Shooting a Forty Year Old Roll of Kodak Plus-X Film

Shooting a Forty Year Old Roll of Kodak Plus-X Film

2560 1440 James Tocchio

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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James Tocchio

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 Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
27 comments
  • I loved this so much. For lots of reasons but really the sentiment.
    What a wonderful site, thank you James.

    Huss

  • Of course our children are the most precious gift. But as you shared so soulfully, pets are also such a gift. Their exuberance and love for life and their humans can teach us so much. I didnt make it to the end without having to take off my glasses and wipe away the puddles in my eyes. Beautiful post James. Thank you.

  • I’m holding a roll of Plus-X in its original unopened box, dated Oct. 1953. Unopened until . . . now! I had to find out if it was in one of those cool yellow cans . . . it is! But what’s this? The cap is light brown. And the film canister is dark brown with yellow lettering. Nowhere on or in the box or on the canister is there any indication of film speed (it would have been ASA back then) other than to note that it is “fast”. The canister looks more robust than current models. If I shot this (it probably should go in the Argus C3 that I’ve never used) I would probably guess at some combination of increased exposure and increased development. For now, though, it will go back on the shelf, definitely next to the C3.

    • Wow Tom, yours is certainly even older. I believe that era of Plus X was rated at either 50 or 80 ASA. And you’ll want to shoot it lower than that to burn through the base fog. You’re a brave person if you shoot that in an Argus C3! I needed the comfort of a meter and auto-exposure and I’m sure that without them I’d have gotten no images at all. Good luck!

  • Great article again. Reading you stuff takes me on a literary journey. They are like short stories but with added science.

  • Ha! So I’m not the only one who goes out on a trip with a cardless digital camera. (Of course, I never use any coarse language when I discover my mistake. Oh no, not me.)

    This is a lovely article that points up a contradiction in what we do with our old cameras and films. The equipment — the good stuff anyway — may go on for ever but the moments we aim to capture do not; they come, they go and they don’t come again. So do we rely on an untested camera-film combination to satisfy our curiosity, or do we play it safe? But if we don’t use our old kit at moments that matter, why have it at all?

    Nice dog, though, and it looks like he has a good life with you, whatever you photograph him with.

  • What a lovely story, thank you for sharing it. Plus-X seems like a remarkably resilient film — as long it hasn’t been stored in an abusive manner (e.g., in a hot car for 20 years) it pretty much still works fine.

  • Lovely story, James! And, I enjoyed the bit about camera and film, too.
    Your kids look happy, the dog looks happy and you’ve ended up with some more good photos of the day.
    I was probably still in high school when that roll was made and I must have used some Plus-X but most often–shooting for our year books and the school paper–had Tri-X in my camera.
    I can’t really say I miss it but now I do appreciate the slower films and do have a couple in my stable.
    However, I think the thing to consider here is, perhaps, whether using the old film and old gear is an excuse to spend some time with the kids and the dog or vice versa. The time spent is the important part, the gear and film is certainly fun and you make good use of them, I think.

    I am not trying to dismiss the technical parts of your post here, I see good info and excellent results! But, lately, I find my self thinking more about the “why” and “what” than the “how” and as much as I do love the cameras, for me anyway, that part of my own photography is easier than the rest. If ever I think I have answered all those questions for myself, then clearly I haven’t been doing this right.

    Thank you for sharing a bit of your journey!

  • All good. Thanks.

  • Nice piece about one of my favorite films. I still have a few rolls in the fridge. Just shot some at the end of last year… http://www.fogdog-photography.com/fogdog-blog/2019/12/3/expired-plus-x

  • Avatar
    Christopher Hobel January 25, 2020 at 5:49 pm

    Liked the vintage BW. Took the plunge bought 2 rolls. 1 roll with Minolta XE7, Maybe the other Rollei 35. I have 4 dogs been thru 4 others. I wish they aged as we did. Enjoy the Weekend!

  • Avatar
    Andrew in Austin, Texas January 25, 2020 at 8:30 pm

    A wonderful tale about a day in the life of a photo enthusiast. The final photo capped the montage of a single day beautifully.

    I won’t be around – but in 40 years I doubt that me Nikon digital will be able to hold a candle to what was accomplished with 40 year old 125PX.

    Thanks for a good read.

  • Avatar
    nataliesmartfilmphotography January 26, 2020 at 3:02 am

    It’s so good you managed to get photos from this vintage roll and I love that Kodak tin the film came in 😊

  • A very interesting read, but I must admit that I got frustrated reading your account of shooting and developing this film. I probably shouldn’t be frustrated because photography is different for everyone and not everyone cares as much about the little technical details and places more emphasis on the experience of shooting. Additionally, you got the film for free, didn’t expect much from it. You were out to tell a story about a trip to the beach with your aging dog and kids. Who cares which developer you used, which dilution, or how you determined the development time. Those are just trivial details, although making sure your Sony camera had a memory card seems to have been a detail you wished was not overlooked. I hope at some point I can overcome my Type-A personality to enjoy shooting like you did here.

    • Some people like details. Details matter.

    • Hey Lee. Thanks for sticking with it! These expired film articles are more about the story than the tech details, but I do see your point and in the future I’ll try to work more of the technical aspects into the narrative. My development process was basically similar to what I normally do when developing film. Kodak’s data sheet gave me some times, which I cross-referenced with Massive Dev Chart’s site. I used a generic developer called Sprint Systems, mixed at 9:1, and developed for about nine minutes with agitation for the first thirty seconds and then further agitation for just ten seconds every minute afterward. Rinsed and fixed at 9:1 as well, fixed for five minutes.

      What was most stunning to me is that this is basically the way I’d develop this film if it was brand new today, maybe minus a minute or two. Weird! But it worked mostly.

  • My second try:

    My first real camera was a year-old Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic. Yeah, I’m that old. PlusX was always my go-to film, although I also shot quite a bit of PanatomicX. I preferred the fine grain compared toTriX. Ethol Blue was my developer of choice. Haven’t seen that in years either.

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article and the memories of those good times. Thanks for that.

    Also had I bit of a hard time with it, though. Just a couple of days before we lost the dog we got as a puppy 17 years ago. Rough weekend.

    Enjoy your time with Cooper. With a tiny bit of luck and love, he might be around longer than you think. (Our dog had a life expectancy of 12.) Cooper sounds special. But aren’t they all?

  • Very good article, James and great to hear that you had some splendid results from your vintage Plus-X 35mm film. A few years ago I made a trade with a fellow for some old black and white 4 x 5 sheet film. I received two 100 sheet boxes, one was Kodak Plus-X with a 1980 expiry date and the other was Kodak T-Max 100 with a 1997 expiry. The previous owner said he had kept them in his refrigerator although I believe he was not the original purchaser of the film.

    Both had never been opened and it took me about a year (2018) to shoot both boxes. I was most intrigued as to how the Plus-X would perform. I didn’t do much exposure wise, I rated the film at ISO (or ASA) 100 and bumped up my development time using Kodak HC-110 solution “B” surprisingly the negatives had little or no extra-base fog. The T-Max looked good too, although that film was only outdated by 21 years.

    I have tried other old film too, I had some Kodak Royal Pan in 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inch sheets, that expired in 1964, it had never been properly stored and was heavily fogged when developed.
    I also once tried some old print paper, one box from 1959 was actually pretty good.

    Sometimes with old film, it can be a hit or miss. You definitely made some great hits with your film.

  • Thank you for writing this. made me cry

  • I’m in tears – for the sentiment, for the love of your dog and kids, for the sense of time flying past too quickly. Savoring the now is so hard at times – but a simple excursion to the beach can give one so much. A lovely post – thank you.

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James Tocchio

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 Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio