Introduction: How to Develop VERY Old Film and Get Good Results

Us film photographers are always scavanging for a deal. Thrift store lenses & cameras and any film we can get on the cheap. But we want usable results from that film, right? What good is a 100ft can of scratch test leader?

For this instructable we are going to use some EXTREMELY old Dupont Superior 3 B&W film that was dated in 1952. If this film were an american person it would be eligible for Social Security. Dupont stopped making motion picture film around 1972. A word on shooting old stock--really old stuff will just never look like new film--it's going to be different. Film technology changed, improved & evolved over the years. If a new 100ft roll of Tmax or Foma that cost between 50-80 bucks looked like the results from this 65 year expired film you bet I would want my money back--but this film was only $7 for 100ft or less than .30 cents for a roll. It's perfectly suitable for fun effects, period reproduction and camera function test.

When you are looking to buy aged stock from auction sites ask questions of the seller: 1. Do they know if it was cold-stored ? (frozen-best , refrigerated-better , cold basement-good, house closet ,so-so, Attic/Garage/Back yard shed , not good). 2. Look at the condition of the can in the auction pics, this is often an indicator of how it was stored.

The seller disclosed that this was in a dry basement from an estate sale in Virginia and this was a sealed box with 10 100ft tins inside and he stated "no weird smells"---when film breaks down it puts out a stink-bug vinegar sorta smell. I took him on his word & bought all 10 rolls on a dealio. It's generally cooler in the Northeast and figure a basement is likely to be a constant 68F sometimes cooler.

It's best to buy old film in some lot quantity as this gives you the ability to do snip tests and find the right combination of dev, time, additives. One old roll of 24 exposure is going to be a crap shoot.


Your film--preferrably a 100ft can of bulk old stock

A Watson/Patterson/ Lloyds daylight loader

35mm film cassettes



A room that can be made totally dark (closet or window-less bathroom) or a film changing bag

Your preferred B&W chemistry (for this tutorial I used some assorted developers so you can see which ones looks best)

10 grams of Benzotrialzole--available from Photographers Formulary or ArtCraft chemicals

1-liter bottle

Tank & reel

medicinal eyedropper

Step 1: Mix Your Chemicals As You Normally Would With 1 Extra Ingredient

The trick with aged stock is to develop the film and not the "base fog". Base Fog is an overall cloudiness that occurs to film as it breaks down & ages, Heat, humidity, background radiation all take their toll on film stock as it ages. High speed film tends to fare worse than low speed film. As a general rule expect to lose 1 stop of speed per decade of age give or take. 400 ISO film made today might drop to 200 ISO after a decade of storage, 20 years it's now 100 ISO 30 years 50 ISO 40 years 25 ISO etc.

For this tutorial I'm using extremely old Dupont Superior 3 motion picture stock that expired in 1952. As of the penning of this instructable that makes this film 65 years old as previously stated. This film was rated at 200 speed or so back in the day.I exposed it at 32 ISO for these tests.

The author assumes that the reader already knows about daylight film loaders/ reloading 35mm cassettes and basic film developing.

The secret ingredient to help us fight base fog is a chemical called Benzotrialzole. It's a chemical commonly used in water treatment plants and a little goes a long way. You will want to order a small 10gram bottle from ArtCraft Chemicals in NY state or from Photographers Formulary. You will be making a 1% solution so you will need an additional 1 liter bottle for storage aside from your normal Developer -Stop Bath - Fixer containers.

Take 900ml of distilled water and heat it to 125f (50C or so). Distilled water is preferred as this chemical is used in small quantities and tap water might get nasty after a long while. Mix the Benzo with the hot water and top off to one liter.

When you go to use the Benzo in your developer add the benzo just before use to the tanks worth of chems. Use "one shot" dilutions and discard the developer after you develp the roll

Step 2: First Test. Using My Favorite "go To" Developer to See Where I'm At

This close-up photo of the clock was developed in 5ml of Xray developer with 6 drops of the benzo solution added. I use the xray developer at this dilution for a myriad of films and it generally does a good job and it's inexpensive. It's easy to extract 5ml with a measuring syringe and mix a rolls worth just when needed--no waste. The slightly more distant shot is also xray developer but using not so old Tasma Mikrat soviet microfilm that was only 30 years expired.

The older Dupont film has a lot more grain & noise affecting it's clarity. It was like scanning through pea soup

The nearly obliterated photo is without the Benzo added. You can barely make out the wrought iron of the clock.

Wen using Benzo it acts as a restrainer to the developer. If you normally go 10 minutes at a given temp add additional time of 20-30% more when using Benzo

Step 3: Let's Try a Staining Developer Based on Pyrocatechol

The photo of my wife is the Dupont Superior 3 in Obsidian Aqua chemistry (a variant on Pyrocat HD)again with a few drops of Benzo-@16 minutes.The one of my wife & Hal the Cat is @ 21 minutes With fresh film this is a marvelous developer but not so much with aged stock. As a contrast here is a couple of shots of a cluttered table shot with cheap Shanghai film from China developed in Obsidian Aqua

The aged Dupont stock has good tones--but grain the size of kiwi fruit. The longer process time is a dubious improvement.

To Make Obsidian Aqua:

Part A:

50ml distilled water @ 125f/ 50c

12 grams pyrocatechol

1 gram Sodium Metabisulfite or Potassium Metabisulfite (whatever is easiest to source)

mix the above & store in a small amber glass bottle

Part B:

5 grams of Sodium carbonate (wash soda) to 1 liter of water

Usage: 1:500 of part A to part B . A 250ml single tamk would be .5ml part A to 250ml part B. Mix right before using

Step 4: Rodinal Attempt

Phenol-based developer --an old formula dating back to the 1880's. Added 6 drops of Benzo to a 1:50 dilution for 10 minutes. Not all films like a "stand" process and Rodinal is an aggressive developer. Remember, we want to develope the film & not the fog so long dev times are generally not good for aged stock

Step 5: No-sulfite Formula Based on Minimal Amount of Phenidone

This is another developer that works better for new stock as opposed to aged stock although the photo of the oil lamp has an almost lithographic appearance--kinda neat. I've included a table of the formula variations. The store front photo is more modern issue film in the same developer that did not need the Benzo added

I used the formula calling for the Sodium Hydroxide, Borax, Vitamin C and extract of Phenidone (and 6 drops of Benzo) for a 1 hour stand process. I bought 50 grams of Phenidone and have done the math--using this formula that 50 grams will do 37,000 rolls of film !!

Step 6: Same Phenidone Formula But Shorter Dev Time

20 mnutes in the developer with the 6 drops of benzo--not quite as lithographic looking but still a bit of grain.

Step 7: HC110 Dilution J

Here we have another tried & true developer HC110 AKA "the syrup". This was dilution J which boiled down to 4ml of the concentrate to 250ml tank. I added 6 drops of Benzo 1 hour 10 minutes stand process Grain is a little tighter than results from Rodinal. Word on the street is that good results can be had with old film using a 10% concentration of HC110 in cold water for short dev times. This well may be the case but egads the cost--HC110 is not a cheap developer. The photo of Hal the cat is a newer stock (20 years expired) in the same Dilution J

Step 8: D76 1:3 Dilution

D76 is probably the most mainstream developer out there and many other brands run similar formulas such as Ultrafine, Kentmere etc. These shots were done in a dilution of 1:3 for 21 minutes and a bit more Benzo--9 drops.

The photo of my wife and the cloud over the trees is the very old Dupont film. For contrast/comparison the motorcycle was shot on 1970's GAF Super Hypan with 3 drops Benzo but the same 1:3 dilution and time.

I'm thinking maybe go to 24 minutes with the Dupont & see if I pick up more contrast. I say acceptable results considering the film is 65 years out of date

Step 9: And the Winner Is..... D23 !

Another favorite developer of mine is good old D23 at a 1:3 dilution. I take .65gr of Metol and 8.2 grams of sodium sulfite to 250ml water. 6 drops of Benzo added. 21 minute processing time at room temp (78f).

The helper here is that d23 has a decent amount of Sodium Sulfite which is also a fog inhibitor. All 4 of these shots were from the very old 1952 Dupont Superior film.

When dialling in the best developer for your film it's best to do short "snip tests" of maybe 4 frames bracketing your exposures--don't burn a whole roll on what may be frankenstein results or total zip--nothing.

Start with small amounts of Benzo and increase as needed--too much and you'll stop the action of the developer altogether.

For 25 years I managed photo labs and when film would hit expiration we'd put it in a basket at the front counter and blow it out for $1 a roll and sell it to people testing a used camera/lens. The retail shops were air conditioned and the film had *just* expired--jerky clients who thought they were the 2nd coming of Ansel Adams would look at the outdated film like they were being asked to buy last months yogurt. I don't miss those prima donnas thats for sure

Step 10: Footnote: Concentrated Developers at Low Temp With No Benzotrialzole

This is in addendum to the main tutorial--This last picture is from Dupont Superior 4 320 ISO that is higher speed than the Superior 3. This stock was dated 1963 so it's a decade fresher but I feel not stored as well. This was stored at room temps in a box in a closet and was Air Force surplus film. Another methodology to processing old film is to use stronger developers at low temps and short dev times. I found a formula for D82 and have posted a copy here. No benzo was added and I got results with this formula @ 6 minute dev times at 18C

The formula calls for Wood Alcohol--I used denatured alcohol from Lowes Hardware. It's also marketed as shellac thinner and marine stove fuel. Also, "Kodak Elon" is the proprietary trade name for the commonly named chemical "Metol". Sodium Hydroxide is also sold at outlets like Ace Hardware as Lye Drain Cleaner. Fewer places carry it as idiots have been using it to make street drugs like meth. (and they wonder why their teeth are rotting away)

Step 11: Not All Brands Age the Same

This film is 60 year old Kodak 5333 Tri-X 320 ISO. It came from the same vendor as the Dupont 4 sample above--not as old as the Dupont 3 but not stored in ideal conditions--just a box in a closet. It fared far better than the Dupont 4 even though it's the same speed (320) and within a year of each other for expiration date and exposed to the same storage conditions.

This was developed in D82 formula from the previous step 8 minutes and NO Benzo. There was a little base fog to scan through--maybe 2-3 drops of benzo max would be all thats needed here

Step 12: Another Top Contender Is D78

D78 is an older formula and is simple to make:

250ml water

.7g Sodium Sulfite

.7g Glycin

1.5g Sodium Carbonate

For the test shots above I added 9 drops of 1% benzo and chilled it down to 58F with 9 minutes dev time