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Processing Old Films

This photo tip originated from two events of recent years. Telling the story of those events seems as material as the technical details.

This all started with a welcome Christmas present in 1999; a Mamiya RB67 camera. The detachable film holder that camera uses for 120 size film was familiar, very similar to a roll film holder which my 3-1/4" by 4-1/4" Graflex press camera used. I bought the Graflex while in high school and hadn't used it many years. When I hunted it down I found that the roll film back did indeed fit the RB67, although it was lacking some interlocks. I was surprised to find that the old roll film back still held a partially exposed roll of Kodacolor II, a film which had been discontinued in the early 1980s.

There is good reason to believe the film had been in the film back since 1971 or 1972, stored under normal room conditions for close to thirty years. The latent image on an exposed film is thought to be fairly short-lived, so it would be interesting to see if anything remained after all that time. I thought it would be no loss to run it through the chemicals after the next time I processed a batch of C-41 film (see comments below on this process). After processing, the colored mask on the film looked blue rather than the expected yellow-orange but dim images of what appeared to be a daisy appeared on some of the frames. Following is a raw scan of the negative and its inversion to a positive image:

Daisy Negative

Daisy Positive

That's really what the negatives looked like! Prior to digital imaging these would have been unprintable.

The negative was scanned at 12 Bits/Channel with a Minolta Dimage Multi and the following work was done in Photoshop using 16 Bits/Channel mode. The Levels histograms for each of R, B, and G showed a fairly narrow peak somewhere in the graph – for the curious, this can be seen fairly well in the above jpegs. To start with, for each color channel I pulled both histogram endpoints up to the tails of the peak, being sure to leave the tail if it appeared at all above zero. The blue channel in particular has a long tail. Then the middle pointers were adjusted until the colors took on some realism. This was followed by a curves adjustment for each color, with the object of making the black and white image of the channel appear reasonable. At this point the image faded to white toward the edges of the film (top and bottom of the above) so it was obvious that there has been some light incursion over the years. More remarkably, the blue image layer was clearly a negative image (meaning that in the actual negative, it had been positive)! (This can also be seen in the above jpeg images using Photoshop). Inverting the blue channel back to positive made a real improvement to the picture. I have no idea why or how the latent image converted from negative to positive or why this had happened to only one layer. This was true for all the frames on the film, but the blue channel image was dimmer in some frames than in others.

Following this, a second round of Levels and Curves adjustments was made, much as described above but with additional trimming of the tails, watching the effects in the image. The results of this were not too far from a normal starting point for most old pictures:

Daisy Zero

After comparatively minor additional adjustment Photoshop:

Daisy Picture

The edges have been masked in and the image cropped to correct for some of the edge fading and the white part of the daisy itself has been selected and adjusted to remove some areas of color cast which were more obvious on the white. As soon as I saw the red-striped caterpillar which had emerged from the dark hole in the daisy center I remembered taking the pictures. In fact I previously had wondered what had happened to them.

All that is remarkable enough, but there was more to come. Beyond my memory, there really was no solid proof that the latent images of the daisy had been nearly 30 years old. With Kodacolor II, they could have been less than 20. Then in early 2000 I found another roll of exposed film. This one was Kodacolor, which predated Kodacolor II, of course. Moreover, it was in a box that had been in the attic – a Tennessee attic – for at least 20 years. In that attic it would often have been exposed to temperatures well over 100 F in the summer and would often have been frozen in the winter, not to mention the extremes of humidity. In fact, finding the old roll would not have been interesting at all if not for my recent experience with the daisy pictures. If the daisy pictures were a test of the life of a latent image, this roll would be a TEST !

Kodacolor was intended to be processed with the C-22 color negative process, which has been replaced by the C-41 color negative process. The next time I ran some C-41 film processing in went this new found roll. This time the mask was more nearly the yellow-orange in the center of the film, but it faded to blue at the edges, where there were obvious serious problems. However, again there were dim images on the film. I scanned the negative into Photoshop as before and ran a similar sequence of operations on it. Again, the Blue layer proved to be a negative image, although this time it lacked much detail. The edges were unusable for a much wider band, but here is the picture that finally emerged:


This is a photograph of my wife's father and the remainder of the roll confirm that the picture was taken when my wife's parents visited us in the fall of 1962! My wife's father died a month or two after these pictures were taken, so this is likely the last picture of him. In fact it is probable that I reloaded the camera prior to our flying to his funeral, putting the roll of film away to be processed later – 38 years later! It was like seeing a ghost.

I find it astounding that these latent images survived. In the case of the daisy, nearly thirty years if my memory is correct and in the case of my wife's father, certainly 38 years, at least twenty of which were spent in an attic! Yet survive they did. So if you find an old roll of film, my advice is to process it. You may have a surprise in store. These pictures probably will win no prizes, though I may work up an exhibition print of the daisy. But they have a certain charm just the way they are. The picture of my wife's father will remain as above, with no attempt to further correct its flaws.

This article and the separate images presented here are all Copyright © C F Systems, 2000, 2001, 2003. Rights will usually be granted if appropriate acknowledgment is given: E-mail us (

A note on C-41 processing: In general and for these rolls in particular, I do my own C-41 processing of color negatives. If you send out a roll of color negative film to be processed today, the process will almost certainly be C-41, but it will not be the same as what I did, in a way that is very important for old films. Today's films are tough and can stand higher temperature solutions without softening. Commercial C-41 processing is done at 100 F (38 C) or even hotter temperatures – 45 C is popular. While this works well in commercial processors, the solution times are too short to permit accurate timing, drainage, etc. in a home processor. For that reason I process at 86 F (30 C). For Kodak C-41 this gives solution times for developer, bleach, and fix all of 8 minutes, with wash times and developer cycle added times being expanded proportionally. While even 86F is decidedly warmer than the C-22 process for Kodacolor, it is satisfactory if care is taken not to abrade the softer film surfaces, particularly when removing water from the surface just prior to drying. With the daisy pictures I was not as aware of this as I should have been, and abrasions can easily be seen in the next to last daisy image. The drying itself is best done at normal room temperature. Older films may not survive the temperatures of modern drying cabinets.

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