Expired 35mm color film

Using 35mm film and an old mechanical camera in 2022

In a recent trip to Scotland and the Highlands there, I used a 40 year old mechanical SLR and expired 35mm film to take my main photos. The results I got convinced me to go back to shooting 35mm film, after having spent years using digital SLRs. Let me show you some of the photos I got on my trip and I’ll explain why I’m going to be using 35mm film more.

Reasons to use 35mm film cameras

Different image sensor for every roll of 35mm film

Creag Ardair 35mm film
Creag Ardair – Scotland. Kodal UltraMax 400.
Edinburgh Castle black and white film
Edinburgh Castle – Scotland. Kodak BW400CN.

Every film stock has a specific way of rendering colour and is affected by light in different ways. I chose an obvious comparison here between colour and black and white film but even each colour film renders colour differently. There is no image sensor in a film camera but putting in a new roll of film is a bit like swapping out an image sensor. Kodak one day, Fuji the next. It’s difficult to get that kind of flexibility out of a digital camera without spending hours on a computer post-processing images.

Digital cameras have fixed image sensors that aren’t designed to be changed by the photographer. Even though digital photos can be post-processed, you’re always using the same image sensor. What’s more, if the image sensor in a digital camera breaks or stops working, the camera is dead. Film cameras don’t work in the same way, so don’t have this particular problem (although they can get other problems).

No computer or screen time

Three sisters Scotland
Photo from within the Three sisters mountain – Scotland. Fujifilm Superia 200.

My main job as a 3D animator means I spend hours on a computer. In my free time, I therefore like to minimise the time I spend on a computer. 35mm film gives my images a final render without me touching a piece of software or computer equipment. I take the photo, hand it in to a photo lab and then I get whatever I get. There’s no post-processing or editing and I usually love the result.

That isn’t to say I don’t sometimes love the result of digital cameras straight out of the camera. However with digital, the image render is usually less unique and if I want photos to have a certain look, I have to use image editing software or apps. With 35mm film, it’s like having a built in filter for every photo I take.

No chasing the latest technology

Fujifilm Superia 200
Me carrying a bag with a digital camera that I barely used because I was having so much fun with the film camera. Fujifilm Superia 200.

One thing that bores me with digital cameras is the never-ending chase for the latest technology. Digital camera technology is a black hole of gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) and the increments to the latest cameras and lenses don’t make sense to me anymore. Digital cameras and gear addiction go hand-in-hand. As soon as you start searching for digital camera stuff you get pummelled with marketing and influencers. I’m not saying digital cameras are bad… but the marketing for it is aggressive.

I’m not saying someone can’t get addicted to collecting film cameras and the associated technology… but it’s less likely in my opinion. There’s very little marketing for 35mm film cameras and accessories, so if you want it you have to go find it.

It reminds you photography is just another form of making images

Inshriach Forest Scotland
Inshriach Forest (Cairngorms – Scotland). Tudor 200 colour film.

One of the things I always come back to when thinking about art, photography etc is my background in graphic communication. To me all of this stuff is serving the same basic goal of creating an image in order to communicate something. With photography, people get caught up in what’s the best gear, what’s the sharpest lens, what’s the sensor with the most dynamic range etc. The reason I don’t mind using a vintage camera is because I’m just using it to make another image. Whether I’m using a camera, pen or pencil, my basic need is still just making an image to communicate something.

With 35mm film there is no instant result that allows you to get caught up with boring technical specifications like lens sharpness and dynamic range. When using a film camera, what’s in front of you is more in your mind and the only other thing you’re doing is your best to control the camera without constantly referring back to the images while you take them.

Permanence and temporality

cairngorms with 35mm film
The Cairngorms – Scotland. Tudor 200 colour film.

I used to work in a photo processing lab and I’d say around 90% of the people who came in wanted prints without scans.

When my wife and I show our prints from the 35mm camera, people usually react with surprise and are really interested by the rendering of the photos and the way they look. Some of this is due to the unique rendering of different film stocks but in my opinion, permanence and temporality are also important to the experience.

There is a permanence to 35mm film prints that feels more special than seeing similar photos on a screen. Seeing the photo on a digital screen means to me that the image can still be retouched and worked on. If the photo is a digital file it can also be copied perfectly millions of times. Having a print in my hand makes the photo feel done and that it’s a finished memory. Knowing that the print in my hand and the negative next to it are the only places that my image exists feels more special. That experience of knowing I’m in front of one of the only copies of a photo feels similar to having a musician in front of me live rather than watching them on Youtube. It’s a temporary experience to see the printed image (especially if I don’t own it) and that makes it more special to me.

Sure I can take a photo of a print and post it online but it doesn’t quite feel the same as when I post a real digital image. When getting 35mm film scanned by a lab, you can still get the image on a computer at a fairly high resolution and retouch it if necessary. The likelihood though is that if you’re using 35mm film to take photos, you’re after the full analogue experience. The only reason for me to scan my negatives is to archive them just in case one day the physical prints go missing or are destroyed. I know that last point is kind of a contradiction of the temporality thing but yeah, I don’t care ?‍♂️ You either get it or you don’t.

Physical memory and presence

Portrait black and white film
Portrait of Mélodie with black and white film. Kodak BW400CN. Canon A1.

This is sort of similar to my last point. Whenever I’m given a box of old photos by a family member, they’re intriguing and I love looking through them. There’s something more present about these old prints. They’re all analogue and although it’s still been a process of copying an image from one place (a negative) to another (paper), it feels more like I’m dealing with a physical part of the experience. When I hold a negative in my hand especially, that’s pretty magical. On that thin piece of plastic is a permanent record of the light that hit that material, at that time in that specific place. You don’t get that same sense of place and presence with a digital file.

Old 35mm Film SLRs hold a decent price compared to Digital SLRs

Nikon FM2 vs Nikon D7200
My Nikon FM2 (film camera) and D7200 (digital camera).

Would you buy a 20 year old digital SLR with enthusiasm or even a 10 year old one? Probably not. I know it’s sort of unfair seeing as 20 years ago was sort of still the beginning for digital cameras and so a lot of them look very basic compared to today’s standards. It’s still kind of true though that digital technology becomes usurped and goes out of date fast. My old Nikon D7200 is more than I need and it’s still quite a decent digital camera after all these years but barely anybody would be interested in buying it if I ever put it up for sale. Even if I did succeed in selling my old digital cameras, I’d get very little for them.

Old 35mm film SLRs are fairly inexpensive for the most part but they keep their value well. My Nikon FM2 is 40 years old but those things are still selling for decent prices. Nobody would pay that for a very old digital camera.


Reasons to NOT use 35mm film cameras

What kind of article would this be if I didn’t also explore the very real reasons why you might decide not to use a 35mm film camera. Here are some of the things that aren’t ideal, depending on you and your goals.

35mm film and processing is expensive

35mm film is very expensive in the long run and if you like taking hundreds of photos, that cost is likely going to annoy you. Personally, I wish it wasn’t so expensive but that won’t stop me using it. I still use a digital camera and a phone to take pictures too. Usually the digital photos are for times when I just want to snap happy or take photos of mundane things like wifi passwords and menus. The film camera usually comes out for times when I’m trying to capture a nice memory, something that I know will be worth remembering.

If you like me plan on using both digital and film SLRs, it’s a wise idea to use cameras from the same brand. For example I use a Nikon D7200 and a Nikon FM2. Both cameras have the same lens mount and so although they use very different technology to render images, I can use the same lenses on both interchangeably and that saves me a ton of money.

Sometimes your 35mm photos won’t come out right

Double exposure 35mm film
Accidental double exposure of my wife and I with Edinburgh castle. Kodak BW400CN. Canon A1.

Sometimes I’ll take a photo and feel quite confident about it and then learn weeks later when I get the film developed that my exposure was completely off or someone moved/blinked. Another thing that happened to me recently was that I had what I thought was a nice photograph taken of my wife and I, then I took another photo of Edinburgh castle just afterwards. It turned out that the person I asked to take the photo of my wife and I had accidentally clicked on a double exposure function, so both images were superimposed on top of each other.

If like me you don’t mind these kinds of accidents then it doesn’t matter. A more annoying problem would be if an entire roll of film gets destroyed. For example sometimes people open the backs of their film cameras by accident and expose the entire roll of film to light, destroying all the images. Other people don’t understand shutter speed and have camera shake blurring all their photos. Back when I worked in a photo lab I saw some horrors like that. Accidents are bound to happen with 35mm film, so you have to be ready to deal with them.

Professional photography often requires quick turn-arounds, previews and revisions

I use 35mm film cameras as a hobby and although I love photography, I don’t do it professionally. If I were to photograph a wedding, ad or anything else, I would probably only use 35mm film as a bonus to anything digital I do. I won’t go further into that hypothesis than that because as I said, I’m not a pro photographer. The benefits to a digital workflow in professional photography are quite obvious though.

One day all your 35mm equipment may become obsolete

As I mentioned, buying and developing 35mm film is far more expensive than it once was. There is only a minority of photographers using film and demand is fairly low, so to make profits, prices are high. One day it’s possible that companies will stop making 35mm film and that even more film processing labs will close. I hope that never happens but it’s a possibility.

35mm photography isn’t super environmentally friendly

Each roll of 35mm film can usually hold 24 – 36 images but requires a lot of plastic to make. Being a chemical process, 35mm photography also involves a lot of different chemicals that aren’t exactly great for the environment. I worked in a photo lab many years ago, so I know how corrosive and harmful C41 (colour film) chemistry is. It needs to be disposed of in a special way. Some black and white film photographers develop films themselves and not all of them use safe disposal methods for their chemicals either. So the main elephants in the room with film photography are plastic usage and chemical disposal.

On the more positive side though, analogue prints are often finished as soon as they’re printed. Digital images require monitors, storage and usually bandwidth too. Film cameras are now usually bought second hand as well, so it’s a recycling of old material.

Digital photography isn’t amazing for the environment either

Digital photography isn’t exactly wonderful for the environment either. The equipment is constantly being updated and manufactured, which can in itself be bad environmentally. Digital files still require storage too and with everything being online now, the bandwidth each image requires is considerable. Each time an image is downloaded, power is needed and when you combine all of that bandwidth globally, the energy requirements and carbon footprint is pretty big for digital photography. I have no statistics and won’t be researching it but I just wanted to point out that it isn’t so simple to say that digital photography is more environmentally friendly than film photography is. There are a lot of variables to consider.

A quick word on photographing with expired 35mm film

Field in Chester. Fujifilm Neopan 400.
A field in Chester (England). Fujifilm Neopan 400. Canon A1.

This article isn’t a tutorial and if you’re reading it then I’m assuming you already know enough about photography to control aperture, shutter speed etc. If you don’t know much about that stuff, you can look it up elsewhere. Anyway, as I mentioned at the start of the article, I used expired 35mm film while documenting my trip to Scotland. Most of the film expired 14 years ago and at first I wasn’t sure it would work. My films had been kept in Wales for most of that time in a small, dry cupboard. Thankfully, the temperature in Wales doesn’t usually get too hot, so all of the film was still usable.

I overexposed all of the film by 0.5 – 1 stops and that seemed to work well. Ideally if you have a bunch of expired film like me, you’d shoot one roll for testing and then adjust your technique according to the results you get. Otherwise, just overexposing a bit seems to work nicely.

It’s better if expired 35mm film has been kept in a fridge or freezer, because apparently the low temperature stops it from degrading. If you are buying or using expired 35mm film in a hot country, you risk not having a very good result. For example, I wouldn’t personally buy expired film here in France because it gets really hot in the summer and I don’t think it’s worth the risk to use a 35mm film that has been exposed to such high temperatures.

The 35mm film used in this article

For any of you that care, here are the different film stocks used in this article, along with my personal views on each of them.

Fujifilm Superia 200 (colour), expired in 2008. Nice colour but it requires a lot of light and is unsuitable for indoors, because I have to shoot it as though it were ISO 100. My expired roll didn’t have a huge amount of saturation in colour but I was still happy with it overall.

Tudor 200 colour film, expired in 2010. Colours are too muted for my taste, so I wouldn’t buy it again. It still gives a nice image rendering though and I have some nice memories thanks to it. Being ISO 200 and a decade expired, it has the same problem as the Fujifilm Superia 200 with needing a lot of light.

Kodak UltraMax 400 – Really nice rich colours without too much over-saturation. My favourite colour film so far because it can also handle a bit dimmer light. This film wasn’t expired however, so the comparison is also a bit unjust! It was used to take the photo of Creag Ardair near the top of the article.

Kodak Professional Black and White BW400CN, expired in 2009 – Really deep blacks and contrasting light tones. This film is really nice and if you have some, keep it for something good, because they don’t make it anymore. I’d happily use it again.

Fujifilm Neopan 400 (black and white), expired in 2010 – Unfortunately I ended up overexposing most of the photos on my roll of Fuji Neopan. The one stop per decade wasn’t needed with it obviously. I have another roll that I’ll use soon though to be honest, my impression is that it lacks contrast. I’m not super impressed with it but I’ll come back to this one after trying another roll.

The 35mm cameras used in this article

All of the black and white photos were taken with my dad’s old Canon A1 and all the colour photos with a Nikon FM2 that I picked up second-hand. The Canon A1 requires a battery to open and close the shutter and unfortunately it developed a fault where it would drain the battery in under a day. I bought the Nikon FM2 which is a fully mechanical camera, so it works even without the battery.

The Canon A1 can set your exposure automatically, though you still need to focus it manually. It’s a great camera but has quite a few buttons and dials with no indication of what they do, which isn’t ideal. The Nikon FM2 is manual focus and you also have to set the shutter speed and aperture manually. The Nikon FM2 is my favourite of the two because although it requires a bit more manoeuvring, it still has a light meter inside it which can be used to guesstimate whether you’ll have a good exposure. The FM2 also has simpler and more intuitive controls.

If you’re wondering how you’d ever be able to tell what shutter speeds and apertures to set, look up the “Sunny 16 rule” for outdoor work. You can also download apps for your phone and use them as a light meter. It’s all easier than you think, trust me. I doubt I’ll be writing a tutorial about any of this, there’s already loads of that info online. I’ve given you the keywords there so go type them into a search engine or Youtube!

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