KODAK PORTRA FAMILY
Kodak’s Portra family is a line of daylight balanced, color negative films and has a lot of people talking, including me. The “new” Portras have replaced the older line of products, essentially combining Portra VC (Vivid Color) and Portra NC (Natural Color). Portra is a color negative film (processed as C-41), not a chrome (slide) film (processed as E-6). It’s the first film from Kodak specifically designed for scanning, not printing with an enlarger (Kodak talks about it a little on their spec page) – recognizing the hybrid nature of today’s film shooters.
The word “natural” keeps coming to mind when thinking of Portra. One of the reasons I’ve come to prefer it over other films is this attribute. There’s a authentic, organic quality to the image recorded on Portra which emerges more apparent when residing next to the typically over saturated, over-sharpened more prolific digital images. Without wishing to get high-brow or snobby about the topic (different strokes for different folks), authenticity is one of the reasons I’ve chosen Portra for my work. We all have different goals for our images; different things we’re trying to convey or communicate when producing them. One of the wonderful things about photography today is the greater than ever depth and breadth of tools with which to adopt, experiment with, tweak and optimize. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong approach, a better or best approach to selecting your tools and method. There are so many ways today’s photographer can create a unique look, specific to their subject matter, establishing a style and method specifically tuned to their creative vision. For me, Portra plays a huge part in that process.
One of the important factors to the above, however, is consistency and longevity. Quality and consistency from roll to roll, across multiple batches over multiple years, is important. Prices have increased significantly in the past year or so as more photographers catch on and Kodak has struggled through their battles. Many are willing to continue paying the rising prices of roll and sheet film because we understand the value and importance of it. There is a point, though, where it makes little economical sense – from a shooter’s perspective – and from a business perspective to continue producing the film. The earnest hope of many film-shooting photographers today is that the Portra line is around for many years to come and continues to be nurtured by those overseeing it.
One of the first things you should know about the Portra films is this: no matter what speed you’re shooting, Portra responds well to lots of light. After much experimentation I’ve settled on the following general rule of thumb: always, always, always over expose your Portra by at least 2/3 of a stop – but develop it normally. For example, I shoot Portra 160 at ISO 100, Portra 400 anywhere from ISO320 to ISO200, and Portra 800 at ISO400. When you ship it to the lab, don’t have them do anything differently – just run it at rated, box speed. If you follow this principle – in my opinion – you’ll begin to see why the Portra line is so good. As an aside, please visit this page, established by UK Film Lab – for a direct experiment on exposure and the Portra line.
Portra 160 is a main-stay in my bag. Over the past several years I’ve almost completely transitioned from shooting primarily slide films to the Portra line, Portra 160 specifically. There are a number of reasons for this I won’t get into here but please see the recap at the bottom of this page. Portra160 has a slightly different tonal curve than the other films, with exceptionally fine, tight grain. Shot at ISO100, Portra 160 produces a beautifully rendered, sharp, realistic rendition of your scene. It’s generally spoken of in terms of producing excellent skin tones, which it certainly does. But I find its uses more far reaching than simply portraiture. Portra 160 is a premium grade film that has become a primary emulsion for a wide range of work also including landscape, documentary, macro, still life’s – anything a slow-to-medium speed film can be used for.
Portra’s scanning capacity provides an excellent foundation for all of your film photography needs. Because a well exposed film negative preserves so much information at time of capture, Portra 160 scanned at 16-bit responds extremely well to post processing adjustments in Lightroom or Photoshop or what ever image editing software tool you use.
From its technically excellent attributes to the slightly more mysterious, authentic aesthetic qualities it produces, Portra 160 is an excellent, general purpose emulsion you can count on time and again. At the top of this page you’ll see a sampling of images made with Portra 160.
Portra 400 is a premium, “high speed”, all-purpose color negative film. Portra 400 has a slightly different color cast than Portra 160. Both are daylight balanced, but I’ve found Portra 400 to be a bit warmer, which is perhaps one of the reasons I love it for landscape work. It handles greens very naturally, very “un-digital,” if that means anything. Natural color reproduction seems to be somewhere between Vivid and what Kodak termed “natural” in their NC emulsion – leaning towards nicely saturated “natural” hues. Though I’ve seen beautiful images made with the older NC emulsion, I never quite adopted it for my work. VC never quite did it for me either. I find Portra 400 just right for general purpose situations where lower light requires faster shutter speed hand held shooting. Portra 400 is very easy to work with.
Grain isn’t a dirty word to the film shooter. Good grain structure in film-recorded images is a key attribute in conveying organic, natural textures and is one of the reasons I prefer recording photographs on film. As with many things though, too much of this good thing in the wrong context disrupts fine details in the image – which is one of the attributes of an image I’m in search of. When exposed properly Portra 400 produces very little noticeable grain. Portra 400 handles fine details beautifully while still producing the rich texture we shoot film for.
Even though it’s not what I’d consider a true 400 speed film, Portra 400 is substantially faster than 160, and having the flexibility of that faster emulsion in mixed, natural light situations opens up more hand-held shooting opportunities for candid work without a tripod. Portra 400 provides the continuity I’m after, producing a look and feel consistent with the other Portra lines. Above are a few Portra 400 sample images, most of which were overexposed as described above.
Portra 800 is a remarkable film in its own right. As previously mentioned I like to shoot 800 at 400, then process normally. In terms of over exposing the film – just to be clear – there are a number of ways you can do this. One method is to set the ISO differently when you load the film – which is what I do. Others find it easier to simply manually over expose each frame as they make photographs. Still others may find a set exposure compensation method easier, while allowing the camera’s DX code reader to automatically set the speed of film on load. It matters not what method is used to allow more light pass through to the film – any of the above methods will work. The important point is to over expose the film during the exposure, but process it normally when developing. Portra 800 is a beautifully saturated film producing a blend of tones and hues unique to itself. If I want a true 400 speed film I’ll shoot Portra 800 at ISO400. Typically I’ll shoot it between 500 and 640 with no fear. I have not pushed or pulled any of the Portra films yet, but will do so with the confidence their tremendous latitude allows. Above are a few Portra 800 images.
As a recap, here are a few reasons I’ve switched from shooting primarily color slide film to primarily color negative film – now that a film like Portra exists:
1) Extra exposure latitude (Dynamic Range), compared to slide film. Where highlights would blow and shadows be irrevocably bury in chrome film, color negative film allows another stop or 2 of latitude. Sometimes this can mean the difference between pulling back the lighter portions of a sky or recovering a bit more information from your shadows than you can with a slide film.
2) The color variation is welcomed. Films have natural tendencies. Velvia has a certain look, as does Ektar. I appreciate having another tool in my film repertoire to contribute a different look to the image. My photography as been changing over time, from preferring the super-saturated, high-contrast look to a more natural rendition of a scene. The Portra line provides an excellent tool set with which to accomplish this.
3) In the case of a higher-speed film, like 400 and 800 the ability to hand-hold at higher shutter speeds with smaller apertures encourages more organic and fluid shooting opening up new compositions and opportunities that would never survive the time it took to set up a tripod.
4) Less expensive to process. I send my film to the lab for processing and cost adds up when you shoot a lot. I can get a roll of color negative processed for $4 in just a few hours. This coupled with my light box and Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED, I’m digitizing images shortly after their made. Chrome films run quite a bit more – anywhere from $8 up to $18 depending… If you’re shooting an occasional role here and there it’s no big deal. If you’re shooting in volume, that’s another matter.
5) Slide mounts, if you choose them for your E-6 films, cause problems. You may elect not to have your E-6 frames mounted as slides, rather receive them back un-mounted. This solves the various issues such as: 1) the edges of the slide mount encroaching on the frames content, sometimes significantly altering your composition and 2) obscuring the data between frames the camera records while shooting.
A few challenges:
1) Color reproduction isn’t as straight forward as when working with chrome films. You essentially have no starting point besides that which the scanning software/hardware combination yields, making it all the more important to work with some sort of color calibration strategy. More on that later.
2) Under the right lighting conditions nothing can touch Velvia for a sharp, virtually grain-free image. If you’re trying to get that same look from Portra 400 to match Velvia 50, don’t bother – it’s never going to happen. That said, once you understand what the Portra emulsions are capable of and begin exploring those attributes – rather than force Portra to conform to another film – you begin to appreciate what it does extremely well: authentic, beautiful imagery with organic texture and detail.