Film review: Rollei Vario Chrome color slide film in 35mm format
It’s time to lift the veil on my thoughts about Rollei Vario Chrome, a “new” slide film officially announced in June 2017 and available in 36 exposure 35mm cassettes*1. I’ve been putting this review off for a while, as I’ve needed some time to consider my feelings about the film and be a little more objective about my interpretation of my results to date.
For those of you who don’t want to jump through hoops to find out what those feelings are, here’s the short version:
If you’re looking for a slide film that provides you with accurate colour rendition and lovely pin-sharp grain, this film isn’t for you. At all. In the slightest.
However, if you are a fan of the grainy, earthy aesthetic of Rollei’s CR 200, expired Agfa RSX, or other similar stock, this might just be the (limited supply) film stock you’ve been looking for.
For everyone else who wants to see some samples and read a few thoughts, here’s what I cover in this article:
Table of contents
- 1 About Rollei Vario Chrome
- 2 So what exactly is it?
- 3 Film testing methodology
- 4 Vario Chrome samples
- 5 Verdict
- 6 Final thoughts
Let’s get stuck in.
About Rollei Vario Chrome
Although the packaging may be new, this is neither a fresh film, or a new emulsion. More on that a bit later.
According to materials provided by various online stockists at the time of writing, Rollei Vario Chrome is “a versatile medium to high-speed color reversal film that is intended for photography under low-level daylight illumination.” and “can be exposed at effective speeds of 200/24° to 400/27° ISO without any adjustments in development.”
The film is“characterized by a fine-grained image structure and a good degree of sharpness in consideration of its sensitivity.” However, this is contrary to the results you’ve seen submitted to date by the film photography community, as well as my own examples below.
Documentation goes on to suggest that shooting the film at EIs of 200-320 will result in lower saturation and that EI 320-400 can be used to obtain a higher saturation result.
Interestingly, although the film was originally advertised as using 135 cassettes that were DX coded at ISO 200, the first batch of 135 cassettes coded for ISO 320. As you can imagine, this left many early customers rather frustrated after realising they’d been under exposing their film. It’s “vario” so that’s ok, right?
At the time of writing, a second batch of Vario Chrome has been finished and is ready for order.
On developing Rollei Vario Chrome
E6 chemistry is recommended for developing this film, although available materials mention that customers have the option of cross processing the film in C-41 chemicals as long as they understand that “crossed processed photographs are often characterized by unnatural colors and high contrast. The results of cross processing differ from case to case, as the results are determined by many factors.” and that “…quality results can be achieved if exposed at 200/24° ISO and push processed by +1 f-stop.”
My experience (possibly determined by those “many factors”), is that the results in C-41 are identical, if not better when the film was developed in E-6. If C-41 development is cheaper than E-6 in your part of the world, my suggestion would be to save your money, cross process it and put the savings towards a fresh roll of Velvia or Provia instead.
So what exactly is it?
This is where things get a little murky. As mentioned above, this is not a fresh film. I say that not in an “it might be expired” kind of way, no. This is an expired film. My best guess is that the film is anywhere between 8-10 years off the production line, and that wasn’t optimally stored for most (or all), of the time between then and when it was packaged for sale.
The first and most obvious indication of Vario Chrome being an expired film stock is the near total lack of black on the unexposed leader of the developed slides. The second indication is the quality of the transparencies and colour rendition. On a cursory glance, the developed film looks pretty sharp and full of detail but the reality under a loupe or when scanned is a very different. There’s grain and plenty of it. The colour palette is earthy and muted; and produces some nice red tones when it feels like it.
Comparing it to other film stocks, it has shades of expired Agfa-based film and in part echoes FPP’s Retrochrome in its character. If you shoot or have shot Rollei’s CR 200 before, just imagine that with more grain.
Noticeable grain and less-than-true colour rendition aren’t a bad thing but if you haven’t shot this film before and are expecting something akin to Velvia, Provia or (well stored) expired EKTACHROME, you should be aware that is not what you’ll be getting.
Film testing methodology
Film and development
In total, I shot three rolls. Two were kindly provided to me by Sandeep Sumal and for my part, I sent him some Fuji Provia 100F and Rollei Ortho 25 along with a handful of durian-flavoured chews (I wish I was joking). All three rolls were developed within a day of being shot.
- The first roll was shot at EI 400 and bracketed +1-stop before being developed in E-6 chemistry, giving two frames per scene at EI 400 and EI 200.
- The second was shot at EI 800, bracketed +1-stop and push processed 1-stop in E-6 chemistry, giving two frames per scene at EI 800 and EI 400.
- The third and final roll was shot at EI 400 as a mixture of +/-1-stop and +1-stop before being processed as normal in C-41 chemistry. Samples below range from EI 200-400-800.
I used a Contax AX and Helios 44-3 58mm f/2 MC lens. The camera was in manual focus mode and set to aperture priority with center-weighted metering. The lens was shot anywhere between f/2 to f/8 depending on my mood.
Vario Chrome samples
Three sets of samples images follow. The sets cover:
- Roll 01: EI 200/400 – E-6 development (normal)
- Roll 02: EI 400/800 – E-6 development (1-stop push process)
- Roll 03: EI 200/400 – C-41 development (normal)
I have provided several examples from each roll in pairs, so that you can compare the correct exposure / over exposure results directly.
To view the images full-size, click on an images and use your keyboard to tap right and left. If you are on a mobile device, tap to open and swipe to navigate.
Roll 01: EI 200/400 – E-6 development (normal)
The grain is noticeable but not too distracting. Red, orange, yellow and brown tones are enhanced, and shadows seem blueish or grey. There is little “pop” when subjects are shot under shade or indirect light. Over exposure of subjects under bright light can provide some pleasing results but not to my personal taste.
Roll 02: EI 400/800 – E-6 development (1-stop push process)
The grain is very pronounced but not in a manner I find pleasant. It’s overly distracting to my eye. Colours pop when the film is over exposed a stop and it seems to me that uniformly bright light works best.
Roll 03: EI 200/400 – C-41 development (normal)
Cross processing typically brings out colour shifts, puffs grain and can result in what may appear to be a reduction in film speed, giving images a slightly over exposed look. Your results may vary but Vario Chrome only does the second of the three for me.
The scans look almost identical to those developed in E-6 chemistry with perhaps the slightest of an exposure bump and increased earth tones. Processing this film in cheaper C-41 chemistry seems to do nothing to diminish the look, although the bright green negatives will give you a shock.
Here are the C-41 examples:
I said up top that I’ve been putting this review off for quite a while and with good reason.
I am best described as a positive person when it comes to these film reviews. I firmly believe that every new film stock we currently have access to has it’s merits and by extension, an audience that will appreciate the aesthetic it provides.
It’ll be no secret to regular readers that I have had my fair share of problems with a few film stocks, Foma’s Fomapan line in both 135 and 120 formats being one example. I just cant get the film to behave, even though I have seen the film perform spectacularly when put in the hands of photographers who seem to know how to handle it*2.
Why mention Foma? I use it as a crutch in case I’m wrong and change my mind about Rollei Vario Chrome in the future.
Apologies to everyone out there who likes this aesthetic: I don’t. I’m sure that given the right scene, light and mood, Rollei Vario Chrome will to produce a specific desired result but it’s not for me, especially when I was expecting a fresh film given the marketing surrounding it.
2017 has been a fantastic year for analogue photography and new photographic film stocks in particular – both brand new and reformulations of existing emulsions. Amongst this crop, we’ve seen two “limited edition” releases, one in the form of Lomography’s F2/400 and the other being Rollei Vario Chrome.
Unlike Rollei, Lomography were completely open and transparent about the expired / “aged” nature of the film. And you see, that’s the rub for me.
Let me explain.
I mentioned above I had two indications that Vario Chrome is expired. There are three. I found the last one on an Instagram post made on June 28 2017. To directly quote it:
“…about a year ago we have been faced with the opportunity to acquire a bigger amount of high-speed slide film that was produced by one oft the major film manufacturers. Now, as we couldn’t have a completely new emulsion made, we have decided to go with this excellent film material and make it available to the public again.”
This information is missing from all other materials available on the film and I wonder how many of the 314 people who liked the post at the time of writing actually read it, or understood what it meant.
To all intents and purposes, Rollei Vario Chrome was pitched to the film photography community as a new film stock capable of things it simply cannot deliver based on what I’ve seen and created to date. To even think of characterising this film as having a “fine grain structure” is laughable – even considering the film’s original speed.
Perhaps “fine grain structure” was an appropriate description when the film was fresh but it isn’t the case now, not in the slightest.
I’m not sure if it’s the aesthetic, or the misleading information and marketing surrounding this film that has me so riled up. Maybe it’s a bit of both. I’m lucky enough to be able to develop in E-6 film at the same price as C-41 and can’t imagine the disappointment I would have felt if I’d had to spend $15-20 on developing a single roll of this film.
The film photography industry delicately sits at the beginning of a bounce back and the community is wonderfully receptive to new films stocks being made available. Sub-standard, or inaccurately promoted products that take advantage of this goodwill could well be the undoing of the confidence that has been built over the last few years, making it difficult for truly new films and players to enter the industry.
I’ll finish with this: now these three rolls are finished, it’s not likely I’ll be using this film stock again. Perhaps a day will come when I’m in the right frame of mind to shoot to the aesthetic but for day-to-day slide film, I’ll be putting my money towards a different stock that will give me what I want from my investment in time and money: something fresh.
I try to keep an open mind and of course, your results will likely vary. Let me take the edge off some of this negativity by asking you to chip in. If you have any examples of Rollei Vario Chrome you’d like to share as polar opposite examples to what I’ve written here, please link to them in the comments below. I stand to be corrected.
Thanks for reading and as ever, keep shooting, folks.
*1 – Announced in June 2017 but hiding in plain sight on Maco Direct’s downloadable price list since around February.
*2- I mention my trouble with 135 and 120 formats here but I should be clear that I absolutely love Fomapan 100 and 200 in 4×5 sheet form. These stocks accounted for over 60% of the large format sheets I shot on a ~3900 mile road trip in the US in 2017 and work just as well when developed as slides, as they do as negatives.
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