Film diaries: when good film goes bad

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The worst of the negatives – there’s barely any image there at all. And this after significant digital manipulation.

This might sound like something of the Girls Gone Wild genre, but sadly, it isn’t. I recently picked up a batch of expired (2006) Kodak TMAX 400 120 film for the Hasseblad; 40 rolls at a rather good price of about $3 each. I knew going into this that the results wouldn’t be 100%; but plenty of research and the opinions of film photographers I trust suggested that it should be fine; just add around an extra stop of exposure, or be prepared to push the negatives a bit more during development. Time just degrades film sensitivity, in theory. The seller assured me he’d run a roll recently and it came out fine, just a little desensitized – which was in line with what I’d heard. I knew that storage temperature also affects things, but again – ‘cool, dry warehouse’. Supposedly fine. I’d also shot one of my own rolls of Neopan from 2005 and not found any issues; then again, it had been kept in a fridge the whole time.

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A slight improvement with more processing time – a three stop push, here.

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Even more processing time – going on for six stops.

I loaded up the ‘Blad, brought another four rolls and went off happily to a family dinner, shooting plenty and exposing at EI 800 plus a bit, with the intention to push two stops over the normal developing time for TMAX 400 during processing. A previous test roll of fresh TMAX 400 gave it the same developing properties as Delta 400; 4min in Ilford DDX 1+4 at our local ambient 26C water temperature. It’s worked fine for me in the past; Delta 400 turns out nearly grain-free, and looks great. A one-stop push to 800 still looks great; just add another 1min30sec. I think it’d safely go another stop and still look good; being a large negative and all. Based on this, I assumed it’d be the same case with the TMAX.

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Paradoxically, the highlights looked okay – even slightly blown.

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And again – note highlights. I think this was the equivalent of four stops over.

Except it wasn’t even close. The first test roll went into the soup for 6min and came out rather faint and slightly clouded; it could have been the developer or the fixer, or both. Except that the same batch of chemistry – fresh developer, fixer only used for about four rolls of 135 – had happily processed a roll of Delta 100 from the GR1v, which came out looking great when developed to spec. (6min at 26C in 1+4, if you’re curious; the negatives are slightly dense, but I find they scan better that way.) That ruled out the fixer, though I added some fresh stuff from the bottle to refresh the chemistry a little just in case; I think it would have been about 1+6 at this point, instead of the usual 1+9. It went back into the fixer just in case. No change in cloudiness after ten minutes, so I gave up and focused on the developer.

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Test roll, exposed at EI200. Still not much shadow detail.

Successive rolls went in for longer and longer times, and with increasingly concentrated chemistry – the last roll was souped in 1+2.5 for 20 minutes – equivalent to something like a six stop push – and there was no appreciable increase in density. In fact, the negatives still looked the same: cloudy and faint. I tested the fixer, too – somehow, it appeared to be exhausted after three rolls despite the increase in concentration (!). A test strip of fresh Delta 100 took nearly ten minutes to go clear – normally, two is sufficient. It would seem that however the film had been stored, the chemistry had degraded it to the point that had become effectively unusable, and not only that, reacting with the processing chemistry in a bad way. The negatives have that hazy, semi-opaque kind of look that you get when processing C41 in B&W chemistry (there, it’s due to the self-masking effect of the emulsion) – except you can’t wash it away. Furthermore, it seemed the emulsion was simply no longer very sensitive to light. Further tests showed that whilst you could get it to react above about EV 8 or 9, there’d be almost no responsiveness below this.

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Note complete lack of shadow response. This isn’t a scanning thing, the negative was just blank in those areas.

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And for comparison, what’d I’d consider to be a very good Delta 100 negative. There’s almost no visible grain in this one, even at a 2000dpi (equivalent) scan. Just pure sharp detail and beautiful tonal gradation.

There are a few things to take away from this story: firstly, run a test roll before shooting anything critical. Secondly, it appears possible to have some variation even within the same batch. Thirdly, if you are shooting anything critical, use fresh film. Interestingly, I tried a fresh roll of TMAX 100 recently; it developed fine with very rich blacks/ quarter tones, but with a few odd quirks – firstly, fixing time was about three times as long as Delta or Acros; the negatives had a very pronounced bluish-purple tinge because of the base dye layer, but that mostly disappeared upon drying. The film also feels much thicker than the other two, and consequently has a pronounced curl that makes it quite tricky to load into the spools. To top things off – that rich emulsion appears to be VERY delicate and easily scratched by even the slightest contact with anything abrasive – my wood desk, for instance – handle with extreme care. I like the shadow tones and lack of grain, but not the fragility in handling. All in all, I think I’m going to be sticking to fresh Acros or Delta from now on!  MT


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  1. Peter Boender says:

    Aaahh, the benefits of changing to digital (like many years ago…)…

  2. Not to flog a dead horse, but Oskar O above seem to me to be on the right track. Remember the old Zone System adage – Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights. It looks to me like the film has lost sensitivity for sure so it is actually several stops slower than it was originally. I would run a roll and photograph a gray scale at normal exposure and then increase exposure by one stop for all 12 shots. Then normal development in new developer. If you get a shot where the shadows are correctly rendered and the highlights reasonably unblocked than that is the films actual speed. But I suspect you still might not get a normal tone curve with this film – it just doesn’t look like it is capable of rendering a normal range of tones any more. That is it may only render 5 zones, not 10. And the grain, even with push processing, looks way large for a 6 by 6 neg. You made sure you had fresh chemicals, so I agree it has to be deteriorated film.

    • I gave it another stop to stop and a half exposure at the time of shooting to compensate for age, then a decent amount of extra development time after the first roll didn’t work when developing for highlights.

      I too think this batch of film is pretty much dead. No point in wasting more time in figuring out how much tonal range is left…

  3. Carlo Santin says:

    Learn to embrace the grain and imperfection Ming. Even when film goes bad the results are often good. I don’t see anything wrong with your photos here. The results you have achieved here are what endear me to film. If I have one criticism (more of an observation), it’s that your film photos look digital (see last image in this post), too clean and perfect. Obviously we all have different tastes and you strive to achieve the results that you want. The reason I love film and shoot it now more than digital is that it gives me a look and feel that digital simply cannot achieve…part of that look is grain, less sharpness, and perhaps some imperfection. I have noticed you are very meticulous, really quite the opposite of how I would describe myself. I would think digital would be easier to work with for the meticulous photographer. Have you tried Ektar 100? It scans wonderfully, is very sharp and detailed. It’s my favourite print film at the moment. For black and white I’ve gone to Ilford HP 5, very easy to work with and push to 3200 if required. Tri-x arcs terribly, making scanning very difficult, but seems to flatten out after a few weeks in a sleeve.

    • Actually, I think it’s the reproduction size that’s making them look digital. My negs actually look like that. A 6×6 neg has a huge amount of information in it; the right film will outresolve the D800E clearly, and you won’t even see the grain structure (Fuji Acros, for instance). Yet on sufficiently large prints – 24×24″ square, for example – all of that character and texture comes through, and yes, a subtle amount of grain, too. I definitely don’t see it with digital. It’s magical, and very ‘alive’.

  4. I am not aware of any other photography- related websites that have these four things going for them: good writing, good photos, and coverage of both film and digital formats. On top of that, you are a one-man show making many posts full of useful information and inspiration.

    • Thank you. Sometimes I feel like one of those buskers on a street corner wearing about 20 different musical instruments and waiting for passers-by with a hat, sometimes I feel like I’m doing a guitar solo at Wembley. But both of those people originally started out wanting to make music…

  5. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    Just tell people that “it’s a new Instagram filter” and the kids will love it.

  6. Stephen Scharf says:

    Think I’ll stick to Silver Efex Pro2! 😉


  7. Wow, that is a lot of patience to work with that.

  8. I shoot a lot of Tmax (sheet film). My best results are when I prewash it for a few minutes in plain water to get the dye out, then fix with a hardening fixer (I use Kodafix) for 14 minutes. That gets the purple out. Shorter fixing time leaves a faint pink/purple stain.

    • I tried that with one of the test rolls of expired film – it definitely removed the purple, but didn’t make much difference to the rest of the neg. I’ll give it a shot with the fresh TMAX 100 I still have. Any suggestions on how to treat the negative to make it less fragile and prone to scratches? Seems to be much more sensitive than Delta or Acros.

  9. Oskar O says:

    The problem is that over time, the density builds up throughout the film, which results in the somewhat unclear base layer you’re seeing. That in turn means that the minimum exposure required to get any separation is increased, which is why pushing doesn’t work; it will increase the densitty of the highlights, but the shadows didn’t get enough exposure to register anything, so no amount of pushing will reveal tones. Instead, your best bet is a moderate pull while giving ample exposure to the shadows.

    I’m guessing that storage conditions were not exactly optimal for those rolls.

    • That would make sense. How does the density build up by itself over time though? Oxidation, presumably?

      I’m guessing storage wasn’t optimal either…think high humidity, high temperature…for years.

      • Oskar O. says:

        Well, I’m no chemist so I will be vague, but if you want to dig deeper then the details are all publicly available 🙂
        Basically the emulsion isn’t completely stable and heat triggers the molecules to react so they essentially get exposed. I’m uncertain if it’s simply the energy of the heat itself that causes the emulsion to spontaneously react or if it only triggers the reaction with another element, but I would incline to believe the former (I really should check though). The expiration date seems to be directly dependent on the sensitivity of the film and a change of temperature has the usual strong effect on reactivity. Thus storing it at anything above refrigerator temperatures may have caused the fogging. “Cool” is such a relative term; for film only subzero temps start to really be cool..

        Ultrafast films can be sensitive even to cosmic radiation in the long run, but for speeds around 400, heat is the main problem in long term storage.

        The obvious solution is to advertise the fogging effect and sell the film to someone who is seeking such an effect 🙂

        • Hmm…interesting. Would make sense since some degree of heat propagation is near IR anyway, and that’s light.

          Good thing I’ve got a) my other couple of hundred rolls of stock in the fridge, and b) only 10 rolls of this stuff left. It’s not worth the effort to sell 😛

  10. Am I reading your second paragraph right? You expose the film one stop. Then you develop at 2 and a half stops longer. And you did this because the film was expired?
    To me, it doesn’t seem to surprise me that you lost all your shadows and gained all that grain. The most common problem for me, is exposure. Sometimes there isn’t enough time to meter property and I guess wrong, I accidently meter the wrong light source. Either way, I lose the shadows. I get a lot of grain like this if I push it too far, like I would see simi
    alr results when I push more than 2 stops.
    There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. Thanks Ming.

    • I gave the film one more stop of light than it should have, so I overexposed to compensate for the drop in sensitivity. I developed the first roll normally, then pushed subsequent rolls when the initial results were too dark. I’m not surprised that I lost the shadows either, but the fact that the first roll was toast too and the film basically had no sensitivity below EV8 or so was the surprise.

  11. X rays…?

  12. I’ve been scouring the Internet looking for answers to this same issue! I’ve had various BW rolls that came out ruined. TMAX, BW400, XP2, Neopan, HP5, all with exactly the same look as the ones you posted. I ruled it out to be either the developer’s problem (the camera shop doing something wrong), my film (varies from fresh to expired, all refrigerated), shipping issues with the package containing the film.

    I don’t know which one it could be, and no else has had the same/similar issue till I read this post! In my case, I think… no, nevermind, I have no clue.

    This is over the course of about a year btw, between shooting BW and color negatives since last June. Take a look at my site if you get the chance, and let me know your thoughts from the BW shots I’ve put up.

    Thanks for the insights, consistently!



    • It’s not the chemistry, because I did a number of Delta 100 rolls in resulting soup afterwards that turned out fine. I tried it with fresh chemistry, too. I suspect it’s a combination of prolonged age and heat that did the light-sensitive portions of the film in; OR, it could be some residual chemistry from the Delta that’s affecting the Tmax (unlikely, though).

      Sorry, but there’s no way I have time to look at and comment on everybody’s images – best way to get fast (albeit binary) feedback is to submit something to the reader flickr pool – if it’s in after a day (I review several times a day), you’re good. If not, try again. 🙂

    • I took a quick look at your B/W photos, and I wish to share some of my thoughts. They have some very large grain. Especially when you pull it full screen. Hard to image how large they would look at 100% crops. In my experience the following things might contribute to larger grain… (1) the type of developer used – rodinal is quite famouse for producing large grain (2) high speed film (3) over development (4) excessive aggigtation. It might be the developer that your lab might be using.

  13. It looks to me like bright areas of the images are quite okay but anything in shadow or getting less light in muddled up. Maybe old film works better in bright daylight outdoors than in a relatively dark room indoors. It needs a lot of light to get the image out, not just slight over exposure in the dark or lot of over developing.

    • I ran a number of test rolls outdoors too, and they weren’t any better; even overexposing by 2 stops didn’t help. I’m now using it as demonstration stock for my students so they can practice loading/ unloading/ transferring to reels in daylight…

  14. Ki Ysebaert says:

    Hi Ming,

    just wanted to let you know that the link to your new post doesn’t work.

    Kind regards,


    Op 22-mei-2013, om 06:00 heeft Ming Thein | Photographer het volgende geschreven:

    > >

    • It was supposed to be posted tomorrow – software hiccup. Sorry!

      • No problem at all Ming. Thanks for replying !
        I’m appreciating your blog every day more and more. I enjoyed reading all the comments on the Photographer/philosopher item.
        some very interesting thoughts!


      • Peter Boender says:

        Hey Ming. Apparently the software is still hicced-up… Reading your mail about 10 days late (on June 1st), the link in the mail still comes up with a “404 error”. The subject page can be reached by clicking the particular article on your blog. Just thought I’d let you know…

  15. I thought I had the same problem when I bought some rolls of expired velvia 50. However it turned out that I had made the mistake of getting them scanned by “Snappy Snaps”. Well, I won’t be doing that again. See the difference in the link below.

    Thames path (scanned by Snappy Snaps)
    • It’s not the scanner. The film itself was a disaster – several controlled test rolls confirmed it.

      • James Bywater says:

        Sorry, I wasn’t saying it was the scanner, just relaying my awful experience from the “professionals”!

        • I’m not entirely surprised: if it goes through a machine, there’s only so much individual optimization – if any – that’s going to take place for each roll. If it’s done by hand, then if you’re developing hundreds of rolls per day (needed to make it commercially viable) – then I doubt you’re going to take special care with any single roll. Completely different matter if you’re doing everything on your own and you only have a few rolls to do, though…

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