A Nikon FM2 against a black background.

Two Photographers, One Camera, and the Crushing Disappointment of Film

I’m over it now, the crushing disappointment that is. And there’s a caveat – the film was expired.

This was the brief: twelve shots consisting of three portraits, three urban landscapes, three landmarks and three animals. And this is the background:

The Two Photographers

I’m Joel, a Royal Navy photographer and travel blogger at thebumpercrew.com, and my colleague is Jimmy, a Royal Air Force photographer. Collectively, we have 37 years of experience as military photographers and have covered operations in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief in the Caribbean, and even worked as the Official Photographer to the UK Prime Minster.

Portrait of Joel Rouse
Portrait of me – Joel

Jimmy and I learned our trades at the Defence School of Photography – one of the world’s last remaining military photography schools, where we had formal training but in very different worlds. Jimmy joined the Royal Air Force as a ‘Photog’ in the days of film, whereas I joined the Royal Navy ‘Phot’ trade in the digital world.

Portrait of Jimmy Wise
Portrait of Jimmy

We both have an interest in film cameras, although mine is more to do with how good they look on the shelf, so we decided to shoot a roll of film as a bit of a challenge between us. Having not shot much film, the thought was exciting for me – getting to plan the shots and facing some difficulties that no longer exist in the digital world. Jimmy happened to have a roll of expired Kodak film he’d bought at the vintage market at Covent Garden that he could put to good use.

A roll of expired Kodak 200 ISO film against a black background.
The expired Kodak film

The One Camera

Jimmy only buys film cameras that work, whereas I only buy ones that look good, working or not. So, Jimmy brought in his old Nikon FM2 for us to shoot on. The FM2 is, or was, regarded as an advanced semi-professional SLR camera, noted for its reliability and durability. However, it didn’t seem that advanced to me. There’s no autofocus, auto modes, or metering because the battery was flat. But aside from that, we were all set, apart from how unaware I was of the varying results of expired film, but I’ll come back to that.

A Nikon FM2 against a black background.
The Nikon FM2 we shot on

In our day jobs, we shoot Canon R5, and in our own time, we both shoot Fujifilm X-T5. Shooting such advanced cameras for over a decade has spoiled us. With brilliant autofocus, metering modes for any situation and auto ISO, the camera makes life so much easier than shooting on film. Plus, you get more chances to get the shots you need.

Studio portrait of a female with red hair, wearing a denim jacket.

There’s no doubt photography has improved since the invention of digital sensors, but it’s also possible to argue digital photography has become slightly sterile. Each new camera is one step closer to perfection, and these days we talk about the ISO range and its noise performance or how ‘pinners’ the glass is. Listening to my colleagues, who all learnt on film, talk about the character of film, the ‘chemmies’, the problems shooting a football match on a ‘Blad’, or the light leaks we now chase in the digital world is quite enjoyable for me, and clearly, something they look back fondly on.

A busker playing in the London Underground with a Way Out sign above his head.

And there’s another benefit of film besides the character and enjoyment it brings. It makes us accept the imperfections because they represent something you can’t change or control in the same way. And there are far more variables in film, as I learned – from the quality of the camera body, lens and film to how the film is stored and developed, and no doubt there are even more variables I am yet to discover.

The Houses of Parliament.

And beyond the variables of all of this, each frame is valuable. The frames are limited, and they cost a lot of money. Somewhere in the region of 90p per frame, in this case, with developing and scanning, which is not something we consider on a digital camera, despite digital cameras, lenses, and laptops being expensive to start out. Anyway, back to the varying results of expired film and its subsequent crushing disappointment.

A tube train enters a tube station, with people on the left and signage on the right.

The Crushing Disappointment of Film

The first disappointment was discovering I’d run out of film. Another first-world problem for digital photographers. These days, you buy a memory card, stick it in your camera, and it will tell you exactly how many shots can fit on the card. That’s not the case with film, obviously. But what isn’t apparent is that even the dial on the top, which tell you how many frames you have taken, might not even be accurate, as I found out.

Portrait of a man sat on a wall.

I thought I had five shots left. As I lined up the best shot of a pigeon I had ever taken (a female pecking a male in St James’s Park, which I’m sure many of us find somewhat relatable, Ha!), I set the exposure, unlocked the film and pressed the shutter. Nothing happened. What I had left was zero frames, not five. And then I didn’t know what to do because I couldn’t diagnose the problem. There’s no on/off switch to reset the camera. I guessed it was either a lack of film or a shutter problem. The latter was unlikely, so I messaged Jimmy to ask. It turns out there was a problem loading the film, and he had to cut some off. And that was that. Twelve frames turned into seven, and the rest of my shot list was history.

Portrait of a woman holding a video camera.

Speaking of frames left, here’s a side note – I learned that film is one continuous roll, and the frames aren’t really frames at all. The frames are created once the shutter opens and the film is exposed. But you already knew that because you’re all die-hard film fans.

A road with a building at the end of it.

The second disappointment, which was the big one, was when the email with the WeTransfer file from Snappy Snaps arrived in my inbox. Initially, I felt super excited until I opened the zip file and discovered the pictures. Never have I felt such excitement so closely followed by disappointment. Ha! The photographs were flat, milky and nothing like I expected them to be because who knew the expired film would be so rubbish? After a few minutes of considering whether the photographs were useable, I asked my wife, Stacey, if I could even submit the pictures for this article. She replied with a positive ‘yes’, as she usually would to any of my doubts. And she was right because this is the beauty of film and the subjective nature of whether you think expired film is rubbish or brilliant.

A bird in St James's Park.

Hamish, Commander-in-Chief of 35mmc, suggested an edit on the files, which I did. However, I’m not convinced they are any better. Ha. But you can be the judge of that. Photography is subjective, after all. And if you’d like to find out what we get up to elsewhere, below are links to our Instagram channels and website:


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About The Author

48 thoughts on “Two Photographers, One Camera, and the Crushing Disappointment of Film”

  1. Joel, good reading and fun too. I do relate to your expired film experience, although I tend to steer clear from film bought from unknown sources. It’s true, the emulsion suffers greatly from being stored in heat, humidity, too cold or whatever. I know this is something a digital camera user such as yourself had no idea about, but the beauty of your experience in this case is that it’s your first lesson regarding film photography 🙂 .

    Ups and downs, this is the road ahead, but it’s full of interesting experiences. I hope (nay, I know) that your future ones will be much more pleasant. Looking forward to hearing more from your thoughts on film and film cameras!

  2. I’m sure they will be now I’m learning some lessons! I’ve recently bought a Nikon F4, which I’m looking forward to putting some film through. We’ll see if it’s worthy of writing an article! Ha.

  3. It’s crushing to me that you two professionals got such results on the very camera I learned professional photography on from 1989-2001, having myself used an FM2 for both my journalism degree, subsequent newspaper work and later as a corporate art director and photographer while making the transition to digital. What I learned shooting film transferred quite well to my early adoption of digital in the late 1990s, with a small learning curve about the relationship between perceived sharpness, contrast and exposure that transferred back to film.

    And to this day I shoot my Canon 5Ds and Nikon D850 for the most part manually; I try to shoot both cameras in their native ISO as much as possible, use manual focus, tripods, monopods, and studio strobes or mixed lighting over continuous artificial lighting, and other slow-speed film tricks to get really good looking, contrasty images in the box without a lot of futzing in Photoshop afterward (unless I’m making photo illustrations, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing).

    My current much younger assistant understands analog camera settings, and how they apply to digital, but others I’ve tried to mentor covering events scoffed—complaining about the heavy equipment, etc.—and their pictures show it. Kids these days!

    In recent years I’ve rediscovered film cameras as a hobby, both as a collector and user—and my former knowledge from that FM2 pays off every time I load a new ‘vintage’ camera with film.

    Good luck to you both on your new analog journey; hopefully you will also discover the joy of film!

    1. Nice Stewart. Your story so closely parallels my story. The degree, the FM2, shooting native ISO, lighting etc. I felt Joel’s disappointment with the expired film. I’m now getting my older cameras back up to working condition and starting to play with them. The FM2 is ready and at my side.

  4. Joel, if it´s any of a consolation, shooting film gets easier, the more you do it. Next time, you could try some black & white. No colors to fade, you see…

    Anyway, this was interesting little project. Thanks!

  5. “…it’s also possible to argue digital photography has become slightly sterile.” Also generic, fake, homogeneous, corporate, interchangeable and boring! When technology took away the need for skill it also took away the knowledge and creativity. Without knowledge how will today’s photographers ever come up with something new? They will be like the kid playing “Guitar Hero” pushing buttons and thinking they are making music. Just look at any of the popular photo sites (500px for example) and all the pictures look the same.

    I love my digital cameras and they are amazing tools. But I also have the foundation of learning on film. I shoot wet plate now and that is a whole ocean of randomness and mistakes! But, struggling with exposure and developing builds a deep understanding of light and chemistry than no digital only photographer will ever have!

  6. It never ceases to amaze me how people can be disappointed with film photography when they use expired film from an unknown date that may have been stored in the Sahara desert for most of that time. Please buy a fresh roll and start over! Yes the cost per frame can be high, that’s why many of us process our own film and scan or print ourselves from those negatives. It’s a totally different experience.

  7. Auto focus robs you the sense of distance, zoom lenses robs you the sense of the correlations between subject distances and compositions, various metering mode covers your feeling to light conditions. These bells and whistles are supposed to arm anyone to take good photographs but only to spoil anyone regarded itself a photographer. And that’s why there are so many bullsxxts centering around “Shooting film slows me down and let me take better photo”. Because they are spoiled by advanced technology so they have to pick up so many things one by one to make a photo, that’s the reason of slow. No, shooting film can be as quick as using a modern digital camera, even with manual focus lenses, as long as you know what you’re going to do and pre-set everything up on the camera.
    Shooting expired film usually requires compensations for the aged emulsions, at least by +1 stop of exposure. The muddy and faded looks of your frames shared here is the result of severe underexposures and the scanner can’t help too much on the transparent area on the film, mainly due to the not as active as before emulsions on the film. You should have exposed this roll at ISO100 or even 50. But who ever knows how old is this roll and what it has gone through before loaded into your camera? It’s just a lesson to learn. With fresh film, you can surely make wonderful pictures as you do on your modern machines.

  8. I have decided that expired film is not a good idea if the image is important to you. I recently experienced that, with using a bunch of expired black and white films, which had also been X-rayed, so they were made even worse. So I have now got a nice stock of fresh black and white film to use.

    1. Great story.

      Growing up with film, I had so many problems with 35mm leaders skipping or stripping, I went to 120 film. Fine with folding cameras. First time I tried to load an RB-67 film back, I wrapped the film around the back instead of through the film path. No idea how, so I haven’t tried a second time (actually, because the light seal foam had turned to sticky…mess).

      So I decided sheet film was the answer to all my rollfilm problems! Loaded some sheet filmholders, and headed out, dropping my last working spotmeter.

      In a self-defeating prophesy, I have purchased rolls of film to cut down into sheets, with countless schemes that aren’t really thought through yet.

      Best/worst one so far was taking a 5″ x 1000′ roll of Aero Plus-X into someone else’s large commercial darkroom to cut some off to share with a friend. That roll weighed several pounds. I planned a dispenser with rollers on the floor, pulling the film up vertically, to cut several feet off to put in a black film bag.

      I pulled the roll off the rollers by pulling upward, and it rolled several feet across the floor, generating sparks from static discharge. I panicked, chasing the roll in the dark, frantically rolling up the unspooling film in my hands to keep it from touching the floor & accumulating dust.

      I guess crushing defeat comes in various forms. Some stories are left behind!

  9. Seriously, stupidest article I’ve ever read on film photography. I shot thousands of rolls on Nikon bodies in the 1970s. The LAST thing I would do is load expired film and expect anything other than sh!t photos. Underexposing negative film by a half stop can yield crap results. Color or BW. Next time do some research before you make a giant change in mediums. If you painted with oils would you expect your first efforts with watercolor to be anything other than trash? Being able to make a bowl on a 3D printer doesn’t make you a potter in clay. A better headline would have been “I was stupid and shot expired film.”

    1. It’s not stupid to do something that teaches you something you didn’t previously know. Telling someone to do research isn’t helpful, especially as a large volume of people learn from doing. Nor is being patronising.
      This website is, in part, about promoting all aspects of film photography, successes and failures. Failures should be greeted with encouragement, not disparagement

    2. A bit harsh. We all started somewhere. I think we have two photographers that have become accustomed to the ease of shooting digital, and we all know that persisting with the film experience makes us better digital photographers. I for one encourage experimentation, however good or bad, and applaud the courage to publish about lesser results. I look back at digital images made when I started with a Nikon D40, and my first attempts at film photography, and I cringe!

    3. Harsh words, Dave 😂 and it appears some folk can get good results from expired film. It was fun shooting the film, and the article was written in jest. Who knew it would be so controversial for people like you? By definition, you are an ‘internet troll’ and damage the reputation of sites like this. Despite your words, I look forward to writing another post and hope you tune in to it 😊

      1. You snickered me! Reading the article now….only buying film cameras that look good, whether they work or not…..brilliant! And here I am going off on a blasted tutorial! Be well, Louis.

  10. While expired film can be fun to experiment with and can often provide very nice results (especially if properly stored), it also adds another variable to the list of things that can potentially go wrong. I’d always advise using a fresh roll of film if you’re new to the format.

  11. The poor image quality you ended up with were the result of shooting EXPIRED color film. This was your choice; it is not the fault of film photography as a whole. Next time, buy film from a reputable photographic retailer and make certain it is NOT EXPIRED. Problem solved.

    Black and white film is another matter; B&W emulsions can be expired by 10+ years or more and not result in significant degradation of the image quality beyond a bit of loss in contrast. That can be compensated for in post processing, if you scan and then import the resulting DNG files into Lightroom/Photoshop or whatever processing software you use. Loss of contrast can also be addressed in the traditional wet printing process, too.

    Color film is much more sensitive than B&W emulsions. That said, the images you have posted look like there are other causes other than expired film. They look like the film has been ruined by an airport CT scanner, or the film was developed in exhausted film developer (low quality labs will do that to maximize their profit at the cost of your negatives), or both.

    If you want the highest possible developing quality for your film, you have to do it yourself at home. It’s not hard to learn; I have developed my own B&W, C41 and E6 emulsions for years with excellent results. B&W is the easiest of all, while C41 and especially E6 require strict temperature control. That is easily accomplished by using the warm water bath developing method.

  12. Enjoyed the write and the sample images.

    I have a few digital options at my disposal, but just as often still use film. I also develop and scan the film myself so that adds even more potential for disappointment. Most recently I ran into a film where the development instructions on the box and canister were wrong, as confirmed by my local camera shop that sold it to me. But it works out much more often than not in the grand scheme. Went with my first thoughts on what to do instead of the manufacturer’s instructions and the second roll went perfectly.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  13. Hi, I am a long term film shooter and have used the Nikon FM2. It is a marvelous and simple camera. My 10 bits of advice are these: (1) If one or both of you hasn’t done so, read the camera manual. The manual is not a bible like many digital manuals today. Since the camera is simple, the manual is too (2) Before employing the F4, and after learning the simple camera controls, continue using the FM2. (3) Before taking an image, spend some time thinking about what you want out of the image (as opposed to letting the F4 do it for you). Do you want shadow detail or not? (4) Evaluate the light? Does the light warrant or will you need exposure compensation (employed in a number of ways) to get the desired image? (5) Will you shoot the film at box speed or push or pull it? If you push or pull, can your lab develop to pushed or pulled film? (6) Understand the characteristics of the film you use. What are its color characteristics? How does it stand being pushed or pulled? (7) Use fresh film. Expired film was the worst choice possible as an initiation to or resumption of film photography. For all you know, the Kodak 200 could have sat in a barn in the desert for 10 years. Safe bets for early rolls are Kodak Portra 400 and Kodak TriX 400. Less expensive Lomography color negative films of equivalent character are also a good option. For starters, I recommend shooting all C-41 film overexposed by a stop. (8) Understand your camera’s meter needle is metering from a determined area (likely center based), and at “perfect” exposure (according to the needle), it will render the metered area to “middle gray”. Using black and white as an example, is middle gray in the metered portion of the scene what you want? Or do you want more gradation to black (hence underexposure)? (9) Understand C-41 and most black and white film have substantial metering range where detail in both highlights and shadows will (within limits) be captured in relation to the metered portion of the scene. (10) Slow the whole process of taking a picture down, and enjoy the rewards of getting better with each shot and each roll. Louis.

  14. Don’t despair Joel. I once worked for an elite wedding photography company and one of the photographers shot a very high-end wedding with over 300 in attendance. Not one photo came out. Not one, and no one could figure out why. So, drink and have Mary.

  15. An interesting project indeed, Joel, irrespective of results which I am sure would pep up with further post if you want.
    I often see mentioned that expired film should be rated at a stop more exposure per decade since expiry so one stop as someone suggests was clearly not enough for this one, probably should have been three at least, ISO 25? Nevertheless they have a certain quality, just not as record shots. Especially like the “You lookin’ at me!” duck.
    I am all for experimentation, one of the best things about film. There are so many variables affecting output compared to digital so keep soldiering on.

  16. I was given a whole bunch of expired film a few years ago and shot most of it. A lot was really cooked and yielded the sort of results you got here…

    It might be worth mentioning that the scans are not the end of the story; the job, as I see it, of scanning is to pull as much usable info as possible off the film, which you, the photographer then get to edit to taste. So – the negs are underexposed (as sensitivity decreases over time) and flat. But if you imagine a histogram of what you have there, there’s no reason not to increase the contrast so there are blacks and whites. You’ll have lost most of the shadow detail but some people say that’s nice. “Crush the blacks” as they
    The person who said the article is the stupidest he’s ever read is perhaps making one of the most pointless comments I’ve ever read. Sure – if you want to get better results do your research first; is there anything to which that does not apply? But there’s lots that anyone can learn and ponder from reading this. Personally, in my time I’ve learned a lot about the nature of film and the qualities of film that I like from shooting expired film and then trying to make nice looking images out of shitty negs.

    In fact – that just gave me the idea for an article, so thanks.

  17. Totally agree with David: some info is there in those 8 bits per channel, and it can be arranged better to look more pleasant.
    When you make a gamble with expired film you have to take into account more time with post processing to get something nice, at least in my experience! 🙂

    In this case I think even just a quick luminance curve adjustment will give you usable results.

  18. Film being old and messing up the exposure is a technicality. Given your expertise in digital, I wonder how much you can improve/salvage by post processing the scans – it would be another stupid exercise to do and share with the rest of us stupidos here. It would also be good if you stupidly shared your workflow so that the rest of us can be inspired to reach back into our archives and see if we can salvage our historical stupidity. Your writing was wonderfully stupid too, and I hope you will continue to engage in many further acts of stupidity and bring us along. Yours truly – another stupid, but rather cheerful fellow 🙂

    1. What a great response 😂 My experience in digital lies in camera handling, not post-processing. I’ve always preferred to take pictures rather than edit them. It would be interesting to see if Adobe AI has the power to turn them into something useable.

  19. And… to follow up on Hamish’s point… what Joel did WAS research. Hands-on research! Not all research ends as one might like… at least, at the beginning.

  20. Hi Joel,

    the funny thing is that I somehow like the milkyness. I understand it’s not intended, but it gives the pictures a certain mood… Distant. Faded. Like something found unexpectedly in a lost place, an echo of things past. Now that you have shown me the tool, I will put it in my box and try intentionally underexposing when this is what I want to express.

    Thanks for posting!

  21. I’ve shot, and am still shooting, lots of expired film. What really kills film is heat, much more so than age. Thing is I was fortunate enough to get my expired film from reliable sources. Studios who still had it in their fridges but had long since switched to digital. Other photographers who basically did the same. I even will stock up whenever there is a film sale, or at least a good deal on film, and freeze it. Knowing the next time I’ll be buying, prices would be higher. I’ll shoot my current stash and use that up before using the frozen stuff.

    I’d love it if you used a fresh roll of film in the FM2 and gave this project another go. Before you do with the F4. Also remember to get a couple of 1.5V batteries for the camera – those are super cheap and available anywhere.

    To show that expired film can be ok… I recently shot this Fuji Superia 200 in my Pentax Auto 110. Yep 110 film. It’s sell by date? November 2000! 23 years old.


    1. Hi Huss,

      That’s a great shot. I love the textures and it certainly proves your point – expired film can be ok. I dare say we’ll give it another go, although I have some black and white rolls to get through first 🙂

  22. I have shot many rolls of expired film, and I believe your roll can be salvaged if you can do the scans yourself. Your labs scans probably have default profile for Kodak 200, and that won’t work. In your own scan software, it is quite easy to do exact clipping points for dark and light histogram. You can start with RGB combined channel to get the overall contrast right, and then adjust individual R/G/B channel to get the colors right as well.

    Recently I had a roll of Ektachrome EPP 100 slide film, it is almost entirely faded due to age and looks like skimmed milk diluted by water 10 times. And with the right scanning settings, I was able to pull most contrast and colors out. I can offer to re-scan 1-2 frames for you, if you are interested.

  23. Well you certainly stirred up a hornets’ nest! I’m not sure how to understand the article. You start with two fabulous portrait shots – digital but could be MF/LF film – and then go on to show poor film results (because of the film not the image, photographer or camera). Film users know old film not properly stored can be awful, so why the crushing disappointment? The challenge set was a good one – please redo it using fresh film!!

  24. I started with film a few months ago. ( 2 months to be exact.) The first roll I shot was Kodak Gold (fresh thankfully) and some Oriental seagull black & white but my 3rd roll was 18 years expired fujichrome velvia 50 which I shot at ISO 15 on a 40 year old random Chinese made film camera with a max shutter speed of 300, and I absolutely love the shots. The character of them and the colours are incredible!!
    That again goes to show how film photography swings in roundabouts. Sometimes the shots are amazing and hit you between the eyes, and other times you’re eyes wish to be ears.

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