How to Save Water-Damaged Film

In 2013, Calgary experienced a pretty devastating flood. Homes lying in the floodplain at best had their basements filled with water, and at worst were rendered too damaged to be livable.

Though it is one of the worst places to keep one’s film, many had left their negatives in boxes in their basements, leaving them to get water-logged and if left untreated, completely ruined. For some professional photographers I know, this meant losing a huge chunk of their photographic history. One in particular saw his entire portfolio of images vanish when someone trying to be helpful said she could save them, but in the end just made things worse.

And that is the tricky part. Film is delicate and mishandling or mistreating it can ruin the exposures forever. At the photolab, we saw lots of damaged film come through our doors and did our best to save what we could, but a lot of our ability to do so hinged on how the film was handled to begin with.

A couple of weeks ago, a hailstorm hit my neighbourhood. While I was out fussing with blankets and towels in an effort to protect my plants, a window in my kitchen was wide open and on the kitchen table was my binder of film.

Though the binder didn’t get completely water-logged, the edges did catch a lot of water, soaking many strips of film. I was able to save everything as if nothing happened, but that was only because after years of being a photolab technician, I had the knowledge and tools I needed.

After the flood in 2013 and this recent hailstorm, I thought it was a great time to impart this knowledge in the hopes it will be helpful to someone else. As a photographer, I know how precious having a photographic record of one’s own history can be.

How to Save Water-Damaged Film*

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Step 1: Separate the film strips from each other and any sleeving. There are two sides to every film strip: the glossy side, and the matte side, which is also known as the emulsion side. The emulsion is the part of the film strip that holds the image and it is very delicate when it’s wet.

When the film strip gets wet, the emulsion side swells and becomes more like a gel than a plastic. An errant fingernail or bits of debris can easily scratch the emulsion, removing parts of the image, which can’t just be put back.

So, before the film strips dry, carefully cut them out of any plastic sleeving (don’t cut through the film!) and only handle the strips from the edges. If the film is stuck to other pieces of film, prepare a clean, low pan and fill it with distilled water. Put the mass of stuck strips in the water and gently agitate the water’s surface until the film strips release from each other.

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Step 2: Set the film up to dry. A strategically placed piece of tape at the edge of the film strip (the part of where the perforations are) on the glossy side is the safest place to put the tape. The drying process, depending on ambient humidity, will take approximately 24 hours.

Be sure to hang the strips so that the emulsion side is not directly against any surfaces or in the path of any blowing debris.

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Step 3: Once the film is dry, remove the tape and gather up the film. Here’s where you can evaluate what happens next. If the film doesn’t have any residues left on it, you’re okay to skip the next step, but if it does, like the one above, you’ll need to get your film professionally cleaned. If the residue is left on, your film could eventually deteriorate.

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Step 4: Your film now needs a Superflow rinse bath. This is where the film is flushed through the rinse tanks of a film processor, with a follow-up trip through the dryer. This will clean off any unwanted residues and have your film looking good as new. Any good photolab will know how to do this, but essentially, the film is loaded into the rinse tanks directly, bypassing the developer & bleach tanks.

For any photolab techs reading this, you can’t just load the film in the front of a film processor. Going through the developer again will ruin the film. If you don’t know how to directly load to the rinse tanks, consult your film processor manual and try it with a test roll first so you know the process.

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Step 5: Preserve and archive your film properly. Now that your film is back to normal, it’s important to keep it that way. Archival sleeving is key in keeping your film stable and dust free, but half the battle is where you store your film. Basements, attics, and anywhere that can have drastic temperature and humidity changes aren’t good choices for film storage. Ideally, keeping them in a temperature controlled space is best, but the main floor of a house, away from heat registers and sunny windows is the best most homes can offer. So scout our your home and find the coziest spot for your precious memories.

* This guide is for informational purposes only. Attempt the steps above at your own risk. I am not legally responsible if anything goes wrong.

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