In May 2022, the German film manufacturer ORWO launched their first new film in over fifty years. The new film, ORWO Wolfen NP100, is a fine-grained 100 ISO black-and-white 35mm film. Neat! But what we film photographers really need are some new options in the color film segment. And it seems that ORWO agrees. The storied film manufacturer from Germany has followed Wolfen NP100 with another new and more exciting product; a color film called ORWO Wolfen NC500.
I recently had the opportunity to take a rare vacation with my family, a sunny week away, a week of good food and natural beauty and warm beaches and quaint lighthouses and sherbet sunsets, and happy memories photographed. I shot it all on ORWO’s new color film.
My results have been mostly aligned with the expectations established in ORWO’s press release and on their website, the take-away being that ORWO Wolfen NC500 is an unusual cinematic film that will appeal to film photographers seeking a more “nostalgic” look.
What is ORWO Wolfen NC500
ORWO Wolfen NC500 is a color negative film with an ISO of 400. It has no remjet layer, which means that it can be processed anywhere that processes normal C-41 color film. It’s available in 35mm canisters of 36 exposures each.
The picture profile, according to ORWO’s documentation, is that Wolfen NC500 makes images with green overtones, de-saturated shadows, and enhanced grains. I’ve found that only some of this is true.
At its heart, Wolfen NC500 is a cinema film. The chemical formula for the film is reportedly based on an old Agfa film type called Agfa XT320, a film that was used to shoot movies such as Out of Africa, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
ORWO is careful to mention their intention with Wolfen NC500. In their press material, they state: “We are not trying to imitate current stocks available on the market, we are creating an alternative, something with different characteristics and a different palette.”
That sounds like Lomography-speak, and I suspect it’s a way for ORWO to distance the new film from the competition and to perhaps deflect any direct comparisons in the areas of grain structure, tonality, and dynamic range (areas where, after my initial testing, ORWO doesn’t exactly stand toe-to-toe).
But hey, a new color film! Let’s shoot it.
My Experience with ORWO Wolfen NC500
To start, let’s look at the name. ORWO Wolfen NC500.
The “Wolfen” part, I get. The stuff is made in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, where ORWO has manufactured film since 1910. That’s neat, I suppose. I’ve never been there. The place could be a hell-hole, for all I know. But let’s be charitable and assume it’s a beautiful place. I’m sure it is.
But then we have that numbering. NC500. Five hundred.
“Okay, so we’re looking at a 500 ISO film?” I ask.
“Nein!” exclaims ORWO. “It’s ISO 400.”
“Then why didn’t you call it NC400?”
“Because, you fool, we already have a film called NC400!”
And it’s true. They do have a film called ORWO Wolfen NC400. It was developed and released alongside NC500, and is remarkably similar to NC500, except it presents images that are more saturated, finer-grained, and much cooler (blue toned). Incidentally, they’re both rated as ISO 400 films.
But that’s enough of that. I load the film into a Nikon N60 fitted with the classic Nikkor 50mm F/1.8, load a second roll into a Canon Snappy Q, and search my splayed carry-on bag’s disheveled contents for the snorkel that I’m sure I packed.
A few hours later I’m standing incongruously upon a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t find my snorkel, and I used all of the sunscreen on my children, leaving none for myself. I’m sure that I’m on my way toward sun poisoning.
A pair (or a dozen, who can be sure?) of dolphins are mere meters away, hunting fish, breaching the turquoise waves, getting closer and closer. I apprehensively wonder if dolphins are truly as friendly as people say, and ineffectually ponder over how weird dolphins are, if you think about it. (They’re slippery grey tubes and they produce milk.)
I find a sea urchin and, for some reason, pick it up. I’ve never seen a living sea urchin, much less held one, and as it tickles its way across my palm with its myriad spiny feet, I take a moment to wonder if it’s poisonous. I show it to my girls and they scream and flee. The urchin is eager to get back into the water, and I oblige it.
I decide it’s time to take some pictures.
Shooting ORWO Wolfen NC500 is the same as shooting any other film. Put it in a camera, point the camera at what matters, and take a picture. Here are some of my real-world results.
[NOTE: Since returning from the deserted beaches of Florida, I have shot additional rolls of NC500 in more controlled and various situations, and have bracketed exposure testing completed. I will update this article when those images are processed. Interested photo nerds should revisit this article in June.]
My images made with NC500 appear de-saturated, slightly under-exposed when shooting at box-speed, low in contrast, high in grain, very green and very yellow.
Lightroom corrections have helped to bring the film closer to what I consider acceptable white balance, but straight from the lab, the scans were too yellow and too green. This could be a result of the film lacking an orange base-layer, so expect to color correct if you all don’t love the ultra-yellow look.
After years of shooting expired color film, often with mixed results, I’m inclined to think that these shots would have come out better had I cranked the exposure compensation to over-expose by a stop or two.
Diving a little deeper, let’s look at the grain structure. It’s heavy and exaggerated, and it does tend to diminish some of the detail of the film. Color films from Kodak’s Pro line certainly render sharper and cleaner images, and even ORWO’s own Wolfen NC400 has finer grain. Recall, however, that sharpness and cleanliness are not the intended goals for Wolfen NC500. Wolfen NC500 is not a true-to-life film. Not even close.
The de-saturation is certainly a vibe. Colors are muted across the range, but especially so in the blue tones. Believe me when I say that the skies of Florida and the waters of the Gulf are all far bluer than images from this film indicate. Plants are greener, too. For those seeking to simply document the colors of the world as it is, Kodak’s color films are much better in this regard.
Lastly, ORWO’s new color film is not cheap. Pricing ranges from shop to shop, but NC500 typically costs in the area of $17 per 36 exposure roll. Compared with some other color films, ORWO is pricey.
But ORWO is not seeking to make a competitor to Kodak or Fuji’s color film. As per their own press material, ORWO Wolfen NC500 is intended to be an eccentric film that makes images with a nostalgic, cinematic flair. Like Lomography (a brand for whom ORWO manufacturers color film, incidentally), ORWO is attempting to create a niche within a niche. With this in mind, I believe Wolfen NC500 is a success.
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Not a fan of this film.