How to Tell if Film is Expired?

Although film cameras are not used as often as digital cameras and smartphones, they are making a comeback. You may have found some expired and wondered if it is still good. Find out how to tell if your film is expired below and if you can still use it.

Film usually expires 2-3 years after expiration date on the box with instant film expiring 1 year after manufacture. After the expire date, all film will slowly start to lose light sensitivity, become less sharp, show more grain, and have less contrast. Color film is affected more than black and white film by dull colors and color shifting.

Expired film can still be developed and used but with inconsistent results depending on how it was stored. Film stored in places with low humidity, out of direct sunlight, and in low temperatures will be usable longer with losing less light sensitivity, and have more consistent results after the film has expired. Most film, especially color film, is stored in the freezer for this reason but instant film should not be put into the freezer and stored in a cool, dry place.

Now that you know how long film lasts and what happens when it expires, you may be wondering how to tell if the film is expired and whether or not it will damage your camera when you use it.

You also may be wondering how to know if film is used or unused.

How to Tell if Film is Expired?

The best way to find out if film is expired is to look for the “Use Before”, expiration, or production date on the film box or the individual film wrapper. If you do not have the box, you will need to shoot the roll of the film and have it developed or develop it yourself to find out if it is expired or store correctly (unless it is instant film then see below).

Most film is good for 2-3 years after it is manufactured, so most camera film-making companies will list the expiration date as 2 years after the roll is manufactured. The exception is instant film which should be used 1 year after the production or expiration date. Expired film can still be used and processed but the manufacturer cannot guarantee consistent results.

Where is the Expiration Date for 35mm Film?

To find the expiration date for 35mm film look on the back of the packaging the roll or rolls of film came in. The expiration date is usually not printed on the individual film canister so, if you only have that to go by, you may have to google the name of the film and/or design to find out when it was produced.

The expiration date will be in the same place for other formats like APS (Advantix) and 110 film as well.

Where is the Expiration Date for medium format (120) Film?

The expiration date on medium format (120) film is usually found on side of the box and on the film wrapper.
The expiration date on medium format (120) film is usually found on side of the box and on the film wrapper. This film expired in Sept. of 1997.

To find the expiration date for medium format film look on the side of the box and the individual film wrapper. The expiration date is usually not printed on the film roll it self so, if you only have that to go by, you may have to google the name of the film and/or design to find out when it was produced.

Where is the Expiration Date for Instant Film?

To find the expiration date or “Production Date” on instant film look on the side of the box or the foil wrapper the film comes in.

Polaroid Instant Film

Polaroid film before 2008 printed a “Use Before” date on their box, now they have a “Production Date” on their box and state their film expires 1 year after production. Source

In the image above, note that in 2008 Polaroid changed from stamping the “Use Before” dates to stamping the “Production Date” on the side of their box. The company states that the film is good for 12 months after the production date.

Also, you can find the date of the film printed in code on the back of polaroid instant films. See this webpage on the Polaroid website for how to find the date using the code.

Instax Film

<a href=Fujifilm Instax Mini foil film wrapper with the expiration date on the side. ” class=”wp-image-2181″ width=”512″ height=”306″/>
Fujifilm Instax Mini foil film wrapper with the expiration date on the side. This film expired in April of 2017.

The expiration date for Fujifilm Instax Instant film can be found on the side of the box and on the foil that the film is in. The expiration date shows the month and the year and the film is still good up to a year after that date.

Where is the Expiration Date for Large Format Film?

Large format Kodak film that expired in Feb. of 1975.
For large format films you will find the expiration date on the side of the box with other information. This film expired in Feb. of 1975.

To find the expiration date for large format film look on the box film came in. If your large format film is in another box or just in the black plastic, then you are out of luck.

Is Expired Film Still Good?

35mm, Medium Format, and Large Format Film

Expired camera film is still usable and can be processed normally but keep in mind the quality of film degrades over time. When camera film expires, the chemicals inside of the film begin to break down. This means that the film becomes less sensitive to light over time and colors will become dull and less vibrant, the contrast will fade, the film grain will become more noticeable which will all reduce the overall quality of the photo.

Since film slowly loses it’s light sensitivity over time after it’s expiration date and it can be hard to know how it is stored, it is best to add 1-stop of light per decade it has expired to combat the loss of sensitivity. An easy way to do this is setting the ISO rating on your camera to half of what the film is rated I(for example, 400 ISO film will be set to 200 ISO on your camera). This will make sure your film is given 1 more stop of light in your camera.

If the film is store properly (i.g. kept at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and in normal humidity levels) then expired film can still be shot normally at the ISO setting on the box (also known as Box Speed). Keep in mind the fact that how film is stored is difficult to know without seeing it yourself so it is best to assume that all expired film unless you bought it new has not been stored properly.

Instant Film

Instant film is good for 2 – 3 years after expiration (or production date for Polaroid) but degrades the quickest of all film produced. Polaroid and Fujifilm Instax both suggest that their films should be used one year after the expiration or production date printed on the box. I don’t recommend using it after that because it become unusable for images soon after.

How Long is Film Good After Expiration Date?

35mm, Medium Format, and Large Format Film

Camera film is still usable after its expiration or “best by” date, but how it is stored heavily influences how long you can get consistent results after it expires. If the film is kept at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and in normal humidity levels, then it will likely be good to use for 2-3 years after its expiration date. However, if the film is kept in a freezer or at very cold temperatures, then it can still be good for 16-32 years.

If camera film is kept in a humid environment and in direct sunlight after it expires, then it may give inconsistent results. This include less sharpness, less contrast, more grain, be fogged, and light leaks. If color film is stored this way there may also be color fading and color shifting.

Instant Film

Instant film SHOULD NOT be stored in the freezer and it should be used before 1 year after the expiration or production date printed on the box. After that the film degrades pretty quickly because of the chemicals in the film.

Does 35mm Film Expire?

Both color and black & white 35mm film expires 2-3 years after it is manufactured, just like all other camera film types other than instant film. However, color film is more susceptible to changes after expiration than black & white film. 35mm color film can still be used and processed but with inconsistent results unless stored properly.

How to Correctly Store Expired Film?

35mm, Medium Format, and Large Format Film

The best way to store film is to keep it out of direct sunlight and in normal humidity levels. Most people keep color film in the freezer because the cold doesn’t hurt the film and slows down the degradation process of the color dyes. However, black and white film can be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight and will be fine for decades.

Freezer full of film
Freezer Full of Film

If you store your film in a freezer, it is important to let the film thaw completely (usually 12 – 24 hours) before using. Otherwise, it won’t produce the desired results.

NOTE: If camera film is kept in less than ideal circumstances than it will produce inconsistent results including less sharpness, less contrast, be fogged, more grain, and light leaks. Color film will also include color fading and/or color shifting.

Instant Film

Instant film is another matter. DO NOT store instant film in the freezer as it will ruin the film. Just keep it stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight and use it within 2 – 3 years after the expiration date.

Can You Develop Expired Film?

Yes, expired films can still be developed the same as non-expired film. See this article about how to develop film yourself. You can also see the best place to get film developed near you or see the best places online to process your film.

How to Test Film To See if It is Expired?

To determine if your film has expired, it helps to know the expiration date:

How to Test A Roll of Film Without A Box and No Expiration Date

Unfortunately, the only way to test film without an expiration date is to shoot the roll of film and have it processed.

How to Test A Roll of Film With A Box and Expiration Date

To test a box of multiple rolls of film with an expiration but no knowledge of how it was stored, shoot and process one of the rolls of film. If the negatives are fogged or unusable then you know the rest of the box is as well. However, if the film is fine then most likely the rest are as well, but proceed with caution.

How to Use Expired Film?

How you should use expired film depend on how the film was stored. To store all film correctly, except for instant film, it should be stored in the freezer so it is away from humidity, direct sunlight, and mold. However, black & white film will be okay as long as it is stored at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and low humidity.

The rule of thumb that you hear is to always add one stop of light for every decade the film is past the expiration date. However, according to Emulsive.org, this is incorrect and depends on how the film and how it was stored.

Shooting Expired Film Stored Correctly

35mm, Medium Format, Large Format Film

Store the film in the freezer so it is away from humidity, direct sunlight, and mold. Black & white film will be okay as long as it is stored at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and in low humidity. The cold actually slows down the degradation process and allows you to shoot the film at the ISO listed on the box (also known as box speed) up to 10 – 20 years past the expiration date.

If you know how the film was stored (correctly) and your film 20-40 years past the expiration date, add 1/2-stop of light to your exposure. If you don’t have access to thirds in your ISO settings, then use your aperture or shutter speed setting. If it has been 40-60 years since your camera film expired, add 1-stop of light by halving the IOS rating on your film roll using your ISO camera settings (for example, if the film says 800 set it at 400) so your film gets more light.

Instant film

Polaroid and Fujifilm Instax both suggest that their instant films should be used one year after the expiration or production date printed on the box. I don’t recommend using expired instant film because the chemicals inside can become unusable for images, unless you want some very abstract images.

Note: DO NOT store instant film in the freezer. It will ruin the film. Just keep it stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

Shooting Expired Film Stored Incorrectly

35mm, Medium Format, Large Format Film

If you don’t know how the expired film was stored before or after the film’s expiration date then it becomes trickier. With black and white film the results are not as pronounced as color film since the color dyes in the color film tend to degrade quicker. However, with black & white film be aware the higher the ISO rating and the longer it is expired will give, let’s say, interesting results.

Image of a Red sports car on expired color film. You can see the limited contrast and dulling of the colors.
Expired color film. You can see the limited contrast and dulling of the colors.

When in doubt, embrace the inconsistencies and surprises with expired film and add 1-stop of light by halving the IOS rating on your film roll using your ISO camera settings (for example, if the film says 800 set it at 400) so your film gets more light for every decade it is expired.

If there is no box and/or expiration date for your film then you may have to google to see when that film was produced using the overall design of the film roll or the name of the film itself. This can get you in the ballpark, at least.

Instant film

For instant film, Polaroid and Fujifilm Instax both suggest that their films should be used one year after the expiration or production date printed on the box. I don’t recommend using it after that because it become unusable for images soon after.

Will Expired Film Damage My Camera?

The good news is expired 35mm or medium format film will not damage your camera. However, expired instant film may leak liquid into your camera and cause damage. The chemicals inside instant camera films are toxic so you need to careful.

Since expired film will most likely not damage your camera if you use it feel free to take as many pictures with expired film as you want but note that expired film can be very inconsistent – especially expired color film.

Why Do People Buy Expired Films?

45-year expired film by Annie Spratt on Unsplash. You never know what you are going to get but it's so cool.
45-year expired film by Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash. You never know what you are going to get but it’s so cool.

People buy expired film for many reasons, and each person has a different reason for doing so.

Why People Purchase Expired Film:

  • The camera they are using requires specific film that isn’t currently being made
  • They want to test various brands
  • Cheaper than fresh film
  • Creates unique photographs with a surprise (see the image above by Annie Spratt)
  • They want to take vintage looking photographs

500px.com, a photo sharing website, has plenty of examples of expired film that showcases why people like to shoot expired film.

It is very easy to purchase expired film because you can find it nearly anywhere. Some drug stores still carry expired film that they can no longer sell at retail price, so they keep it in the back. However, most of the time they can give you a discount if you purchase the expired film rather than the fresh film. You can also find expired film at yard sales and antique stores for very cheap.

Now that you know that expired film can still be used, go out and use the expired film that you have, and enjoy taking the unique photographs with surprising results!

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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