Introduction: Storing and Handling 35mm Film

When I started photography I had real troubles finding a guide on how to store and handle undeveloped film. So I’ve put this together, to make it easier for others like me.

Step 1: Storing Film Outside

For short term storage, keeping your film in a cool, dry place as recommended will do fine. In hot, tropical climates, you should only store your film for 2-3 months in the open.

Places like your linen cupboard, wardrobe and bathroom are good homes for your film.
In colder climates, where temperatures are mostly below 24°C, you should be able to keep your film out until its expiry date.

Before I had a fridge to store film in (I never had enough fridge space), I made a container out of a tin. Below, you can see how I went about it. It provided very little protection from heat (it was the same temperature inside the tin as it was outside) but gave me somewhere to put all my film.

Please note that these are rough guidelines and do not apply to all brands of film. Not all films use the same chemical. Some films deteriorate quicker than others in outside storage. This is something you can only find out by experience or from others with information specific to your film.

Step 2: Storing Film in a Freezer

By keeping your film in the freezer, you can store it for as long as fifteen years. Freezing your film halts the chemical processes that cause it to degrade when it is outside. Doing this allows you to store your film past its expiry date and further.

When you decide to use your frozen film, you should let it defrost in its storage canister (a snap lock bag works fine too), at room temperature, for half an hour to an hour. This prevents condensation from forming inside the canister and potentially destroying the film. Also, if you don’t allow your film to properly defrost, you have a chance of cracking or displacing chunks of the emulsion layers (the layers of chemicals that hold the image after exposure) which will result in cracks and holes in your photos. When done on purpose, this can become an interesting effect. Any other way, it becomes waste of film.

You can defrost and refreeze film as many times you like. As it is simply stopping and starting the chemical processes it does no harm to the quality of the film, albeit the deterioration that occurs in between freezings.

Step 3: Storing Film in a Fridge

If you can’t freeze your film storing it in the fridge is the next best thing. Although it does not completely stop film deterioration, it slows it down considerably and allows the film to keep past its expiry date. In a fridge, your film will last at least three years past its expiry date.

Unfortunately, there is one process that cannot be halted by refrigeration. Background radiation is a natural occurrence and it originates from many things on Earth including cosmic rays and industrial processes. Over time, background radiation will fog film, which appears as a consistent gray haze over printed photos. Fortunately, only film that has been stored frozen for longer than 10 years will show any signs of background radiation haze.

Step 4: Handling Film - Part 1

Here are a few things to be aware of when handling and travelling around with film.

Film and Sunlight

The sun can be very sneaky at times and can creep up on your film without you noticing. Make sure that when you put your film down to place it somewhere it will keep in the shade. Film that has been cooking in direct sunlight for as little as an hour will begin to lose contrast and saturation.

Film and Water

A number of things can happen to film that has been dropped in water, none of them very good. Once film is wet it should be kept wet. Drying unprocessed film has a high chance of making the emulsion layer crack, peel away or stick to the negative back. Once wet, you should take film as quickly as possible to a lab to develop. Film that has been submerged in water for some time (2-3 weeks) will begin to dissolve. That is, the gelatine in the emulsions will begin to fall apart. 

Most film that has been wet is recoverable - you should be able to retrieve most, if not all, of your photos if you have got it to a lab in time.

Step 5: Handling Film - Part 2

Travel and Film

When you travel, it’s important to keep your film cool. If you don’t have a bag to keep all your film in, then the next best thing is a pair of socks or a table cloth. If possible, overnight, place your film in a fridge, inside your chosen container. That way, when you carry it in the bottom of your bag, it will remain cold for as long as possible.

Exposed Film

Once exposed, colour saturation and contrast loss will begin to occur within as little as a week, depending on conditions. If you aren’t able to get it to a lab within a month, then fridging/freezing it (and taking appropriate steps when defrosting it) will preserve the film quality. Exposed film loses quality faster than unexposed film due to a chemical reaction that happens only after exposure to light.

These days, however, film that is being produced is much hardier, and is better suited to cope with extremes carefree photographers put them through.