Copyright 2017 by William Karl Thomas

Outdated film may still be useful for taking pictures. I took an ancient postcard camera as a trade-in, processed the exposed roll that was in it, and was impressed with seventy-five year old black and white pictures of horse drawn carriages competing with those new fangled auto-mobiles. More recently, a friend inherited a box camera, processed the seventy-five year old film in it and had historic pictures of Pearl Harbor being bombed by the Japanese at the outset of World War II. Why did these films survive and why does film have an expiration date.

A film's silver halide crystals are subject to chemical change when exposed to visible light, excessive heat, and various radiation, including X-rays. A film's expiration date is based on the odds of being exposed to these three stimuli over a given period of time. Manufacturers play it safe and label film's expiration dates about two years from date of manufacture. If film were frozen immediately after manufacture, it would probably be viable a millennia later. Each individual roll of film may or may not be viable way past its expiration date, based on its exposure to excessive heat and radiation.

Color film has layers of dye that act as filters (which are washed out in the developing process) and as infused color in the final negative or positive process. The exception to this is Kodachrome whose colors are infused at the end of the developing process, known as a 'dye transfer process.' For this reason, Kodachrome has the option to be processed as black and white film, the only nuisance being that its jet black anti-haloid coating has to be softened and wiped off in the final process. Aging affects these color layers, creating 'color shifts' which cause that purplish tint to old color photos and slides. These shifts can be compensated for by filter manipulation in the color printing process. Generally, outdated black and white film (including Kodachrome shot as black and white film) is considered less vulnerable to aging than color negative or color positive reversal films such as Ektachrome.

But, even when outdated films are partially or totally 'fogged,' the term used for the aging effects on the silver halide crystals, there are other uses for it. If they are only slightly fogged, there are Anti-Fog Solutions that can be used in the developing process to reduce the background fogging, and there are Intensifier Solutions that can be used to lighten the foreground subject matter. Here are fifteen suggested uses for outdated films.

Some outdated films have no visible 'fogging' and can be used for normal photography. If you have a quantity of film with the same date, test one roll on a non critical subject. I wouldn't use untested outdated film for a paid assignment, or for any 'one time only' event. Pick an application that wont make you bang your head against the wall if it doesn't turn out just right; something like experimenting with portrait lighting setups using a styrofoam wig form for a model, making a photo inventory of your equipment for your insurance policy, or testing that lens that started to get fungus at the edge to see if it shows up in the image. If it turns out perfect, the rest of the batch is probably good. If it's a little off, it will probably fulfill the next four applications listed below. If it's way off, use the rest of the batch for applications 6 through 15 below.

Unless your film is totally fogged, it can be used to photograph text and simple black line art. This works great for 2"x2" slides on 35mm, or 2 1/4"x2 1/4" superslides on 120 square formats. Black lettering on a white background makes white lettering on a black background when the negatives are put in slide mounts. With black and white film, the lettering can be colored by sandwiching it with colored gels or cellophane, or by tinting, dyeing, or inking individual lines or letters by hand. With color negative, you have orange colored lettering on a black background because of the orange 'mask' inherent in the film base. With positive reversal films, you have whatever colors were in the original text or art you shot, give or take any color shift from aging. With larger roll or cut films, you have the option to create 3 1/4"x4 1/4" 'lantern slides' or 'radio slides,' the largest slides available which are sometimes used for stage and film backgrounds because of the maximum resolution they provide in a projected image that can be maintained almost indefinitely. Larger formats also provide the option of creating 'masks' which can be used in photographic printing or in a cine camera's mattebox for framing special effects; i.e., prints of your sweetheart's picture in a heart frame, or those movie titles where large lettering on a black background has a moving image seen within the text because the title 'mask' was in the camera's mattebox when the background image was filmed. The slight fogging in the clear areas of the slide or mask are inconsequential when it comes to titles or masks, and are risk free shots that can be done over if necessary.

It's a sad reality that most people will know about reticles in gunsights and bombsights, moreso than grids used in art and laboratory science or viewfinder masks used in photography. Everyone knows about the adjustable crosshairs of gunsights and bombsights that can be zeroed in on a target destined for annihilation. The first bombsight invented as a 'secret weapon' in World War II used human hair for the vertical and horizontal lines, hence the term 'crosshairs.' Reticles today are printed on plastic or photographed on film. It is easier to move this plastic disc than it is to move two discs of glass with hairs glued and sandwiched between them, and more stable, too. Gunsights and bombsights are basically telescopes with an adjustable crosshair reticle in one of its internal focal planes. You can photograph artwork of crosshairs drawn with white ink on black card or paper, and cut the reticle out of the resulting negative, and you can make it whatever size you need to replace a damaged one in your instrument or add one to your microscope or your terrestrial or astronomical telescope. You can photograph grids the same way to add to your laboratory magnifier or low power wide field microscope, sized by you for counting microscopic items in any field size you desire. The same type of grid can be sandwiched with a photographic negative to make a print with a grid pattern used as a guide to paint murals to a reasonably accurate scale, just as billboard artists used to do and professional mural painters still do. And you can make camera viewfinder frames to create viewfinders for different focal length lenses, and 'sports finders' that have a clear center frame and a surrounding grey or hand colored (with transparent inks) area so you can see the racer entering from the side and trip the shutter in time to catch him in the middle of the frame.

With one roll of film you can test several of your lenses, but place a card in each picture identifying the lens, or make notes on the sequence of tests and mark your negatives accordingly once they're processed. When you're testing a lens, you're primarily looking for resolution (sharpness), falloff (how evenly light is distributed across the format, does it get dim in the corners), and contrast (is it 'snappy,' are the blacks really black and the whites really white). If your film is slightly fogged, you can usually still fulfill the resolution and falloff tests. Fogging will make it difficult to evaluate contrast. There are resolution test charts you can purchase, but most of us just tack some newspaper printed text on the wall with a couple of lights on it and focus very carefully as we shoot the last few frames of an unfinished roll. For telephoto lenses, you can shoot the bricks or concrete blocks of an exterior sunlit wall, but try to be square to the wall and get the brick/block area in the center and the corners of the shot. For falloff, fill the frame with a shot of a plain white posterboard with a couple lights on it, keeping the camera centered and parallel to the posterboard. To evaluate, mount 35mm test negatives (no need to make prints) in slide mounts and project them on a flat white screen four or six feet wide. For larger negatives, cut the center and corners of the test negative to fit into 35mm slide mounts and project them four or six feet wide. Compare how sharp the newspaper text or bricks or blocks are in the center and corners of the negatives. Look at the projected image of the white posterboard negatives and see if the corners are darker than the center. Evaluation is subjective. No lens is perfect, it need only satisfy you and your needs. For cine films, these tests can be conducted using the 'single frame' shutter release normally used for animation. Also, there are 2"x2" slide mounts for 8mm, 16mm, and cine 35mm (18mmx24mm) formats which you can use in a slide projector for evaluation. If you can't find them, use 2"x2" glass slide mounts and cut your own black paper masks for your cine format.

The simplest shutter test is to use a macro lens to fill the frame with the second hand of an electric clock scanning the area covered by one second on the clock face. Shoot the second hand during its travel past this one second area, and shoot it at each and every shutter speed on your camera's dial. If you have to repeat shots due to timing errors, make notes of the sequence of your shots. You can mount and project the negatives, or make large prints of them. Use a millimeter ruler and find an area on the projected image or print where ten increments on the ruler cover the space between the second marks on the clock dial. Measuring the blur of the second hand will then tell you if your shutter's one second setting creates a solid blur of the clock's second hand between those two dial marks, if the shutter's one half second correlates to a blur that covers one half of the dial marks, and so forth down to using the millimeter ruler for smaller fractions of a second. The larger you project or print the image, the easier it will be to measure faster shutter speeds. Leaf shutters can have any orientation to the clock dial. Focal plane shutters must be at right angles to the clock second hand so that the slit of the focal plane shutter does not travel in the same direction that the second hand is moving. Focal plane shutters may create a curved blur of the second hand, but the evaluation of that blur should be between where it starts and where it ends. Cine cameras have rotary shutters that equate with a focal plane shutter traveling horizontally from top to bottom of the frame, so orient them at a right angle to the clock's second hand. Unless they have a 'variable shutter,' cine cameras shutter speeds vary according to their 'frames per second' (FPS) speed, so you might want to test the shutter at each FPS. For cine cameras operating at the 'normal' speed of 16, 18, or 24 FPS, their correct shutter speed is usually between 1/40th and 1/60th of a second.

When black and white film is processed, the areas of the negative with greatest exposure to light appear as opaque black to our naked eye, but we're only basing this on light reflected from the film. If we held the film negative over a strong light and looked at it carefully with a magnifying glass, we could see our hand moving on the other side of those black areas, but only dimly. Black and white film, with its random distribution of hundreds of thousands of silver halide crystals, can, if it is evenly and strongly exposed to visible light and processed, make an extremely dense 'neutral density filter.' If your outdated film tests as slightly fogged, you can run other tests through your camera and save one or more of the last frames to make a solar filter. To do this, simply square the camera off from a white wall or posterboard with a couple lights on it, and make a ten second time exposure. If your film is badly fogged, you can simply remove it from its spool and evenly expose it to daylight or artificial light, process it, and have enough material to make a lot of solar filters. You can use the larger size films in a frame or attached to eyeglasses for direct sun viewing. You can cut two inch or four inch squares and mount them in gel filter holders for use in your gel filter holder on your camera lens, or you can cut circular filters to be sandwiched in glass series size 'optical flats' to mount on your camera lens. Disclaimer: With any solar filter, prolonged viewing can still be dangerous. Be prepared to discontinue viewing immediately if viewing through any solar filter feels uncomfortable.

Badly or totally fogged films can still be used for scratch testing, because the film wont even be developed. Scratch testing is applicable to both still and cine cameras, but is especially important for cine cameras and should be done periodically, certainly each time the camera is used in a different or exterior location. I run a cine camera scratch test as the beginning of each new assignment. You're testing whether the film path of your camera is clean and free of any dust or dirt that can cause scratches on the emulsion or base of the film. For this you need virgin factory packaged film that has never seen the light of the world outside it's sealed metal foil envelope. You can only run one scratch test with each virgin film, but, after scratch testing, the film can be rewound and used for any of the applications below. Run this test in a clean dust free area with a well filtered heating/cooling system, or, turn the heating/cooling system off. Clean your camera thoroughly with an air blower. Inspect its interior, particularly its film path, with a magnifying lens and use a cue tip with alcohol to remove any dust or dirt from any surface that might possibly transfer dust or dirt to the film path. If removable, remove the pressure plate for inspection and cleaning, and reinstall it. Load the film and run the entire roll through the camera. Unwind the entire still film roll, or two feet from the beginning, middle, and end of cine film. Tape these to a fresh clean sheet of paper or posterboard on an editing table or desk. With a 10X loupe, inspect all film samples looking for scratches first on the base side, then on the emulsion side. Any scratches requires re-inspection and cleaning of the film gate, pressure plate, rollers, sprockets, and interior of the camera chamber. This same test can apply to cine projectors, filmstrip projectors, enlarger negative carriers, and cine editing machines.

A 'test roll' can be used repeatedly for this test, provided they are properly rewound, which is tricky with still roll films because the film is only attached by tape at the beginning of the paper backing. Paper backed roll film cameras without 'cranks' simply require looking for the numbers as they appear in the red window at the back of the camera. Cameras with 'cranks, such as a Rolleiflex, really need this test as failure of the numbers to appear in sequence or at all indicates a malfunctioning advance mechanism leading to overlapping negatives in the processed film. For 35mm cameras, torn sprocket holes after the test indicate film advance problems such as stripped gears in the lever advance mechanism. If processed 35mm negatives are overlapping and the camera has a focal plane shutter, run a test roll with the lens removed and the shutter set at 'T' (time exposure). When the shutter is open at each exposure, use a sharp pointed pencil to draw a frame outline on the film emulsion. Inspect the unloaded film and see if any penciled frames overlap. If they do, you probably have stripped gears. If not, the photographer probably did not fully cock the lever while exposing the previously overlapped negatives. For cine cameras, this is more a test of the cinematographer's ability to properly load the camera. More often film jamming is a result of improper loading than of stripped gears in the mechanism leading to loss of synchronization between sprockets, pulldown claw, and shutter rotation. Cine film tests, both scratch tests and film advance tests, should include any associated external magazines.

For photographers wise enough to learn about film, including film processing and printing, (read my article Film Vs. Digital), learning to load film processing reels can be tricky. Seeing what you're doing with the lights on helps, and requires the sacrifice of a roll of film, and what better than a roll of outdated film, particularly if you've tested the batch and know it's not viable for picture taking. Simply follow the instructions that came with your film processing reel and tank. If you've lost them, rule of thumb is that most stainless steel reels load from the inside out, and most plastic reels load from the outside in. Start by removing the taped end of the film from the paper, or opening the 35mm cassette with a bottle opener, or cracking open the 126 cartridge. The film has a tendency to curl toward the emulsion side, and that curl will help you orient the film so the emulsion faces the inside of the reel. Stainless steel reels usually have a spring clip at the center to lock one end of the film, then the film is 'cupped' (slightly squeezed together so the edges will clear the wire tracks of the reel) while the reel is rotated by the other hand. Ideally, the film springs back into the tracks as it travels past the 'cupped' area, and the outer end of the film stops just before the end of the outermost track. Inspect your results after loading, and look for film misaligned or crossing tracks, or one layer of film touching another, which would cause incomplete development of the touched area. Some plastic reels have a small band spring in the beginning of the top and bottom of the outermost track. Once the film is pushed past the springs, the top and bottom halves of the reel rotate separately about half an inch. Rotating the left and right repeatedly causes the springs to push the film forward into the reel a half inch at a time until it is fully loaded. Some plastic reels require pushing the film in gently starting with the outer track. Try not to crease the film so you can practice with it repeatedly.

So you don't have to risk important pictures in your first few attempts to process film, use outdated film that you've shot tests on. Or you can use outdated film that tests prove no longer viable. If it's unexposed film that's no longer viable, in total darkness and before loading the film onto reels, place a few short pieces of black plastic electrical tape on the film emulsion, then spread the film out and flash it with visible light for a fraction of a second. This will provide a sort of 'image' that allows you to compare the light and dark areas of the film when processed. Process the film according to the film and photo chemical manufacturer's instructions. When complete, peel off the electrical tape and you should have film that is clear in the unexposed (taped) areas and black in the exposed (light flashed) areas for black and white film, or orange in the unexposed areas and dense colors in the exposed areas for color negative, or something resembling a positive image for reversal film. If you still have a milky appearance on the base side of the film, nothing's wrong, you simply need to put it back in the fixing solution to completely remove the anti-haloid coating on the back. If you peel off the black electrical tape and those areas are not relatively clearer then the surrounding black areas, you probably flashed the visible light for too long, or you put the tape on the base side instead of the emulsion side. Repeated practice processing your outdated film will help you recognize and correct any errors you're making, and do so without damaging valuable pictures you've taken.

With apologies to Leica lovers, some cameras are a bitch to load, and I consider early 'bottom loading' Leicas among them. Seeing is believing, and I was always concerned if compressed air alone had cleaned my Leica that had no hinged back or way for me to see the film gate and pressure plate. And I had some friends who had difficulty learning to load even a hinged back 35mm camera. For cine cameras, film loading is more complex and extremely critical because, if a camera jams on a shot that involves a hundred actors, horses, and expensive special effects, you may just lose your job. I keep 'test rolls' in all film sizes and, when a novice photographer buys a camera from me, I am happy to teach them how to load it, rather than see them frustrated with early failures they want to blame on the equipment. Badly fogged outdated film may be one of the best tools and investments you've made if you use them to learn or teach proper film loading. Remember three important things: 1. Practice. 2. Practice. And 3. Practice.

I've taught photography, cinematography, videography, film production, and biographical writing. Show and tell is an invaluable tool in teaching, particularly in technical arts. I had a pinhole camera made from an oatmeal box, an early box camera I could disassemble and reassemble, an old leaf shutter with a removable front to reveal the iris and shutter blades, an old Speed Graphic to demonstrate focal plane shutters, an old Eyemo cine camera with a removable turret to reveal its rotary shutter, a set of five basic lens elements plus a cemented doublet with evidence of fungus, and every format of roll and cine film ever widely used, all outdated and reusable, of course. Just telling someone to look for numbers in a little red window isn't enough. You have to hold the roll film under your face and widen your eyes and smile as you slowly unroll the film to reveal the 8, 12, and 16 exposure options on the paper backing. You have to let them feel the slick base side and dull emulsion side of the film. You have to show them the red anti haloid coating of orthochromatic film and the green anti haloid coating of panchromatic film. Seeing is believing. Touching, feeling, experiencing is far better.

I’ve sold a lot of vintage equipment to museums and collectors, and they often ask if I have cosmetically acceptable film to be displayed with the camera. Some of the outdated film I sell is obsolete, which is why I have relatively little of it left (127, 620, 116, 122). Sometimes the box is as important to them as the spool of film itself. Sometimes they want two rolls, one to display as an unopened box, the other to display with the actual film curling free of the paper backing and showing its colorful anti-haloid backing. More than one wanted enough rolls to line the entire back of the display case with the paper backing in horizontal or angled strips. Sometimes the expiration date on the film box dates the manufacture or period of new sales for the camera. The specific size film used in a specific camera enhances the display, and the relative cost of the film is insignificant compared to the value of that enhancement.

I remember movies in which cameras played a principal role in a storyline: James Mason in the 1944 spy thriller Hotel Reserve where loading and unloading film in his Contax 35mm rangefinder camera was crucial to the plot, and Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window where wheelchair bound photographer Jimmy Stewart uses an Exacta SLR with a 400mm Kilfitt telephoto (I stock both) as a telescope to witness a possible murder. Of course there were blunders like the 1958 film, The Young Lions, in which Arthur Franz, as a German photographer, photographs Marlon Brando with an Argus C3 (I stock them), making me and others in the audience laugh at the thought that a photographer from the country that invented the Leica, the Contax, and the Exacta, would use an amateur American camera. I have seen many film and stage scenes enhanced by authentic re-enactment of photo/cine technology, including the loading and unloading of camera film. Authenticity beats the shot in the Italian production where a Roman soldier is seen wearing a digital watch.

The price of outdated film is often less than the cost of a replacement spool for that same size film. Used cameras often do not have a 'takeup spool.' Some folks like to reload 120 film onto 620 spools, 400' cine film on cores onto 100'or 200' or 400' daylight loading spools, and slit 9" wide aerial film to reload on 127, 120, 116, or 122 paper backed spools. Some 35mm cassettes are reloadable, and the non-reloadable ones can be reloaded by taping new film to the short end of outdated cassettes. Some ingenious folks have found alternative uses for spools including winding ribbon, thread, string, twine, wire, adding machine paper, and other flexible linear items, and, in the case of cine spools, having cine rewinds available to do it. I've seen film spools used as rollers for paper guides, belt drives, rope drives, and magnetic tape loop systems. I've seen craft people cover them for use as handles, paint them for use as spacers in beaded curtains, and glue them into dimensional collages as, of all things, a roll of film coming out of a camera. Use your imagination. If you're a photographer or an artist, outdated film is truly a low cost resource with many applications.


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