The world of photography gear is, to put it bluntly, confusing as hell, and it can be hard to know which lens, camera, and film, is right for you and your budget. It gets even more difficult when we wade into forums searching for informed opinions on gear only to find threads filled with personal attacks, illiteracy, and dubious information. Sadly, in this post-truth age, confusion and misinformation seems to be the order of the day.
And then we’ve got film like AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 400, one of the most confounding films around. At first glance, it’s another hum-drum film which ticks all the cheap consumer film boxes. Super cheap? Check. 400 speed? Check. Not Kodak or Fuji? Check. Ambiguous usage of romance language buzzword ending in a soft “ah” sound? Check. Conventional wisdom tells us we shouldn’t expect much from a film like this.
To muddy the water further, forum warriors seem to argue endlessly over the origins, merits, and troubles of AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 400. Some say it’s the best budget film ever and deserves to be shot alongside the Portras and Ektars of the world. Others say it’s an over-saturated, grainy mess and is better left to the casuals and their filthy point-and-shoots. And still others say it’s just repackaged Superia.
All of this yammering doesn’t add up to much, really. After all, great images can come from anywhere. So what’s really going on with this film? Is it any good, or not? A valid question, and after using it for the better part of two years I’ve found that the answer is much more complicated than many would have you believe. In many respects Vista can’t compete with the likes of a Kodak Portra or a Fuji Pro 400H, but at the same time, it shouldn’t languish at the bottom of the film barrel with some of those lesser consumer emulsions. The answer, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle.
AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 400 starts at a disadvantage. First off, it suffers from a lack of brand recognition among new and casual shooters. Over the last few decades the Agfa brand has certainly lost its luster, which is a shame considering they were one of the largest and best film manufacturers in Europe for much of the 20th century. The company once stood as tall as Kodak and Fuji, but the name dwindled as interest in film waned over the last few decades. Though the Agfa name still lives on today as AgfaPhoto, it’s not much more than a shadow of its former self.
Marketed the world over as one of the cheapest color negative options available, it’s earned a sort of unfortunate reputation. Its sister-film, Vista Plus 200, is sold in Poundlands (think the USA’s Dollar Store) all across England for just a single pound. And while many sites and Redditers extol the virtues of Poundland and Drug Store film, admiration seems to stop when the discussion shifts toward professional grade quality. This places Vista Plus 400 in a tier distinctly below pro in the minds of many.
I’m mostly indifferent to consumer films, Superia being the exception. I’ve run through dozens of rolls of consumer grade no-name films and have found that they’re as decent as advertised and shouldn’t be used for professional gigs. AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 400 should fall into the same class, and for the most part, it does. But while many of the cheaper films glaringly lack personality, Vista is a bit different. It’s a rare consumer-grade film that actually owns a distinctive, intense look. And this look might just prove itself useful for the fine-art and enthusiast shooters of the world.
If we’re going to analyze a look as specific as Vista Plus 400’s, let’s start with what it isn’t. This is not a sharp film. It’s a 400 speed film whose sharpness and resolution don’t stack up to the silkier wonders of films like Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro400H. The characteristic heavy grain of 400 speed film remains a very real issue here, and may put off shooters who prefer sharper films, or for shooters who dream of enlarging images to gargantuan proportions.
Aside from sharpness, fine grain, and resolution, one of the hallmarks of modern professional color negative films (with the exception of the super saturated Ektar) is a tendency toward understatement and accuracy in color rendition. Consumer films, on the other hand, tend to exaggerate color and contrast in order to achieve an appealing look for the casual snap-shooter. As James so eloquently stated in his Portra profile, some films look “like a leprechaun puked Lucky Charms all over your print.” In this respect, Vista Plus 400’s distinct saturated color palette pulls heavily from the consumer film camp. But unlike many other consumer films, the look never reaches gaudy or wild levels. Colors are handled with tact and delicacy. Greens and blues are rich and deep, while reds and yellows tend to be bright without being overbearing. Overall, the film tends to have a warmer color cast than most, which is a characteristic held over from Agfa’s glory days.
While Vista Plus 400’s colors are individually spectacular, the film’s real strength is in how these colors play together as an ensemble. Many shots yield an image that is somehow pastel and saturated at the same time, giving the whole film a grave look full of muted allure. Images look aged right out of the canister, but retain the vibrancy of a modern film. Combine this with the film’s lower resolution and somewhat prominent grain and we get images that recall the family color slides and motion pictures of the mid-20th century.
This neo-vintage look of Vista Plus 400 is one that lends itself particularly well to casual street photography and urban landscape photography. Objects rich in color become more prominent with this film, lending itself particularly well to kaleidoscopic street scenes or colorful portraits of storefronts. Due to the somewhat lo-fi and grainy nature of the film, these scenes tend to look rendered rather than simply recorded.
On the flipside, the film is not ideal for portraits. Skin tones are rendered inaccurately due to a greater sensitivity to red light compared with portrait-oriented films. This can be negated slightly by over-exposing, thereby allowing more exposure time to the greens and blues, but the resultant flatter skin tone can leave a portrait shooter wanting for a film with a smoother tone curve. The film also tends to mask details because of its increased grain, lower resolution, and old-world rendering, likely leaving lovers of clarity and detail rather cold.
Who will enjoy this film? If you’re looking for a razor-sharp, professional, realistic film that’s good for shooting humans, Vista ain’t it. But if you’re out shooting city streets, landscapes, your travels and adventures, and anything non-human, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 400 is one of the best and cheapest choices out there. It doesn’t offer modern realism, but vintage romance. And for many film shooters, it’s this kind of romance that makes film worth shooting.
No doubt, it stands as one of the great anomalies among films. It’s neither consumer nor professional, neither dull nor garish, neither vintage nor modern. But let’s throw away these qualifiers and just look at it for a minute. I see a simple film that makes interesting street shots and gives a pleasing palette of subtle color. Other people may lament its technical shortcomings, and that’s just fine, but at such a low cost it’s a film that’s certainly worth a shot.