Heat versus Film

On May 19, 2012, Tim Devantier and I rode from Southern California to Cedar City to shoot the Annular Solar Eclipse on the 20th, then rode back home on the 21st. I clocked 1,172 miles (1,886 kilometers) for the entire trip. It wasn’t a particularly long ride at slightly less than 400 miles per day.

Though I took two cameras, a 35mm SLR and a Micro four thirds digital, I didn’t make a lot of photographs. I shot a single 36-frame roll of film when we toured Cedar Breaks National Monument and Zion National Park during the day on the 20th, then 20 frames of film and 30 digital images during the eclipse that evening. Given the beautiful landscapes in Cedar Breaks and Zion, I expected to see vivid color when the film was developed. But sometimes the best laid plans…

Having shot many rolls in the past, I knew what to expect from the Kodak Gold 100 film; well-balanced color, medium saturation (not over-saturated), classic Kodak color. But when I scanned the film I had something quite different, namely flat colors, low contrast, abnormally high grain, and a definite dropout of the reds.

The two versions of one of the negatives is shown below. This frame was captured in Zion National Park. Left: the degraded film. Right: the same frame color corrected to look (+/-) like it should have (the blue sky is a bit oversaturated, however).

I thought about the degradation of the film for a few minutes and came up with a reasonable explanation. I loaded the roll in the camera the night before leaving on the ride. The rest of the film was in a plastic container (shown below) in an insulated lunch bag , along with frozen “blue ice” to keep it cool across the desert.

The camera bags went in the saddlebags. The cameras would be accessible if I needed to catch a photograph on the ride to Utah. The route up Interstate 15 to Cedar City, Utah, 410 miles from my house, crosses the Mojave Desert. Though the SLR was stored in a padded camera bag in a (black) saddlebag, and thus relatively safe from vibration and dust, the outside temperature ranged from 45 Fahrenheit (7.2 Celsius) in the Cajon pass in the early morning to just below 100 F (38 C) across the Mojave in the middle of the day. Since the black leather saddlebag absorbed radiant heat during daylight, the temperature of the film could easily have climbed to 120 F (49 C) during the ride.

I did a small amount of online research to verify my conclusion and turned up the following reason for the degradation of my film.

From Kodak: It is recommended that unexposed film be stored at 55 F (13 C) or lower. For long storage, 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) is recommended. The reason for these recommendations is that heat results in in fogging, which lowers the speed of the film, dulls color, flattens contrast, and adds graininess.

The Fix: Rather than pre-load film in my SLR, I should have kept all of my rolls in the cooled container during the ride across the desert, then loaded the camera after arriving in Cedar City. Since I didn’t remove either of the cameras to make a photograph during the initial ride to Utah, it really was pointless to pre-load the film, anyway…