Expired film can be a scary thing to approach as it’s unknown what you’re going to get. Over the years I’ve shot and developed a lot of old film and now I can guide you along!
Camera film can last 30-40 Years if the film is kept refrigerated. Film expiry dates are 2 years after manufacture but the film will usually still be fine for 5 years as long as it isn’t stored in a warm place. After around 5 years, camera film will start to degrade slightly, reducing its sensitivity, becoming more grainy or changing hue substantially. This process can be slowed down by keeping your film cool. It’s certainly possible to successfully develop film that is 30+ years old if it has been in the right conditions, however, it will have some kind of degradation.
There are many nuances to expired film so if you want to learn more, keep on reading!
How Long Film Lasts
There are a few factors that affect how long film will last and how much degradation may occur to it. Here is a table to give you an idea of how film is affected over time in different environments.
|Black & White
|Stored In Cupboard
|10 Years Before Substantial Degradation
|15 Years Before Substantial Degradation
|Stored On Windowsill
|3 Years Before Substantial Degradation
|5 Years Before Substantial Degradation
|Stored In Fridge/Freezer
|20 Years Before Substantial Degradation
|25 Years Before Substantial Degradation
|Found In SLR
|5-7 Years Before Degradation And Possible Light Leaks
|10-15 Years Before Degradation and Possible Light Leaks
|Found In Point And Shoot
|5-10 Years+ Before Degradation
|10-15 Years+ Before Degradation
Demonstrating how the different ways of storing film affect degradation over time.
Of course, these times are an estimation and things like the original quality of the film can also change the time it takes to degrade.
Personally, I’ve found many rolls of film in old cameras over the years and usually, there is some kind of degradation or light leaks once they’re developed.
If The Film Has Never Been Used
Of course, film has a use-by date of around 2 years but most film will be absolutely fine for 5-10 years.
If it hasn’t been exposed yet then there’s a very good chance that your film is still completely light-sealed and therefore much less likely to have been damaged.
Due to the chemical makeup of film, over time these chemicals break down and start to affect the film’s sensitivity and vibrancy. This doesn’t impact unused film as quickly as if the film was found inside a camera but it will still degrade after about 5-10 years.
At the 10-year mark you’d probably want to overexpose the film by 1 stop to ensure that you can make up for any sensitivity lost. At around 15-20 then you might want to go up to 2 stops over exposed.
If Your Film Has Already Been Exposed
Whether you’ve found a spent roll of film inside your parent’s camera or you’ve had a roll sat around for a long time, it’s worth knowing how long these might last.
Information on the internet seems to be confusing to say the least so hopefully, I can make it a little bit more simple.
Based on my own experience, film that’s been shot and left inside a camera could still be developed after 20 years or so (maybe even longer), however, it really depends on the state of the camera. If the camera had poor light seals then it’ll probably degrade much quicker.
Technically, film will start to degrade quicker if it’s left inside a camera because there’s more chance of it being exposed to tiny amounts of light. So while I’m saying the film could still be developed after a long period of time, it could look very unusual.
So my suggestion would be that if film has been left in a camera for 2 years (and it has good light seals) then it’ll be pretty much fine. If it’s been left in a camera for 5 years, it’ll have some degradation. 10 years, there’s a chance it could be significantly degraded but it’s still worth seeing what’s on it. 15-20 years is a much higher risk zone but I’d always suggest that you get it developed to see, there will usually be something on it, it just might not resemble a normal-looking image.
If you’ve shot a roll of film and left the exposed roll somewhere for a while then it’s safer than the film that’s stored inside a camera. So I’d suggest that it basically fits the table I made at the top of the article.
According to Kodak, negatives could last up to 1000 years under the right circumstances. But under most circumstances, in a fairly average-temperature home, 20 – 50 years is about the amount of time that negatives should last.
I guess that’s why it’s good to have digital scans!
How To Make Film Last Longer
Store It Properly
Storing Camera Film in a refrigerator or freezer will extend the life of your film stock. Ensure that you don’t use your film immediately after removing it from your fridge or freezer, keep it at room temperature for a day before using it to avoid any possible condensation.
There’s no exact way of saying how much more life you can get from storing film like this but the table I made at the start of the article gives a general idea and as noted earlier, your film will just begin degrading, it doesn’t mean after X amount of years that it’s fully ruined.
Don’t Leave It Inside The Camera For So Long
If you can help it, get the film out of the camera as it’d be much more light sealed if it was back in the cannister. Also, if you’re able to then stick the film into a fridge then that’ll continue to extend the life of your film.
Leaving film inside your camera just leaves more opportunity for light to leak into it and do more damage to it!
Get Your Film Developed And Scanned ASAP
The sooner your film is developed and scanned the better. This will give you the best chance of ensuring your film is safe and sound but it’ll also ensure that your pictures will be backed up digitally. This way you don’t need to worry about the lifetime of a negative.
What Will Degraded Film Look Like?
It’s difficult to see if your film has degraded before getting developed, we can only make our best guess based on the age and the way the film was stored.
Film can degrade in different ways but generally there can be colour shifts which can produce a more cyan or yellow hue over time. Or there can be a lot of fogging which can be because of very tiny amounts of light over a long period of time.
Sometime bigger light leaks can show through due to poor light seals inside a camera. And there can also be an intensified level of grain which will show through.
So effectively, the images can usually still be visible they’re just quite obviously damaged which is one of the reasons why I’d always suggest that you try getting them developed if they’re meaningful to you.
Basically, film starts to degrade slightly from the day it’s produced but that degradation doesn’t really become noticeable until 5-10 years if it’s stored correctly. I would be happy to shoot film that’s up to 5 years out of date for professional use, after that I’d be slightly aware of the possible degradation since I’d want a perfect shot.
I would always suggest that you try to get your film developed if you’ve found it in a relatives camera or you’ve left it yourself for a long time. It’s worth seeing if there’s anything on it because even if it’s degraded, it could be something special.