Shooting a 50 Year Old Roll of Kodak Panatomic X 35mm Film

Shooting a 50 Year Old Roll of Kodak Panatomic X 35mm Film

2200 1238 James Tocchio

The most common way that Kodak Panatomic X is encountered today is that we buy a camera from eBay or an estate sale and discover an errant roll has somehow survived through the decades hidden in the deepest folds of the former owner’s bag. We scrunch our noses against the dust of age and fiddle our fingertips in the side pockets of an ancient sack, hoping to tickle a forgotten hundred-dollar bill (for use in emergencies), or maybe to find a nice f/0.7 Zeiss lens that Kubrick used to shoot the candlelit scenes in Barry Lyndon.

Alas, all we find is an old roll of film.

But if we’re lucky, that roll of film is Panatomic X, because unlike old, expired color film, Panatomic X is often usable (and able to make excellent photos) even fifty years after its date of expiry!

Kodak Panatomic X was first created in 1933 as an ASA (ISO) 25 sheet film for making photos in which a high level of detail was required (aerial photography, professional editorial, scientific applications, etc.). It was designed to be a fine-grained, extremely sharp panchromatic black-and-white film for making extremely large prints.

Later, its sensitivity would be increased slightly to ASA 32. Even at this higher sensitivity, Panatomic X remained the slowest of the Kodak X series of black-and-white films, slower than the faster Plus X, Super XX, and Tri X.

The film was discontinued at some point in the 1940s, only for Kodak to bring it back in the late 1950s. After that, Panatomic X would remain in production for decades, until in the late 1980s or early ’90s, it was definitively discontinued.

Making the Photos

It was in just such a dusty camera bag that I found one old roll of Kodak Panatomic X. The box was stamped with an expiration date of 1970, which placed my roll’s age somewhere around 55 years. I held the film for a moment and wondered.

In late 2019, I’d stumbled upon a similarly aged roll of Kodak Plus X Pan in much the same way. That roll of film was forty-or-so years old, and yet it had made pretty good pictures. My experience with that roll of film even resulted in a well-loved article, an article as interested in film photography as it was in pets, kids, life, and living it.

Would this slower, older film make decent pictures, too?

The camera bag in which I’d found my new old roll of film contained a number of other things. Notably, a Canon EOS Elan II, one of the best, most advanced 35mm film cameras that Canon ever developed. Which is not what I would have expected.

How, I wondered, did this roll of film end up with a Canon EOS camera made sometime between 1995 and 2000? Even then, this roll of film was almost 30 years old.

Weird. But then, the whole world is weird.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of perceiving that old things are precious. I might have looked at this fifty-year-old roll of film and said, “No. Not today. Today is not special. I must await a special moment.”

Perhaps that’s how this roll of film survived to the 2020s. Who knows.

But things are meant to be enjoyed, or at least experienced, and on the very day that I unpacked my new old Canon EOS Elan II and discovered the barnacle of film clinging to its underside, I knew its days as an unexposed emulsion were over. Later that morning, my kids and wife and I went for a walk. The Canon went with me, loaded with a fifty-year-old roll of film.

The waterfront at Plymouth, Massachusetts is a funny place. Superficial wisdom would have us think that it’s where the United States was born, where the Mayflower sidled up to the coast, and where The Pilgrims first set foot on American land in 1620.

Plymouth Rock, the rock upon which the Pilgrims placed their wiggly toes upon first disembarkation, is cradled within a majestic granite monument, which probably cost millions of dollars to make. There’s a towering statue of a Native American (which, I add without comment, was erected by a white’s only, men only club known as the Improved Order of Red Men), and an exact replica of the Mayflower which can be toured for $18 a person.

There’s a Hawaiian-themed smoothie bar. There’s a guy who endlessly plays a flute, but the only song he knows is Under the Sea from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. There’s a cupcake shop sitting within the perpetual stinking miasma of the active commercial fish pier. On the day that I most recently visited, there was a sword-fighting instructor conducting classes upon one of the many small park spaces. He had a two-handed broadsword and what appeared to be hockey pads, and he was being repeatedly and noncommittally slashed by his apprentices, one of which was wearing a Naruto t-shirt and cargo shorts.

See? Funny place.

I’m just here to take pictures.

Kodak Panatomic X is slow. At ISO 32, it’s going to need a lot of light, and since my roll of film is fifty years old with an expiration date of—

Uh oh! Hold on. Am I about to mention the expired film rule? The decades? The exposure compensation? Am I, really?

Yes. I am. But only to once again lambast it as being nearly as absurd as brandishing a broadsword in a public park on a sunny Sunday morning. The “over-expose by one stop for every decade past expiration” rule needs to die.

Think about it. I need to set my exposure compensation on an ASA 32 roll of film to plus 5. That’s what the rule says. Plus 5? Do the people who spout this nonsense know what an image made at +5 looks like? Because I’ve included one in this review. And here it is.

For results like this, remember to definitely adjust your exposure +1 for every decade that your expired film has aged.

The truth about shooting expired film is this. It’s very simple. To shoot expired film, any expired film, over-expose the film by one stop. Just one. A single stop, regardless of when the film expired. Set the exposure compensation dial to +1, or do it manually. After that, just meter normally, shoot normally, develop normally, and expect the worst.

I mounted a 28mm Canon EF lens to the EOS Elan II. It’s a fast prime lens with a wide focal length that I enjoy shooting. It’s modern, with excellent optical coatings, all-encompassing depth of field, and a fast aperture for use in low light. Great lens, great camera, old film – a nice combination.

I spent the day walking about with my kids and wife. We went into some shops. Touched some plants. Ate and drank some sensible yet delicious refreshments. I even found a Nikon film camera for sale in an antique shop for just $25.

Wow. What a day. The only thing that could ruin it is if I botched developing the film.

Developing the Film

Much as I’m repulsed by the expired film over-exposure rule, so too do I reject over-thinking film development.

I don’t imply that those careful, meticulous photographers who can recognize the difference between a negative developed at 78 degrees versus one developed at 74 degrees are wrong to be so meticulous and careful. I’m only admitting that I’m not among them.

My development process with this film was identical to my development process with any film (black and white). I look at Kodak’s data sheet (archived here by the ever-generous Mike Eckman), I look at Massive Dev Chart’s site, I take their recommendations for time (if available – if not, as was the case here, I default to my randomly-selected and largely uneducated guess time of 9 minutes), add about a minute when developing expired film, use whatever developer I find under my bathroom sink, and I develop the film.

In this case, I developed with Ilford Ilfosol 3, mixed 9:1 with water that felt as warm as the air in my bathroom. I developed for about ten minutes with agitation for the first thirty seconds of the first minute, and then further agitation for just fifteen seconds every minute afterward. I rinsed and fixed at 9:1, for five minutes.

After that, I use Lightroom to edit (read: ruin) every picture I make.

Those meticulous and careful photographers that I mentioned earlier might look at my images and fret that the highlights are blown out, or that the shadow detail is lacking. But for me, the resulting images are better than I could expect from a fifty-year-old film.

Not bad, Kodak. Not bad.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Your photos show all of the goodness of Pan-X, and if anyone wants to criticize the technical aspects of these images, to hell with them!

  • In the early seventies I shot Kodak Tri-X and Plus-X and Panatomic-X, all fine films, but, of course, Panatomic-X was the finest.

  • These pics are great, I’m inspired now to shoot my expired stash for more than just test shots.

  • Wonderful pictures, film, review.

  • I have an unopened 50 foot roll of Plus-X I bought in 1980. It has a develop by date of 12/1981. It has a price tag of $5.47 from the now closed Texas Camera in Austin, TX (my spouse worked there so my employee discounted price was lower). I’m struggling with whether I should open the box and use it or just keep it as is. The struggle is getting harder because a few weeks ago I bought a Kodak Retina IIIc at an estate sale. I looked up the serial number and, if I’m remembering correctly, it was built in 1958. The camera and its leather case look pretty much brand new. I bought two 36 exp. rolls of Tri-X for $30+ and bought some D-76 with which to develop the film. Hopefully, I’ll have time to shoot a roll before I leave on a trip for a couple of weeks on Sunday. I’d like to test the focus before I burn a roll or two on the trip.
    I also gave an unopened box of Super 8 Ektachrome and two boxes of 120 Ilford FP 4. The Ilford expired in 1982, one in March and the other in August.
    You have inspired me to at least shoot my new rolls of Tri-X sooner than later.

  • Great story and pictures. You make me want to shoot the 1970s roll of Panatomic-X I have sitting on a shelf. I know it’s history and it has never been refrigerated or frozen. Now, I need to come up with a great location.

  • Just bought recently a bulk roll of it, and really look forward shooting it. Same age as yours, something mid 70s expiry…

  • Your opening tall ship image shows spectacular detail and the grain just adds a little bit of magic.
    I agree 100% with your comments of over obsession with developmental intricacies. I recently pulled some Delta 3200 and having consulted the oracles with mixed advice, still had thin negatives after under developing by about a half. Still perfectly printable with no blown highlights. Film is very flexible although I’m sure the pundits would argue that properly exposed and developed negs make life a lot easier, and I agree.

    • It’s a nice boat! I wouldn’t want to be on it with 102 pilgrims though.

    • Richard Jonathan Oakley September 30, 2023 at 12:05 pm

      Despite all the wonders of modern digital photography ,nothing beats ability to make you stop and think before finally pressing the shutter. I last used this film in 1988.. my simple pentax me super and a tripod with a 56lb weight hanging below let me get some amazing shots.
      Modern technology has dialed out the true photographer and brought in photoshoper.

  • Oh WOW. That is amazing, and those pictures came out gorgeous. I’m one of those people that do meticulous research and overthinking when I’m shooting expired film (overexpose by one stop every five years that the film is expired? shoot at 400 even though it’s 100 speed film? only use specific lenses on a leica that was blessed by the hands of famous photographers that came before? drink the developer while agitating and light a candle to the film gods? what?) so reading this is very comforting to me. This quote in particular is a good one: “After that, just meter normally, shoot normally, develop normally, and expect the worst.”

    Expect the worst! Yes! We’re playing with film and chemicals and science and time. It’s an experiment. You never know what’s going to happen! I love that so, so much.

  • Michael S. Goldfarb September 27, 2023 at 7:35 am

    A slight pedantic correction for your intro, James.

    You mean “Super-XX”, not “Double-X”.

    “Double-X”/Eastman 5222 was never available as still-camera film until recently, and only through third party vendors like CineStill and Film Photography Project. It wasn’t ever spooled in 35mm cassettes by Kodak.

    The old Super-XX was a totally different emulsion, faster than Plus-X and an important “fast” film before Tri-X became the champ. There’s a nice discussion of old Kodak b/w films here:

    • Hey Michael, I appreciate the correction! I’ve updated the article. Thanks for keeping me honest.

    • Super XX was heavily silvered, had a very straight heel to toe “curve” (which means practically none), and was the go to film in photo college for making black & white separation negs for making matrices for dye transfer printing! This was for me, back in 1973. I always loved Panatomic X better than Ilford 50, and back in photo college as well, Kodak made a reversal processing kit for it to make black and white slides! It was killer, and we had to do it for a few classes.

  • James, where in the Massive Dev Chart did you find any listing for Kodak Panatomic X? I couldn’t find anything. The film datasheet lists Microdol-X developer, which is a fine-grain developer, like Ilfosol 3, but only shows 1:3 dilution, and Ilfosol 3 is typically used at 1:9 for a one-shot development. So I’m still puzzled by how you arrived at your final development, because neither the Massive Dev Chart nor film datasheet provides a direct connection to what you did. Thanks.

    • I understand your confusion! But this perhaps illustrates my real point with that paragraph. Which is to say that I look at the charts, and in the absence of information (and often despite whatever information may exist to the contrary) I simply develop everything the exact same way. For better or worse.

  • Wonderful article and beautiful pictures from this old film stock. About the 1 stop per decade rule: I recently experimented with arrow pan press 4×5 film expired in 1945, so about 8 decades expired, and also found the 1 stop per decade is probably too much. Using 0.8 stops per decade gave me decent results, but I guess it depends a lot on how the film was stored.

  • ºColor-Solinarº October 10, 2023 at 1:46 pm

    Well it just has to be said…..”located within the perpetual stinking miasma of the active commercial fish pier” is probably the BEST statement I’ve read online in many, many moons. I appreciate your humour, I enjoyed this article very much and it made my day. Thanks for that 🙂

    Oh…and I like to ruin my film photos in Photoshop – so you’re not alone there.

  • I have to ask (just call me John Snow), what sort of issues might one experience with expired b&w film? I have seen the weird colors of expired color film as a wee laddie, but never shot b&w back then.

  • I was a contemporary of Pan X. Ah I knew it well. The suduction of ultra fine grain was a holy grail of my time. So trust me when I say this was and appears to still be really terrible terrible film. I never made a single exposure that didn’t turn out what awful prints. Even exposition #6 Grade paper you only get high contrast soft images. I was intrigued by the article drawn in once again by hope, springing eternal for old photographers (78) At first I was pulled in by your “cover “ shot the well composed majestic Mayflower. But then I viewed the lack of definition of the grainless float the boat PanX . A worthwhile exploration an excellent article. Honest and sad result. If you’re up for another blast from the past experience and potentially successful article. Get a 50 year old roll of 35mm TryX 400, exposed at ei 1000 incident meterd explorative “stuff”. Developed in Acufine “fine grain “soup . I used to run back to back double capacity Nikor reels no plastic with everything wet at 80 degrees. No heat air dry. Print on a high silver #3 paper. Then marvel at prints you can shave with. But what do I know. The old photographer/instructor.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio