Yes, 20 year old 35mm film can still be developed, but the results may vary depending on how the film was stored. With proper storage, 20 year old film can produce decent images. However, color film is more prone to color shifting and deterioration over time compared to black and white film.
Should You Develop 20 Year Old Unprocessed Film?
If you have rolls of 35mm film that are 20 years old or more and have never been developed, you may be wondering if it’s worth getting them processed to see what’s on them. Here are some things to consider:
How the film was stored over the past 20+ years will be the biggest factor in determining whether useable images can be recovered. Film stored in a climate-controlled environment has the best chance. Film that experienced extreme heat, cold, or humidity fluctuations is less likely to yield decent images.
Black and white film holds up better over time than color film. This is because the metallic silver that forms the image in black and white film is more stable compared to the dyes used in color film. Color balancing issues are common with old color film.
Cost vs. Reward
Developing old film can be expensive, with no guarantee the images will come out. So you’ll need to decide if the chance of recovering some cool vintage images is worth the cost. If the film may contain irreplaceable memories, it may be worth trying.
Expect Some Image Deterioration
Even in ideal storage conditions, some image deterioration happens over decades. Manage your expectations, as the results will not be as good as from a fresh roll. The images may exhibit increased grain, color shifting, lower contrast, and more.
Signs Your Old Film May Still Be Developable
If stored properly, these signs indicate your old 35mm film still has a decent chance of producing acceptable images:
- The film emulsion does not appear overly dried out or stuck together
- The film does not have a strong vinager smell, indicating deterioration
- The film is not fused together or bonded to the cartridge
- The film cartridge shows no signs of rust or other extreme damage
Of course it’s hard to evaluate old 35mm film without unrolling it. But if the above signs check out, it’s probably worth trying development to see what’s on it.
How to Store 35mm Film for Decades
To maximize the chances of being able to recover images from 35mm film decades later, follow these ideal storage guidelines:
Store film at about 70°F. Avoid temperature extremes. Do not store film somewhere that gets above 80°F or below 50°F.
Store film where the relative humidity stays around 50%. Too dry and the emulsion can become brittle. Too humid can cause mold.
Keep film in total darkness. Light causes fogging of the emulsion. Store in a light tight bag or canister.
Dust can scratch the emulsion during handling. Store film in an enclosure to limit dust.
Avoid fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Try to keep the storage space climate-controlled.
Archive quality enclosures help stabilize the environment. Polyethylene or polypropylene plastic containers are ideal.
Avoid Direct Contact
Don’t stack rolls of film directly together. Use spacers between them to prevent sticking.
Following these guidelines gives 35mm film the best chance of surviving for decades in developable condition. But results will still vary based on the specific type of film and your storage practices.
How to Develop 20+ Year Old 35mm Film
If you have 35mm film that is 20 years old or more, follow these tips to develop it:
Inspect Film Beforehand
Examine the film for signs it is too deteriorated or damaged to develop. Look for brittle, gummy, or bonded film, or rust on the canister.
Find a Lab Experienced with Old Film
Not all labs can handle older film stock. Research ones specializing in legacy formats. They have the expertise to get the best results.
Warn the Lab About the Film’s Age
Alert the lab it is 20+ year old film. They may need to modify their process to compensate for the film’s age.
Ask About Special Processing
Inquiry whether extended development or special mixes could help compensate for the film’s age. Push processing may help depending on the film type.
Request Low Heat Processing
Ask the lab to use lower temperature developer and fixer to reduce friction and minimize emulsion damage.
Accept Some Image Loss
Be prepared that some images may be beyond recovery depending on storage conditions over the decades.
Preview Digital Scans Before Printing
Review low res digital scans before deciding whether to print. Prints can amplify any issues like color shift or grain.
Following these tips maximizes your chance of success when developing film that is 20 years old or more. But be ready to accept some deterioration in quality due to the film’s age.
What to Expect from 20 Year Old Film
When working with film that is 20 years old or more, expect some image degradation compared to fresh film. Here are some common issues you may encounter:
For color film, the dyes may have shifted over time, resulting in color casts. This is most noticeable in skin tones. The lab may be able to correct somewhat when printing.
Due to emulsion breakdown, grain structure may be more pronounced. This can lend a gritty, textured look.
Contrast often decreases with film age, resulting in murky or flat looking images. Try increasing contrast when printing.
Very old film may have reduced density, causing a washed out look. This can’t be corrected when printing.
If not stored properly, fogging may appear on the edges and perforations. Cropping may be required.
Portions of some frames may be unrecoverable if emulsion has peeled or bonded together over time.
While disappointing, these imperfections can lend an interesting aged look. And some great images may still come through!
Tips for Printing 20 Year Old Film
When printing negatives from 35mm film that is 20+ years old, use these tips to compensate for aging issues:
Increase contrast to counteract any density or contrast loss from the aged film. But go slowly, as too much can blow out highlights.
Color Correct Skin Tones
Selectively adjust skin tones to reduce any color shifting issues. Be careful not to oversaturate.
Use dodging and burning techniques to bring out detail lost in midtones. But avoid totally losing shadows and highlights.
Soften Blow Ups
If making big prints, use subtle diffusion to minimize exaggerated grain. Don’t overdo it and lose sharpness.
Crop Out Edge Fog
For frames with edge fogging, crop in to remove the degraded edges and perforations.
Embrace the Flaws
Rather than fight age issues like grain and fading, lean into the vintage look. Go for an aged feel.
Make Contact Sheets
Print contact sheets to preview the negatives before editing and printing enlarged images.
Take your time printing old film. Work incrementally to coax the best results from your vintage negatives.
Can Expired 35mm Film Be Developed?
35mm film that has passed its expiration date can potentially still be developed, but results become less reliable the further past the date it is. Here’s what to expect:
1-3 Years Past Expiration
Film this recently expired has a good chance of developing normally. Color and contrast may start to shift slightly.
4-10 Years Past Expiration
Developing is still often successful, but color accuracy issues become more noticeable. Exposure latitude decreases.
10-20 Years Past Expiration
Film this old is hit or miss. Results really depend on storage conditions. Expect obvious color shifting and lowered density.
20+ Years Past Expiration
Film this far expired is unlikely to yield decent images. But it’s worth experimenting with test rolls to see what develops.
The major downside is wasted processing costs if blank or unusable images result. So only develop highly expired film if you’re willing to take that gamble.
Some hobbyists enjoy experimenting with old film just to see what comes out. But for those seeking quality images, it’s best to stay within a decade or so of the film’s expiration date if possible.
Testing a roll or two will determine if your expired film survived in developable condition. Just temper expectations for image quality from film past its prime.
Does 35mm Film Ever Become Undevelopable?
While 35mm film can remain developable for many years if stored properly, at a certain point the degradation becomes too severe for the film to yield viable images. Here are some factors that can render 35mm film undevelopable:
Over time, even in ideal conditions, the chemicals in the emulsion layers break down. This can eventually make the film undevelopable.
High heat, such as over 90°F for extended periods, accelerates chemical deterioration and can fuse the emulsion.
Film stored below freezing can fracture emulsions due to moisture expanding. This can prevent proper development.
If stored in hot, humid conditions, fungus can grow and etch the emulsions beyond recovery.
If film gets wet, the emulsions can flow together into an undevelopable mass. Sticking may also occur.
X-rays, nuclear radiation, and airport scanners can fog film beyond usability.
Excessive Light Exposure
Any light reaching the film over time contributes to fogging. Eventually this builds up until the image is obscured.
While it’s difficult to put an exact timeframe on when film becomes undevelopable, at around 50+ years of age recoverable images become very unlikely, outside of cold storage conditions. But attempting to develop vintage rolls is often worth a try.
Developing 35mm film that has been stored for 20 years or more can yield some surprises and treasures if it was kept in good condition. While deterioration issues are common with old film, the results can have a charming vintage look. Being selective and using quality lab processes gives the best chance of usable images. For irresistible rolls of mysterious film, take a gamble and have them souped – you never know what memories might develop.