Not every day is a Portra day. And this reality set in hard when my local camera store started charging $13 per roll of Portra 400 (back when they actually stocked it). I want to support my local businesses, but the only way I could afford to do that and still shoot lots of film was to downgrade my everyday stock to a consumer-grade film.
There are some significant differences between consumer films, and for me, Agfa Vista 200 is distinctly superior to comparably inexpensive films made by Fuji and Kodak. Superia and Kodak Gold and ColorPlus aren’t bad films, but one is decidedly cool and the other two are fairly warm. Vista 200 is my perfect, happy medium.
Right off the bat, I should explain that I have no idea whether Vista is a repackaged film, and further, I don’t particularly care. To determine who actually makes this film one must first follow a treasure map, solve the riddles of three trolls, and sacrifice all the firstborns of a small village. Only then can we begin to sail the meandering stream of company buyouts, consolidations, and failures. Suffice it to say that, while the label on the film reads Agfa Vista 200, this is not the Agfa of yore. But if you insist…
The Agfa most people think of is Agfa-Gevaert, which for decades made cameras and film in Germany. That company pulled out of consumer film in 2005, and today only makes film for aerial photography under a business-to-business model.
Then what the heck is the Agfa Vista?
After 2005 Agfaphoto film was produced by Ferrania in Italy, before they went under. Now it’s produced by Lupus Imaging Media in Japan, which in turn apparently has it made by Fujifilm. Hence the rumors that’s it’s just repackaged Fuji stock. It’s available in 200 and 400 speed rolls, and as a slide film called CTprecisa.
And all of that’s about as exciting as a Tuesday night in middle-Canada, in February.
My relationship with Vista 200 began during a trip to Europe, where it was far and away the most accessible film. I could reliably find it and its 400 speed counterpart in drug stores throughout Germany, even in small towns, and at a cost of 3 or 4 Euros it was hard to pass up. It’s very cheap in the U.S., too and if I’m going somewhere for a long weekend I’ll usually grab a three-pack for under ten bucks. That cost savings alone already puts Vista 200 at a distinct advantage over similar offerings from Kodak and Fuji.
On the manufacturer’s data sheet, they claim Vista 200 boasts excellent grain quality, wide exposure latitude, excellent skin color, and excellent sharpness. But let’s see how that matches with reality.
For a consumer film, the grain quality does impress. Vista 200 images can be printed as large as 11 x 17. At that size, grain is noticeable, but in my experience printing at this size, the presence of grain didn’t diminish the photo and actually improved the aesthetic quality of the prints. It has more grain than one might expect from a 200 speed film, and in certain light can even look like 400 speed film.
Overexposing this film yields pleasant results. Shooting on a beach at 50 ISO doesn’t bring blown highlights or loss of detail, as we might think. This versatility makes it a great film from morning until evening. It holds up well to overcast skies, and on sunny days the saturation can even look like a lower-grade Ektar. And like Ektar, Vista 200 really starts to pop when it’s flooded with light. Even in darker situations, the browns and blacks have an intensity not seen in other consumer level films.
Like with all consumer film, Vista 200 really packs in a lot of contrast and saturation. Blues, reds and greens all have an intensity beyond reality. It also has above-average amounts of magenta hues that give it a ton of personality. I do think the film can be a bit bipolar – veering between contrast and muted coloring. For times when I want an image to have a vintage and somewhat unpredictable look, this is my go-to film.
Consumer films are typically designed with portraiture in mind. After all, most amateur shooters are going to be taking snaps of the kids and family. That’s why it’s so surprising that Vista 200 is really quite bad for portraits. Maybe it’s because the film is so contrasty, but I’ve never been too happy with skin tones from Vista 200. They can be harsh, red, distracting. For portraits, there are far better options.
Sharpness is very fine, and it’s where the 200 speed and 400 speed start to really turn away from each other. Like Josh found in his profile of Vista 400, I’d never say 400 is capable of sharp images. That said, I’ve been consistently amazed with the sharpness of images shot on 200. This translates to the scanner as well. For a film that costs three dollars online, scans do not disappoint.
On the whole, the brand’s self-assessment of Vista 200 per its data sheet is pretty spot-on. The intense contrast, sharpness, and the receptiveness to experimental exposure has made it the “cheap film” I use to fill out my film case, after meeting my spending quota for Ektar and Portra 400.
While I wouldn’t use it on a portrait shoot, I can’t find a better film to travel with if cost is a concern. It’s a film that has personality, and one whose Jolly Rancher saturation is perfect for landscapes and travel photography. It’s a film you can mess around with and not worry too much about the impact on your wallet. Not only are the results stunning, they’re cheap too.