In an age when every price increase or film cancellation sparks fear that our beloved medium, film, is going away, I should be nothing but elated whenever a film company announces a new film stock. Even more so when that new film is a truly new film, and not a rebrand or repackaging. And that’s just what we saw yesterday with Film Ferrania’s announcement of Orto, an entirely new ortho-chromatic ISO 50 black and white film. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm is checked based on Ferrania’s prior struggles and the opacity in their communication.
Ferrania has a history of announcing and then not releasing products. Their initial Kickstarter promised a color film, and we all know how that went. And then last year we heard that their ISO 80 black and white film, P30, was soon to come in 120 format. That has yet to materialize. Quite frankly, the company has seemed to vacillate between existing, and not, for the past several years.
Granted, the last couple of years have been notoriously challenging for all businesses. It’s no real surprise that a smaller film manufacturer is struggling. And granted, too, that after months of virtually no updates, Ferrania thankfully seems resurgent. Ferrania P30 is once again in stock, and the company recently rolled out a fairly interesting QR code system to track production information on individual rolls. That’s genuinely unique in the industry (at least from a consumer facing standpoint).
Getting back to Orto and the announcement, Ferrania pointedly waited until April 2nd to announce Orto, so I do think this is a legitimate product announcement as opposed to an April Fool’s stunt. Let’s be clear. Orto is real, and I’m not claiming otherwise.
But is the new Orto any different than Ferrania P30? Sure, the boxes say that one is pan-chromatic and ISO 80 (P30) and one is ortho-chromatic and ISO 50 (Orto). But are they?
As part of his excellent deep dive into film stocks, the Naked Photographer illustrated that Ferrani P30 showed an ortho-chromatic response, in that it didn’t seem to respond to red light (or green for that matter). That’s kind of a big deal since the film’s box proudly declares itself “Panchro,” as in pan-chromatic.
The skepticism and confusion isn’t helped by the fact that Film Ferrania has never released proper data sheets for P30, and that it doesn’t have one posted for Orto at this time. Maybe P30 has a more limited spectral response but isn’t “technically” ortho-chromatic. But given the testing by Naked Photographer and my own shooting, it looks to be pretty darn close. And I can’t help but notice that even Film Ferrania recognizes the similarities between P30 and the new Orto. It calls the two films “cousins,” they share the same development recommendations (Film Ferrania doesn’t actually publish official development times, again frustrating), and Orto shares P30’s general contrast and low-grain. Even the ISO of 50 seems strangely similar, given that many recommend shooting P30 at ISO 50 anyway, to get a little more latitude from the finicky stock. Ferrania’s own recommendations even point to this.
The real issue here is the lack of data sheets from Film Ferrania, both with Ferrania’s earlier film, P30, and with the new Orto. If you’re new to film, these sheets might seem like inscrutable technical documents, but they actually contain a wealth of information. Using filters is one of the great creative tools in black and white photography. Data sheets show what your options exist. Night shooting means you need to understand how a film responds to extremely low light (i.e. reciprocity failure), data sheets tell you how to convert your exposure times. Does your film need to be exposed differently under Tungsten lights? Data sheets.
It was somewhat excusable for Ferrania to not provide documentation when P30 was in an alpha state. After all, an alpha of a film emulsion indicates the final formula might change, so you don’t want to put all that in writing if it’s going to need revision a year later. But P30 is years old at this point, and we still get nothing more than the ISO from Film Ferrania.
Small film producers like Adox put out industry standard data sheets. Rollei uses modern graphic design to make their sheets not just informative, but engaging to a more casual reader. Even little Film Washi, which is run by one guy, puts out datasheets with meaningful information.
Of course Ferrania is not the only offender. Lomography also has fairly light documentation. They look quite nice (they even give you photo examples with different developers) but good luck finding much in the way of technical details. I give Lomography more of a pass, since they are rebranding other film stocks and their whole vibe is experimental. But it’s still not great for consumers and we’d be better off with that information.
But Film Ferrania is making their films, that’s their whole thing. They clearly have done extensive testing and they have the information. They must, to make the film. The only conceivable reason not to share technical documentation is that it would show the new Orto and the old Ferrania P30 to be extraordinarily similar.
To be clear, I believe Ferrania that these are distinct offerings. I do not believe this is simply an exercise in branding. But a total lack of technical documentation, given that Ferrania itself recommends the same development times between the two, indicates to me that information would only serve to further conflate these already very similar products.
All that being said, Ferrania P30 is the most distinctive black and white film I’ve ever shot. I truly love the look of the film and it feels completely unique in today’s film ecosystem. Seeing Ferrania go dark with production truly bummed me out. As a community, we are better with Film Ferrania in the market. It’s just that given the lack of information Ferrania historically puts out about its films, I’m forced to question how distinct of an offering we’re really getting here, with the new Orto.
I think of a company like Adox, which is making similar low-speed, fairly specialized offerings with a small team. Not only are their products much more differentiated, but we get the same technical specifications we’d expect from Kodak, FujiFilm, or Foma.
Once Ferrania’s Orto gets into the hands of testers, I hope we see lab and real world use meaningfully differentiate these two films. I truly hope we see this company continue production and keep introducing new ideas into the analog world. It cannot be understated how difficult making a film emulsion is, and the fact that Ferrania came through pandemic lock-downs and a period of hideous global supply chain constrictions to resume production is a minor miracle that I am grateful for.
I will keep shooting P30, because it is a beautiful and unique film. But I can’t help but find Ferrania’s latest release, and it’s lack of documentation, a little frustrating.
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