Ilford Photo got its start way back in 1879 when Alfred Hugh Harman began making gelatin dry plates in his house in Ilford, United Kingdom. Since then, the Ilford name has had an established, respected presence in the photography industry.

The company has gone through different ownership over the past 142 years, but Ilford film is still made in the United Kingdom. In a new video tour, Exploredinary takes us behind the scenes at the Ilford film factory in Mobberley, England. Viewers are treated not only to a behind-the-scenes look at how one of the most iconic film companies makes its products, but we also hear from scientists and workers at Ilford to learn about making film.

Ilford factory in Mobberley, England

The site featured below in the excellent video below, filmed and edited by Sarah Reyes and Daniel Driensky, has been used by Ilford since 1928. Many products have been made here over the last 90-plus years. Today, Ilford manufactures black and white films, paper, and chemicals for analog photography.

Making photographic film and paper starts with a key ingredient, photographic emulsion. This component comprises silver halide crystals dispersed in gelatin. The photosensitive emulsion is kept in cold storage and then spread on a photographic film or paper base. Since it’s photosensitive, Ilford creates the emulsion in complete darkness. The silver halide crystals’ size impacts important aspects of the film, such as its grain and ISO speed. The more and bigger the crystals, the faster the speed.

Before the emulsion is spread on film and paper, it must first be tested by a team of research scientists. The emulsion is tested for different characteristics, including granularity and hardness. Once the R&D team gives an emulsion the go-ahead, it is scaled up to production, and the coating process begins.

Lab technician Sylvia Clarke inspects coating as part of the R&D process

Film and paper are fed through machines and coated with different layers of chemical compounds and emulsion at speeds up to 3,200 meters per second. In the video, we see coating machine #14. A bit of superstition is involved in the naming, as coating machine #14 is the thirteenth machine, but workers didn’t want to call it coating machine #13. After coating, film and paper are dried slowly over time to prevent imperfections. Scanners constantly monitor the product to ensure quality and consistency.

The massive rolls of coated photosensitive material then need to be transported for the next step in the process, finishing. The finishing area is in another building, and the only path is outside. The photosensitive film and paper must be placed in what the team calls ‘coffins’ to keep light off the product as it moves on to finishing.

35mm film canisters are sorted by a hopper before the correct film, as determined by barcode scanning, is inserted and the canister is prepared for final packaging.

During the finishing process, the coated film is cut to 35mm in width. Each 35mm wide roll is about 600m in length. The film must be cut into 24 or 36 exposure lengths and placed in metal cassettes, manufactured by Ilford. Once the film has been paired with a cassette, it must move to packaging. 120 film, on the other hand, is not placed into a cassette but is rather wrapped around a plastic core with plastic backing and then packaged.

While all of this is taking place, quality control is hard at work, addressing any potential issues found during the rest of the production process. The finished, packaged film is then sent to the in-house warehouse, where it awaits orders, both within the United Kingdom and internationally.

If you’re interested in learning more about film production, we published a Kodak factory tour earlier this month.

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