First of all, I would like to thank the readers for the many reactions that I got on my article from last March on Russian Svema film – a good few of you joined and helped build my vintage film shooters facebook group. It’s great to hear that shooting, collecting and using vintage 35mm film is still popular!
Today I would like to take you on a voyage into the post-war film industry of Germany and specifically the DDR, East-Germany, the remains of the mighty Agfa that marketed the first colour film in 1936. After the 1945 downfall of Nazi-Germany the country was occupied and left in a complete chaos, the Soviets, and Allies fighting over the remains that were plenty in the form of patents and high-tech industries. Especially in the optical- and reproduction/film industry. Leitz/Leica, Carl Zeiss and also Agfa (part of IG Farben giant) as the best-known examples to us photographers.
In April 1945 US armed forces took the Orwo plant and shipped the patents and research to the West, where Ilford and Kodak received them and thus improving their colour processes. As the plant was situated in the Soviet occupied zone it was handed over to the Soviets by the Allies, who shipped the whole plant back to the motherland as they did with the optical industry. Even the engineers and their families were moved to the new Soviet sites.
By the early 50’s the remains of the plant became East-German and marketed under the Agfa brand in the Soviet-influenced world as their western counterpart did the same for the rest of the world from Leverkusen West-Germany. The East-German “Agfa” could not be offered under the Agfa brand in the West as per trade agreement thus the DDR renamed the brand under Orwo, after Original Wolfen, the town in Germany where the film was produced and started to sell the film as a cheaper alternative for the western Brands as Kodak and Ilford. Today the factory still produces 35mm b/w film for cinema after a restart.
Plenty of history you can see, for me, using the 35mm films from the East I knew the Orwo brand as a young starter, a cheaper film, that was inferior the “A-rated” brands like Kodak in the late 70’s and 80’s. We all wanted the Kodak films that were much, much better, and you didn’t want to be seen with a “communist el cheapo” film in our young days obviously!
With the wave of the digital revolution my interest in the obscure and strange returned as I was still using my 35mm film camera’s and more and more of my favourite films were discontinued and became more and more expensive. I was drawn towards the Soviet Svema and Tasma film and also had renewed interest in the Orwo brand. I started a quest to find out more and was intrigued by an article written by Lance Rothstein, a US professional photographer now in Florida but who had lived in the same town as I live in now, Mons Belgium. He showed some great results with this Orwo film and I started to hunt the film down in the former Eastern occupied countries that were now part of the EU and was successful in finding more than a roll or two. In fact, the 14th-century caves of our house are starting to look like a film storage facility of strange, expired vintage 35mm film in large canisters sleeping like expensive bottles of wine…
I use two films from Orwo regularly, the NP-7, the b/w cinema version of the NP-27 ISO 400 that is 1970’s and early 1980’s at EI 200 and the NP-55, a lovely low grain b/w ISO 55 film that I use at EI 40. For development I use the Calbe A-49 at stock, 13 minutes 20 degrees C 30 sec agitations for the NP-55 and 17 minutes for the NP-7. Still the development is a journey of trial and error and for everybody to search and experiment. I for one, am very interested in results from others as to their soup and would love to hear from you! I know Lance is getting great results with his infamous Cafenol Concoction!
It would be stupid to compare the Orwo film with the likes of Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 and unfair at the same time. However, I do use these expired films as a tool for my profession, I do sell work made with Orwo and customers love it and pay premium because in today’s world of the digital invasion people pay for the exception, the unusual, the “different” from the 50MP super sensors and super zooms. And at the same time, I truly enjoy working with it, maybe because it’s far from constant and flawless and surprises me time after time again.
Look at it like this; some time ago a young colleague was standing beside me with a giant DSLR and a 80-200 f/2.8 zoom on it and me with my 35mm rangefinder. Nice camera I said to start a conversation, sure he replied, it has a great full frame 40MP sensor, brand new. I looked at him and hummed in awe for his great machine. How about you? he said. “I have a 1978 East German sensor, great results!” He was immediately intrigued and interested, and we had a great afternoon!
Eric “kAAs” Sluis
You can find my thriving vintage film shooters facebook group here – come and join in!
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24 thoughts on “Orwo film – The Magic of a forgotten giant – by Eric “kAAs” Sluis”
I find it fascinating that you are still getting fun from these old films. Orwo b/w is not one I have used. I suppose the nearest I got to a similar quality would be when I got my first 35mm camera, a Halina 35x, around 1963 or thereabouts, and sourced bulk Government surplus film as it was really cheap for a teenager.
In the UK, although Orwo b/w film was available, I’d guess the company was better known for its colour slide film and which, again, was much cheaper than, say, Kodak. Sadly, its colour rendition wasn’t that accurate, and whilst I ran some cassettes off, I returned to Kodak et al. Today, I think it would be a favourite of the Lomo brigade who would probably extol its “arty” qualities. And indeed, it was certainly capable of producing interesting results with an appropriate subject where colour fidelity wasn’t necessarily a prime consideration.
Looking back at some of my slides now, there is a certain charm attached to them.
I first started using it as I was into the Soviet era film that I really liked, and as I’m always on the lookout for new old stuff I was intrigued by it. I used Tri-X for my pro work but once I found out that customers were interested in the weird and special I started to offer it as a “Premium” service, with the condition that failure was a valid possible outcome. It worked! In fact, one out of three jobs I do now are done with vintage film(Orwo, Svema, Agfa) and it got me a niche in the very very difficult arena of professional photographers! However, I’ve been enough in a darkroom to have learned to shy away from color printing, and I suspect you understand me very well! Greetings from the “Cheeseman” and a great 2017!
That was a really interesting read, Kaas. The best I’ve read this year so far 😉 And the pictures are wonderful, the grain superb. So much character in these images. Thank you for taking the time to write this article.
Hi Eric, I bought some Orwo N74 a while ago, which is a iso400 b&w film, is that the same as your NP7?
First of all, happy new year 2017! To answer your question, no it isn’t, the NP74 is a great film but a new one made in Germany, and it isn’t the same as the NP7/NP27. Both of these being the same film, but one for cine and the other for still photography. I spoke to the Germans running the place in Germany nowadays, nice guys! And yes they sell and produce NP74. Sales are wholesale as you can imagine unless you’re going to shoot a 2 hour feature film …. To get the real deal, the vintage Voodoo, you have to search and find in the deep dark basements in the East, or when you are in lack of time try the on-line auction sites. Part of the fun I think, The “Search”, and only the beginning, because once you’re hooked…. beware !!
I used lots of Orwo film in thee 80s and 90s, both 100 ASA B&W and colour slide. The mono was traditional, “classic” looking film stock, and bulk loaded could be shot with digital style abandon! It looked last generation, slightly grainier than the market leaders but well within accepted quality norms, like a 1960s film. There was a good deal of snobbery around its use, but printed on Agfa fibre based paper it looked great, easily capable of making exhibition prints.
The slide film was grainy for 100 ASA reversal stock, and definitely on the warm side of neutral. In the UK it was sold by mail order – the predecessor of the internet – and its main benefit was the price, £3.50 per 36 exposure including postage and processing. Less than 10p a slide! I’d use Orwo black and white again no problem, but there doesn’t seem to be a UK distributor currently, and I doubt it would sell at FSU prices.
I have been in contact with the Wolfen plant in Germany and they do sell two films, 100 and 400 ISO, N54 and N74. I asked them to send me some to give them a try, however, they only do large quantities through their distributors and as I don’t want to upset anyone, I thought it better to not hunt their ducks, probably not an English expression but you know what I mean 😉 . 1200 to 1500 meters even for me is a bit over the top and as I do not sell, and do not intend to…. but who knows. Next to that, offering vintage prints, vintage film made work is definitely a niche and is highly appreciated, and it sells! We all need to pay the bills and feed the family… Thanks for your comment and I wish you and yours a blessed 2017!
Hi Eric, the U.K. dealer was happy to sell me 100feet (I guess it must be 30m) of the N74. I’ve got their details if you’re interested. Nigel
Thank you, I know, I can get it too, however, I don’t pay retail prices. When we go for a film we try it and buy larger quantities through the Agency. In fact, for a lesser known film we get the film almost for free if we do shoots with it and put the results in expositions.I remember a 1000 ft round the 500 eur marker, I’ll be shooting the vintage stuff 🙂 And, the public likes it and buys the work. Again, thanks for your offer !!!
My first slr was a Dixon’s ‘Prinzflex’ branded Zenith and ORWO was my film of choice, mainly because it was cheap. The camera died when I dropped it down a waterfall, happy days.
Well, at least it’s a nice way to go, a waterfall beats the hell out of a concrete floor 😉
A fascinating article full of rich and interesting detail. Some beautiful photography too. Than k you. For readers in the UK it might be useful to know that you can buy orwo film in small quantities ready rolled on 35mm canisters (27 exp) from nik&trick (http://ntphotoworks.com). I’ve only ever shot the n74 film, it’s really nice, especially pushed in low light for that movie film glow. Cheers Eric for giving me more context on this film ?
Good photographs. And really more than acceptable technical result.
I used some color ORWO film long time ago. Nice to hear they keep on producing film at amazing price.
About magic, well I believe it’s rather in the experience of photographing rather than in gear, lenses or film itself.
Great post. Love the sharing of information.
US based company Film Photography Project carries a load of Svema, from Dactylographic to ISO 6-400 speed BnW. White base, blue base, Tasma 100, Agfachrome RSX-II 200, as well as a bunch of Kodak movie stocks.
And yes, the crew from the FPP does a great job! Like their show and their knowledge, though I like to think I’m pretty up to speed myself too ^^ I get my film straight from the Eastern European caves and secret cellars, all kinds of rare stuff…. Believe me, this Orwo is still kind of “regular” 🙂 I send the article to Michael Raso and he wrote back to say he liked it so they are aware. Thanks for your interest!!
For many years ORWO NP20 was my favorite film. I first tried it after visiting East Berlin in 1987. Back then with a day visa you had to exchange DM20 (West German money) for M20 (GDR money.) According to the official exchange rate that would have been maybe US$7 but you could eat and drink like a king and I had a few Marks to spare and bought a few rolls of ORWO film and fell in love with it. NP20 was a black and white film (DIN 20 or ISO 80) had a beautiful tonality and a noticeable edge sharpness. In the west there was an export version NP22 with the same green, white and black box but claimed a higher sensitivity of (DIN 22 or ISO 125.)
When I came back to the US, Freestyle Photo in Los Angeles stocked many ORWO products including NP22 as well as NP15 (25 ISO) and NP27 (ISO 400) and even had ORWO papers under the house label “Europe’s Finest”. I still shoot medium and large format BW and have a few 120 rolls of ORWO films I’m hoping to find a special project to use the last rolls on.
I also have a few documents with developing times for many developers I received from correspondence with the factory in Wolfen back in the 1980’s. If anybody should stumble upon an old roll of NP15, NP20, or NP27 and want the factory’s recommended development times shoot me an email and I’ll dig up that document.
In any case, thanks for bringing my favorite film brand back into the spotlight!
What a nice comment and story! Thank you! The NP-27 is the 35mm for stills and the same film as the NP-7, the cinema version, that I show in the post, but of course “Vintage”, the real deal. I do use it alot and develop in A49, the original recommended chemicals. We were in East Berlin almost at the same time, kinda, sort of, I visited in 1979 😉 ….. Greetz!
Sorry I missed you on my first visit to Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR 😉 BTW, is your middle name “Kaas” Cheese (in Dutch/Flemish?) Bet there’s a good story there too. Thanks for the article and once again glad to see recent news from ORWO!
Yes, I’m Dutch and known as “The Cheeseman” a nickname that stuck and I kind of adopted 🙂 Be on the look-out for more articles if Hamish let’s me 😉
Hi, I used Orwo film in the 1970s, when I was working in Sophia, Bulgaria for a few months. My camera was a Werra 1 with a nice Tessar lens, and presumably I ran out of the films I brought with me. Not sure if links are allowed in comments, but you might like this shot, one of my favourites:
Taken I think from the Institute of Constructional Cybernetics (!) in central Sophia, where I worked, it is of the London to Mexico Rally, which passed through Sophia on 27 March 1970, so I can precisely date this particular shot. My system suggests it is ORWO S NP20 H9, presumably the letters from the edge of the film strip when I scanned it. The car in the photo was a Peugeot, IIRC, which came to a sticky end a bit later in the Rally and didn’t make it to the finish.
hi back in thelate 70’s and ear;y 80’s i used left over movie stock mainly NP7 and NP55 which i got from generous movie cameramen. this was usually 50ft or so left overin the camera. i do mainly pictorial photogrpahy and thi give excellent results. processing was in DK50 butworked equaly well in D76. the DK50 produced more edge contrast and was particularly good in back light images. i saw the ORWO site and next time i am in europe i may order a can of film. however processing seems to be a problem in india asi cant find anyone who processes film.
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In 1966, my parents went to Czechoslovakia to visit my grandma. My parents bought me back an Exakta Varex IIb. A wonderful camera for a young person to experience photography with. They also brought back some rolls of ORWO B&W film. I always remember that film as being actually quite good. For old-times sake, I would like to shoot some ORWO film in my now over the top Exakta collection!