How Long Can Darkroom Paper Last and How to Test It

If you’ve ever had experience learning darkroom photography, you may wonder how long photographic enlarging paper lasts.

In general, darkroom paper can last anywhere from 3 to 10 years, depending on if is black and white or color paper and how it is, or was, stored. To ensure it is not expired, you should check 3 things: if the paper is fogged, the level of contrast, and the development sensitivity. If your black and white paper is over ten years old, it will last much longer than the modern paper, reaching a 30-year lifespan. on the other hand, newer black and white paper can only last about 10 years. Color paper not only has a much shorter lifespan at 3 – 5 year and requires a lot of careful handling.

How long darkroom paper lasts can be very confusing, and without extensive research, you will probably have many questions. Below are some questions you may have.

How Long Can Photographic Paper Last?

Darkroom paper can last anywhere from 3 to 10 years, depending on the type of paper and and how it is stored. However, with extensive care and avoidance of high heat and humidity, some photographic paper can last longer than 10 years.

One factor that determines how long darkroom paper lasts is if the paper is color or black and white paper.

Black and White Paper

Black and white paper life can be split into two different categories: new and old. 

If your black and white paper is over ten years old, it will last much longer than the modern paper, reaching a 30-year lifespan. However, that can’t be said for newer black and white paper.

If you have black and white paper that is less than ten years old, it will only last around ten years, depending on the conditions it is stored in. The best-case scenario is storing it in a fridge, which will allow it to get about 7-10 years of life. If it is stored in a dry environment with cool temperatures and out of sunlight, it will last around 3-5 years.

The Lifespan of Color Paper

If you have color paper, you won’t be as lucky as the people with black and white paper. Color paper not only has a much shorter lifespan at 3 – 5 year, but it is also higher maintenance and requires a lot of careful handling. It helps to store your color paper at or less than 55˚ F in their original sealed packages and away from excessive heat or humidity.

Color paper is sensitive to light because it has three layers of light-sensitive emulsions. Because of this, the paper should always be stored somewhere with little to no light and away from excessive heat and humidity. You may still notice some color shifts, though, so be aware that color paper does not have a long shelf life.

RC Paper VS Fiber-Based

RC paper and fiber-based paper are both papers used in darkrooms. However, they are very different types of paper. Both have their pros and cons, but below will help make your choice as to which one you would rather use.

RC Paper

RC paper, also known as resin-coated paper, is the thinner of the two. It has the emulsion and a super coating on top along with a layer of polyethylene on both sides, sealing it to prevent it from absorbing any liquid. This also makes it easier and faster to wash since the paper never soaks up any of the chemicals.

Though there is an advantage to the polyethylene, there is also a disadvantage. With the emulsion sitting on top of the polyethylene, the detail and contrast depth is lower in comparison to the fiber-based paper. RC paper can last anywhere from 20 to 40 years before chemicals in the paper begins to deteriorate.

RC paper tends to be cheaper than fiber-based paper, which can be useful if you aren’t too worried about the lifespan of the image.

Fiber-Based Paper

Fiber-based paper tends to have a thicker base than RC paper which is sometimes called “double weight.” It also tends to give the photo brighter tones with more contrast compared to RC paper. Fiber-based paper will usually last longer than RC paper.

Without the polyethylene barrier, fiber-based paper absorbs the chemicals while it develops. This makes it have a longer wash time during the development process. It will also curl while drying due to the emulsion layer drying quicker, so make sure to flatten it by using a drum / sheet dryer or by sitting something heavy over it.

How to Spot Expired Paper

It is important to spot any expired paper to ensure that you are using paper that will deliver high-quality photos. If you were to use an expired paper, the quality of the photo would be greatly diminished in several ways.

For starters, the photo will have a grey overcast, usually referred to as fog. If a print is created in the darkroom and the resulting image is not sharp, has low contrast, and seems grey overall then the paper is most likely expired.

To find a lack of contrast on photographic paper, creating a print from a negative on using the paper makes it much easier. If the contrast of the image low, you will be able to spot that easily by looking at the sharpness of the photo. If things seem to blend together rather than having a sharp separation, it is possible that the paper is expired. You can also spot low contrast in a print if the highlights are not as bright white when they should be.

Finally, when making a print, it is important to notice the sensitivity of the paper. If there is a lack of sensitivity with development along with the previous two signs, the paper is most likely expired. To spot the sensitivity, pay attention to the speed in which a print develops in fresh developing chemicals. If it is slow to develop, then the paper has expired or has fogged.

Testing Fogged Paper

To test if your photographic paper is fogged, follow this method from PrintAttic.com:

  • Place a sheet of unexposed photographic paper (or a strip if it is a roll of paper) through the fixer chemical the appropriate amount of time. This provides you with the base white of the paper to compare.
  • Take another unexposed sheet of paper (or strip) that you suspect to be fogged and run it through the paper development chemicals (developer, stop-bath, fixer). Compare this sheet to the first one to see how fogged your paper is.

If some of your paper is fogged it is possible that you can save some of it as it unlikely that not all of your paper has been fogged.

If you have a roll of light sensitive paper: Start by unrolling a foot or so of the photographic darkroom paper and test it again. Do this several times to see if the fog subsides. The paper will sometimes fog on the outside layers which is usually caused by some chemical fumes, or light pollution, but it might be okay further in the roll.

If you have a box of pre-cut paper: Check the first three sheets for fogging as this is most likely as far as the light can travel if improperly stored in the box.

Using an Anti-Fog Solution

If you want to try to fix paper that has been fogged then use the following method to limit or combat the issue. In Steve Anchell’s book The Darkroom Cookbook, he discusses that a 10% KBr (Potassium Bromide) in purified water solution to the paper developer solution in your development tray will give clearer highlights and warmer tones to a print. This solution can also limit or keep fogging from happening from older or expired photographic paper.

To create the 500 ml with a 10% KBr (Potassium Bromide) solution, mix 50.0 g of KBr powder into 400 ml of purified water. Make sure to stir the powder properly and completely using a glass rod. Add more water until you reach 500 ml. Once you are done, store it in a light-limiting container, like a brown bottle, with “10% KBr” and the production date written on it.

This solution then should be mixed into fresh paper developer after it is poured into your paper developing tray. Use the formula of 20 – 40 ml of the anti-fog solution per liter of developing solution depending on the severity of the paper fog.

This method should help with limiting and, possibly, fighting light fog. However, if it doesn’t work, don’t throw your paper in the garbage! There are several ways the paper can be used in the darkroom even if it is fogged. Some examples are below:

  • Contact sheets
  • Paper negatives for pinhole cameras
  • Photograms
  • Darkroom Experimentation
  • If those don’t sound appealing to you, be creative! You can even continue your search on how to bring the paperback to life as there are new ways being discovered every day!

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Conclusion

If you have older darkroom paper that you are eager to use, you are probably concerned with the expiration date on the box that might be over ten years ago. However, you may still be able to get away with using it, depending on how well it was taken care of and if you perform any procedures like anti-fog.

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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