As happens very often here at CP, we received not long ago a shipment of gear bundled in an old, dusty camera bag. Inside one of the pouches was found a couple of rolls of film, and upon closer inspection it was discovered to be a type of film we’ve never before shot!
A film I’ve never shot?! I wondered with giddy anticipation. How exciting! This thought was instantly followed by an Instagram post, a hastily loaded roll of film, and a feeling of joyful anticipation as my brain began bathing itself in copious quantities of dopamine.
But what’s this all mean for you, faithful reader? It means you’re in for another new feature. Can you believe it?
As many of you may know, every film is unique. It may be warm or cool, smooth or grainy, accommodating or demanding, and on, and on. The variety is immense, and it’s one of the most exciting things about analog photography. But we know it can be a bit confusing when new shooters (and even experienced shooters) try to decide which film to buy for their intended shots.
With this in mind, from time to time we’re going to profile an individual film. We’ll talk about its tone, character, push-ability, scan-ability, availability, and offer sample shots to illustrate. Eventually we’ll even compare similar films in side-by-side shootouts, all in the hope that you’ll know what you’re in for before you open your wallet.
To start, we’re going to examine a classic film loved by many. It’s Kodak’s Portra 400, and it’s one of our favorite color films. So sit back, relax, and find out if Portra’s made for you, 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.
Why do we consider Portra 400 an excellent film for just about anyone? A few key reasons. Firstly, 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.
The second reason that Portra’s one of the best color films for the masses is in the way it tends to enhance reality. 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. There really isn’t much out there in the world that’s truly black-hole black. Some films don’t get this, leading to shots that look cartoonish with thick, black lines everywhere.
With Portra, blacks are still deeply black, but you’re not going to lose shadow detail on a properly exposed shot like you might on some higher contrast films. 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”.
We’re not going to pretend to know what that means, nor do we 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 with 8×10 enlargements we’re still not sure we’re seeing any grain at all. So while grain-lovers might dislike the cleanliness of Portra 400, the vast majority of 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 we’ve talked it up pretty highly, we’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! Moreover, Portra makes some of its prettiest shots when overexposed, though we acknowledge that this is a subjective opinion for sure. 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 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, affordable enough that you won’t be afraid to take a shot, and will happily forgive the learning photographer’s occasional mistake.
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.