Opinion: I Hope You’re Not Celebrating Expired Film For the Wrong Reasons

Expired film does have its charms and can be rewarding for the experimental photographer. But are you celebrating it for the wrong reasons?

Above: A bunch of expired films that I plan to shoot with for this year’s Expired Film Day weekend. I’m still missing a medium format camera to pair with the 120 films.

Expired Film Day is afoot and I am most certainly excited to participate in the festivities. The global film photography community must already be gearing up with plans for photo walks, portrait sessions, and gatherings to celebrate, even weeks ahead of the anticipated celebrations. Part of me, however, can’t help but wonder what expired film and the occasion in its honor really mean for most film photographers out there.

Kodak Ektar 100, expired 10 years but kept in a freezer for the entire time.

Since 2015, Expired Film Day has been one of the most popular and important occasions among film photographers. In a nutshell, the annual affair “celebrates the joys of using film whose Use-By date has (preferably long-since) passed.” Through it, we are reminded that there are still a lot of “expired-but-still-probably-pretty good” films out there. The days and maybe even weeks leading up to the celebration send a lot of film photographers to check their stashes, go on a treasure hunt on their grandparents’ attics, scour thrift stores, and check out ebay for expired films to shoot.

This year, the passionate organizers of Expired Film Day have allotted March 15th to 17th as the official dates for all of around the world us to join in the fun. A weekend spent shooting expired films with family and film shooting friends, does sound lovely. Once you’re done with your weekend shoots, you have March 18th to April 18th to process and scan your photos, and submit up to three of your best picks here. The celebration is sweetened even more with some simple prizes prepared by the members of the #BelieveinFilm community for the best submissions. These include fresh and expired films (but of course), unique handmade darkroom print, a 100-foot bulk roll of Agfa-Gevaert 561 Cinema BW Print Film.

So, if you’ve been waiting for an opportunity or a special occasion to shoot with those expired films, these dates would be the best to set a portrait session, a street photo walk with friends, or do some crazy emulsional experiments.

Expired film as an Aesthetic

Shooting with expired films has always been a gamble, yet it remains one of the most popular ways of shooting film. Its unpredictability is often compounded when you don’t know how it was stored (as is often the case with those you find online or in thrift stores). The results may look flat, underexposed, color-shifted, grainy, among other things. At best, you can get usable, moody, and nostalgic photos out of a good roll. Despite this risk, outdated emulsions still remain popular among seasoned and newcomer film photographers who remain fascinated by the unique look that it offers.

Some would argue that shooting with expired emulsions is merely going after an aesthetic built on flaws largely addressed by digital photography (or, in the case of film photography, avoided by shooting with fresh films). What was once undesirable has been deemed unique and artistic since people discovered that they can still shoot with expired film.

Shooting Expired vs. Fresh Films

The case — and even appeal — for shooting fresh films instead of expired ones does have a valid premise. Browse around enough film photography groups and you’ll find news on rising film prices and film discontinuation, which a lot blame on people wanting to shoot more with expired films rather than fresh. Resources for producing fresh films and the developing chemicals aren’t as readily available as they used to be, making it a costly venture for companies. Since the demand for fresh films isn’t as substantial as it used to be, these companies see little point in investing in the medium. This is the harsh truth behind the dwindling variety of fresh films available in the market.

But then, it’s this very disappearance of film variants that get people turning to expired films. How else would we get to try or experience these long-gone films if not for ebay sellers who have grabbed a bunch in a thrift market? Or from pro photographers who have already moved to digital offering up a handful of cold-stored rolls from their stash? We may never get to shoot with a lot of long discontinued films, so one can understand if people get interested if there’s a bunch of a rare expired variant that pops up on ebay.

Celebrating Expired Film

All of that said, my personal stand is to take Expired Film Day simply for what it says it is: a day (or this year, three days) to shoot those precious films while we still can. It’s never about choosing the quirky results that outdated films make over the reliability of fresh films. If you’re shooting with these emulsions on the occasion simply for the “aesthetic” then you’re most likely missing the point of the celebration itself. You might as well just stick to your retro Instagram filters.

For me, shooting with expired films has been all about making the most of what’s available out there. When I started shooting film again (since childhood), it was mostly what we had available; pro photographers have gotten rid of their film equipment, and shops were more eager to “dispose” their outdated film stock, even if they were only a few months to a year expired. They came cheap as a result, and that allowed me to get enough rolls to relearn film photography. Obviously, times have changed and even expired films aren’t as cheap as they used to be. So for me, it’s simply about shooting with both fresh and expired films and enjoying the process.

So, what exactly should we celebrate about expired films on Expired Film Day? The fact that they can still produce decent to great results when stored properly or when just a few months to a few years expired. That even if the photos turn out flawed from the rolls being left out in poor conditions or forgotten in the attic, there’s still some charm to them. To enjoy the experience of coming across some rare discontinued films and finding the perfect occasion to shoot a few rolls. And of course, as is the point of occasions like it, that film is still very much alive.