Recently, I took a handful of rolls of Kodak Portra NC (expired) to Salem, MA to see how it would do. I never (purposely) tried expired film before, but sadly this is the only way you can get Portra NC (arguably the best color film ever put out for colors and low contrast that I love) these days. I got my half dozen rolls of 400 and 160 out on the 'bay, so with no guess on how these were stored I didn't get my hopes too high. Salem is a gorgeous coastal town in Massachusetts - just north of Boston. It's full of history - most notably the Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692, its beautiful maritime history and home to Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's bursting at the seams with classic New England buildings and homes (like the gorgeous grounds of the 1668 House of Seven Gables - do the tour at least once) that just beg to be photographed. I knew this would be the ideal location to test drive a couple rolls of my newly acquired NC film.
Note: If you're ever in the New England area, this is a must-stop spot. I try to get down here 3 or 4 times a year as I can never get enough. If you want to enjoy watching some real interesting people, come down for Samhain (Halloween). I'd chose a photographic walk of Salem over Boston any day - and I honestly love Boston - but the character of Salem really speaks to me.
I decided to take a personal day from the office a couple Fridays back as the weather was forecast to be absolutely perfect: high 60's and partly cloudy skies. I loaded up my Ona bag with the Leica M2, a light meter and 4 rolls of Portra NC. I got down to Salem mid-morning and spent the next 6 hours walking all the side streets, visiting every nook and cranny I could find. I managed to avoid all the tourist trap shops for once, aside from one. I always have to make a pit stop at my absolute favorite candy shop on the planet (and also the oldest in the country) called Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company. There, I had to get my 6-month supply of Black Jacks (recipe unchanged in 200 years - just like their amazing Gibralters). Black Jacks are black strap molasses sticks and are my favorite treat. I try to savor each one as I have a limited supply, but then again, running out just means another drive down to Salem! Gibralters are like large after dinner mints, but 100x better; especially the lemon. (Think I just drooled a little).
After my necessary Black Jack acquisition, I headed to another great spot worth visiting every time: the 1797 Friendship (reconstruction) at the Maritime National Historic Site. This is a place you can easily burn an hour in awe. I'll sometimes grab a coffee and sit in the grass by the Friendship, studying the pure beauty of this massive tall ship.], letting my mind wander to what it would have been like to crew that vessel.
Speaking of coffee...
As always, I took several breaks throughout the day at several of the little coffee houses in town. There are so many great little bean shops in Salem, I just need to see them all. French Press here, espresso there. Little pit-stops to pause, enjoy a great roast, and watch the locals and tourists walk the streets wide-eyed and booming with life. There's nothing like people-watching with a large cup of java.
I especially enjoy seeing people standing outside the tarot reading shops, trying to decide if they dare go in. I watched one older couple reading the sign and poking and prodding each other to get a reading. They eventually went in and came out 20 minutes later with huge smiles on their faces. So curious what they heard! It certainly wasn't Sybill Trelawney stating, "You're in graaaave danger!"
Anyhow, favorite coffee shops in town:
- Jaho Coffee and Tea - Derby Street
- Gulu-Gulu Café - Essex Street
- Front Street Coffee House - Front Street
One of the most interesting places to head to is the 1637 Burying Point Cemetery which is the home to a Mayflower Pilgrim (Capt. Richard More) as well as several accused "witches" from the Salem Trials (be sure to read the history on Giles Corey). If you're like me, you'll spend well over an hour here, reading stones and history. The gravestones here are full of such character. Reading the dates of these short lives really makes you pause, thinking of how far we have come with the medical game.
If you want to extend your mortality portion of the visit, check out the assumed location of the hangings at Gallows Hill. It's quite a hike to the far side of town, but worth the walk. If you are visiting with kids, they'll dig the Gallows Hill Museum & Theater. They do a retelling of the Salem trials in quite the dramatic style.
I spend a great deal of time in Salem just looking at the architecture. So much reflects early Colonial New England mixed in with an 1800's vibe. Even if you have no desire to check out the locations I mentioned, just walking up and down all the side streets is worth the visit - especially down by the Wharf.
For a couple more interesting spots, check out these places across town that are always cool to visit: 1692 Witch Dungeon Museum, 1675 Witch House, the Witch Museum, the New England Pirate Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. If you want all the campy tourist-trap shops (knik-knaks, books, tarot cards, t-shirts, jewelry) those are mainly located on Essex street and Wharf Street (Pickering Wharf). My kids always love those little charming shops and quickly empty my pockets.
I easily spent 6 hours in town that day and really wanted to spend another 6. Alas, I needed to head back north for some afternoon commitments. I am always sad when I leave Salem and wish it was a little closer (well, 40 minutes isn't that far....). When I got back to NH, I saw that I had a few shots from the 160 left, so I headed off to the ocean the next morning and polished off the roll. I love being so close to so much!
OK, so on to some details about the film now. Man, this article was supposed to be about the film! :)
Buying Expired Film
This is a total crap-shoot unless you know the seller and they can vouch for the condition. I tend to get my expired film off the 'bay as it seems to be in greatest supply there. Prices are all over the place on the 135 and 120 NC film. I don't like to spend more than $5-6/roll - especially when the details on how it was stored are sketchy. If the seller is the original owner and they state it was kept in a fridge/freezer I'll pay a little more. If it's film of "unknown condition" then I'll usually skip it. This usually means they found a box of grandpa's film in the attic - being abused by summer and winter extremes for the last 10-15 years. My advice is to be patient (but not too patient as it's no longer made). The right price/condition will come by.
For my 4 rolls of 400 / 2 rolls 160 I paid $20 with shipping off eBay (little over $3 a roll). Seller stated it was stored for 7-8 years in an airtight box in the basement. Not ideal, but not the attic either.
Oh, that reminds me, I also like to buy film only in the late fall, winter or early spring. Maybe it's just me being anal, but I worry about film shipping across the continent on a 99º summer week in a raging hot brown UPS truck.
Exposing Expired Film
A huge part of the fun with expired film is figuring out just how the hell to expose it - then waiting to see how it came out. First of all, I expose at 1/2 box speed as a general rule, but with this being expired, I need to adjust. This was my first couple of rolls of expired film I ever shot, so I went with that golden rule which is as follows:
Add a stop for every tens years past expiration.
My film was in the ballpark of 8-10 years old. Therefore, I was exposing my Portra 400 NC as Portra 200 NC and added a stop. The Portra 160 NC was treated as Portra 80 NC - then added a stop. So shooting the 400 film, my light meter would suggest (for example) ISO 200 at f/4.5 at 1/1000th second. I add a stop to make it ISO 200 at f/4.5 at 1/500th.
It was a simple process with the Leica M2 and my Sekonic L-308s meter. I set the meter to ISO 200 film (for the Portra 400), metered and then just rotated the wheel one click counter-clockwise from the suggestion. I had to remember to knock it off when I switched back to the new school Portra 400 later that weekend.
Developing Expired Film
Once the rolls were exposed, I quickly packaged them off to Richard Photo Lab to let them do their witchcraft on them. I wasn't sure if they needed further instruction, so I only noted on my order form that this was all expired NC film. Of course, they take perfect care all the time, but I wanted to make sure I gave them all the details they would need.
As always, the magicians at RPL did their magic and I'll let the results speak for themselves!