Kodak Ultramax 400 Film Profile – Confessions of a Film Snob

Kodak Ultramax 400 Film Profile – Confessions of a Film Snob

2400 1350 James Tocchio

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.

Imaging Characteristics

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.

Want to shoot Kodak Ultramax yourself?

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
18 comments
  • I have shot truckloads of this film, and yes I reckon its a great all rounder – especially for anyone on a budget. For me its the great natural tones I love, no crazy oversaturated colours that digital photos tend to display. I have to say though for me its best shot at lower than box speed or else it can be a tad ‘warm’.
    Im definitely a fan of Ektar as well but as much of my shooting is done for camera testing, the economy makes Ultramax a winner.

  • I’ve not gotten on with this film as well. Perhaps it’s because I prefer slower films for everyday shooting, as it’s easier to get bokeh when you move in close.

    I shoot Kodak Gold 200 at 100 all the time and it looks great. I’ve had great luck exposing all of the Fuji consumer color films by a stop. My gut check is that overexposing Kodak 400 would work well too. Now I have to buy some and try it.

    • Over-exposing Ultramax is just fine, except when doing portraiture. It can give a slight yellow cast. Correct in Lightroom if it bothers you.

  • Another great article with great photos.

  • Joe shoots resurrected cameras August 15, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    I’m all about the consumer films. Ektar and I never got on, and I’ve only shot a roll or two of Portra, can’t say it wowed me too much. I still try the pro film occasionally, but for regular use I’ll use Gold 200 or Fujicolor 200. I’m a huge fan of Superia 400, but I’m not sure I’ve ever used Ultramax. Maybe I need to give it a try one of these days.

  • dancomanphotography August 16, 2018 at 6:56 am

    Been meaning to pick up some rolls of this to try. I’m looking for a cheap all-rounder and I’ve not been impressed with the budget Fuji options so far. Plus If I’m going to get really into a film I don’t want it to be discontinued with little notice (again, looking at you Fujifilm).

    Great article, and as a man who shoots film and rides road bikes I love the header image.

  • Great article. You said exactly what I’ve been thinking for many, many years. Ultramax 400 is truly an underrated film stock. I completely agree that it makes shooting film fun because you’re pretty much guaranteed you’ll get excellent photos. I’ve always preferred the colors of Ultramax and have often wished that Kodak would make a professional version with a grain structure like Portra 400. I use Ultramax for all personal projects but it has just a little too much grain for professional use. I’ve also wished that Kodak would take Ultramax 400 and create an Ultramax 100 version with the same color rendition of the 400 but with finer grain that goes along with a 100 speed film. Ektar is good but the red base is its downfall…an Ultramax 100 would be perfect. Anyway, very well written article!

  • I agree that consumer films are great. I prefer Gold 200 to almost anything else. Everyone raves about Portra for all around use. I must be doing something wrong as I just do not find it all that impressive, color wise. I lean more towards the warm color spectrum and it just does not get there for me. Ektar is great for landscapes but not for much more than that. I like Superia a good amount but the green cast that comes with everything Fuji kind of puts me off of it, if I am honest.

    I am trying to find something similar to these Kodak films that is available in bulk to roll myself. I have really liked what Svema color 125 does and it works out to a similar price as the consumer stuff does. Great shots.

  • Great images, a perfect primer as to why shooting film is awesome. Just look at how the film images look!

  • It is a great film and very underrated for me Kodak have all the major food groups covered for what I shoot

    Kodak Ultramax when I have no idea what going to happen normally I shoot it at 320

    Kodak gold 200 at 100 when the sun is out

    And Kodak pro image 100 at 80 or 50 at the beach or traveling somewhere hot due To the fact it can actually take the heat

    Ektar at box if the mood takes me

    I just wish they had a faster cheaper colour film than portra 800 …..but we can’t have every thing

  • Thanks for the great article. Has anyone had good results pushing by one stop (shoot and develop at 800)?

  • Great article. I am going to link to it in my blog. I have always loved UltraMax 400 since I started shooting film again. I agree, in that I can’t believe how good it is for a consumer film.

  • Hi there, it is a good article, I like it. Personally, I love both Ektar and Provia very much just as you were, but while using these films, I felt a lot of constrants. Ektar has great color performance, but for Asians, their skin color would be too satuated. Provia does a great job for landscaping, with good light condition, but when I used it in a ralatively low light condition, it came with a weird green and blue tone. Ultramax however, I just don’t care (because it’s cheap, lol), I always load it on a point and shoot camera, and shoot anything interesting. Ektar and Provia feel like well prepared cuisine, while Ultramax, daily meal maybe.
    BTW, I moved to Boston recently, is there any where that can develop films and scan them?

    • There are quite a few labs that process locally, but not so local that you won’t have to mail them away. Northeast Photographic and Panopticon Imaging are two. There are some smaller drop-off only local labs as well. There’s a Boston film shooters Facebook group if you’re on Facebook. Join up and chat. We also host meets in the area if you’re interested.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio