The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. When the CP crew and I chose our desert island film (the film that we’d each shoot for the rest of our lives if we could only choose one) I picked Ektar, a high-saturation color film from Kodak’s fine Professional line. Mike Padua, the founder of Shoot Film Co. and our special guest in that article, chose Kodak Ultramax 400, Kodak’s cheap consumer film. At the time, I was surprised that he’d pick such a boring film.
One year later, Kodak Ultramax 400 is effectively the only color film I shoot. Mike wasn’t wrong. Ultramax 400 is a great emulsion. My name is James, and I’m a film snob.
What is Kodak Ultramax 400
Ultramax 400 is Kodak’s do-it-all consumer-grade film. It’s a general-purpose, daylight-balanced, color negative film with a sensitivity of ISO 400 (27º). It offers fine grain, deep saturation, and wide exposure latitude, and all of these traits make it well-suited to enlarging, and for digitization through scanning. It’s developed in standard C-41 chemistry, meaning it can be developed anywhere that film is processed. It’s also inexpensive and ubiquitous.
All of this, means versatility. No matter what your subject, no matter what camera you’re using, and no matter the light, Kodak Ultramax 400 should fit your application. During the past year I’ve used it at night and by a blisteringly sunlit pool; on a foggy sail across Vineyard Sound and at a kid’s indoor birthday party. I’ve shot dogs in full gallop, and horses refusing to do so. I’ve successfully zipped it through the autofocus speed machine that is Nikon’s F4, and painstakingly ratcheted it across the film gate of an old-as-dirt Contax.
In all of these situations and many more, Ultramax has made exceptional photos, its potential only limited by my ability. True to their marketing, Kodak’s Ultramax has proven to be the perfect Jack of all trades.
Master of None?
Way back in the year 1592 (a time which some of our older readers may remember as the good ol’ days) the English writer Robert Greene famously labeled the young actor-turned-to-playwright William Shakespeare with the disparaging name Johannes Factotum (Johnny-do-it-all). The term quickly came to stand for a person who engaged superficially in a number of endeavors, but failed to achieve true mastery of any single skill. Jack of all trades, but master of none.
History shows that Billy boy proved Mr. Greene wrong by producing an unmatched catalog of seminal English literature. And while Kodak Ultramax may fall a bit short of Shakespearian mastery, it comes pretty close. Ultramax 400 may be a Jack of all trades, but it’s not just a cheap film that makes pretty pictures in most environments. It can actually stand toe-to-toe with the best of the so-called Professional emulsions.
For shots around town, of the family, or everyday life, Kodak Ultramax is hard to beat. Its color rendition is true to life, less punchy and saturated than Fujifilm’s consumer-grade film Superia 400. Blues and yellows and greens are perfectly balanced, while reds are nicely restrained, which is a blessing since many consumer-grade films seem to oversaturate in the reds. This overall color accuracy makes the film perfect for travel, or for shooting landscapes or cityscapes.
For the most part, Ultramax produces smooth and organic images with very fine grain. But remember that this is a 400 speed film; we should expect that it’s not going to be as smooth as Provia or Ektar. And while when exposed properly the film’s grain is never overbearing, in certain instances it can become especially pronounced. This happens most readily when the film is under-exposed, so make sure to meter correctly or err on the side of (very slight) over-exposure.
Portraiture is handled well. Where Kodak Ektar famously ruins lighter skin-tones with garish oranges and reds, Kodak Ultramax 400 renders beautifully when exposed properly. Shot at box speed (ISO 400) skin tones of all shades are spot on. But you’ll want to make sure to shoot at box speed. Under- and over-exposure can result in mildly unpleasant color shifts. It’s true that these shifts can be easily corrected in post-processing (if we’re scanning our negatives), but with a 400 speed film there’s really little reason to push.
The Ayes Have It
Is Kodak Ultramax as capable of making the stunning and vivid landscapes we see from Ektar and Provia? Possibly. Though not as fine-grained as those professional-level films, it’s certainly got enough resolving power to make sharp and smooth images. Would I use it for a paid commercial real-estate gig? Probably not. I’d use my Sony a7II or a medium format Hasselblad loaded with slide film.
Is Kodak Ultramax as capable of making pretty pictures of people as Kodak’s well-loved Portra? It could be. In the right light, Ultramax certainly does an adequate impression of the famous portrait film when the sun is up and we meter properly. Would I trust a wedding shoot to Ultramax? Probably not. I’d be more likely to use a medium format camera loaded with Portra, and since Ultramax doesn’t come in medium format, well, that’s that.
But there are plenty of reasons to shoot Ultramax. To start, it’s cheaper by half than many professional films, and while it’s true that it’s more expensive than Fuji’s consumer-grade film, I think Ultramax creates better and more predictable images. Next, it can be found everywhere. While Portra and Provia may be more desirable, their superior performance means nothing if I can’t buy it anywhere. When I run out of film midday in Boston’s North End, I can walk into the drug store on Hanover Street and buy Kodak Ultramax 400.
But the last reason to shoot Ultramax, and the most important reason of all, is that it makes making gorgeous photos effortless. No matter where I’m going, what I’m shooting, or what camera I’m using, I know that when I load a roll of Ultramax I’m going to get as many good photos as my abilities allow. I don’t have to worry with Kodak Ultramax, and that has made quite a difference this past year.