Shooting expired film is a challenge. Film sensitivity and dynamic range both decrease over time. To account for the loss in sensitivity there is a rule of thumb which advises adding one stop of light for each decade of film age. The rule may account for loss of sensitivity on average, but the loss in dynamic range means that it is often not enough to get usable results. I use rules of thumb based upon the type of film to get slightly better than average results.
In addition to the problem of getting the correct exposure there are also challenges related to using the film after it has been developed. Expired film which has been properly exposed and developed can still be quite dense. Expired color film can also have strong color casts. Even if all of these obstacles were accounted for, rolls of medium format film will frequently have uneven exposure across the frame caused by the additional fogging which occurs towards the edges.
This 32 year old roll of Kodak Vericolor 400 demonstrates the limitations of expired film.
It has been a very cold and snowy winter here in Northeastern Ohio. The weather hasn’t exactly encouraged people to get outside. But, it is good for the health to get outside on those few days when the sun pierces through the grey winter skies, even if the temperature is still well below freezing. So, I loaded up some film to have a reason to get out there.
For the colorless winter days I grabbed an expired roll of Kodak Verichrome. And, since the electronics on the otherwise outstanding Bronica EC-II refuse to operate below freezing, I have reluctantly switched to a Hasselblad 503cx. When your fingers are literally freezing, fiddling with an uncooperative camera very quickly causes frustration and discourages taking photos. The Hasselblad works reliably, even when it is well below freezing. I guess that helps justify the price. The real advantage of a working camera is that there is one less excuse to not go out in the cold.
While wandering through a thrift shop I spotted an interesting looking metal box. The box contained a dozen slide carriers, each of the slide carriers was mostly full of Kodachrome slides. The images looked like they were taken yesterday. There were some around-the-house family shots in the collection, but what caught my attention were the travel slides. So, I decided to buy someone else’s old vacations slides for ten bucks.
Other than getting a small glimpse inside of an upper-middle class mid-century home, there was little of interest in the family photos. The travel photos, however, were of places which still draw visitors from around the world. The collection contains photos from Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California.
I was writing about how much I love the esthetics of the original SX-70, but I had to note that there were some problems with the early SX-70 cameras. The early electronics are sometimes claimed to be less reliable. I am not sure if that claim stems from the slightly more advanced age of those cameras, or if it is based upon documented changes to the circuitry. The widely circulated 1975 repair manual advises, “When changing a shutter, replace it with an N or P configuration only. Do not use M or earlier configurations.” So, perhaps the earlier models do have some sort of inherent defects. I tend to think that the manual recommends not repairing early shutters because the traces on them are more likely to lift and break, so a lot of care needs to be taken when applying heat to those boards.
Currently these cameras are between 40 and 50 years old. And, given that each camera has been treated in many unknown ways over those years, it might be hard to say that a particular electronic control module is more reliable at this point in time. But, there still are some functional differences between models. I first got the hint of this when I found an SX-70 with a “flash inhibit shutter.” That configuration prevents the shutter from releasing if a flashbar is detected, but the flashbar has no available flashes. That configuration also prevents a photo from being taken when there is an electronic flash present, but the flash is not ready to fire. It seems the use of electronic flashes, especially early ones which could take time to recharge, likely drive the change in functionality.
Since these cameras are fully automatic the way the shutter, or more precisely the electronic control module (ECM) which is in the shutter housing, is configured changes what the camera decides to do under various scenarios. I started keeping track of how the configurations operated in those different scenarios so that I could find and select models which were likely to work the way I wanted them to. Below is what I have found so far. It is interesting to note that my least favorite SX-70 camera, the SX-70 Model 3, has the configuration I prefer most. It does not use fill flash.
I have recently been troubleshooting some faulty Polaroid SX-70s and I found myself reading back and forth through the repair manual to find the right switch to troubleshoot. So, I decided to create a set of images to help visualize the sequence of steps required to make a photograph with an SX-70. I find it easier to scroll through the steps, or swipe through the steps (clicking on an image enlarges it and allows for swiping or arrowing left and right).
For the camera I was troubleshooting when I made these images, switch 3 was dirty and a little corroded. With S3 not functioning properly the exposure was effectively stuck mid-cycle, the shutter would close and nothing else would happen. After cleaning the drivetrain and the drivetrain switches (S3 and S5) the camera operated normally again.
A year and a half after I arrived back stateside from my expedition to Iraq I was asked about my deployment experience. The child of a friend of a friend needed to interview veterans for a project they were working on, so I agreed. The thing I remembered about my response, and what made me think of this questionnaire many years latter, was my memory of how Iraq smelled. Usually memories are visual, but these memories had an olfactory component to them. This was brought back to mind by Jon Stewart’s recent efforts to highlight the ill effects veterans are suffering from burning shit in Iraq.
At our first forward operating base we had burn toilets prior to receiving chemical toilets, but I think the rear elements had to burn the waste while we were out running missions. The thing people probably don’t realize though is that the baseline pollution level in Iraq, the baseline in combat zones, is considerably higher than what we enjoy here in the United States. Perhaps urban air quality in the late 60s, prior to the EPA, was similar to what I experienced in Iraq.
Of course it may have been worse in Iraq due to the dusty, arid environment. There was always something in the air. We lived in an old government building which perhaps contained asbestos, who knows, I doubt anyone tested for that. What we do know is that the building was famously bombed by Tomahawk missiles on the first night of the war. Those missiles were probably tipped with depleted uranium. We would laugh every time a mortar bounced off of the sturdy building. But, the so-called insurgents might get the last laugh; each of those mortar hits would stir up dust in the unventilated building. The Army should have given us N95 masks rather than gas masks which literally went unused, because, you know, there were in fact no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Lately I have been experimenting with expired film. I have a variety of expired film stocks, but I started with a couple rolls of expired Tri-x since black and white film usually has more latitude than color film. Having gotten a feel for how expired black and white film responds, I was ready to try color. I have about a dozen rolls of both Vericolor III (VPS) and Vericolor 400 (VPH), so those are the two color films I choose to started with.
My experiments with high-speed black and white film seemed to validate the rule of thumb that calls for overexposing film one stop for each decade it has been expired. Kodak Vericolor 400 is a high speed color film, so it would need at least the same amount of compensation. The roll expired in March of 1990, so as a baseline I treated it as an ISO 50 film. The box speed for Vericolor III is 160. Since the emulsion is less sensitive it should degrade somewhat slower than the more sensitive emulsions. I used ISO 40 as a baseline for it, it also expired in March of 1990.
The last time I shot very expired Tri-X, I tried to use it as if it were new. I primarily shot it at box speed, with just a quick test of overexposure. I had read that expired film should be overexposed, and it makes sense that exposure compensation is needed to account for increasing base fog, but I was curious how the rule-of-thumb applied to Tri-X. From the perspective of someone who knows little about film chemistry, there seem to be at least two dimensions that need to be considered when deciding how to compensate an expired roll of film. First, it seems fair to assume that color film might degrade faster than black and white film due to the additional chemical complexity of those films. Second, it seems reasonable to assume that original box speed will impact how fast a film will degrade. So, I wasn’t sure if the rule of thumb to overexpose one stop for each decade a film is expired applied to Tri-X. After processing the last roll of expired Tri-X, it was clear that 45-plus year old Tri-X needed at least two stops of over exposure.