How to Tell If Film Is Used or Unused: A Quick Guide

If you discover an old black and white or color film lying around, your first instinct may be to throw it out. However, it can be used even if it has exceeded the expiration date. All you need to do is determine whether it has already been used (meaning exposed to light) or not. 

For 35mm film there are generally two key ways to check if the camera film has been used that require a visual inspection. The first method involves looking for the film leader sticking out of the film canister. If there is no film sticking out, then most likely it has been used. If there is film sticking out of the canister, the second method involves checking the film leader for marks, bends, or creases that would be characteristic of film that has been run through a camera. For APS 35mm film, check for the 4 numbers on the top or bottom of the canister. If the number 3 has a white “x” next to it then it has been exposed and ready for development. For 120 or 220 film (medium format) look to see if the word “exposed” is visible. If so, then the film has most likely been used.

See below for tips on how to inspect camera film to see if it is used and ready for development. If the film is ready for development, see these articles I wrote about how to develop black and white film or color film at home.

Once you have determined the film has not been used, keep reading for tips on how to shoot old or expired film and how to get it developed.

How to Tell if a Roll of Film Has Been Used

Checking a 35mm film canister to see whether the film has been used or not uses 3 methods that involve a visual inspection of your film without accidentally damaging your film.

1. Look for the Film Leader

35mm color film canister with the film leader sticking out.

For canisters of 35mm film to be loaded into the camera correctly, there must be some of the film sticking outside the canister. The portion that sticks out is referred to as the “film leader”.

When your camera has reached the end of the film roll, you or your camera needs to rewind the film back into the canister so it isn’t ruined by exposure to light when changing the film. If you look at the film canister and do not see a film leader sticking out, then there is a good chance that the film has been used.

However, this is not a foolproof way to determine whether the film canister has been used. Some cameras may be set to leave the film leader sticking out a little bit after the film has been used all the way. This was common for cameras in the 1980’s so film development would be a more straightforward process. See the next step for what to look for if the film leader is sticking out of the camera.

2. Look for Marks on the Film Leader

The way that 35mm film is inserted into a camera can leave clues behind regarding whether it has been used or remains unused. 

When a film is loaded into the camera, the film leader is fed through the take-up spool. As the roll of film is advanced, its perforated edges interact with the teeth in the spool and could leave behind marks. The film also might get marked, creased, or bent by moving through the camera.

Perform a quick visual inspection of the film sticking out of the canister. If it has been used you may notice marks, bends, or creases on the exposed film leader. If there are no marks on the leader, then there is a chance the film has not been used.

3. Check the Four Numbers on APS Film

APS film canister from wikipedia.org.

If you are shooting with APS film, then you will need to use a different method for checking to see whether the film has been exposed or not. APS stands for “Advanced Photo System.” APS film is unique because the film is put back into the cartridge after being developed for storage. This type of film is less susceptible to damage from dust and other contaminants.

To know if APS film has been used, look for the four numbers at the top or bottom of the film canister.

  • If there is a white dot next to “1” , then the film has not yet been exposed.
  • If there is a white half-circle next to “2”, then the film has been changed mid-roll and is ready to be reloaded into the camera.
  • If there is a white “x” next to “3”, the film has been exposed and needs to be developed.
  • If there is a white square next to “4”, the film has been developed and can be taken out of the film canister without ruining it.

How to tell if a Roll of Medium format (120 or 220 Film) is Exposed?

Exposed roll of color 120 film

If you are trying to determine if a roll of 120 or 220 (generally known as medium format) film has already been exposed to light, look for these signs:

  • The film is tightly wound around the spool
  • The word “exposed” appears on the roll
  • There is handwriting on the roll

While there might not be handwriting on the 120 or 220 film roll, if the word “exposed” appears anywhere on the roll then you can be certain it has been used.

How Long Does Camera Film Last?

Film does have expiration dates but old film is considered to be about 10 years are it was manufactured. Most manufacturers designed their rolls of color film to last for two years after purchase. The state of camera film after it has reached its expiration date depends significantly upon where and how it was stored. See this short guide on how to know if film is expired.

Refrigerating rolls of film has been shown to increase its lifetime, so if you are lucky enough to find old film that has been stored in a cool and dry place, then there is a good chance that the film will still produce decent images.

If the film has been stored in a hot and humid place like an attic, then there is a chance that the film is usable but with problems. Developing it at this point may be challenging, as heat and humidity can cause the film to stick to the inside of the canister. However, read the next section for why and how you would still want to shoot with expired film.

Can I Use Expired Film?

The short answer is yes. Expired film is actually pretty popular among photographers. If you have film that you are confident has not been used, avoid throwing it out. Photographers like experimenting with old canisters of film.

In fact, there is a market of photographers that are interested in buying expired canisters of film that have not been used; this has a lot to do with pricing and availability. Unopened packages of 35mm film, even if expired, can be worth a decent amount of money for this reason.

The draw to expired film has to do with, in part, the aura of unpredictability. Some unique visual characteristics are produced when shooting with old film. The grain and color shifts in color film act like a random image filter. The result can be surprising, chaotic, and nostalgic. See below for tips on shooting with expired film.

How Do I Shoot with Expired Film?

Shooting successfully with expired film requires special care. It is possible to shoot with both color and black and white film and get decent results if you follow the guidelines listed below.

According to TheDarkroom.com, as camera film passes its expiration date, it begins to lose its sensitivity to light because the light-sensitive material on the negative (silver halides) become less sensitive to light over time. Since both color and black and white film have this as a layer of material on the negative, both films have this in common. However, with color film the layers of color dyes and color masks that create color will decay overtime causing the film to have less contrast and the colors to shift (usually to red or magenta) when developed.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shoot expired film at all. Just know that you won’t get the same results as shooting new film. Below are some tips for shooting with expired film:

  • Change ISO setting (controls the film speed on your camera).
    • The general recommendation is to add 1 more stop of light for every decade the film has expired. See this article about stops of light if you aren’t familiar with the term.
    • See this article about how to shoot expired film successfully.
    • If you do not know the true age of the film or how it was stored, you are still encouraged to add at least 1 stop of light.
  • Put old film in an airtight bag (like these from Amazon.com) and place it in the freezer.
    • When you take your film out for use, it is important to let it warm up to room temperature before shooting or the film will be ruined.
    • However, this does not apply to instant film, only roll film (like 35mm and medium format) and sheet film.
  • For best results, use the film in bright sunlight as much as you can find.

Can I Develop Expired Film?

The good news is that you can still develop color or black and white film that is old or expired. Unless it is more than 50 years old or a specific type of slide film, developing old or expired film is just like developing regular film. All you need to do is choose between getting it developed near you at Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens but will not return your negatives, have low quality scans, or the turnaround time is very long (3 – 4 weeks). For that reason I recommend developing your film using an online company by mail or by yourself at home.

See this guide for where to get your film developed online but in my experience, TheDarkroom.com is a great choice for getting film developed by mail since they can handle many sizes of color and black and white film and can also scan it for you. While they can develop many types of film they specialize in antique film and can also develop certain types of slide film.

However, if you are more interested in developing film at home on your own, check out these articles I wrote about how to develop black and white or color film.

Conclusion

If you do happen to find an old roll of film, don’t throw it out. If the film hasn’t been used, you can take advantage of a burgeoning market of photographers who experiment with expired film or shoot it yourself. Generally, there are three ways to tell whether your film has already been exposed or used.

35mm Film

  1. Look for the film leader sticking out of the film canister.
  2. If film is sticking out, look for creases or bends in the film.
  3. For APS 35mm film, check to see if there is a white “x” next to the number 3 on the cartridge

Medium Format Film (120 or 220)

  1. Look for the word “exposed” on the roll.
  2. See if there is any writing on the roll.

However, remember these methods may not be foolproof. There are exceptions where the leader may be inside the canister but hasn’t been used. For example, it is possible a previous user may have accidentally rolled the leader into the canister and then set the film aside without using it. If this is the case, I recommend purchasing a film leader retriever like this one on amazon.com.

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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