What Actually Happens When You Accidentally Open Your Film Camera

I’ve been shooting film for 7 years and I’ve had all sorts of mishaps along the way, luckily you can learn from my mistakes!

If you accidentally open the back of your film camera and expose it, you’d be surprised how much of your roll of film can be salvaged if you act fast. Often, you might only lose as few as 4-5 frames to overexposure.

I decided to write this article to set the record straight because it looks like even the current top article on Google has it all wrong. Read on to find out exactly what happens when you accidentally open your film camera.

What Exactly Happens When You Open Your Camera And Expose The Film

Your camera is built to expose the film inside of it for very specific amounts of time in order to expose the image correctly. When you open the back of your camera by accident and expose the film, you’re subjecting it to far more light than usual.

This essentially completely ruins the film that has been exposed (or ruins the shots that were on it, it doesn’t disintegrate. However, there are a lot of different aspects that can mean there will be more or less damage.

I’ll show a few scenarios and show you exactly what will have happened to your film so you know whether it’s worth sending it off to be developed or it’s time to throw it in the bin.

Just a side note: Sometimes it can be hard to tell if your camera already has any film inside it or not. I’ve written an article to help you easily figure out if there’s film inside any camera!

3 Important Things

  1. How long has your camera been open for? If it’s been sat open for an hour then all of the film that’s out of the canister is probably completely overexposed.
  2. What kind of light did you open it in? If you open the camera in the dark for a very short period of time then that’s the best case scenario. If you opened it in broad daylight for 10 minutes, that’s the worst-case scenario.
  3. How many shots were taken up until that point? The less shots taken, the less you lose.

Scenario 1 – You Only Just Loaded It With Film

  1. If you’ve only just loaded the camera with a new roll of film and you open it up again by accident then don’t worry, you’ll just lose the first few shots and nothing more.

2. If you’re using an SLR camera or something similar then just close the back up and keep shooting.

3. If you’re using a Point-&-Shoot then you can shut the back and it should automatically wind the film on again as if you were starting a new roll of film.

This is one of the best case scenarios because you’re not really in any danger of losing many shots.

Scenario 2 – You Opened Your Camera Halfway Through A Roll Of Film

If you’ve opened your camera half way through a roll of film then you’d be surprised what happens. Despite what the top result on Google says, it’s unlikely that you’ll lose all of your images.

I found this out for myself when I opened my camera up and exposed half a roll of Portra 400. I closed the camera after about a second in direct sunlight and in the end I actually only ruined about 6 pictures.

So basically if you’re quick, and close your camera as soon as you open it then you’ll likely only lose around 6-7 shots (from the shots you’ve already taken, all of the shots left to be taken are safe).

This is because when your film is wrapping around the spool it’s gradually creating a protective layer by wrapping tighter and tighter around itself. This isn’t completely lightproof but it’s enough protection that you won’t lose all your shots if you’re quick enough.

  1. If you open your film camera when it’s halfway through, close it as soon as possible.
  2. All of the shots yet to be taken are still safe, so if you only shot 15 shots on a roll of 36 then 21 are still definitely safe.
  3. If the back was only open briefly (no more than 2-4 seconds), then you might have only lost 6-7 shots.
  4. If it’s a long time, assume that all of the shots taken up until that point are gone, but all remaining are definitely still safe to shoot.

Scenario 3 – You Thought The Film Had Rewound And Opened The Back

This is a pretty common scenario, either you thought the film had rewound or thought you’d rewound it manually.

  1. Shut the back of the camera as soon as possible. (Within 2-5 seconds)
  2. If you’re using a point-and-shoot camera then try to use the manual rewind button.
  3. You will have lost about 6-7 photos providing the camera wasn’t open for too long or in too much light.
  4. The majority of shots should still be fine if you’ve been quick enough.

Scenario 4 – A Small Amount Of Film Is Still Showing

Everything is usually fine in this case, the only thing that this could suggest is that the film never loaded properly in the first place. That wouldn’t be my first assumption though.

Scenario 5 – All Of The Film Is Inside The Canister

In this case, everything is fine, the canister is protecting all of the film so all of your shots are safe!

Quick Tip – Different Kinds Of Film Stocks

Just a quick one, Cinestill film does not act in the same way as most film stocks. I don’t think Cinestill will protect itself the same way most other film stocks will. This is due to the lack of a remjet layer.

Cinestill can do pretty badly even in a point-and-shoot camera, picking up a bunch of light leaks that most other film stocks wouldn’t. So it’s worth being aware that if you open the back of you’re camera while you’ve got Cinestill in it, then it might be much worse than usual.

Why Do So Many People Get It Wrong?

I don’t really see why there’s so much misinformation on the internet about opening the back of your camera. I think it’s because it’s not really an exact science, there are so many variables and reasons why someone else has an anecdote about losing all their shots or not losing any at all.

I can tell you that you’ll probably lose 6-7 shots but you might have a different experience because of how bright or dark it was that day.

This is a guide based on my experience and corroborated through forums and other people’s experiences too.

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One Comment

  1. Hii! Thank you for your explanation. But i have some questions. In my case, it was the disposal camera.After i loaded the film,close the back, I winded with the drill so all the films wrapped at the spool. And because of some reasons, I opened the back, not the entire, not the halfway, just the right side just to see the canister, and i quickly closed it. The films are at the left wrapped around spool. So, can that film be light leaked or damaged?

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