It’s the middle of summer, high noon. I’m at the beach and I’m sick as hell. A buffeting gale relentlessly blows from the sea while a blazing sun does all it can to sizzle the meat off of my exposed shoulders. The near-molten sand shifting under my feet conspires with whatever virus has established permanent residence in my cerebrospinal fluid to spin the world around me in a dizzying kaleidoscope of earth tones and aquas. If I close my eyes I think I’ll fall over and drift away forever, probably. Do they let contagious people into heaven?
“Take my picture, Dad!” A sweet voice sings from the realm of the living. My vision resolves back to our corporeal plane of existence and I realize I can’t die yet. My daughter wants me to take her picture.
Teetering, I raise the Canon T90 to my half-lidded pupil, spin a ring (maybe focus, maybe aperture, who can be sure in this hellscape of sweaty fingertips and feverish nausea), and fire the shutter.
Suddenly I’m sprinkled with a strange, oily mist. It smells like coconuts and forces my breath to catch. I stare stupidly at the T90 in my hand, now speckled with droplets of unknown fluid, then confusedly gape around me. I realize that a stranger has sprayed me with some sort of aerosolized sunscreen overspray, carried on that overzealous sea breeze which I’ve mentioned. But is this actually sunscreen? Or is it poison? Is this supposed happy beachgoer actually a bio-terrorist? Am I patient zero in some insidious plot? Will they make a movie out of this forty years from now? Will I be played by Tom Cruise’s clone? That would be awesome.
I look down and find a dead fish on the sand. A compatriot. I look up to find a seagull circling like a vulture overhead. A villain.
The Advil Cold and Sinus that I ingested twenty minutes earlier takes hold and my thoughts clear. I snap another portrait of my daughter. Hey, the Canon T90 sounds great! Its raucous film advance and precise whirring make me temporarily forget that I’m actively dying. I wonder momentarily what the shot will look like, envisioning it in my addled mind, quietly hopeful that it’ll be a beautiful, contrasty portrait with fabulous bokeh (I’m shooting Canon’s FDn 50mm F/1.4, after all). I forget for the moment that I’m exposing film that expired in May. May, twenty years ago. May, 1997.
Random freaks on the internet say that shooting expired film is great fun. That doing so creates beautiful images with spontaneous color shifts and alternately outlandish contrast or subdued curves. They claim that this unpredictability injects into the craft of photography suspense and anticipation and excitement. The cardboard sleeve that sheathed my 1992 home video VHS release of Cliffhanger, starring Sylvester Stallone, promised similar thrills. One of these two things does indeed deliver a two-hour rollercoaster that never lets up; the other does not.
I over-exposed my roll of Konica VX200 (that’s what I’m supposed to be writing about, right?) by a judicious two stops. I did this because of the countless disembodied typists on the internet who recite like Boy Scouts that we should all over-expose our expired film by one stop for every decade that the film has aged past its expiration. Does anyone really believe this is a useful rule? It is so laughably imprecise and nonsensical, and I love it and want it to be true. But it can’t be true, can it?
Contemplating this rule while shooting my VX200, it struck me (since I was dying of a virus) that this oft-echoed over-exposure rule is very much bulletproof in the same way that the effectiveness claims of Schiff Vitamins’ Airborne® Immune Support Supplements are bulletproof. If I take Airborne® and still get sick, is it fair to claim that the Airborne® did not work? Couldn’t it be true, nay, probable, that taking the Airborne® kept me from getting even more sick? Doctor Schiff, MD (who is not a real person, nor the creator of Schiff Vitamins’ Airborne®) would surely claim that the only thing that kept the sickness from destroying me completely was the fact that I’d taken Airborne®. And who among us could successfully argue against that position without first discovering and weaponizing a temporal wormhole machine to distort (but not tear; don’t ever tear) the fabric of time?
My film was processed and scanned by Richard Photo Lab, and considering that the tech who processed the film was probably not yet born when this film was made and likely wearing diapers when this film expired, they did a great job! The original scans had something of a heavy magenta cast, which I adjusted out of my shots in post while aggressively and silently scoffing in my mind at all the people who say “Konica VX200 has such dope magenta tones, bro!” Listen, all film can be magenta. All film can have good or bad skin tones. Let’s stop pretending we’re not editing every shot in Lightroom.
Am I mad about shooting expired film? No. I’m just grumpy because some five weeks after shooting this roll of Konica VX200, I am still sick. I’ve had a migraine for two weeks, and if there’s one thing a four-year-old daughter and a two-year-old daughter do not give a fiddle about, it’s whether or not their caretaker has a migraine. Migraine or not, my dude, the snacks and swing pushes and Disney Princess coloring books better keep flowing or your significant other will come home and find you gagged and tied to a chair in a locked closet. They’ll mutiny. They will.
In conclusion, you should never end a piece of writing with the words, “In conclusion.” And so, in conclusion, buy new film and support the film industry, or whatever, but if you happen to find some old expired film in the bottom of a crusty camera bag, and you have an active fever, and you need to test a Canon T90, by all means shoot that expired film on the beach in mid-summer while losing an immunity battle against a tenacious pathogen. But just remember this important rule; when shooting expired film always over-expose your shot by one stop for every decade it’s aged, subtract one third stop for every decade your subject has lived, add two full stops for every month that begins with the letter Q, and quack like a duck three times before you press the shutter.