Svema Films – An Introduction
For the first part of my obsession with photography and, more specifically, film photography, most stocks I was shooting were all familiar to most western based photographers. A mix of Kodak, Ilford, and some Fuji. But after starting to listen to the Film Photography Podcast, I started to learn about a plethora of film stocks from the other side of the iron curtain. I quickly gravitated towards Efke/Adox stocks and eventually Foma. But there is so much more out there. Like the West, the photographic industry grew and expanded through the former Soviet Union in the post-revolution era and grew even more in the Post-World War Two time frame during the Cold War when products produced in the West were often blocked from entering the Soviet Sphere. And while many photographers take a look at the Soviet Camera industry with great interest (no surprise they did have the third largest camera industry in the world), most ignore the film industry that also grew up during this time frame. The obvious one is ORWO, the East German branch of Agfa, still producing film today. There’s also Forte in Hungary, but they have since closed down. Tasma in Russia, also no longer in production, but still around after a fashion and in Ukraine, Svema.
- History of Svema
- Svema FN64
- Svema Foto 100
- Svema Foto 200
- Svema Foto 400
- How to Get Astrum/Svema Films Today
The historical company known as Svema was founded in 1931 in the Ukrainian city of Shostka in Sumshchyna, known in the West as Sumy Oblast. Shostka started to rise as a major industrial centre in 1793 after establishing a gunpowder factory that became a significant black powder supplier to the Russian Empire. Given its location and industrial connection, the Svema plant would become the largest producer of photographic film, cine film, magnetic tape, and photographic paper for the entire Soviet Union. The company’s name, Svema is the combination of two words, translated to Photosensitive Materials. While initially producing only black and white film stocks, the factory got the equipment taken by the Red Army from the Agfa plant allowing the production of colour film in the post-war era. The first lineup of black & white films included four types of roll film, including Foto 32, Foto 65, Foto 130, and Foto 250; before 1987, these films used the GOST scale for the EI. Roughly the film stocks were ISO-40, ISO-80, ISO-160, and ISO-320, respectively. After 1987 the new GOST scale lined up with the standards set in the West. The new film stocks followed similar names, Foto 32, Foto 64, Foto 125, and Foto 250. There was also a Reporter 200, mainly used for motion pictures. But it was their colour films that put Svema on the map, specifically aimed at the motion picture industry. These films all had a different colour palette from those in the West would see with a much more green basis, and it became an iconic look for Soviet films produced between 1960 and 1980. For example, take a look at the films shot during the Stagnation and Perestroika eras. DS-4, CND 64, LN-9, and SD-5M were colour negative stocks, while CO-32D and CO-50D were colour reversal films. Sadly there’s no list of the types of magnetic tape or photographic paper available online. After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, Svema’s film could reach a broader market, and the black & white offerings were slimmed down to five stocks, Foto 50, Foto 100, Foto 200, and Foto 400. But they faced an influx of western photo films and couldn’t keep up, and in 2000 the factory was forced to close down. Thankfully, Svema wasn’t the only film producer in Shostka. Founded in 1995, Astrum, also located in Shostka, produced aerial films and took over the entire Svema line snapping up materials and machines from the original factory. Astrum also took over the production of Tasma films when they went out of production. Today Astrum produces seven black & white film stocks, FN64, Foto 100, Foto 200, Foto 400, MZ-3, A-2SH, NK-2. They did have a Colour negative stock and a Colour Infrared stock, but these have gone out of production. But for the sake of this article, we’ll be focusing on the historic Svema stocks of FN64 and the three Foto films.
If you’re a fan of slow films, FN64 is undoubtedly one for you. Rated at ASA-64, but with latitude between ASA-32 and ASA-100, this is a perfect film for summer days and is fine-grained and sharp. Plus, it produces a wonderfully smooth image. Photos taken with FN64 have a certain dimensionality with incredibly controllable contrast. In D-76 and Pyrocat-HD, you’ll find that the images have almost too high a difference, if you’re looking for smooth low-contrast tones, try HC-110 Dilution H (1+63), and for good middle contrast, Rodinal is a safe best. In almost all developers, you’ll find both fine grain and sharpness are retained, but for the best results, I discovered that HC-110 is your safest bet. The film is on a PET base but isn’t too hard to handle when home processing, but it is subject to light piping, so you’ll want to load these in dim light and keep them in black film canisters. The plus side is that it drys perfectly flat and scans nice and easy.
Svema Foto 100
If you’re looking for something a little more accessible, then look no further than Foto 100. An excellent general-purpose film that handles almost any situation you can throw at the stock. Rated at ASA-100, I would not recommend any sort of over/under exposure or push/pull processing as the film doesn’t seem to handle it too well. In general, the film will have a bit more grain than similar speed films produced by Kodak or Ilford. I would probably rate this as something along the same lines as Fomapan 100. But that’s a good thing, Fomapan 100 is an excellent film stock. While it does have higher contrast, there’s plenty in the mid-tones to make it worthwhile in both bright and dull lighting conditions. Foto 100 also responds well to a yellow filter to help get excellent sky separation. And even the uptick in visible grain does help with outstanding sharpness. Probably my favourite two developers for Foto 100 is HC-110 Dilution B (1+31) (9.5 minutes), although I’m sure it would look fabulous in Dilution H (1+63) and Ilford Microphen. Microphen is an excellent choice as it helps reign in the grain while maintaining sharpness. Foto 100 also uses that PET base, so it dries perfectly flat and is easy to handle when loading plastic reels. It also scans easily but does suffer from light piping, so keep it in black film canisters and load in dull light.
Svema Foto 200
When it comes to Svema films, the one that hit the North American world by storm first is Svema Foto 200, based initially on the Reporter Cinefilm; this was my first introduction to Svema Films. It’s also the one that I have a problematic relationship with. Even though this film delivers excellent tonality and contrast, it’s also reasonably grainy for mid-speed film stock. It’s probably because it’s based on the motion-picture film where grain isn’t too much of an issue when projected at 30fps. But it does keep the images nice and sharp, plus it responds wonderfully to a yellow filter. When developing, you’ll see the increased grain in both D-76 and HC-110. Although you could probably knock back the grain a little by developing for 14 minutes in Dilution H (1+63) rather than Dilution B (1+31) and help increase that tonal separation. Surprisingly a dilute mix of Rodinal works wonders on the film, and it would probably do well stand-developed for an hour in 1+100. The one developer it does not like is Pyrocat-HD; it cranks the contrast and grain up to 11. One of the best choices in Adox XT-3 at 1+1 (or Xtol), giving both good contrast sharpness and keeping that grain in check. Foto 200 is also on an incredibly thin PET base, making it hard to handle and loading onto plastic reels in a change bag. It does work better on stainless steel, but it does dry flat. Again the film is subject to extreme light piping so keep it contained to black canisters until loading.
Svema Foto 400
I’ll admit I was a bit wary of Foto 400 after seeing all the grain I got with Foto 200. Plus, there were still the days that I hadn’t quite warmed up to Fomapan 400. When it comes to Foto 400, I believe the term is a pleasing grain that best describes the images you get. It was a breath of fresh air, to be honest, to have this amazing film that stock should look bad but didn’t. The tonality and contrast are a perfect middle ground right on the money. The film played well with D-76 and HC-110, although for HC-110 again, I would take Dilution H (1+63) over Dilution B (1+31) to help keep the grain in check. It did not like Rodinal at all; in fact, it was the worst of the lot, even with stand-development. The one developer that surprised me was Pyrocat-HD. Yes, you had to over-expose the film slightly (ASA-320), but you were treated by rich, smooth tones, excellent sharpness and a slight reduction in visible grain. Foto 400 is again on a PET base but easily handled with a bit of care and loaded onto plastic reels; it also dries perfectly flat.
Where to Get Svema/Astrum Films
These days stocks of Svema/Astrum films is whatever North American distributors have; with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, almost all photographic materials coming out of the country will see disruption in the near future. That said, there are several excellent sources of Svema films here in North America. My personal choice is the Film Photography Project; they have both pre-loaded cassettes, DX Coded and bulk loaded by the crack team of staff at the FPP Store. They also use Svema films for their in-house brand, including Dracula, Film Love, and Let It, Snow. You can also thank the FPP for introducing Svema films to the broader community. Alternatively, you can purchase Astrum branded films from Freestyle Photographic and Downtown Camera (Toronto). Price-wise, these films are budget-friendly as a great way to shoot large quantities without having to break the bank. And given the current situation, you’re supporting a Ukrainian Business. You can order film directly from Astrum in both cassette and bulk rolls in 100′ lengths. If you are looking for original Svema films, they are still kicking around out there, but by this point, they are starting to get a little long in the tooth but still are perfectly safe to buy.
Given the ongoing illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Putin, we wanted to highlight this critical part of the film photography world and the contribution to this hobby by Ukrainians. Not only did Ukraine produce film stocks, but they also produced some fantastic and iconic cameras at the Arsenal Zavod in Kyiv. And if you want to help the people and defenders of Ukraine directly, now is the time! And there are several ways you can donate.
- Canadian Red Cross – Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis Appeal
- Voices of Children
- Kyiv Independent – News Media Outlet reporting on the war
- Razom for Ukrane – Medical Supplies
- PWS&D – Ukraine Crisis
- Support Ukraine Now (List of ways to help out)
Alternatively, you can find a local Ukrainian community centre or Parish looking for donations. Also, participate in rallies, also write your local government officials and ambassadors urging for more action and support for the brave defenders and citizens of Ukraine.