Today we’re spotlighting a classic film loved by many experienced photo geeks. It’s Kodak’s Portra 400, and it’s simply one of the best C-41 color films available today. So sit back, give a read, and find out if Portra’s a good fit or one to skip.
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 was close to being a perfect all-rounder, Portra 400 just might be it.
This is due to a few key reasons. 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 will expose just right.
Second, Portra’s tends 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 any scene without being overtly garish or obvious. With Portra, subtlety is a strength. Contrast is nicely modulated, which leads to exceptionally organic shots. Unlike some films, especially consumer-grade stock, blacks aren’t black-hole dark. With Portra, 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 any of the grainy stuff, and even 8 x 10 enlargements show no grain. So while grain-lovers might dislike the clinical sharpness of Portra 400, many shooters will love the silky-smooth, deeply colorful images it makes.
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.
And while I’ve talked it up pretty highly, I’ve not even gotten to Portra’s greatest strength. That strength is 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 nearly always reward you (a good rule for any color-negative film, really).
As for availability, Portra is everywhere (even our 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, and will happily forgive the learning photographer’s occasional mistake. If there is a downside it’s that it’s a bit pricey. Still, the results are worth the cost.
But as with every film, the only way to truly know if you love it is to see it in action and shoot it yourself. For that, check out other shooters’ shots in the Flickr photo pool. Then get some Portra and make your own stunning images.