Kodak Portra 400 – Film Profile

Kodak Portra 400 – Film Profile

3925 2206 James Tocchio

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.

Buy it on eBay

Buy it on Amazon

Buy it from B & H Photo

Casual Photophile is on ElloFacebookInstagram, and Youtube

Advertisements

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
20 comments
  • Really informative, I’ve never shot Portra but have always wanted to, I usually shoot Agfa Vista Plus 200 (mainly because I have a ton of the stuff in a drawer),but I think I’ll have to get hold of some of this and check it out.

  • A classic and well-loved film. Thanks for profiling it. Problem is, in the US, it now cost more than $7 per roll. Not a cheap film, by any means, though you do get what you pay for.

  • Does portra 400 give bright yellow/orange tones when metered at ISO 25? +4 stops in daylight, exposed for the shadows and normally processed. Would you happen to have a frame exposed this way? Thanks!

    • Hi Aéri. Overexposing Portra tends to bring out more magenta tones, especially in the highlights. I think a shot at +4 would certainly look substantially warmer, depending on subject, backdrop, etc. Hope this helps!

  • Thanks, James! I’ve only shot at +1 so far. I intend to try my next roll at +4 for those warm greens and peachy highlights!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your shot at +4. It looks fantastic and really brings out the detail in the darker coat of the horse. Amazing shot. Thanks again!

      • My pleasure! I’m glad you like it and I appreciate your response.
        I look forward to reading more film profiles here. Cheers!

  • Aeri, Do you have some more pictures to share?

    • Hello Tim,
      You can find lots of pictures on my Instagram page, which you can see above.
      If you scroll down a bit, you’ll come across the Portra shots.
      Hope this helps. Thanks for asking!

      • Thanks again for sharing Aéri. And for anyone else interested, we will be updating this post in the next few days with more [better] photos showing what Portra is all about.

  • Thanks Aeri. Good shots. I am shooting a wedding in Sept as this is the first time I have used 35mm for 20 years having gone digital with the Lumix TZ30 Travel camera( now fitted with an eye level viewer). I will use my trusty Olympus OM-1 with Tamron70-150 lens and 28-50 lens. I have decided to go one stop more as shown on my hand held Zeiss Ikophot meter.
    I don’t have time to do a film run through before the wedding so will take the Lumix as back-up( I get good 10×8’s on this digital camera) Doing my youngest son’s wedding . Will have to pick fast speed as unable to take the tripod and at near 86 years my old hands not as steady as 30 years ago ha ha ha!

  • Anyone know where I can find good Lightroom presets that mimic film?

  • VSCO isn’t the best representation of properly exposed, properly scanned film. I would suggest Mastin Labs Presets

  • Greetings,
    I just got a roll back from the Darkroom and honestly, the results were horrible… Just so bland and no color pop at all and we are talking spring here with bright colors… I must be doing something wrong. In the same send was a roll of Ektar 100 and I received the results I was expecting. Potra was shot with a Canon EOS 7 Elan and the Ektar 100 was shot with a Canon F1. Any ideas?

    Thanks!

    • Hey Sean, is it possible that the Portra was underexposed? More light will make the colors pop the way they should, so maybe check settings. If everything is as it should be, and it probably is, I can’t think of why Portra would be bland. It’s possible the Darkroom tech had some trouble with the scans? Post-processing? Wish I could be more help, but it’s tricky without having the shots in front of me and without knowing the settings and environment the shots were made in. Hope it helps.

      • James, I’m not sure if it was underexposed or not. When you load the film it generally senses the right ISO and I double check to make certain. With my F1 or A1 it’s hard to get it wrong, as both settings are on the top left dial. I’ve had pretty good luck with The Darkroom. Let me think of a way to get some samples uploaded. I have a 500px account but don’t want to upload them there. Let me get back to you when I can get some samples uploaded somewhere. I think I have an instagram account but you can only upload from your phone, but I can dropbox them and upload them I guess. Thanks!

      • Sorry James… I had a couple of photos, found my password for Instagram, but that worthless service wanted full access to my phone and all the photos in the Gallery… Hence now I remember all the gymnastics and privacy concerns as to why I avoided Instagram after posting only a couple of photos back in 2016… Verbally I will tell you on one example I took a photo of a bunch of WHITE blossoming trees alongside a church and I will tell you the photo was horrible… The whole thing looked like sepia toned. I suspect what happened the white caused the meter in the camera to under-expose. I had several that just looked muddy or like I said washed out. I had one photo, again with pink and white blossoms in front of a yellow house with a blue sky… The photo looked nothing like what my eyes saw that day, as it was very washed out and very disappointed.

Leave a Reply

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio