a mountain background - which is cool but overplayed. I think the first time I actually really got into this is when my first Minolta XD-11’s clutch broke, and I’d get these partial or non advancements and you’d end up with some really strange overlays. Some ended up being kinda beautiful.

Cross Processing:

This is going to be a lot shorter and simpler than the above Multiple Exposure bit, because there’s no real technical aspect to it. Or at least no deeply involved technical knowhow, unless you’re doing your own C-41 or E-6 Processing. (I realize some people also do their own ECN-2, but that’s usually hard to do at home and the chemistry doesn’t last a super long time, or you have to mix your own powders at home which is more than most of us care to take on.)

It’s a much much simpler concept: shoot film normally, develop in a different chemistry for unusual or out of the ordinary results.

So what that boils down to (most commonly at least) is shooting slide or standard color negative film, and then processing it in the opposite chemistry. Most labs charge through the nose for this, but it’s pretty doable, or easily accessible.

Usually when cross-processed the film takes on unusual color-casting. Each emulsion has it’s own cast or reaction to the chemistry. Some are more favorable than others. For what I’ve learned ektachrome seems to turn out pretty reasonably close to “normal”, as does Lomo x-pro or Rollei Crossbird - or even CR-200 (pictured partially in Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve (Color)), which I think (or are rumored to be -- ie on APUG or one of the other old man forums) are all the same emulsion, or based on the same emulsion -- which was (is?) Agfa RSX 200.

I first heard about this when I got interested in Lomography. Again -- putting my own examples here, but you can find basically any film ever made, cross-processed on the Lomography mothership, or on Flickr, maybe not on flickr anymore.

It’s also theoretically possible to develop slide and color film in Rodinal, a BNW Developer. For all intents and purposes — Rodinal will Develop anything.

Soaking Film:

Again -- simple concept -- Take your film -- stick it in a bowl or container of whatever non-water liquid you want, and it stains and gives the film a certain cast or erosion.

At any rate it gives the film some weird reactions, it looks psychedelic and weird. It’s not a bad effect, it just seems to be fairly unpredictable.

I’m not sure what else to say, or tell y’all here. Just searching “soaking 35mm film” are probably going to be much much better bets on a dedicated how-to. All my examples are accidental -- the film was soaked in something before I sent it to the lab at the time, and I have no real idea of what caused it, or how the film got soaked in the first place.

Shoot It Normally:

Surprising, right? Just take expired film and shooting it normally. I’ve definitely done plenty of it. If you have a good source -- it can be much cheaper than buying new film, and supposing you’re willing to buy large lots of the same emulsion it at once, it can be *quasi* reliable. Either way, even shot normally, you’re bound to see something interesting, or offbeat.

So what’re you waiting for -- go shoot, and do some strange shit to your expired film.

This has been my intro-guide to expired film, and alternative film-shooting and processing. If you enjoyed this content or guide, please pick up a zine in the shop (linked here). It helps me keep the lights on on this website.