My dog, Cooper, is getting old. He’s a good dog. He’s protective of the family, and when my kids crawl all over him he lays patiently, his eyes closed, his tail sweeping the floor in a lazy wag. At age ten, his muzzle is turning white and the skin around his eyes is loose and heavy, and though his youthful enthusiasm for play hasn’t faded, the light in those eyes has, just a bit.
There’s a path near my house that meanders through a sprawling field and eventually leads to a rocky perch overlooking a bay. In spring and summer, the field is full of wildflowers and the ocean water is, if not exactly warm, then at least not incompatible with life. In winter, the field is stripped, the turf is yellow, and the water is freezing. In any season, there’s nowhere that Cooper would rather be. The long walk to the beach gives him room to run, and the ocean offers this waterdog a natural habitat. He swims, no matter the temperature.
I take Cooper to this bay as often as I can, and long-time readers have seen the place before. Many of the articles on this website have featured photos of my lovable, idiot dog in various states of filthiness, the ocean bay stretching off into the background. But we don’t go there often enough, and Cooper’s days are numbered. So when I stumbled upon an unusually old roll of Kodak Plus X film and wondered where and what to shoot with it, the answer came automatically.
What is Kodak Plus X
The roll of film was found stashed in the belly of some ancient, leather sack, bursting with photographic goodness from the 1960s. This happens a lot. We take a giant shipment of camera gear into the shop and find a cornucopia’s worth of accessories and books and manuals and filters and expired film – the bread and butter of brick and mortar camera shops which themselves long ago expired.
Mostly we toss the expired film into a cooler and give it away throughout the year. We try to only sell new film, as we can’t guarantee the efficacy of expired stock and we don’t want people to waste their time and money, or miss an important shot on account of unreliable film. But this roll of film was different. I’d never seen it before, and the canister was eye-catching. A brilliant color scheme of yellow against magenta, blocky text and an older Kodak logo. I slipped it into a vintage, metal Kodak film holder and slipped that in turn into a glass cabinet where I put things that tickle my fancy – the “do not sell” case.
Some quick research revealed the details of the film inside; Kodak Plus X Pan, a black-and-white panchromatic 125 ISO film. Plus X was first produced as motion picture film in 1938, and then offered in 35mm and medium format for still cameras beginning in the 1940s. It remained in production with minor changes for over seventy years, until its discontinuation in 2011.
My roll dates from a period before the switch from earlier 20 exposure rolls to newer 24 exposure rolls, which occurred in the late 1970s. With this fact, and some sleuthing over graphic design changes and cross-referencing of expiration dates of similar looking rolls, the evidence seemed to indicate that my roll of film was likely produced sometime between 1969 and 1979. That means that this roll of film would be, at the time of shooting, somewhere between forty to fifty years old. My expectations were suitably restrained.
Making the Shots
There’s a whole lot of dubious information on the internet about shooting expired film. A small percentage of this advice is great, and comes from experienced shooters who are qualified to give it. All of the rest is not. The challenge, generally speaking, is that the unqualified advice is indistinguishable from the sage wisdom because there’s no one to tell us what’s true. This is the internet that we have built, one in which editors and gatekeepers have been discarded in the pursuit of egalitarian publishing and free information. It’s chaos, but then again, I’m part of the problem.
One famously obtuse wisdom is the “over-expose by one stop for every decade past expiration” rule. I scoffed at this rule the last time I wrote about expired film. The truth is, this rule is silly. It may anecdotally have worked for some of us in the past, but it’s unscientific at best, downright idiotic at worst. The age of the film is just a single variable in a multivariate equation in which it’s nearly always true that none of the other variables are known. Without knowing how the film was stored or without factoring for film speed or development chemicals, for example, we can’t get consistent or predictable results from expired film. For these reasons, my only unbreakable rule when shooting expired film is to expect the worst.
The question remained; how do I shoot this stuff?
When I loaded the decades-old Kodak Plus X, I knew there would likely be some fogging from decades of background radiation. Then again, slower speed film fogs less than higher speed film, so the relatively low ISO of Plus X would work in my favor. And black-and-white film is more stable compared with color films. I’ve shot slow expired slide film at box speed and it’s come out great. I’ve over-exposed Konica VX film by four stops and got nothing back but underexposed slop. Shooting expired film really can be miserable.
For this particular excursion into misery, I decided on an ISO setting of 50. I suspected that this would help me burn through whatever fog may have bloomed in the four or five decades that the film had sat dormant (in a freezer? closet? coal scuttle? fallout shelter?) and help conjure up some shadow detail in my final images. I also recognized that this might result in blown highlights and require adjustment to my development process. Then again, thinking about all of the variables and possible failure points annoyed me, and I had two kids and a dog to wrangle. I decided to stop worrying and shoot.
I chose to shoot this film in my Leica R5 for three reasons. First, the R5 would allow me to manually set my ISO, a necessity for reasons which I’ve already posited. Next, the R5 has a phenomenally accurate light meter and would allow me to shoot in aperture-priority auto-exposure mode. Lastly, the camera owns (and the 21mm Super Angulon attached to it owns, too).
The drive to the path that leads to the bay is quick, about three minutes. Cooper’s face is pressed against the front window as he rides co-pilot, my very own Chewbacca. The girls are in the back, laughing and singing. Life is good.
We get to the field and spill out of the car. Cooper’s ready to run, and off he goes. The girls pick their way along the path behind me, aged four and almost-three, not too sure on their feet as they shimmy across the frozen earth. I get to shooting, while calling over my shoulder to watch for ice and snow.
There’s nothing too miraculous happening here, not much to point a camera at unless you’ve read Carl Sagan and appreciate the impossible luck that’s allowed me and my kids to exist and walk and enjoy the seasons and the planet. There’s not much to notice unless you look close and discover the seedlings that have frozen into crystalline starbursts in a three-inch deep puddle, a miniature glacier with all the depth of a swirling galaxy. Not much to appreciate unless you’re waxing nostalgic about your dog and his life, and how little of it he has left.
I think there’s always something to photograph because there’s always something for which to be grateful. But I guess I’m feeling too grateful, because before we’ve reached the ocean my film frame counter’s already reading 21. And this film is supposed to allow just 20 exposures.
We get to the beach, and without hesitation Cooper’s in the water. The girls are looking for shells and I want a shot of my dog up to his neck in ocean. I get as close as I can and take the shot. It’s the only one I get, because when I advance the film it catches halfway. The 20 exposure roll is exhausted. A quick rewind and it’s time to switch to the Canon MC point-and-shoot (review coming) and the digital Sony a7 I’ve brought for product photos. When I notice that the Sony is missing its memory card, I swear in frustration. My daughter rightly scolds me for saying mean things as I stow the useless digital device in my bag and give up on photography for the day. Oh well.
Cooper spends the next half hour diving in and out of the water. He plunges his face under the waves like a duck hunting whatever it is ducks hunt when they dive, and rises a handful of seconds later with an enormous rock in his mouth. This he proudly carries to the shore, deposits it on the sand, and turns back to repeat the chore. In a few moments he’s made quite an impressive cairn.
The girls and I find shells and examine pebbles and sea glass while Cooper laps back and forth twenty feet out to sea. He occasionally storms the beach and sprints past, splashing us with sand and mud and saltwater. Five years ago I’d be annoyed. Now, I just laugh along with my kids. When it’s time to head home, he leaps from one rock to the next, and down the path back to the car, spry as he was back when. He’s happy and healthy and looking young.
Developing the Film
In preparation for the developing of my decades old film, I asked around for advice. The horrendous repository of unceasingly bad information known as Facebook photography groups resulted in about forty suggestions of different processes, with each suggester claiming that theirs was the only method that would produce a usable image. Other more trusted sources gave me extremely complicated and time-consuming development methodology that would have likely resulted in the best images possible if only I wasn’t, quite frankly, too lazy and busy to bother with them. In the end, I laid my film at the alter of Kodak.
I found an old data sheet in Kodak’s archives which gave me all of the information I’d ever need on the later formulation of Kodak Plus X. This naturally included development times. I took their recommended development time and unscientifically added two minutes. “That oughta do something. What’s the worst that could happen.”
After fifteen minutes or so my negatives begin their rinse in cold water. A few minutes later I pull them from the spool and we have images. What a relief. More than a relief, what a surprise. This film is forty-something years old! And the photos are actually pretty good. Sharp, fine grained, nice tonality. I like them. And with expired film, that’s all I can hope for.
In the End
I end my experience shooting a roll of Kodak Plus X that’s older than I am, impressed. The images aren’t perfect, of course. There’s a loss of shadow detail, and the highlights are blown in places, and all of the photos taken indoors weren’t usable due to under-exposure. It’s possible that I could have rated my film at ISO 25, or developed longer, or used stand developing, and thus increased my hit rate. But my history with expired film told me that I was wasting my time. That this ancient roll of film would yield nothing but foggy, vague, and unusable photos, so I didn’t try very hard.
But I’m glad I shot this stuff. It’s reaffirmed my love for film and reminded me that I need to shoot more black-and-white. I’ll do that, and spend however long I can capturing Cooper and my girls on Kodak T-Max and Ilford Delta and whatever else catches my eye.
My cat died a few months ago. I’m not sobbing about it, but I admit that it’s sad and I do wish he was still alive. Cooper’s undeniably getting old. It takes him longer to rise from a laying position, and I can see his legs tremble almost imperceptibly between laps around the house, laps which take longer than they would’ve two years ago. I don’t know that he’ll still be here two years from now. It’s heartbreaking, but nothing lasts forever. Except, maybe, film.
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I loved this so much. For lots of reasons but really the sentiment.
What a wonderful site, thank you James.