Film Review : Ferrania Orto – a Lesson in Patience

Film Review : Ferrania Orto – a Lesson in Patience

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There’s an old Russian saying that you have to wait three years for what you’ve been promised. Like most sayings, it happens to be true every once in a while. At least, I believe we could say it about Film Ferrania’s promises. Ever since Ferrania’s relaunch in 2013, the company has struggled to bring to market every single film stock that it promised to produce, the most notorious absence being their color negative and slide film.

Until now, the only Ferrania film that’s come to fruition has been their historic panchromatic 80 ISO black-and-white film known as Ferrania P30 (in 35mm and, most recently, 120 format). But this year on the 29th of March, Ferrania announced its second product. Called Ferrania Orto, the new film is an orthochromatic 50 ISO black-and-white film. 

Not without pride and, dare I say, a pinch of defiance, Ferrania presents its newborn film stock, telling us that “the past century’s problems are today’s features!” To unobtrusively allude to the creative potential of Orto, the company describes it as “P30’s quirky cousin.” A film which simply can’t see red light. So, knowing already the distinctive features of P30, one would expect the new Orto as well to render virtually the same high contrast and low grain images, though with very dark reds.

But what is Orto actually all about?

A Bit of Context

As a matter of fact, orthochromatic film isn’t new. It’s been around since the late 19th century, and introducing a modern orthochromatic emulsion today may seem a bit nostalgic, even anachronistic.

Back in the day, orthochromatic film was the only available option, and it posed a lot of problems for the production of motion pictures. For one thing, due to its reduced sensitivity to the light spectrum, this early blue- and green-sensitive emulsion wasn’t particularly good at rendering skin tones. Thus, only the extension of its spectral sensitivity to the red light enabled a more accurate representation of the colors on the light spectrum. This deficiency of early emulsions may partly explain why there are only a few orthochromatic film stocks still available today. 

Arguably the most popular, or at least the most commonly available orthochromatic film stocks here in Europe, are Ilford Ortho+ 80 and Rollei Ortho 25, making the new Ferrania Orto fit roughly in the middle between them with its declared sensitivity of 50 ISO. The same is also true for the price of Orto, which lies somewhere between Ferrania’s main competitors. Here in Italy you can usually find it for about €11,5. [In the USA it costs $11.99, a dollar more than Ilford Ortho+ and about the same as Rollei’s ortho film.]

However, Ferrania, unlike Ilford and Rollei, is known to be shy about revealing any technical information about their film. Thus, apart from its nominal sensitivity and some published development recommendations, we don’t have much data to consider.

We may however expect Orto to have a similar spectral sensitivity curve, and therefore similar performance to that of Rollei Ortho and Ilford Ortho+. It is an orthochromatic film, after all. But having no experience with either of its competitors, I won’t speculate any further on the possible similarities between them and Ferrania Orto. Instead, I’m going to write about my thoughts on the latter after shooting and developing at home two rolls of this new film stock. 

Before Orto

For the last six months or so I’ve been almost exclusively shooting black-and-white film, mostly Fomapan 100 in 35mm. What started at first as a choice of convenience (on this side of the Atlantic the prices of film have been going crazy) soon became my loyal companion for everyday casual shooting. I’ve gradually grew quite fond of Fomapan’s grainy and unpretentious look, which makes it well suited for taking gritty images on the street. Besides, the low price and widespread availability of Fomapan makes it a great black-and-white film to get started with film photography.

However, I must admit that Fomapan 100 is by no means a perfect film. It is too grainy for such a slow emulsion, it often struggles to accurately record high contrast scenes, and it has a pretty nasty glowing effect around strong light sources. Couple this list of imperfections with the fact that Fomapan is actually a panchromatic film, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more distinct film stock to Ferrania’s Orto. That’s why, when I my trusted local film store happened to receive a fresh batch of Ferrania Orto, I jumped at the opportunity to take a break from Fomapan and try something completely different.

I haven’t shot all the black-and-white film on the market; not even close. Except for Fomapan, I’ve only shot Agfa APX in both 100 and 400 ISO, and had some rather sporadic experience of shooting the widely praised  and long gone Fuji Acros II, but only in medium format. Needless to say, I’m not going to directly compare Ferrania Orto to the long list of black-and-white films, though I may mention a couple of instances where it stands out. 

My Experience with Ferrania Orto 

Bearing in mind all the peculiarities and quirks of Orto, I thought it would be interesting to see how it performs in a number of different settings. Most importantly, I was curious to see how it renders reds compared to other colors. So, I waited for a sunny day to feed a fresh roll of Ferrania Orto into my trusty Nikon FM2, and set off on the quest for red-colored subjects. 

Even though Ferrania doesn’t recommend using Orto for street photography because of its relatively slow speed, I found out that with enough light and reasonably steady hands I could still make rather decent pictures on the move. It applies not only to still objects like road signs, buildings and flowers on a windless day, but also to such erratic subjects as dogs. I could even freeze a flying bird’s wings right in the air.

Moving on to colors, the reds, as expected, turned out pretty dark. For instance, they are almost indistinguishable from originally black lettering on the road signs. I even attempted to take a picture of a red flower on a kitchen table using my tripod to avoid any camera shake. Even being hit with a strong beam of light, the red flower’s petals are still rendered by Orto almost like their own deep black shadow. 

The blues and greens, on the other hand, tend to be over-exposed, and I should’ve considered it before photographing seascapes. Unfortunately, since I was going to develop both of my rolls at once after I had shot them, I couldn’t see the negatives beforehand and correct my exposure accordingly. As a result, it’s almost impossible to see the horizon line between the sky and the water in the seascape shot that I made. Overall, skies on Orto are lacking tonal gradation, and are often rendered as very bright blank spaces. 

Finally, being aware of the limits of Orto, I took only a couple of portraits to see how it renders caucasian skin tones. I wasn’t expecting too much from those photos, but I kind of liked the results, since they have that early-cinema look to them. That being said, I don’t think I will take portraits on Orto if I ever get my hands on it again. Instead, I’d rather go shoot some more landscapes where this film could really shine.

[Words and images in this article are kindly provided by Daler Fergani, whose photography can be seen here.]

Development charts

Although for the time being there’s no datasheet available for Orto, Ferrania was kind enough to provide us with some recommended development practices for this film stock. As a side note, they are virtually the same of P30, to which Orto “is chemically similar.”

After consulting the chart, I decided to develop both rolls at once in Rodinal 1:50 diluition at 20°C for 14 minutes. Then, I digitized all the negatives using my mirrorless Fujifilm camera and an adapted lens, the same Voigtländer 40mm f/2 with which I took almost all the photos for this article.

What is there for a Casual Photographer?

Felix Bielser, CEO of an Italian film retailer Punto Foto Group, told in his recent interview that bringing back an old orthochromatic film is to offer something different, something that stands out from the rest of the film photography industry. And I have to admit it, he’s got a point. The reduced light sensitivity to the red spectrum of Ferrania Orto does offer us a distinct new / old look. I believe that many of us would go for this different look. You may like it or not, but Ferrania Orto has its own character, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s definitely worth a try.

But even more importantly, and I guess it may sound a bit odd, for me the experience of shooting Orto was more about learning to care about colors. The knowledge about this film’s blindness to the red color prompted me to deliberately look out for it while I was shooting. The awareness of the idiosyncrasies of Orto made me slow down and opt for a more mindful shooting workflow. 

I understand that our film community hasn’t been pampered lately by film manufacturers, and some of us may have become a bit impatient, especially when having to deal with all the inconvenience of this odd hobby of ours. I’m sure that we’ve all been there, trying to be patient and not give up hope in the future of film photography. But the fact that after all these years a small company such as Ferrania has managed to make available another film emulsion should help us to be a little bit more hopeful and to keep making pictures.

If there’s something at all that I’ve learned since I got into film photography, it’s that it takes a hell lot of time to see the results of your work, and it defenitely leaves no room for impatience. So, if I have to wait for another three years to try out a new film emulsion, I’ll do it. Because, in the meantime, I’ll still be able to shoot my good old Fomapan.

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Daler Fergani is a full time shutterbug and a language fiend who never leaves home without a film camera and a good old paper book. In between photographic escapades, Daler tries to work on PhD research in Linguistics. To enjoy more of Daler’s images, please visit Instagram here.

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  • My problem with Foma 100 & 200 is the curl. Reminds me of a New Years Eve party blower that quickly rolls back up. Ilford Pan F+ is a beautiful film in Rodinal 1-75 15 minutes with a 30 second agitation up front and 10 seconds at the 5 and 10 minute marks. Some say it is a high contrast film but I find it very well controlled using this development method.

    • To avoid the curl I usually let freshly developed rolls hang for a night with some weight attached to them. It normally works, and then I have no problem at all putting the film in the film holder and scanning it. I hope it will help you.

  • Daler, I liked your pictures; there’s nothing wrong with making “mistakes” when it’s a film that’s new to you, as well.

    I liked your first photo, despite the blindness of the film to red, it actually makes for a more beguiling shot to me, as it makes the origin of the shadow more of a question, I like the mystery.

    About your PhD, what specific aspect of linguistics are you studying? I have a bit more than a passing familiarity with the field.

    • Thank you, John, for your kind words! I guess I still have a lot to learn about film photography.
      As regards my PhD, I’m working on second language acquisition, and more precisely I’m studying how native Russian learners acquire auxiliary selection in Italian. What about you? What is your area of expertise?

      • Sorry about the late response! My wife is a trained ethnomusicologist, and studied at an applied linguistics school in Texas (they have both programs). I lived in/around that community for about 2 years, so while I’m a mechanic, I have a slightly greater knowledge of linguistics than average.

  • Great. I will have a test withmy Zeiss Ikon.

  • I’m definitely tempted to try now, even if the prices are a bit of the scale. As you, I’m using quite a bit of Fomapan 100 now. I don’t find it all that grainy, actually. Sure not as smooth a films like Delta 100 or Acros 100, but developed well, the grain of Fomapan 100 is quite subtle for me (using Rodinal 1+50, so not a developer known to hide grain). Fomapan 200 is actually a nice alternative too; I quite like it.

    But probably with the next order for fresh film, adding this Ferrania film…. it really looks very nice. Thanks for the write up!

    • Daler Tashkhuzhaev August 15, 2023 at 12:35 pm

      You’re right, Wouter! Fomapan 100 is definitely not the grainiest slow film out there, but I believe that someone who’s never tried it before should be aware of its quirks (which I personally like a lot). Fomapan 200 is also a valid option, but I prefer Foma 400 for low light situations, since it gives me that one more stop which might come in handy. Thank you, I hope you’ll enjoy shooting Ferrania!

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