FILMSWAP review #02 – Agfa Vista Plus 200 from Colin Wilson
We’re back with the second of our #FILMSWAP reviews. This time, we’re looking at a little stock you might be familiar with; AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200. We traded the film with Colin Wilson, whom you’ll be hearing more from in an upcoming EMULSIVE interview very soon.
In short, the results are pleasantly surprising.
Let’s get cracking
About AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200
AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 is one of two films currently sold under the AgfaPhoto brand (the other being the higher speed Vista 400). Like most old photographic brands these days, the name AgfaPhoto has little to do with the company formed in the 1800’s and is now sadly simply a brand name for consumer films used under licence by Lupus Imaging Media.
That’s not to say that it should be passed over next time you come across a box at the supermarket, or drug store – far from it, in fact.
If you were shooting this film up to about 10 years ago, or have some pre-2005 expiration stock left in your freezer, you’ll have an emulsion made by Ferrania. Newer than that up to about 2013, and you’ll have a custom stock produced by Fuji. Anything expiring after 2013/14 will pretty much be Fuji C200 – or so we’re led to believe.
Let’s jump back in time a bit… The company known as Agfa-Gevert Group began life after the merger of Agfa and Gevaert in the late 1800’s. The group continued in various forms for about 140 or so years, until it became the subject of a management buy out in 2004. In 2005, the company was essentially folded and following a sell off of assets and physical/intellectual properties, the organisation now exists purely as business-to-business venture.
Not all is lost, however. The Agfa name is still licensed to various companies across the globe and as noted above, it seems that the Vista Plus of today is now most likely rebadged “normal” Fuji C200 stock, albeit with (possibly) a few tweaks to the finishing process.
Interestingly, the current Agfa-Gevart Group does still produce and sell film stocks that you may be familiar with. You simply have to buy them under a different name; most notably being Rollei and (some say), Lomography.
Whilst details on the latter are scarce, Rollei Superpan 200 is pound-for-pound Agfa Aviphot, an aerial surveillance film.
Back to Vista 200 and according to the current datasheet, the film is a daylight-balanced color negative stock with fine grain, excellent sharpness, a wide exposure latitude and natural skin tone reproduction.
It also (apparently) needs no compensation at exposures of up to 1/4000th of a second and down to 2 seconds. Exposures at 4, 16 and 64 seconds require an over-exposure of 1/3, 2/3 and 1 stop respectively. I didn’t test long exposures this time round but perhaps we’ll have a shot or two ready for a follow-up article.
Fine grain, wide exposure latitude and natural skin-tone reproduction are claims banded about by nearly every remaining color film stock vendor and I for one tend not to pay too much attention to this sort of thing. That said, this film seems to be well regarded in many circles and is readily available – globally – at a purchase and development cost that is much cheaper than my current color beau, Fuji Pro 400H.
In short, when Colin said he would throw me a roll for our filmswap, I jumped at the chance to try it out for the first time.
As with our previous filmswap “test”, I’ll be using that term rather loosely. I prefer sticking with gut feel interpretation the first time I shoot a roll (unless it’s something ridiculously rare, expensive, or hard to get). So, I’m afraid you’ll have to do with warm, fuzzy feelings and a distinct lack of graphs and such detail.
For this review I inadvertently ended up using a Leica M6 TTL and a 1950-something Canon 50/1.5 lens combo. Conditions varied from bright, direct sun with hard shade, to softly-lit soggy streets. A nice mix, in my opinion.
I was originally saving the Vista for a run through my Nikon F100 (as per the last test) but in my excitement of finishing a roll while out and about, I grabbed it from my case without thinking and the rest is beautiful, saturated history.
Had I actually thought about it, would I have chosen the Canon 50/1.5 for the test? Most probably, yes. It’s a lovely lens, capable of great contrast for it’s age. In my opinion, it also gives a stunning “layered” reproduction missing from many modern and over-designed lenses.
All this aside, it’s a compact, old and heavy brass bastard of a lens and I love it.
The film was developed by my local trusted C41 lab in Fuji chemistry and scanned on a Noritsu scanner.
I think it’s safe to say that this is a pretty punchy film. In fact, it’s one of the most vivid and fine-grained consumer films I can remember shooting in a while. To my eye, its color and contrast sits somewhere between Kodak’s Ektar 100 and ULTRA MAX 400; and while some folk like to compare Vista to Kodak Portra, I don’t really see it myself…at least not in the images I get back from my own attempts with Portra 160 or 400 in 35mm.
Drop a little light into the frame and Vista 200 will reward you with lovely rich tones. There’s none of what I’d unintelligently describe as “masking” (seen as a grey haze when shooting slower Fuji color negative and Kodak Color Plus 200 in less than brightly lit, or high contrast scenes).
Being based on Fuji color stock in at least some way, you’ll find that this stock will lean more to the blue and green end of the spectrum. That said, you can coax a nice rich red tone out of it, if you’re lucky.
Some photographers prefer more muted, natural colors. Not me, and not in this case, anyway.
So, how did the data sheet’s claims of fine grain, wide exposure latitude and natural skin-tone reproduction stack up in real life?
In all honesty, the sharpness of the scans really surprised me. So much so, that I immediately picked up another couple of rolls to shoot in the near future. It’s not, nor will it ever come close to the tiny grain of slide film, or repro stock but it’s good enough and much more than I expected from a film stock that costs 1/5th of the price of a roll of 35mm Fuji Pro 400H.
As far as I can tell, the only loss of detail and clarity was the result of human error (shake) when shooting at slower shutter speeds – see the banana leaf images below for examples of less than steady hands at 1/15th sec.
Possibly a better example is the dressed crab shot above. The softness of the edges of this shot is down to the Canon 50/1.5 lens, which was shot at f/2 but the centre is sharp as a tack.
It’s my (unproven) opinion that most, if not all consumer films of a certain age were primarily designed as “holiday stocks”.
What I mean by this is that there wasn’t any specific requirement for highly accurate color rendtion outside of getting skin tone mostly right but the films did need to be flexible enough to deal with a variety of lighting situations and give your holiday snaps a nice, rich and warm feeling.
Grain control also wasn’t particularly important, as long as the images were punchy enough to get the customer (discerning, or not), to want to buy again.
I feel this was especially true with US and European color stocks but less so with those from the Far East. Anyone still have those yellow/gold/brown toned Kodak holiday snaps from the 70’s and 80’s?
Agfa color films (as they were), pushed a little further and many people including my own parents, opted to stick with Kodak films, as opposed to the richer, bouncier tones of Fuji or Agfa. Their loss.
Jump back to today and things haven’t changed that much. There are still some (in my opinion), fabulously saturated color consumer films that can be used with wild abandon to get some really interesting results.
In fact, compared to current consumer color stocks from Kodak, Vista Plus 200 (and naturally Fuji C200), generally provides a finer grain and better sharpness, in my opinion.
It’s also very contrasty in comparison to its American brethren. Shadows and blacks are richer, deeper and emphasize the saturated color palette. There was enough latitude there to keep me happy for the shots on this particular outing but perhaps I’ll see if I can push the film a little further next time.
Skin-tones render accurately, in my opinion. The unwilling participants in the images here all appear as they did in the real word on the days I shot them. There was no shift to pink, yellow, or brown; they’re on film as they were in real life.
As someone who rarely shoots people as my main subject, this is a nice-to-know detail but it will probably be more important to some of you out there than it is to me.
The fine grain, color rendition, saturation and “punch” I got from this roll of Vista 200 will make me think twice next time I’m about to load a roll of Portra 160, or Fuji Superia in 35mm format. Technically, it does exactly what I want a moderate color film to do.
Now, if the choice was between Ektar 100, Portra 400 or Pro 400H…well, I’d have to think about it for a while. I’m really not sure if I’d take the Vista 200 but I’d be sorely tempted, especially if I didn’t need the extra stop of speed.
For me, there are four areas where Vista stands out from other consumer film stocks and might even have an edge on “Pro” films. These are:
- Cheap cost: USD2-4 / GBP1-2
- Great grain and fine detail
- Shoots just as well in the shade, under grey skies and under direct light
- Beautiful, rich, punchy color
If I had no choice in the matter I’d be happy for any of the “work” I do to be documented using Vista 200 but (and this is the $64,000 question), would I give up my aforementioned color beau, Fuji Pro 400H…?
Ask me next time I’m reloading my camera.