How long can I wait to develop film? And how to develop decade-old rolls

9 min read

If you’re reading this, chances are you have a roll of film that took you a month or even way longer to finish. Or maybe you’re just waiting until you have a handful of rolls to send off to the lab, or potentially just found a stash of old rolls containing memories from the distant past. In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions.

So how long can you wait before getting a film developed? 

Kodak recommends processing film a day or two after shooting, but most modern films are unlikely to lose detail or change colors if processed within six months, or before the film’s expiration date. If you plan to leave the film undeveloped for longer, it will be best to store it in the freezer. But you can always develop film and still recover images that were shot even as early as the 40s or 50s.

The longer you leave film, the more likely you are to lose details in the shadows. Film also becomes grainier and foggier with age because of natural atmospheric gamma radiation. But how much of these effects you’ll notice if you wait more than six months is debatable. 

This color slide film expired in 1978, and was stored in my great grandfather’s a damp basement for years.

Is it worth developing film after it has expired? 

If you’ve recently come across a cache of old rolls of film, it is absolutely worth getting them developed. If you’re unsure of the conditions they were stored in, then it may be a good idea to send in just one roll of film to ensure they are able to be developed normally, of it they need to go to a specialist lab.

But there is no time like right now to get the film developed.

Black and white film is more likely to still hold an image than color film, which has sensitive dyes that can fade. If in doubt, old color film can always be developed using a bleach bypass or in black and white so that the stable silver film grains are not bleached away.

There are also people, like the Rescued Film Project, who specialize in developing old film of unknown origin that has been found in old cameras. He has developed film that was shot as early as the 1930s. 

And while there is fog and effects of aging or improper storage, the images can still be recovered. So even if you leave your film a little longer than six months, you’re not likely to see too many deleterious effects.

An image of me on expired film Ilford Pan 400. Maybe a touch more grain than normal, but otherwise there is no noticeable difference. Photo by Sara Faridamin

Why does film lose shadow detail over time? 

It’s not necessarily that film loses shadow detail, but it loses detail everywhere. The loss of detail is only most notable in the shadows because there are few developable grains there in the first place. 

In order for a film grain to be developable, up to three electrons on the grain must be moved to a higher energy level. When that happens because of light, gamma rays, or other phenomena, the electrons that are excited move to a different location called a hole. 

But the electrons can’t always stay excited forever. Over time, some electrons will lose their excitement, and either move to a different grain (creating fog), or be lost altogether. 

Modern films made in the 90s or later are optimized to retain as many electrons as possible. So this process happens much slower than it used to. 

Film In the Egg Holders in a Fridge
This is the real purpose of those divots in the fridge! Michael TK/ Flickr Creative Commons

How should I store film after shooting?

Once you’ve shot a roll of film, it is best to store it in the same conditions that it was stored before shooting. So black and white film can be left at room temperature, while color film should be stored in the fridge. 

Kodak suggests that vision and professional films like Portra and Ektar be stored in the freezer until it is time to develop them. 

If you’re developing at home, be sure to give 35mm color film at least an hour and a half to come back to room temperature. 120 film should be left at room temperature for 2 or more hours to ensure no condensation, bubbles, or physical damage happens to the film.

Under no circumstances should you leave film in hot or humid conditions, like an attic, or in the glove box of a car. These conditions will do irreparable harm to the film.  

Learn more about film storage here

Expired film. The shadows in this image contain less detail because of the film’s age. Photo by Sara Faridamin.

How should I process old film? 

10+-year-old film should be processed using a slightly different method than more recent film. There is the usual guideline of adding one stop of exposure per year, but that isn’t always true when developing film that has been shot a long time ago. 

The first thing that you have to know is that old film will not react the same way as new film. If it’s been tightly wrapped for 50+ years, it is not going to want to be unraveled into a developing tank. Old film also usually becomes brittle as the negatives have likely started breaking down

As well, medium format roll film may also stick to the backing paper. So be sure to give yourself lots of space to work with. In this case, using a dark bag at the kitchen table may not be enough to safely remove the film and roll it onto a developing reel. I would suggest using a pitch-black bathroom (one without any windows) at night to give yourself the most space possible. 

Do a bleach bypass to save long-expired color film

What is the best way to develop old color film? 

Knowing that color dyes will break down at a faster rate from the silver halides, it is a good idea to do a bleach bypass when developing old rolls of color film. If the color dyes fail, there is always still a black and white image that can be salvaged — but only if you don’t bleach the film during standard color development.

The bleach process removes the silver in color film while leaving behind the dyes. This process results in darker, less saturated, and more contrasty colors with less shadow detail. You can always re-bleach the film to remove the silver halides later, but there is no way to restore the silver them when it has been washed away by the bleach. 

Ilfotec DD-X Bottle
DD-X is a great slow developer that can bring the most shadow details out of old, grainy film.

How to develop old black and white film

For black and white film, the process of developing is a little bit different. Since every film requires a different developing recipe, you will have to do some research to come away with the right combination. 
Most film developers will also stand-develop old film. Stand development is a process of diluting the film developer well past its normal dilutions, and leaving the film to sit in the water without agitation for an hour or longer. 

This process ensures that the developer can spend as much time as possible trying to find the developable grains in the shadows. The developer will quickly exhaust itself in the highlights, but then will not be replenished.

Chemical reactions don’t happen instantaneously, so giving the developer more time can allow the developer time to diffuse through the cracks it wouldn’t normally find. 

Final thoughts

Finding old rolls of film can be a lot of fun. There are all kinds of memories that were stored on those rolls that can be exhilarating to rediscover. 

But one thing is for sure — it’s never too late to try developing rolls. If you only left it on the shelf for a year or two, the images will be great. If the images were trapped on that roll for a couple of decades, you can certainly expect some degradation, but there will still be an image there. 

Have you developed some old rolls of film that you found? Let me know about it in the comments down below!

By Daren

Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.

6 thoughts on “How long can I wait to develop film? And how to develop decade-old rolls”

  1. I found a bunch of old rolls of 35 mm 28 rolls to be exact , they have been in the plastic containers and heavy zip lock bags. They are all old film , not even sure how old !!! 1 was wrote on (I’m not sure why I didn’t date all of them ) but it says July 2003 Wonder since they have been in their container and stored in a extra room where there isn’t no heat would they be able to developer them. I’m sure they probably have lots of memories of my sister who I just lost Fingers crossed 🤞🏼

    Reply
    • Hi Nina, they should be okay to develop! If they’re color film, there might be some strange color casts, but the images will be there. I’d actually suggest doing a bleach bypass to retain the silver in the film just in case there’s an issue with the colors.

      If it’s black and white film, at that age it will still be good to develop normally.

      Reply
  2. Hi i just dropped some film at the labs drop box to get developed. But they’re opening in 2 days. Since the weather is hot right now around 31° will it affect my film inside that labs drop box?

    Reply
    • Hi JR,

      It depends on the drop box. Many labs will have a drop box placed in the shade, or that goes into the building, in which case it wouldn’t affect the film. But if the drop box is in pure sun, that might be a bit of an issue. I hope it’s all well!

      Regards,
      Daren

      Reply
  3. Hi! I just found some 35mm color film from probably 2005-2010. Where would be the best place to get these developed?

    Reply
    • Hi Leidy,

      Those rolls can most likely be developed at any standard lab. If the film was from the 80s or 90s, then it would be worth developing them as a bleach bypass, or in black and white. But from 2005-2010 should be perfectly fine to develop normally.

      Regards,
      Daren

      Reply

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