There’s no such thing as a “perfect” film. Let’s just get that out of the way. Every shooter has different tastes regarding tone, color, grain, etc., but if ever a film could manage to be the perfect all-rounder, Portra 400 just might be it. This isn’t hyperbole; there are real reasons Portra’s so useful.
First, it’s in the speed. Portra’s a true ISO-400 film, meaning it can naturally shoot in bright sunlight, but it’s also sensitive enough to shoot indoors, in low light situations, and can even capture night-time street scenes without too much trouble. So whether you’re capturing shots of your kids at soccer practice or shooting dancers in a nightclub, Portra 400 should suck in enough photons to yield a nicely exposed shot.
Second, Portra has the ability to enhance reality in a reserved way that’s rare among color film. With its well-balanced contrast, color, and clarity, it’s a film that embellishes things enough to bring out the beauty in a scene without being overtly garish or obvious. Especially when compared to lower-spec consumer-grade films, this subtlety is a real strength. Contrast is nicely modulated, which leads to exceptionally organic shots. Portra’s blacks aren’t black-hole black, and shadow detail is retained on a properly exposed shot. The result is accurate shadow tones. On the other end of the spectrum, whites are rarely blown out and even over-exposed shots retain good highlight detail.
Colors are bold, yet reserved. In fact, Portra was at one time offered in two varieties, NC (natural color) and VC (vivid color). Splitting the difference between these two now-discontinued Portras, today’s Portra 400 makes images that pop with balanced color while avoiding looking like a leprechaun puked Lucky Charms all over your print.
And finally there’s the clarity. At ISO-400 we might expect Portra to have pretty noticeable grain, but this really isn’t the case. Kodak says this is due to things like their “Proprietary DIR Couplers, Micro-Structure Optimized T-Grain Emulsions, and Targeted Advanced Development Accelerators”. I’m not going to pretend to know what that means, nor do I care. We keep things casual here, remember? The takeaway regarding grain is that it’s virtually non-existent. In normal sized 4 x 6 prints it’s impossible to spot a speck of the stuff, and even 8 x 10 enlargements show no grain. So while grain-lovers might dislike the clinical finesse of Portra 400, many shooters will love it’s silky-smooth, deeply colorful profile.
Overall tone tends to be on the warmer side of things. Understandable, since Portra was intended by Kodak to beautify natural skin tones. For wedding photos, fashion shoots, portraitures, and street photography, Portra 400 creates a radiant glow in human subjects. Cheeks blush, smiles beam, and we can almost feel the warmth radiating off of bare skin. In many of the best Portra compositions, the human subjects seem to leap from the frame, looking as alive as if they were standing in front of us, and it’s difficult to think of a film that captures life in a more stunning cast. If you’re a wedding shooter looking to try film, Portra is the stock you’ll want to buy in bulk.
And while I’ve already talked it up pretty highly, I’ve not even gotten to Portra’s greatest strength – the film’s simple usability. A real benefit for new shooters, those of us using cameras without light-meters or auto-exposure, and anyone who really enjoys pushing their exposures beyond the best advice of their light meter, Portra has an uncanny ability to forgive the shooter for not getting a shot perfectly exposed.
Shoot one or two stops under and images are still entirely usable. And when over-exposing, it’s possible to still make astounding images even four stops over. In fact, Portra makes some of its prettiest shots when overexposed. If you’re not sure of your exposure, err on the side of over-exposing and Portra will always reward you (a good rule for many color-negative films, really).
As for availability, Portra is everywhere (even my local photo lab has some in stock – a pleasant surprise these days). It’s also conveniently offered in nearly every current format (35mm, 120/220, 4×5/8×10 sheets). Whether you’re shooting a medium format Minolta, a retro point-and-shoot, or a classic German rangefinder, it’s safe to say there’s a Portra for your machine.
So if you’re looking for a gorgeous color film for prints or digital scans, and if you’re looking for a film that can handle almost any shooting situation without compromising image quality, Portra 400 just may be the film for you. It’s purpose-built to make gorgeous images of people, and will happily forgive the learning photographer’s occasional mistake. If there is a downside, and there always in this hobby so full of compromise, it’s that it’s a bit pricey. Still, the results are unique enough that you won’t be able to get that Portra look with any other film, and its sheer quality makes it worth the cost.
But as with every film, the only way to truly know if you love it is to shoot it yourself. So pick up some Portra and see what you can make with it. I don’t think you’ll regret it.