Adventures in Film


Friends recently handed me a pile of expired, unexposed film. I long ago sold my personal film camera, but my wife has consistently resisted that urge. She has a nice Pentax with a 50mm f/2 and a zoom lens. There’s an almost silly hipster resurgence in film but that didn’t stop me from giving it a try. I’m a fad jumper, and I don’t care. Especially when I can jump on the fad for under $20.

The fist task was to replace the batteries in the Pentax so that the light meter could actually work. Amazon to the rescue, and I now have more button cell batteries for less than it would have cost me in gas to get to a local store to pick them up.

Next I had to figure out what happens to “expired” film. I read a few articles on the interwebs, and the basic learning is that over time the chemicals on the film become less sensitive to light. How much less is a guess. Plus, high temperatures accelerate that process. My newly acquired film had been sitting in a barely temperature controlled warehouse. Who knows where it had been before that. I decided to treat the Kodak BW400CN film as if it was ISO 200 rather than ISO 400.

7I probably should have treated it like ISO 100. The pics are acceptable, nevertheless.

Anyway, I loaded the 24 exposure roll and set about looking for images that were film-worthy. And that was the first lesson: although I was eager to see some quick results, I was conscious that I had only 24 shots on the roll. I wanted every shot to have the potential for being a keeper. I wanted each shot to be, in a very 1970s way, one that I would put in a photo album…

23… until there were fireworks. While I was watching fireworks, with the Pentax close at hand, I kept thinking “It will be a total crap-shoot. You have no idea how long the shutter should be open. You have no idea how these will turn out. You can’t possibly make a decent image of fireworks on film.” Challenge accepted, says I. I tried 11 times and got three usable images. Honestly, I’m pleased I got just one since I was totally winging it: my shutter was set to bulb, and my finger controlled the speed.

3I enjoyed (at least temporarily) the process of slowing down, intentionally making pictures, and not immediately knowing how they turned out. One problem, is that I can’t see when there are potential problems in the film, such as on Nick’s chin, above.

21The second problem is that it was tough for me to see that I hadn’t obtained a sharp focus, like in the image above. Clearly this isn’t a “grab” shot. They were posed. And I set them in a line so that at f/2 I had a chance of getting them all crisp. But I blew it. The leaves on the left are sharper than their faces. This is clearly a photographer problem–I could have blown focus on this shot using a digital camera. But at least with digital I would have had the opportunity to know that I had blown it, and retake it.

There are other shortcomings with this set of images that I might be able to improve upon:

  • the film grain is heavy, almost as if I had added it deliberately to make it look like film. This may very well be an artifact of the expired film. I’m putting the rest of the expired film rolls in the trash and will buy a few rolls of fresh film.
  • in the top photo, the expression on my father-in-law isn’t the best. I will, again, attribute this to photographer error–I think he was mid-comment while I was focusing, and I snapped the shutter while he was remarking on my post-film (lack-of) abilities. A digital image would have allowed me to see that I had taken a less-than-optimal image and tried again.

Finally, there’s the cost. A single film-based photo will cost me a minimum of $0.70. Even if you include the cost of dual-drive storage on-site, and off-site storage, a single digital photo will cost me $0.003 to store indefinitely or $0.17 to have printed (at Costco, natch).

I’m not saying I’m done with film. But boy I sure do love me some digital benefits. There may be more to come.