Orwo film by Colin Barey
Recently Colin got in touch with me about a piece he was putting together about a Orwo, a brand of film that is rarely discussed and that I have not used, read on and learn about another film maker that is still happily knocking out film.
Film news has been dominated for years by the drumbeat of ever-waning variety. As if the actual news of a film’s discontinuation isn’t depressing enough, film shooters on the internet frequently truck in rumors of this or that film’s imminent demise as told to them by Joe Shmoe, neighborhood film seller. The end is nigh and we should all prepare for the day when the final rolls come off Kodak’s assembly line in Rochester, or Ilford’s in Mobberley, or wherever. Shooters panic and stockpile their favorite films, store them in refrigerators and watch with alarm as their precious supplies dwindle like canned food in a bomb shelter.
I can’t live like that. It’s just too sad. When a film gets cut, I don’t stockpile it; I find something else that’s still being made and move on. The same is true when a film I like gets priced out of reach, as Kodak’s black-and-white negative films have been here in Japan for some time.
I flit around and look for deals anywhere I can find them. In search of a good ISO 400 replacement for Tri-X and HP5+, I stumbled onto a film that many people don’t know anything about: Orwo N74+. Before I continue, I should note that I do not work for Orwo, I have no commercial relationship with Orwo and I benefit in no way financially from sales of their products.
“What the heck is Orwo?” I’m invariably asked. A fair question. Orwo, like 35 mm film photography in 2014, is a true survivor. It is basically the pre-war and wartime Agfa facilities that remained in the old DDR when the Iron Curtain fell over Europe – specifically in the city of Wolfen, from which the film derived its new name (ORiginal WOlfen). Americans may be forgiven for never having seen it, but Orwochrome and many other Orwo products were widely available in western Europe and around the world throughout the Cold War. Behind the Curtain, Orwo was considered the gold standard among communist films. At one time its factory in Wolfen employed 15,000 people and was the second largest in the world.
Unlike many formerly communist industrial concerns, Orwo is very much alive today. Still based in Wolfen, Germany, they manufacture two black-and-white motion picture films in 35 mm, N74+ ISO 400 film and UN54 ISO 100 film. They also offer both films in 8 mm and 16 mm; I’m told this film is cut and spooled by a third party. Both are excellent and completely appropriate for use in still cameras. They’re also very competitively priced.
I’ve been shooting Orwo films off and on for about 2 years now and I’ve given rolls to several fellow film shooters here in Tokyo to try as well. No one has had an unkind word to say about them and several Orwo negatives have found their way onto the walls of some of Tokyo’s member-owned galleries in exhibitions. Most photographers who have used it agree that in terms of grain structure and overall speed, N74+ is very similar to HP5+. I’ve found it to be pushable up to ISO 1600 in both D-76 and in XTOL. I really like this film and I’d recommend it to anyone.
The UN54 is a slower film, but it is beautiful. It’s actually a classic stock that has been in Orwo’s catalog for its entire history, unlike the newer N74+. Very rich, creamy grain, lovely for portraits. In addition, it can be developed as a positive film with results comparable to – and much cheaper than – Fomapan 100R, the only dedicated black-and-white reversal film still in production. I developed my UN54 shot at box speed in Foma’s reversal kit using the same instructions as are given for the Fomapan 100R and it came out great. The base is a little greyer than Fomapan 100R, but when projected or viewed through 3D slide viewer, I found the difference to be unnoticeable.
The only downside to these films is that so few people use them as still film that there is comparatively little development data to be found. The Massive Dev Chart has about all there is, but if you want to use something that’s not in their charts, you’re at the mercy of experimentation or various forum posts to be found on flickr, etc. That said, I’ve found these films to be very forgiving, and certainly worth the effort to experiment with. My favorite developer with N74 is XTOL, full strength, 6.75 min @ 20C. Local conditions may vary but that’s a good place to start. UN54 is fine enough grain that Rodinal is good for it and just about anything else you’d like to try.
Finally, where do you buy these great films? They’re not to be found in your neighborhood drugstore certainly. I buy mine directly from the factory in Germany. Frank Böhme, Orwo’s Marketing and Sales Manager, has been very easy to correspond with in English and Orwo is fast and reliable. Email them at email@example.com (please cut and paste yourself otherwise this chap will get tons of spam) for a quote. Unlike SOME English film manufacturers I could mention, they package their 100 ft. / 30.5 m bulk rolls in metal cans instead of just slapping them into cardboard boxes inside black plastic bags to cut corners.
When people tell you film is history, tell them you agree. All film is a piece of history, an enduring tribute to another, older, slower way of doing things. Orwo’s history is one of tremendous endurance even by the standards of a film company in the 21st century: two world wars, 40 years of Communism and the re-unification of Germany could not stop the manufacture of camera film in Wolfen. If this appeal to sentimentality and nostalgia isn’t enough to convince you to try Orwo’s films, I suggest that you watch one of their old East German advertisements. Be careful as it does contain some nudity, but I bet that after you watch it, you’ll be shooting Mr. Böhme a line:
Thanks to Colin for this article. I shall have to try this stuff out. That video is awesome!
As usual I would love to hear your comments on this. Have you used Orwo? What do you think?