With all the choice of film stocks available today, you’d be forgiven to feel confused about their origins and what that means for you as a photographer.
Knowing who makes your film can help you understand the business you’d be supporting, and whether you can find that film in a year — or if it’s likely a short-lived release.
Some film brands raise waves of controversy over their stock’s origins as certain photographers disdain white-labelled releases of another manufacturer’s product. The same people will tell you that they would prefer to see more “real” emulsions that differ fundamentally rather than by the packaging. However, the business of selling and distributing film has always had many layers of complexity, driven by market demand and our collective love for analogue picture-taking materials. It’s not often that you get to buy your film directly from the factory that makes it — and if you do, that does not guarantee a better deal.
In this short guide, I will dig into the fascinating world of film branding, distribution, and manufacturing that creates an unexpectedly-diverse wealth of choices for our analogue photography needs. Starting with the obvious:
Original manufacturer film brands.
Kodak, Fujifilm, Ilford, ORWO, Film Ferrania, Adox, and Fomapan are examples of film factories that handle the entire lifecycle of film production — from sourcing raw materials to packaging and marketing. Some manufacturers, like Film Ferrania, may sometimes sell their film directly from their website. Most, however, will distribute to dedicated retailers like Analogue Wonderland.
Not to be forgotten are the micro-factories such as Film Washi, a product of one person’s labour. At this time, Washi may be the only business that does this kind of work, although there were others and could be more that I haven’t heard of yet.
This is the most straightforward way film gets into your hands. Made at a factory, shipped to your store, and into your pocket. But that’s not where our film sources end.
White-labelled film brands.
Rollei, Lomography, Kosmo Foto, and Japan Camera Hunter are famous examples of businesses that sell white-labelled film products. These brands work directly with film factories that package film with their design and logos.
Lomography is famously secretive about their sources, giving no hints of whether they’d still be able to sell film if another factory, like Kodak, gets shut down. Others, like Kosmo Foto, are somewhat transparent about theirs; Kosmo Foto Mono, for example, is known to be Fomapan 100 — a common assumption that has neither been confirmed nor denied by the brand’s owner, Stephen Dowling.
Understandably, being able to get your name on rolls of film that could make money without the burden of manufacturing sounds like a sweet deal. So it’s no surprise that many businesses that operate that way hide their film origins to avoid competition. This obfuscation also helps them to get their name better associated with the complex and valued film production process. And as one would expect, these practices do occasionally draw criticism.
However, I think it’s important to understand that logistics and branding are difficult; just because someone is re-selling something doesn’t mean you are getting ripped off. For example, in Canada, Fomapan film can cost more than Kosmo Foto due to how it’s imported and delivered.
Japan Camera Hunter’s original film producer’s addressable market (security cameras that use film) would’ve shrunk all the way to bankruptcy without the analogue photographers’ zeal — brought by JCH.
It takes effort and influence to market film — white-labelling outsources that responsibility onto the brands with a following and the will to do the job. And thus, in many ways, this practice is a service to the photography community.
Also, white-labelling film is not new. For example, the recently-discontinued decades-old Agfa Vista films are speculated to be of Fujifilm’s origin, and Rollei allegedly makes no film of its own today.
You should, however, understand that not all white-labeled film is new. Some brands sell old caches of stock under their name — which is usually fine but not a guarantee that they won’t eventually run out.
One of the best-known film brands today is CineStill. The Brothers Write, who found the company built their first product around Kodak’s Vision 3 500T movie stock. However, to be acceptable at photo labs, the rolls had to undergo a laborious process of removing the rem-jet layer before cutting and packaging the emulsion into their CineStill-branded canisters.
The Brothers Write aren’t silent about their film’s source (Kodak). Their secret sauce is the machine that processes the movie stock into neat still camera packages and their powerful brand that sells them.
Not all film pre-processing is as practical as that of CineStill. Kono and Dubble’s products have examples of pre-exposed emulsions that feature colourful shapes and gradients on top of a white-labelled emulsion.
Not all cinema films need to be pre-processed. For example, CineStill’s BWXX is a cut-down Kodak Eastman Double-X 5222 reels that have no rem-jet. Other stocks like New Classic EZ400 are also not much more than repackaged cinema reels.
Of course, slicing movie reels in complete darkness and packaging them safely into canisters isn’t always easy. Without the efforts of the above brands, most photographers would never get to try those stocks, particularly the ones that aren’t currently in production and are in storage, expiring.
Note that some repackaged colour cinema films can be found with the rem-jet layer intact. Their distributors rely on the photographer to know how to be properly developed; a kit to do just that has recently become available.
Technical films are a different brand of emulsions meant for scientific or highly specialized applications. Like Kodak Aerochrome, developed for the US military, or an ultra-high resolution Adox CMS 20 II originally meant for reproduction and document archiving.
Not meant for the consumer market upon their launch, technical films have been making a comeback as part of the manufacturer offering — as is the case with Adox CMS and Kodak Aerochrome (back in the day) — and as white-labelled offerings (i.e. Lomography Fantôme Kino B&W ISO 8).
Our nearly two-century-old history of film production has left us a whole lot of unused stock, made anytime between now and the early 1900s. While these emulsions may be found in stores or as white-labelled offerings, eBay usually has the largest selection. They can range anywhere from tested cold-storage films to the unknown rolls that may have someone else’s pictures on them.
While making a digital sensor for your camera at home is possible, the job is tedious and the results are poor. Lucky for us, photochemistry can lead to practical application and high-quality results without the need for a factory to make it. Wet plate collodion, for example, requires mixing and applying chemicals on location. And in some cases, even flexible film can be formulated — as is the case with Film Washi.
We are incredibly lucky to have as many options as we do when it comes to the next photoshoot, thanks to the nearly two-century-old legacy of film production. Despite the 2010s’ rapid decline in film usage and production, as well as a slew of discontinuations, there’s more choice of black and white film today than ever (Film Photography Podcast ep. 282).
Of course, this is not just what we did in the past that affords us such priveledges. We have many people and brands to thank for their continued dedication and promotion of this medium — white-labelled or not.