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 protected] (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?
such lovely film!
Wish I could get them hand-rolled already to test. Hard to invest on 100ft rolls.
I’ve never heard of this film, but it’s an amazing story. Another great example, along with Film Ferrania, that film has a future. I shall try to source some of this to add to my refrigerator film box :)
Having recently moved to Germany, I was looking at finding a suitable and available emulsion. Thank you for reminding me of this great gem.
Colin has given me some and I quite enjoy it a lot! Thanks for sharing this<
It is worth knowing that the current film manufacturers in Germany, ADOX and ORWO, are both based within the former DDR/East Germany. ADOX is in Bad Saarow (a few kilometers southeast from Berlin) and ORWO is in Wolfen (as just mentioned here).
“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.”
Not for a few decades yet – especially considering the current boom in sales, increase in profits for Ilford/Kodak (the NEW Kodak that is) and the restarting of Ferrania in Italy. Film use is increasing, its not going away anytime soon, unless of course, you guys are being paid promote digital, in which case… I call this a load of B.S.
I have around 250 rolls of ORWO 120 in my freezer; ISO 25, 100 and 400. It’s been there for quite some time. I develop it in XTOL. I use the slower speeds in Voigtlander and Agfa folders. Great film.
Would this be former DDR stuff made in the 1980s?
Yes, the date stamp is “82”
I’m going to inquire if ORWO will ship to the states. The new films look interesting.
I’m sure they will. They had no problem shipping to Japan, which is farther.
One small correction: I’ve been told that the 16mm film is manufactured by Orwo in house. The 8mm is made by a third party firm which splits Orwo’s unperforated 35mm film.
ORWO is a great film ! The only thing slowing it down is that it is only available in bulk and 35mm. I think spooling it into reusable 35mm metal casettes would not be such a big thing ?
Not a big thing at all. I do it at home all the time. So can you, for crying out loud! Keep that overhead low.
I have used ORWO NP 15, 22 and 27 films from the 1970’s– 1980’s until they went broke — they must have started up again — the film used to be imported into UK by ‘BYMAIL’ Ltd in Surrey — I was a member of the ‘PENTACON Club’ and have all the magazines still and in there was lots on ORWO films . I still have some 1993 dated ORWO NP22 120 rollfilms in my fridge left over from a bulk purchase when I heard it was stopping to be imported and the Pentacon Club ceased. I developed my NP22 in a formula called ‘PH35’ 1+5 dilution which was published in ‘ 35mm Camera’ Magazine years ago and it seemed to ‘fit’ the NP22 pefectly. The NP15 had a strange ‘Magenta’ base and seemed to be more sensitive than box speed 15oDIN — I tried in in Beutler and Rodinal. The NP27 400 ASA was ‘soft’ and grainy.
what a small world. orwo brings back great memories of my early photography days from the 1970’s. i hav used np22 and 55 in120 size roll film as also 35 mm. they were very popular in india during that time as imports of trix and ilford products was very limited and high priced. orwo also had another product called np55 which was b&w movie stock. movie camermen would leave the last 30 ft or so unused and if u had the right contacts you could get this left over before the film went to the lab. np55 was rated at 80 asa. all orwo films worked well in d76, microdol or dk 50. dk 50 gave the best edge sharpness and shadow detail. i hav seen 30×20 inch prints that can only be decribed as outstanding. i did use some of the orwo slide film but the processing in india at that time left much to be desired..
i used to buy the 100ft rolls in cans which coluld be spooled to cassette. amazing that orwo survived all these years. sadly its no longer available here in india. your arrticle brings back many memories from the 70’s…ashok
They might ship it to you. Send Mr. Bohme an email.
I live about 50 km from that factory in Wolfen, but i never shot one single roll of ORWO film before! So i also decided to call that Mr.Böhme and ask for a roll of N74 and/or UN54. Being very nice and helpful, he simply invited me to come over and buy as much as i want. UN54 is a bargain, N74 is more expensive but still attractive. In January, i’ll pay a visit to them and see how the material turns out. I sure am curious!
Very interesting article. Can this film be purchased in the United States?
There is an Orwo North America website:
If they can’t help you, try contacting Mr. Böhme directly.
For those wondering about buying the film in North America, you can order it from http://www.orwona.com/. I bought a 100′ spool of UN54 from them and loaded it into my bulk loader.
Thanks for the info!!
You mentioned that you pushed 74+ to 1600 in D-76, any chance you would be willing to share your developing time, and did you use stock or 1+1?
Just getting into developing my own film, and would love a cheaper alternative to TX400…any info would be most welcome!!
I have just ordered some N74 from the local distributer here in the UK. There is a page on their website showing all of the worldwide distributers, most places are covered, and hopefully it will be with me in the next 10 days direct from Germany. Looking forward to trying it out.
What times did you use for NP15 and NP20 in Beutler?
I shoot vintage film B/W, mostly I buy in 300 meter rolls, 1970’s 1980’s vintage. Just bought a cannister of 250 meters NP 55 ;-) Greetz from Belgium
yes here in Belgrade (Serbia) few of us are purchasing the rolls of N54 and N74, here is the results from this summer with Filmotec Orwo UN54 on Yashica MG1. Highly recommended, it has a valuable gradation of tones. Also some of them I have made analogue prints and I’m very satisfied.
As a (retired) pro fashion photographer I can highly recommend ORWO film – lovely stuff. The 400 will push to 1600 with no problems – and further if you want to experiment. The slower film is a great fine grain alternative to AGFA or Kodak stock. I used it for years (and made a few quid off the client by doing so as they were used to paying MUCH more for stock than the ORWO cost in London in the ’80s and ’90s).
I used to buy it in boxes of 20 35×36 but you always knew you’d get 39 or 40 from a roll.
Good stuff – give it a go….
Lomography Berlin Kino is ORWO N74 and Lomography Potsdam is ORWO N54.
One of my favorite B&W Films. ORWO is located in the original AGFA factory – so all their films are really AGFA stock from way back. After the war AGFA relocated to West Germany but the original factory still produced AGFA films and sold them only in Eastern Europe, while the same film was also produced in Western Germany and sold in the West under the AGFA brand. AGFA in the DDR could not sell their films in the West under the AGFA brand so they renamed AGFA to ORWO – eventually all their films were sold under ORWO label.
In the West ORWO was considered a second rate cheap film – sold in discount and department stores and mail order outfits (in the UK particularly). This was unfortunate as their films were as good as anything sold in the West – but in someways this was good because you could get AGFA equivalent for half the price.