KODAK PORTRA 400 – FILM REVIEW
When I first started getting back into film photography, I excitedly rushed out and bought a big bag of all sorts of color and black and white films. I couldn’t wait to explore all the different offerings and see what clicked for me. In hindsight, this may not have been the best first step into shooting film, I ended up with a lot of mediocre shots as I got to know none of the film rather than learning the qualities of a few. On the positive side though, it did offer me a first stumbly step into what was out there, and one of the color films that really stood out to me was Portra 400.
It turns out Kodak Portra is by far the most popular color negative film on the market… and for good reason. It has a warm, muted tones that give it a slightly retro and vintage vibe that has become best associated with the “film look”; one that is hard to replicate digitally, but is very much the nostalgic feeling I would suggest most people are after and, a key reason to want to go to the trouble of shooting film over digital.
I have shot this film with a number of different cameras and love the results in both 35mm and 120 medium format film. The gear used in these images includes the Leica MP, Fuji TX-1 XPAN, Fuji GA645 and most recently the Hasselblad 503cw.
As the name suggests, Kodak Portra films (there are three speeds, 160, 400 and 800 – each with their own quirks and strengths) were designed with portraits in mind. It keeps skin tones looking natural, there is some subtle warmth in there without too overly red and saturated, and has very fine grain (especially for 400 speed films).
For me, the film has a sunny, warm and slightly desaturated look that gives a certain vintage vibe that I think excels not just in portraits, but in landscapes and street or urban environments too. I love shooting this film in older, worn out city locations like Los Angeles, it has a very cinematic feeling, and the warmth in Kyoto really brought out the red tones in the wood sided alleyways.
At 400 asa, this is a great speed for shooting in those different environments too. It’s fast enough to shoot quickly moving objects like people, cars and bikes, but fine enough grain to look great for landscapes.
When metering and shooting Portra, I tend to expose for the shadows and mid tones knowing that it is very hard to blow the highlights. There is a LOT of exposure latitude, making it a great film for beginners as you can recover a lot from both the highlights and shadows when editing.
Even with all this vintage associations, what is interesting is that this is a relatively new product from Kodak. First introduced in 1998 and then updated in 2010 to what we have today, it was designed with more modern day technologies in mind, and Kodak went on to heavily market the film as one great for scanning.
I scan all my film at home with an Epson V850 pro and the wonderful SilverFast Pro software which has built in profiles for all the Kodak Portra speeds. This is great as the settings are designed to match the intended color profile and look of the film. The detail and sharpness is outstanding, and coupled the the amazing lenses on the cameras I mentioned at the beginning of the article like the Leica 35mm Summilux FLE and the XPAN’s Fujinon 45mm or Carl Zeiss 80mm Planer, this film really resolves the details and sharpness that both these older and very modern lenses can deliver.
Kodak Portra has become very much one of my go-to films. I love all three of the speeds, I had shot a lot of Portra 800 in Japan at night which has a more contrasty and saturated palette and most recently 160 in snowy landscapes with the Hasselblad which looks beautiful. Its a film that constantly delivers, its super versatile and every time I send an image to Chris shot on it, he says… I want THAT!