A Silver Lining - Ilford Factory Tour 2013

17th November 2013
In: Gear, Blog
To anyone with even a passing interest in photography the name of Ilford should be immediately familiar. Started off in the 1800s it's now reinvented itself in the post-digital era as a lean an responsive outfit which is prospering where juggernauts such as Kodak have struggled. Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Ilford facility in Cheshire for a full day tour to find out how they do it. Ilford have done occasional free tours in years gone by, and this one was advertised on the APUG forum a month or so ago, so I took the opportunity to sign up. In addition to the photo geekery the Ilford name has a rich history as a longstanding iconic brand in 20th century British culture and industrial history, so I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.

The facility in Mobberley in Cheshire once employed 2000 people, but in its leaner form today employs about 200 and now houses Ilford's entire film and paper production. The tour took us round the whole thing including the emulsion production, coating, paper cutting, packaging, and the in-house photo lab (nothing on their darkroom chemistry as this is produced for them by another company). In addition we had a talk about the company's history and current situation by Howard Hopwood, the chairman of Harman Technology (the official name of the company trading as Ilford) and one of the six directors who made the management buyout of the analogue business in 2005. One thing that really came across from Howard and his colleagues was their depth of knowledge about their products and a genuine enthusiasm and commitment to black & white analogue photography. But don't think this is a cottage industry - its still big with production on an industrial scale, but it's run very smartly these days.

I'll leave a more detailed history of the Ilford brand to other websites - Ilford themselves have some info on their site

The tour itself was great, we wore white lab coats (which incidentally were a one-size-doesn't-fit-anyone affair) and were shown each area by the people who work there and they gave us a great deal of info and answered questions readily - they really know their stuff. (The only disappointment was that none of the directors had realised the potential comic value of wearing a purple velvet tailcoat and a top hat, and conducting the entire tour in a Charlie And The Chocolate Factory style. Maybe next time.)

The whole place is an odd mix of vintages, machines from the 1970s to the 1990s, modern PCs running stock control systems mixed with old UNIX machines controlling the emulsion plant. There are huge stores of photo paper on massive reels, rooms with 120 reels and 35mm cassettes flying around above your head, film being spooled by Wallace & Gromit style contraptions, and an emulsion plant that you could easily mistake for a small brewery. One thing that struck me is that if you were ever tempted to start a film manufacturing business these days from scratch you wouldn't have a prayer. The cost of building all this infrastructure from scratch would be hundreds of millions, and Ilford really are fortunate that they are mainly able to use machines bought and paid for in film's heyday, and now just have to keep them in working order. If I remember correctly I think we were told that during the management buyout the physical assets of the black & white business were bought for £1.00, as is the custom. Their main coating machine dates from the late 1960s or early 1970s and still manages to coat all their paper and film output to perfection. The guy taking us round the coating plant seemed pretty confident that they would be able to keep that plant in working order indefinitely, which was reassuring to hear.

On the subject of the coating plant, it turns out that this is one of the keys to how Ilford have managed not only to stay in business but also prosper when the giants like Kodak seemed to have struggled with the drastic shrinking of the analogue market post-digital. Ilford's coating plant is relatively small compared to the giant facilities that Kodak has, which means they can be nimble and responsive by coating in smaller batches, rather than having to produce huge quantities at once. Essentially, the smaller plant enables them to exist in a world of a smaller analogue market, whereas Kodak's plant/s are now massively overkill, further compounded by their plants being dedicated to either film or paper, whereas Ilford use the same plant for both film and paper, and pride themselves on having a fast turn round time for the transition from coating film to coating paper and vise versa.

One recent development at the Ilford plant is their cassette manufacturing unit. Back in the day they used to buy in all their 35mm cassettes from another firm, but then a few years back this firm decided they'd had enough. So what does Ilford do? They buy a second-hand cassette machine and make them themselves. This really illustrates their commitment. The machine they're using is all in Italian, from the buttons and controls right down to the software the controlling computers are running. On the day of the tour they were running a test batch of non-Ilford cassettes for another film company, which again is another very sensible and pragmatic approach, to be able to sell your own services out to other producers to cover your overheads of running the machine.

Another interesting point that came up on the tour is the amount of research and development they do. At this point I'm sure any user of Ilford materials will be scratching their head, as Ilford very rarely ever bring out any new film or paper products, with the most recent film offerings dating from the '80s or '90s, and their popular FP4+ and HP5+ lines of film are essentially a lineage dating from before the war. So you would be forgiven for thinking "All their products are pretty mature, so what the hell are they researching?". Well it turns out that a constant problem for Ilford is the supply of raw materials. Suppliers come and go, legislation changes, so what's readily available now isn't the same as it was in the 1950s or 1980s. As a result they have to do a huge amount of research and testing just to keep their products the same as they've always been. Of course they aren't the only ones in the same boat, as it's often said the when Fuji discontinued Velvia years ago they did so because of a raw material shortage, and then had to reinvent it in an almost identical form with Velvia 50 a few years later. It sounds like Ilford currently face a similar challenge with an ingredient of one of their current films being subject to new legislation which will make it illegal to produce as of 2015. I won't panic anyone by saying what the product is as it seems they've been producing as much of it as they possibly can in advance to go in the deep freeze, and are working hard to find an alternative to keep production going in the future.

One theme that cropped up repeatedly during the tour was the level of quality control and testing that goes on. Not just random testing of products from each batch, but also all the mechanisms that leave nothing to chance and factor out human error as much as possible. For instance in the 35mm film packing section there were at least 4 or 5 automated checking steps, such as ensuring the velvet in the cassette mouth will allow the film to go in smoothly, that right film goes into the right cassette, and the right cassette goes into the right box, and that the boxes are assembled and glue together perfectly square etc etc. A commitment to quality runs through everything they do, which as an end user is terrifically reassuring to see. It also explains why other companies, say in eastern Europe, are able to produce cheaper film, assuming as one Ilford manager jokingly put it, "that you're happy with a roll of film spooled by an old woman sitting in the dark with a fag in her mouth".

In addition to the the production side we also saw their photo lab, which operates a mail order service for developing black and white film, as well as producing prints. The development is a standard dip & dunk machine, but what interested me most was their printing setup. They have a Fuji Frontier machine for prints up to 10" and also big Lightjet, and what makes them unique is they are adapted to produce true black & white prints on silver gelatine RC paper. This in in contrast to almost every other lab offering Frontier/Lightlet/Lambda/Chromira prints, who generally print blacks built up using RGB onto colour paper such as Fujiflex etc. For anyong who doesn't know how these work, essentially a digital image is written onto paper using red, green, and blue lasers or LEDs, and the colour paper is then wet processed to produce an archival photo print. But the problem with printing b&w on colour paper using colour lasers is that its hard to get a genuine true black, and the colour of the black can look different under different types of lighting. The Ilford lab exposes onto b&w RC paper (very similar to their RC enlarger paper) so you're getting a true black. We saw some big prints in the back room the were finishing for customers and they looked very good, I think for b&w prints I will certainly give them a go in the future.

Back to the tour, I found there was so much info available as circulated around that you would struggle to take it all in, I should have really walked round all day with a GoPro camera strapped to my head and carried a dictaphone to do it justice. But still I managed to remember a few interesting points, some of which came from the final Q&A session with Simon Galley (one of the other directors) which I'll try and recant here, in no particular order:
  • Film and paper sales, especially 120 and sheet film, are on the up.
  • This year's annual ULF run (which is for huge or unusual/antiquated film sizes) was up 30% on the previous year, although Ilford said they don't really make much money on it but will continue to offer it in the future.
  • About 80% of the 35mm film they sell is in 36exposure size, compared to 24 exp.
  • The Harman Titan pinhole 5x4" camera (made by Mike Walker of Walker Cameras) has sold well and has just about paid for itself in the 2 years since it was put on the market.
  • Ilford has an online darkroom directory in the pipeline, covering both public darkrooms (for instance in colleges and universities) as well as private owners who are willing to let others use their facilities). The intention here is that more people having the opportunity to print their images will help analogue uptake in general.
  • They have a fine-art b&w print sales website project in the pipeline.
  • Of all their film they judge XP2 Super to be the best for scanning (it does work with ICE dust removal, unlike conventional silver b&w film). As XP2 is only made in 35mm and 120 size they say for sheetfilm the best for scanning is Delta 100.
  • The expiry date of 5 years printed on film is a worst case scenario based on what you could expect if you bought some film and didn't particularly store it very well. They completely acknowledge that if refrigerated or frozen film and does last a hell of a lot longer.
  • 90% of their production is for export.
  • *Late addition> They do still have a 220 machine at the factory, but its broken and the cost to fix relative to the demand for 220, and the added expense of spooling 220 compared to 120 (see comment by Chris below) means they would probably not break even on the repair for over 40 years plus. So 220 is not likely to reappear in the future.

Finally something that will give colour photographers like myself a tantalising bit of hope for the future: Ilford's coating plant can in principle be used to produce colour materials. However nobody at Ilford has any experience of producing colour bar the few remaining staff who worked on Ilford's ill fated colour neg film back in the day. And as a company at the moment they have no desire to do any colour. However, and this may be wishful thinking, but I got the feeling that say if Fuji and Kodak packed up doing colour film and someone from either company got off a plane up the road at Manchester airport with the technical know-how and recipes for their colour emulsion then Ilford wouldn't rule anything out. Given how little I would trust either Kodak or Fuji's intent (or ability) to do the right thing by the analogue community this information at least gives me a bit of hope, no matter how tenuous. Stranger things have happened after all, and I'm thinking of The Impossible Project in particular here.

I've always been fairly optimistic about the future of film and the whole analogue photography genre, but I must say having seen what Ilford are doing really made me feel secure in the future of this area, both in how smartly they run their business and also their initiatives to stimulate new users and the next generation. Its a refreshing change, far from the calculated terminal wind-down we've seen from the other big players who are unable to be nimble and responsive and to position themselves successfully in the current market. I'm glad to see they are making a success of the business and I'm happy to support them by buying their wares and spreading the word a bit about analogue photography in general. After all, they need us, and we need them.

I should just finish this post by thanking everyone at Ilford who organised this tour, welcomed us into their workplace at no cost to us and patiently answered our questions all day. Everyone from the chairman of the board right down to the people chopping up paper and running the packing machines are a credit to the photographic industry. I can recommend the tour, so keep your eyes and ears open for any similar tours they may run in future, it's worth getting yourself on one if you've got any interest in photography.

*Edit on 19th Nov 2013 - comment on 220 film added towards the end of this report - something that I subsequently recalled being told on the tour


Photo comment By Regular Rod: Well said. You have spoken for us all that were on the tour. A fine Company, with fine products and with staff to be proud of. Thank you Harman and thank you Dave parry for writing up the visit so well! RR
Photo comment By Andrew Rothery: I was on the tour but really enjoyed reading your blog, I think you covered it perfectly. It was really reassuring to see the dedication & commitment to the product from everyone concerned at Ilford.
Photo comment By big paul: thanks for letting us know how it went I really enjoyed reading your blog you made it very interesting and you have set my mind at rest about the future of analogue photography ,so thanks for a great blog ....
Photo comment By Steve Icanberry: Back in 1977 I was not all that pleased with Kodak's B&W film and paper, the local Camera dealer suggested I try Ilford film and paper. The first film was FP-4 and printed on grade 3 Ilford RC paper, It was just Stunning! The Ilford materials just blew Kodak B&W out of the water! I kicked the Kodak B&W to the curb! The ease with which Ilford film and paper would make for top notch prints was amazing. With the exception of Agfa why bother with other B&W film and Paper? Ilford is just the best! I'm not running down the other boutique and specialty B&W film makers as they have their niche products that are fabulous but for easy great B&W photography Ilford is the best! Kodak is at last out of Bankruptcy but years ago did the world a big favor by discontinuing B&W photographic paper production, Kodak made some of the finest B&W paper in the world but the last offering of 20 years were just pathetic compared to what they offered in the 60's and 70's
Photo comment By Anders Haavie: Great article. Thanks for all the info of how Ilford runs. I use Ilford all the time...
Photo comment By Chris Livsey: I was on the Tour (friday), I was the one in the white coat :-) Just wanted to add to your excellent report on the 220 issue that the top and tail paper was also a major problem. The quantity required as a minimum would last 30 years and never recoup the cost as that alone would price 220 at more than 2 x 120 and no one would play/pay. Nice shots, mine are still in the camera :-(
Photo comment By Joeri: Hey Dave, I got tipped by Heather for this article, and I am glad she did. I really enjoyed reading your report, and I' m kind of jealous you had such a chance. Since i (re)discovered analogue photography about two years ago, i shoot about 90% in film, and Ilford Hp5 and Xp2 are one of my fav B&W films... keep up the good work man! Thanks, Joeri
Photo comment By Keith Tapscott.: I hope that the ingredient that will be illegal to use from 2015 wont spoil the character of the film. More crap legislation from the idiots in Brussels. I hope the UK get an EU referrendum soon.
Photo comment By Jon Cu: Love HP5+. Its my favorite black and white.
Photo comment By Jerome klingenfus: really interesting ! Any words on delta 25, on new papers or anything in current developpement ?
Photo comment By Raymond Copley: Thanks Dave for your highly informative report. I have used Ilford since the first kangaroos came to Australia!Today I continue to get perfect prints for negs shot 60 years ago on FP3 & HP3. Current Ilford films & papers are just as good. I still consider Microphen the best all-purpose developer and have used it since 1953.
Photo comment By Roy Schmidt: Thanks for this interesting report! I love XP2 Super, never really knowing much about Ilford nor who they were; I'm going to keep buying Ilford film over Kodak and Fuji. Great article.
Photo comment By Andy Cross: In 2000 I was taken through the Ilford plant at Mobberly by Tony Johnston and also met my name sake working in the film lab. The quality hasn't varied since then and it seems as though the plant is still using the same SOP's to make the products. If Ilford keep making them I will still use them. Your MG paper also makes a great transfer paper for use in dye transfer.
Photo comment By Joze Suhadolnik: Ilford user since 1978. Bra-vo!!! I'll be Ilfors user till forever!
Photo comment By Nasir Hamid: I love Ilford's products and I'm happy to support them but something I find very frustrating is why a box of 100 5x4 sheets of Ilford film is cheaper in New York than it is in the UK. After all it is made in the UK isn't it?
Photo comment By Dave: Nasir - I did try and ask about this informally on the day. From what I gather it's a combination of the economy-of-scale based on the buying power of the north american market (remember only 10% of Ilford's stock is sold here in the UK), and also the fact that it has to be priced very competitively over there if they want to sway the fiercely patriotic US market away from Kodak products.
Photo comment By Tom: What was the factory shop like? :D
Photo comment By Dave: Tom, there wasn't really a factory shop, but there was opportunity to buy some 35mm and 120 film as a bit of a cheaper rate at the end of the tour!
Photo comment By Colin Burgum: Many thanks for article Dave, as a former lab tech in research and then in Quality Control, who worked for many years at the plant in the 80's' It was great to know that the company is still held in such affection in the photographic community. Hope the success of Howard and the team will contine for many more years to come.
Photo comment By Tony Spencer: Nadir - There's also the VAT aspect. Very little sales tax in New York.
Photo comment By Chris: I've always preferred HP5 to HP5 Plus as the box looks better.

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