ORWO NP20 for Agfa Rapid/SL Cameras

Experimenting With Expired Black and Whtie Film in an Extinct Mini-Format

7 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

ORWO NP 20 is a panchromatic black and white film that was discontinued decades ago. The batch I’m testing expired in 1992 — thirty-two years ago! What I have here is the elusive “SL Kassette” format designed specifically for certain miniature half-frame cameras.

Good sample scans of this film can be found elsewhere on the internet; however, this review covers a batch with a very long beard “under a microscope.” Shot in a half-frame format, the NP20 frames posted in this review are enlarged 2x compared to the standard 35mm. A frame shot in a 645 medium format camera is twenty times larger than a half-frame format I’m reviewing here.

I am also scanning it at 5,000DPI with manual scanner focus adjustments, which is probably more detailed than most of everything shot on film and posted online these days. Expect lots of grain and grain detail.

I’m not a lab wizard; no one can tell how well this film was stored all this time. Thus, you may get better, same, or worse results when you buy it online.

☝️ FYI: I might still have a few extra expired, unopened ORWO NP20 film rolls for Agfa Rapid/SL cameras at my Etsy shop.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) exposure tests.

Finding the right developer and technique for expired black and white film.

Developer, temperature, and agitation techniques can affect the results when developing black and white film. Fresh, new film will often provide reasonably consistent grain, contrast, and exposure even when the chemicals or the process are altered slightly. However, expired film, especially when it was made four decades ago, is a lot more finicky.

Developer. I got some help from the #BelieveInFilm community on Mastodon. I’ve been advised to avoid Rodinol, as it tends to produce sharper, more pronounced grain, and try some techniques, including ice-bath development. I also did some further research online.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) exposure tests. Exposure tests, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for eight minutes. The blank parts of the film appear quite dark — base fog.

Indeed, the samples of NP20 with Rodinol that I’ve seen appear to be especially grainy, though I probably would’ve gotten great results with Foma Fomadon Excel, according to this list of samples. The same page shows awfully chunky grain with Caffenol. Adox Adonal did not look good to me, but Kodak XTOL seemed like another good option. The Kodak D76 developer looked fantastic with NP20, but it’s not available near me.

Eventually, I went with a #BelieveInFilm replier’s advice for Ilfosol 3, which @Billthoo hypothesized to be a version of XTOL.

Unfortunately, there are no development times listed for the ORWO NP20 film at the Massive Dev Chart, so I had to figure that out on my own:

I tried Lomography’s advice for finding development times for any black and white film first. It failed horribly. It involved developing a strip of film, visually inspecting it, and then making some calculations. For me, that yielded dense, black (unscannable) strips of film.

Developing “unknown” film using a comparable film recipe. In my next attempt, I used an Ilfosol 3 recipe for Film Ferrania P30 film, which is an ISO 80 film (same as NP20). I tried that with various techniques and timings and stopped at this:

Ilfosol 3 with 1:9 dilution for eight minutes. I’ve also over-exposed the film slightly at EI 50, as that showed the best results in my test strip.

See more samples and my notes as I went through the process of discovering the results.

I have a few more rolls of this film to try with more variations. I think that stand development, iced water, and 1:14 dilution are great candidates — since all of the above should smooth out the grain and diminish contrast. Which is exactly what this film needs:

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) with Pentacon Penti 0. Exposed at EI 50, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for six minutes.

ORWO NP20 grain and resolution.

If you were to look at this film as presented in other samples online — scanned at lower resolution in medium format — it’ll appear relatively smooth/fine-grained. However, when enlarged at high resolution as a half-frame, it looks very grainy — especially in the shadows. Most modern film does not produce this much grain in half-frames.

More likely than not, the grain is due to the fogging that happens over time to all film due to radiation. No matter what I did, my film never looked transparent enough out of the tank. Few films are completely clear when new, but this thirty-two-year-old film showed a lot of fog, which made scanning it a little tricky.

Getting a decent level of detail out of NP20 isn’t difficult — it’s a sharp film. However, I wanted to hide some of the grain, particularly in the shadows, which I accomplished to some degree using the Photoshop Curves tool. But I could never eliminate the grain without exaggerating the film’s contrast and killing some shadow detail.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) with Pentacon Penti 0. Exposed at EI 50, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for six minutes.

ORWO NP20 contrast and dynamic range.

There’s no datasheet for this film online, though it’s evident from the samples that it has high contrast and an extensive dynamic range.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) with Pentacon Penti II. Exposed at EI 50, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for eight minutes.

If it weren’t for the base fog, NP20 would resolve a decent amount of detail in the shadows. The film still handles highlights and over-exposure well. My tests showed that you can expose this film 2-3 stops above the box speed (while developing normally) and still recover the bright spots. Though ISO 50 still looks best (+⅓ stops).

If I were to guess, I’d give this film about seven stops of dynamic range in its prime (estimated based on Sunny 16 and the level of detail in the samples). But if you want clear shadows, I’d shoot it as if it had just four stops of dynamic range and crush the shadows in post. That’s assuming you don’t find a better way to develop it.

Agfa Rapid/SL film cartridges.

NP20 shows a lot less grain with full-frame cameras and in medium format. You may even find sheets of it in large format, which would be even better.

Welta Penti II next to an SL cartridge loaded with ORWO NP20 expired black and white film.

However, this is one of the few emulsions still sold with Agfa Rapid/SL film cartridges, which are special 35mm canisters that hold 24 half-frames travelling from one to the other. They function similarly to the 110 format and can be easily reloaded with regular 35mm film, but even the empty ones are hard to come by. It just so happens that NP20 is what you’ll see most commonly loaded into them by the manufacturer today.

This odd format is the only thing that’ll work with the excellent Penti 0 and Penti II cameras, which look positively adorable.

ORWO NP20 (exp. in 1992) with Pentacon Penti II. Exposed at EI 50, developed in Ilfosol 3 1:9 for eight minutes.

How much does ORWO NP20 cost, and where to buy it.

ORWO NP20 is not an expensive film. You can easily find a roll for under $10 or better when buying in bulk. This is not a rare film, with plenty of unopened packs still available on eBay.

By the way: Please consider making your ORWO NP20 film purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!