Is Kodak Portra 400 Right For Me?
Kodak Portra 400 is – for most people – the go-to for color film.
So many YouTubers, bloggers and podcasters sing it’s praises, and rightfully so. From the results I’ve seen from people and myself, it’s a beautiful film. It’s no wonder that it has become a favorite and best seller in the film photographic community.
In many of the film-shoot YouTube videos I watch, it’s usually Portra 400 they’re shooting. While it’s mainly designed for portraits (as its name suggests), it’s really proven an excellent stock in more suburban landscape situations and street photography.
I can’t help myself for wanting to replicate some of the work I see done with this film. With its pastel colors from over-exposing and the lovely clean look it has overall, it triggers that impulse that usually finds my B&H cart full of this film. However, regardless of what is popular and regardless of what great work other people can do with certain materials, every creative needs to know what is and what isn’t workin for them.
While I’ve shot a fair bit of Portra 400, it’s all been 35mm. I’ve yet to shoot this film in 120 so please bear that in mind as you continue to read!
Shooting Portra 400 At Box Speed
It’s common knowledge at this point that to get the best results from Portra 400, you have to over-expose by a stop or two. Having the excellent exposure latitude it does, it retains its highlights very well and gives loads of detail in the shadows. Not only that, but its color will slightly wash out giving that lovely palette everyone is crazy about right now.
For me, over-exposing is annoying…
Yes, I understand the benefits, but if I want to shoot at ISO 200 for color, I’m going to load some Kodak Gold and get the results I expect from that film and be happy. When I load a 400 ISO film, it’s because I want to shoot at ISO 400. Having that little bit of extra speed can really help when shooting.
So, I shoot Portra 400… at 400. At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, I will over-expose the odd time while shooting: setting my aperture at f8 when it calls for f11, or likewise with the shutter speeds. I do this because I understand over-exposing color negative film is always safer than under-exposing, and sometimes it’s necessary when trying to expose for some shadows. However, being set at the boxspeed, I’m still basing my exposures off the 400 ISO, and that’s just how I prefer to shoot.
Shooting at 400 by no means gives you terrible results. In fact, it gives you quite lovely results! While it’s not as saturated as Ektar or a more consumer film, shooting at boxspeed will give you richer colors than if you over-expose and if you’re familiar with my photos, I always lean more towards saturation.
So if you’re wanting those washed out, pastel colors, over-expose it. If you want a bit more color and grain, shoot at box speed. Both will give beautiful results and lovely pictures and colors. Portra 400 isn’t a film that you HAVE to shoot at 200, although the current trend does a good job at making you believe that. Shoot it at boxspeed, and it’s going to look great.
Shooting Landscapes With Portra 400
Majority of my photography is landscape. Because of this, I’m drawn to the richer films like Fuji Superia, Ektar, and even Gold and Ultramax. Portra 400 isn’t exactly the film I get excited to shoot seeing as it’s not as saturated.
That said, Portra 400 handles almost anything you can throw at it. If you want to go shoot landscapes with Portra, it’s going to look great, and you can always persuade the color a touch in post (as I usually tend to do).
Being part of the professional line from Kodak, Portra is reliable and trustworthy. In my recent articles of my trip to the badlands, Portra was the main choice for color. I felt that it wasn’t going to let me down and it didn’t.
However, I should be honest in the fact that the only reason I took the Portra on that trip is that I had four or five rolls in my drawer not being shot. If I hadn’t have had that Portra, I probably would have shot more Gold or Ultramax on that trip as it’s the film I prefer. Thankfully though, Portra gave me beautiful results that I’m extremely happy with.
Even when shooting in difficult conditions such as overcast or a dull winter’s day, Portra 400 holds up pretty well. It’s well know that overcast it’s really the best conditions for color landscape photography, however depending on the scene you can still make it work. If Portra is what you have loaded in your camera, don’t worry about it.
The washed-out muted tones of Portra can really lend itself to certain landscapes. Again, with my trip to the badlands, it’s a place that’s not exactly known for it’s vibrant and lively colors, so Portra 400 was perfect. Throughout the different landscapes and situations I’ve shot Portra in, I’ve come to appreciate the various results that can be achieved.
There seems to be a sweet-spot in this film that I just can’t seem to figure out. Every now and then though, I nail it, and the results are absolutely mind blowing. Whether it’s something with the scan or the stars aligned when I exposed, it’s shot’s like these that make me want to keep coming back to Portra time and time again.
So while Portra may not be the film of choice for a landscape photographer, if you’re interested in shooting more landscapes and Portra is what you know, then have at it. If I have Portra 400 in my drawer again, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring it on my next trip.
Low Color Scenes
There are times when a situation calls for a more muted color palette. For insistence, saturated films like Ektar don’t really look that great when shooting portraits unless you like blushing subjects nor do the colors look right when slightly under-exposed on an overcast day.
When I say “muted” colors, of course, that doesn’t mean borderline black and white, but simply not as rich as others. Portra certainly can have gorgeous colors as seen above, however it does very well when there’s an absence of color, helping the scene to look more realistic – winter is a perfect example.
Portra looks great in winter as the white balance isn’t as warm as you would find in Kodak Gold. Generally I lean more towards the warmer tones and I tend to add a bit of warmth into my photos in post, but sometimes the lack of warmth suits the scene.
Strangely, these are some of my favorite conditions for this film. Most love shooting Portra where there is so much color to play with and that can certainly be exciting, but I feel it can handle these more dreary scenes much better than a film like Ektar can, and I love it for that.
It also a great film for shooting architecture. Not exactly a subject that it’s known for, but thanks to its neutral and realistic tones, it works perfectly.
It doesn’t hurt when a pop of color is thrown in either.
Is It Right For Me?
Ok, the hard question: is it right for me?
This probably seems like a strange question, but it’s one any photographer should ask themselves about any film. You have to know what works for you.
First off, it’s expensive. At the time of writing this, it’s also out of stock (35mm). Even with some of my favorite photos being taken of Portra 400 (many of which are posted above), I have a hard time justifying the cost of this film for my own personal work. Films such as Gold 200 and Ultramax 400, and even Fuji Superia – which are much cheaper – have kept me so happy with my photos for so long. With all of these, I shoot them at boxspeed and ALWAYS get results I like. While more expensive than the consumer stocks, even Ektar is cheaper than Portra and has proven to be and absolute favorite and essential film for me.
I realize I don’t get the same result as other people do because I don’t shoot it the way they do – and that’s a very important thing for a photographer to realize. You may change how you shoot in order to improve your photography, but you should never change how you shoot in order to imitate someone else. You have to stay true to your own style and I do appreciate how my photos with Portra still look like MY photos… not someone else’s.
As tempting as it is to follow along with the photographic trends, I’m happy with my work and how I make my images. I love Portra, and I’m not saying that I’ll never buy it again. After all, it’s pretty much the only color negative film in medium format other than Fuji Pro400H – I suppose my hands are tied there.
I have every intention in giving it a go in 120, but for 35mm, I’ll stick to the cheaper stocks, thanks…