The Comprehensive Guide to Getting Old 35mm Film Developed
This guide is meant to answer any and all questions related to our Grandma’s Closet Special for developing and scanning your old rolls of film.
So you found a bag of old film in your closet/attic/garage/fallout shelter, and now you want to try and get those rolls developed, but you don’t know where to start. You take it to Walgreens or CVS, only to find out that they no longer develop film in their stores (here are the big drugstores and what they still develop), and the ones that do have to ship it out. 1-hour photo? Forget about it. So then what? What happens if you decide to develop them and there is nothing on the rolls? For pictures you might not even care about? Will they even turn out? What happens if they are unexposed? How will I get my scans? What are film scans even? What if the rolls are 20 or even 30 years old; what will they look like? The person behind the counter can’t answer your questions. They might not have even seen a roll of film before. So you take the rolls home and put them back in the closet, but you have the nagging feeling that won’t leave you alone. Well, Memphis Film Lab is here to answer all those questions and to help get those things developed before it is too late.
The most frequent question we get asked when someone is trying to get old film developed usually has something to do with the age of the film. Some might not even realize that film will deteriorate over time, but it does. That little expiration date on the box? It’s real. Without getting too far into it, exposed film has something called a latent image. Basically, when you snapped that picture at your cousin’s wedding in 1997, your camera let in light that was then stored on the film as an image. In order to see that image, the film must be developed using special chemicals. However, over time the color dyes in the film have started to break down and the image has started to fade. Of course, storage plays a big roll (no pun intended) in how these rolls will turn out. The biggest factors in film deterioration are heat and humidity. So film stored in a basement will look different than film stored in a drawer or in an attic or in a garage, and so on.
So what will your images look like once your old film is developed and scanned? That’s hard to say for sure without first developing them. Our general rule of thumb is that anything under 10 years is pretty good. You will see some minor color shifts, your blacks will start to turn blue, maybe some indoor shots taken without a flash will be too dark, and so on. 10-20 years will see some noticeable deterioration. You will see those blues really start to take over. The grain size will increase, you might even lose a few shots on the roll. Anything older will be hit or miss and on a case-by-case basis. Our recommendation for film 30 years or older is to develop it in black and white, which will give a much better chance of yielding an image. Of course these are not hard and fast rules. We have seen film that was less than ten years old barely turn out and film that was 30 years old look amazing. Have a look below at some examples from previous rolls we have developed and how they can vary over time.
10 Year Old Film
Vibrant colors, small grain, crisp detail. Almost looks like it was taken yesterday.
15 Year Old film
Low contrast. Purple tint and added grain in the shadows of the trees, but not entirely noticeable.
25 Year Old Film
Best case scenario. Colors are off, red stands out more than the other colors, grain is visible, image looks blurry, but still very much in good shape.
25 year old film
Other end of the spectrum here. Notice the almost complete lack of color in what used to be color film. Added grain and digital noise, lost shadow detail, etc.
30 + Year old film
Absolute best case scenario for film this old. Customer found numerous pics of a Berlin Wall visit. Notice low contrast, dark subjects, blurred image, added grain, color shifts, but amazing shape for film this old.
30+ Year Old Film
Same customer as above, but now we see the degradation of the film. Digital noise, color casts, poor image quality all around. The fact that we have an image this good is still surprising.
Many labs will simply develop your old film and send you the scans as is. At Memphis Film Lab we adjust for the age of the film. We use proprietary algorithms to balance out those ugly blue casts and magenta overtones as much as we can. This allows you to get the best possible image available from your scans without having to correct them in Photoshop on your own. More work can always be done, but we do the heavy lifting for you. In extreme circumstances we convert the images to black and white, which, while not desirable, will help eliminate very bad color casts.
Take a look at this before and after:
The second question we get asked the most is about prints. For old film, we do not recommend purchasing prints until you have seen your images. Because old film is so unpredictable, you might end up paying for prints you don’t want. Instead we develop the film, scan it, and send you a link for you to download. If you would still like prints after you see your images we would be happy to provide 4 x 6 dye-sub prints at a small fee per print.
Sometimes the image will be so faint that you can’t even see it with the naked eye. Luckily our top of the line film scanners are able to capture any image that is still left on the film. This will of course come with added digital noise and artifacts as the scanner struggles to piece together an image from what we call “thin” negatives. Our scanners are great at rescuing any detail they can from old negatives. With very dense or faint negatives, you can expect to see some issues arise as the scanners try as hard as they can to produce a workable image. You can expect to see banding and digital noise that might get mistaken for grain, but in reality is an artifact of the scanner rendering the image. The intensity of these issues varies based on age and condition of the film, but it is a good idea to expect to see them. See above for some mentions of digital noise.
Refunds, Blank Frames, etc.
The first thing we do with a batch of old film is run five rolls in order to get an idea of how things will turn out. If they start to look questionable we will contact you immediately to be certain you want to move forward with those results. Our policy is that if we can make out a person’s face then we consider that an image. We will never run film knowing it will look bad, but results can vary. Just about every order we receive has at least one roll that we consider blank, sometimes a few more, and rarely more than that. If a few rolls turn out blank we refund half your cost per roll, no questions asked. Should a larger number of rolls turn out blank we refund a larger percentage of your costs.