Review: Roly Poly Changeable ISO Slide Film

No, the sub-editor for this piece hasn’t suffered some form of minor stroke [hint: there is no sub-editor], this is a serious piece about a serious film. You out there in the real world may know it better as Rollei Vario Chrome, but owing to the owner of the Rollei brand going through the legal equivalent of a toddler’s “IT’S MINE” phase, I will refrain from mentioning the name “Rollei” again, except in connection with how bad this product is. 

Whoops, I guess I just gave the conclusion away.

The title’s going to do hell with my SEO, but what the heck. I made a promise to at least three readers and I’m sticking to it.

The 21st Century Film Photographer’s Cycle of Grief

“New” film product announcements in the second decade of the 21st century have their own grief cycle. First we’re excited for the product, then we’re extremely patient with the waiting for it to materialise, then we’re bitterly disappointed, either because the product is rubbish, or it never appears at all <cough> EKTACHROME </cough>.

Rollei Vario Chrome falls into the former. I was excited to find some at the fine London photographic repository Mr Cad on my visit there in September 2017. And can I just say its box design is simply luscious. I love it. The whole blue and white and gold checked motif thing is really nice and unlike anything I’ve ever seen for a roll of film before. 1970s and 80s Kodak are still my Gold (heh) standard for film box design, but this comes close.

This is where the nice things to say end.

Keeping Things Fresh

If you’ve ever shot fresh slide film — and I know these days, it’s getting harder and harder to — there’s a delightful thing about it. When you get your developed film back uncut or in strips, most of the leader is an almost impenetrable black, with only the very end — the end which you first pulled out of your cannister to load on to the take-up spool — entirely transparent. Somewhere in-between is where you closed the back of the camera and wound on the roll to start shooting, with often the fuzzy felt shadow of the metolius left over (unless you have an automatic camera which winds on beyond this segment of film). Anyway my point is this part of good slide film is just so black and wonderful. It’s all so unlike colour negative film.

Also a trait of good slide film, the sprocket holes and edges are similarly black — so long as your film is devved properly and there are no leaks in your camera. I have always loved the yellow (ironically enough) edge codes of Fuji slide films. They jump out at you, just as the image below and above them should. Recent Kodak films have taken a different approach to edge codes, using Copperplate Gothic for whatever reason to identify their emulsions. But I digress, these are the properties of good slide film edges (you can probably see where I’m going here with a ‘good/bad’ dichotomy…)

Here is an example of good slide film leader:

Here is Rollei Vario Chrome:

Here is an example of good slide film edges:

Here is Rollei Vario Chrome:

Rollei Vario Chrome looks like some nasty expired shit, which would be fine if it was sold as nasty, expired shit. But it is not. It is sold as a new film with a new film price to match. It is sold as a “versatile medium to high-speed color reversal film” with a “fine-grained image structure and a good degree of sharpness”. It offers neither of those things.

I shot it at 200 ISO, figuring it would probably need all the exposure it could get. Then I developed it at 200. Here are some samples from my first roll. I probably won’t be shooting any more, although I have a few rolls in the fridge. Some people on teh interwebs have shared their experiences shooting at different speeds and using different processing techniques, but I am yet to see consistent results from any method. Aside from variations in colour, they all look like the same grainy crap.

Look, I guess it’s fine if it’s the aesthetic you want. But as a lover of film photography, I don’t want “limited edition” film, I want unlimited, ongoing film. I don’t want what seems like an ex-Agfa stock that Maco found on a shelf in the factory furnace room. Although I do want the funky packaging, I don’t want it at the expense of a good product. 

Although “analogue” is often synonymous with “lo-fi”, for most of its history, “analogue” photography was photography. While film photography gave us Lomography, it also gave us Kodachrome, Hasselblads that went to the moon, and astonishing landscapes shot on 8x10. Film is the archival imaging medium. Photographers shouldn’t have to put up with probably expired crap.

I know, I know, you’re probably saying any ‘new’ film product in the 2010s is a good thing…if it sells well it might encourage other manufacturers to bring new products to market… yada yada yada. I’ve heard this mantra for a decade and with very few exceptions, it’s bullshite. We keep on buying this crap, yet Fuji persists in discontinuing the films one emulsion at a time. 

Secondly, this is not ‘new’ film. It’s an old emulsion that seems to have been sitting on a shelf for a while. Thirdly, sub-par products do nothing to encourage photographers to buy them. I’d like to see more clarity from all film manufacturers when marketing their products. Don’t hide behind weasel words, tell photographers straight up if it’s a truly “new” or “repackaged” emulsion. Oh, and when people are disappointed, don’t do the whole “we didn’t say it was a new emulsion” thing.

If Rollei Vario Chrome was a Lomography-branded product, I would have no issue with it. But the Rollei brand represents much more than that. Part of the grief cycle of ‘new’ films could be reduced by brands managing expectations. No, Rollei/Maco didn’t say this was a “new” product specifically, but perhaps they could have highlighted that it wasn’t a product suitable for A+ reproduction either. It barely matches the cheapest high-speed consumer neg film from the 1980s. Do what Lomography do and embrace the imperfections, rather than minimising them and ultimately disappointing customers.

Oh, and I mostly love Rollei’s products. I’ve shot a heap of Rollei-branded film over the past decade and I reckon it’s swell…but Vario Chrome ain’t.

The Good

That packaging design is wonderful. A+

The Bad

This thing ain’t fresh

The Ugly

Everything captured in the frame — through no fault of the photographer

Using Format