UPDATE (2021): This is among our most popular articles — and film remains the same… yet, each year your treasures contained on it are fading. Act fast and get them scanned and saved digitally — else your photo records/art/documentation will fade into just memories.
The life span of film depends greatly on the care in storing and handling it… the two greatest enemies are significant temperature variations and either extremely high or low humidity. Not only are storage conditions important – yet the original film medium used impacts its life span too.
Degradation of colour, contrast and dynamic range is always happening… just faster with some films than others.
Of the most common films once available, B&W negative and Kodachrome slide film are perhaps the least affected by age. B&W film is basically silver crystals on an emulsion and as historical photos will prove, if developed and stored properly they may last decades. Kodachrome slide film had an additive-type film emulsion where the color dye was in the development chemicals, not on the film itself. It has been around since the 1930’s and there are reports of 50 year old Kodachrome looking like the day it was shot.
However, most casual photographers used regular color slide and negative film which was processed with quick and easy mini-labs, and stuck in cheap plastic sleeves. Even our stock photo film archives have definitely deteriorated over the past 25-30 years. Most noticeable is the colour shift (e.g. many are picking up a magenta tint) and for sure lost some saturation. Many of these images are now over 20 years old and some have lost detail and have become more grainy.
Standard consumer grades of film had the photo dye contained within multiple layers of emulsion. This dye fades over time. Dye used on this film and the development process it went through, was never intended to be archival in nature. As the dye fades, so does color and detail (i.e. sharpness and grain) – just check out the photo prints you may have to see this happening — yet luckily film degrades more slowly.
Capturing your images with high quality film scanners set to archival mode with a high resolution and appropriate bit depth for the size and detail you may later print is critical. Its always better to have too large a file rather than too small! (More details about the most desirable settings may be found in our FAQs). These digital images may then be colour corrected, contrast adjusted, and further enhanced using the likes of Photoshop or Lightroom.
Once your film has been scanned and optimised — create a low resolution image for viewing from the high resolution archival image and at that point, you may then choose to get rid of your film. Be confident of your storage medium – CDs last ~20 years (if you can find a drive to access them in that time), USB sticks are generally stable for decade(s) – yet avoid moisture and magnetic fields. We suggest ALWAYS keep several copies on a few different mediums of your cherished memories and family legacy. Better yet – store a set at home, and another at a different location (just in case of theft, fire, flood – or who knows what!)
We’re here to help – contact us if you have any questions.
Have other tips or comments about this article? Please let us know.
As always, you are welcome and encouraged to share this article.