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What Happens if You Expose Film to Light?

If you exposed film to light – don’t panic! It may still be usable.

In this article, I’ll explain what happens when you expose the film accidentally or on purpose.

I’ll also talk about how to prevent damage and other tips.

What Happens if You Expose Film to Light Before It Is Developed?


When a film gets exposed to light, it suffers a chemical change. The results of this exposure depend on how long it’s exposed to light.

Is My Film Ruined?

Suppose that you open the back of a camera with the roll of film loaded, but you close it immediately.

In that case, some of the frames may be ruined, others may get light leaks, and others will be safe.

However, if you leave the back of the camera open for a long time, most of the frames will probably be ruined.

What Does Accidentally Exposed Film Look Like?


If you accidentally open your camera with film loaded, the frames exposed to the light might get completely ruined, or they will get a light leak.

The above video is from The Darkroom. It shows what happened when they accidentally exposed a black-and-white film. They also shared example photos of what happened with a color film. You can see them here.

Why Some Photographers Deliberately Expose Film to Light


Photographers expose films deliberately to add creative effects. Some can be deliberate flares with light leaks created, as you saw in the previous examples.

However, you can also use an experimental technique called Solarization. Normally, this is done on paper while printing. However, you can do it on film too. It was made famous by Man Ray.

The 2 Main Causes of Unintentional Light Exposure

Credit: Phil Mosley

There are two main causes of unintentional light exposure. The first one is to accidentally open the back of the camera while the film is inside.

The other one involves traveling with films that haven’t been developed. The scans used in airport security – especially those for checked-in luggage – can damage the film.

Can I Still Use Accidentally Exposed Film?

If you accidentally expose your film while loaded, you can absolutely continue to use it. Only the frames directly exposed might be ruined, but the rest of the film should be fine.

If you expose the entire film while preparing for development, you may continue, and you might get a nice solarization effect.

Films that have been exposed to light may have some amazingly creative effects – don’t throw them out without even trying.

However, don’t trust them to do a professional job like shooting a wedding. Then, it’s better to be safe and use film in perfect condition.

How to Prevent Accidentally Exposing Film to Light


Always check the counter to prevent accidentally opening the camera with film in it. You can also turn the rewind crank and see if you feel tension.

If you’re unsure, you can always open it in a darkroom. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Regarding accidental exposure through airport security, you can prevent it by taking the film in your carry-on bag.

You should also stick to low ISO films and ask for manual inspection if extra scanning is required. Remember to be polite and helpful to the authorities.

Whenever possible, it’s best to avoid the problem by simply buying the film at your destination and having it developed before your departure. Otherwise, you may consider shipping it.

For more detailed tips, check out this guide to getting film through airport security.

What to Do If You Accidentally Open Your Film Camera’s Back Door


You should close the camera immediately to avoid further damage. Then, you can shoot a frame or two for safety because the frames may have light leaks.

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Then, continue to use the film normally. It also depends on which part of the roll gets exposed.

FAQs about Accidentally Exposing Camera Film to Light

Will exposing film to light ruin the entire roll?

Not necessarily. The part of the film exposed to light will likely be ruined. However, the inner part of the roll may not receive enough light to experience any damage.

Is the film still useable if the back of the camera opens while you’re still on 0 shots and have just loaded in the film?

The film inside the canister is protected from light. So, the rest of the film should be OK.

How can I tell if a roll of film has been exposed?

An unexposed film roll has a piece of film that you use to load the film into the camera. Once you expose the entire film, it rewinds it, and you won’t see any film outside the canister.

Is exposing film to light a chemical change?

Photographic film is made of photosensitive silver halides. When exposed to light, they oxidize and create a reaction that forms a latent image.

Can I use a red light bulb to load film in a development tank?

No, most films are also sensitive to red light. It’s better to load your film in a darkroom or inside a changing bag.

Can you unload film in light?

While film rolls protect the negative from lights, it’s recommended that you change the roll of your film camera in dimmed light or shade.

What happens if film is exposed to dim light?

The film exposed to dim light may suffer less damage than when exposed to bright sunlight. However, it will depend on the amount of time the exposure happens for.

How long can film be exposed to light?

It may take seconds or minutes to expose a photograph – it depends on many factors. However, unintentional exposure shouldn’t happen at all.

At first, it will create light leaks or interesting effects, but after a while, the negative will be completely black. The time depends on the light and the ISO of the film.

During the developing process, when can I expose my film to light?

The film can’t be exposed to light until the development process is complete.

Can Instax film be exposed to (non direct) light before use? 

Instax film, like other photographic film, is photosensitive and shouldn’t be exposed to light before use.

Does exposing Polaroid film to light ruin it?

Polaroid film is photosensitive. To prevent any damage, it should only be exposed to take the photo.

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