Is Expired Film Overrated?

Is Expired Film Overrated?

Many argue for their own approach to making photographs. Some people are analog shooters, some are digital, all have their opinion as to which approach is best or superior. I say try them all.

I was going to write about whether or not using film is overrated, but I decided that topic has really been hashed out. I mention this, though, because my conclusions about whether or not expired film is overrated are closely related to my thoughts on the value of film photography more generally. Shooting film, it has been decided, is neither better nor worse than shooting digital — it's just different. I tend to agree. This aside, many still like to stoke the argument. Many analog photographers bemoan the lack of "personality" in digital images, and many digital photographers make light of the nostalgic hipsters who spend their trust funds developing film. And round and round we go. Indeed, in a recent interview with New York photographer Matt Weber, he recounted to me how he fails to understand these young photographers and their #shootfilmstaybroke hashtags. He feels film limits a photographer and he has never looked back since making the switch to digital. By contrast, I've also interviewed photographers, such as Matt Day and Liz Potter, who absolutely live and breathe analog photography. They claim it has unique qualities that simply cannot be replicated in the digital world. 

Shot with an expired disposable camera (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Suppose we agree that there is still merit in shooting film. As soon as we dig into the film world, we will quickly see that there is lots more controversy to be had. For example, what camera to shoot, what film format to use, and, my question of the day, whether or not to shoot expired film. For every option, there are proponents and opponents. Strong opinions abound. When it comes to expired film, what is all the hype actually about? I mean, it's film, it is just expired. What's the fuss? Well, some people believe that expired film allows for a unique aesthetic — a kind of "filter" if we think about the digital equivalent. Expired film provides a whimsical and somewhat unpredictable result. Okay, maybe. But I want to say is that shooting expired film has no real tangible benefit or disadvantage. It's just expired film. It's different. What it does have, though, is a kind of "charm" that comes with the experience. So, the benefit is a different (and albeit unpredictable) shooting experience. Daniel Schneider, from Popular Photography, says it best in his guide to shooting expired film:

Using expired film compounds the uncertainty, like jumping from an airplane with a parachute you just bought at an army surplus store.

So, is expired film overrated? I say, yes, it is if you are promoting it as some kind technical advantage or superior way of shooting film. But I also say no if you are promoting it as a kind of "alternate experience." Shooting expired film fuels the mind, spirit, and inspiration of analog photographers, and surely, that is worth something. Expired film allows us to feel as though we are shooting something that is not uniform and ubiquitous. It is not a bunch of 1s and 0s on a memory card, but rather, it is a physical thing — a tangible object — and one that is varied in a unique and unpredictable way due to its vintage. 

Shot with an expired disposable camera (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Some may argue that the resulting image should stand on its own, that the story behind how it was made is irrelevant. Okay, so you shot expired film on an old camera, who cares? Fair enough. However, stories are the stuff that make us human, and they hold tremendous sway over our emotions. Someone who sets out on a photographic journey with her grandmother's camera in hand will have a different resulting project than if she had photographed with a new and unstoried camera. And, like it or not, her photographs will be viewed (and seen) differently also. The story will be a part of the package, and part of the story will be the expired film. 

Shot with an expired disposable camera (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

I say go ahead and shoot expired film. I think every photographer should give this a go. Why? Because it is something different. It is something to disrupt and disturb your normal photo-making routine. Anything that allows us to experiment and work outside of our comfort zone holds the potential to inspire us toward our next great thing. For you, that could be shooting expired film. Is expired film somehow better than digital or fresh-dated film? No. It is not. There is nothing special about expired film other than the fact that it affords a different shooting experience. And this brings me back to the point about shooting film more generally — do it because it is different. Different is good, as we have too much of the same. Shoot film because you can or because you haven't done so. Shoot film to see what it is like to shoot film. Go analog to seek out a story — to find an adventure. Go analog to bust your routine and refresh and renew your love of making photography. Grab a crappy 110 camera and some "almost extinct" (and maybe expired) 110 film and experience the joy of 1980s snapshot making. Embrace the unpredictability and explore your own potential as a photographer. Or just have fun. Go ahead, jump out of the plane!

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Tdotpics photography's picture

not really is just a style that many love and others hate.. it has it's place

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Right, my point exactly.

Mike Ditz's picture

Shooting expired film just makes a better story down at the free range coffee shop in Bushwick or Atwater Village...
Seems like most of the folks are shooting old neg film that has great latitude and ages well, I don't see much magic in the old C41 film, could be the lo tech crappy plastic lens of the disposable camera is the difference. Maybe shooting some poorly stored 20 year old E6 film would be more interesting, filmicaly speaking.

I 100% wish the term shooting "analog" would be changed to shooting film...

Joe Hogan's picture

the definition remark gets my 100% approval.

Michael Piziak's picture

I never knew "expired" film was a thing

Alastair Wilson's picture

Me neither, I've seen a roll or two kicking around the house from years back, might give them a go out of curiosity.

Deleted Account's picture

Still have around a dozen rolls of really expired film, around 25 to 30 years old. I've been storing them in a fridge. I wonder how photos would look like. But I never felt to really try it. I recently had a film developed which stayed more than 25 years in my drawer at room temperature. I found images of me and my wife and after some processing they looked quite o.k. I think I'll keep the rolls in the fridge until sentimentality takes over and I grab my old Nikon FA with the 50mm f/1.4. (btw, the battery from the eighties is still working!).

Mike Ditz's picture

It's cool that you found pics of you and your wife, much better than finding an old floppy disc or
Kodak photo Cd that can't be read.

Klaus Balzano's picture

I don't know why people waste film shots with nonsense images. They shot a cat, a leaf or everything that you normally use a cellphone to do that. Films today is rare and expensive, please just stop with more photo garbage.

Mike Dochterman's picture

I had a photo teacher years ago that told us: the most expensive thing you can buy for your camera is expired film.
Do I shoot expired film? yes (got a fridge of 4x5 and 8x10 E6 that I picked up at an estate sale).. but I always cover that shot with fresh film...just in case

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Interesting comment from that teacher, Mike. I see eBay prices seem to back up the comment!

Alastair Wilson's picture

Wished I'd known I was sat on a fortune, used to throw the stuff out. Found a few rolls which I'll have a go with rather than junking. Never occurred to me to use them. I was always taught to keep in the fridge which is where I keep my regular stock.

Rick Pappas's picture

For me, as an analog shooter from the '60s. Yes.