An Introduction to the Portra family
We love a good party and when we found out that the Portra line is about to celebrate its twentieth birthday next year (introduced in 1998!), we thought we would take the time to cover some ground (and after, perhaps raise a glass) when it comes to Kodak’s Portra line. Kodak Portra has put out a variety of film stocks from this line, some of which are discontinued, but three of which are now a staple to film photographers like those of us at Carmencita and yourself. We’re gonna cover some ground on those three that take the cake when it comes to Kodak’s Portra line: Portra 160, Portra 400, and Portra 800 ISO.
As most of you may know, the arch famous Kodak Portra is a family of daylight-balanced professional color negative film aimed to render the best skin tones possible in basically every light situation you can imagine, making them perfect for both portrait and social photography. These films are known to produce natural skin tones, ideal color, finer grain and are available in 35mm, 120 (medium format), and large format sheets. The Portra film lines are known for their their natural warmth (Portra 160 has red and brown undertones while Portra 400 has undertones of orange and yellow). This means that colors will be rendered differently than other films such as the well-known Fuji 400H. You can see the difference most perceptively in the greens. The greens in the Portra lines tend to be warmer, while the greens in Fuji 400H are a bit cooler. This, of course, depends on the light situation but it’s usually the rule of thumb.
Kodak made some noise a few years ago when it introduced a new version of the Portra 400 film which replaced the NC (“natural color”) and VC (“vivid color”) versions in late 2010. The new film incorporated a number of technological advances from the Kodak Vision line of motion pictures films and essentially blended the NC and VC versions together. The results of the new Portra 400 has generated quite a following, though perhaps reluctantly at first. Now it’s praised for its latitude and its Vision-3 technology. One of our favourite examples of the improvements to the Portra line is seen on Jonathan Canlas’ blog in which he shot Portra 400, rated it at 3200, and pushed it 3 stops in the developing. The results are spectacular and we encourage you to check it out so you can see just how flexible this film is in low light situations. The Portra line has not only made some incredible improvements in technology, but additionally the color palette has made this series popular for portraiture and editorial work.
Here are a few guidelines we use when shooting these stocks that we think expose (pun intended!) each one in their best light. (Tip: If you need more information on exposing, we highly recommend that you read (and see the results of some testing we’ve done) from a past post we’ve written on how exposure affects film. That post visually demonstrates the latitude of color film and should aid in understanding the important role exposure plays in shooting film.)
We’ve found with this stock the preference is split; those who have tried it either passionately love it or passionately hate it. However the general consensus tends to be that this is an excellent film stock for portraits. Skin tones (whether light skinned or dark skinned) are soft and natural looking and the grain of the film is extremely fine. However those of us here at Carmencita have found that the window is narrow on how much you can overexpose or underexpose it. If you expose it too much it lends to look much like Ektar, very bright, punchy, and with not so flattering skin tones. It also requires a well lit scene to shoot in. So if you’ve not tried this film stock and you see some sunny days in your forecast, we recommend picking some up to give it a try!
Ahhhhhhhh Portra 400. What is there not to love? This film stock is one of the most used and most comprehensive films on the market when it comes to changing light situations. It is shot by nearly everyone from established well-known film photographers to film photographers who are new to the scene. This film stock is a staple to your film stash and frankly, there is not a single thing to not love about this film stock. Portra 400 offers excellent colors; is fast enough for the vast majority of purposes; and is fine grained enough that the speed will rarely betray itself.
On top of all this, it’s fun, it’s easy, and not the least because the latitude for over and underexposure is remarkable. You can do everything with it. Overexposing this film stock by two stops looks amazing (bright and colorful) and under exposing it a stop also looks good (moody and contrasty). Keep in mind, if you expose Portra 400 more than two stops the film may be a little more yellow-ish than usual, so overexpose with care. This film stock also loves to be pushed. In fact, if you have to choose between using Portra 800 and Portra 400 in a setting we recommend using Portra 400, and pushing it if need be. It will just love it and in return we love it for it.
If you find yourself in a sunny situation and you have Portra 800 on hand you won’t be disappointed. This film stock is divine if you overexpose it, even by 4 four stops! Out of this world divine, the colors tend to lean a bit towards Ektar (punchy and vibrant) but it is able to maintain incredible skin tones. However, if you underexpose it, it’s not very pretty at all. It quickly goes grainy and renders muddy colors. Even pushing it can’t save it entirely. It is essential to know that Portra 400 is based on Vision 3 technology, however Portra 800 is not, that’s why there are some major differences between how the two films handle underexposure.
Consequently, the “ISO 800” marking is often misleading; while it certainly does the job at 800, we don’t think it performs best at that speed. In fact, we find that pushing Portra 400 one stop usually gives more satisfying results than shooting Portra 800 at it’s box speed.
Understanding when to push film is an incredible tool to have in your bag when you’re in low light situations or when you want a punchier look to your images. In our experience, Kodak’s Portra line handles pushing magnificently when shot in well-lit environments. So we’re going to break down the results of each when they’re pushed by your lab.
(You can read more about pushing film on a past post we’ve written a few years back.)
Portra 160 and Portra 400
Both Portra 160 and Portra 400 are very pushable in a well-lit environment. Portra 160 rated at 320 and pushed one stop is pretty incredible. Portra 400 rated at 800 and pushed one stop is also equally great. For both, the results of pushing will increase the contrast on your images, bringing the highlights up and cutting detail on the blacks. It will appear brighter because of the contrast and brighter highlights, so if that’s the look you’re aiming for, perfect! But take into consideration that you won’t be able to go back to a low contrast look once it’s pushed. Also keep in mind there will be side effects of increased grain, color shifts in the shadows, and some general loss of details in the darkest parts of the image. A higher ISO isn’t for free 😉
Pushing can save the day with the caveat that you know what you are doing, however, if you don’t know what you are doing, the results of pushing are going to be less than desirable. Have any questions or doubts about pushing? Feel free to call us up and ask! We are always willing to help answer your questions and help clear up any doubts!
(Tip: if you’re in a low light situation and you only have Portra 400, rate it at 800 and ask your lab to push it one stop. While shooting keep in mind where the light is coming from and how your subject is lit, aim for the highlights and midtones and forget about the shadows.)
Portra 800 was created for low light situations and it’s pretty handy for that. However it’s the only one of the Portra line that we think is the least pushable due to the technology behind it. As we mentioned earlier, we feel Portra 800 really shines best when it’s overexposed, however it still does the job rated at 1250 and pushed one stop.
The color palettes for each one of the Portra lines do vary from stock to stock. But overall, the Portra line is known for having a little bit of a yellow-ish highlight with blue-ish shadow color crossover. In comparison to some of the stock from Fuji’s line, the Portra line is known for having better yellows, reds, and purples; whereas Fuji has better blues, oranges, and magentas. But in this section, we’ll easily break down each stock from the Portra line so you can see the difference for yourself.
Portra 160 is described as having a natural color palette with low saturation and low contrast. It has breathtaking color, sharpness, and very fine grain. It seems almost ideal for portraiture as it delivers accurate skin tones and consistent results when exposed correctly, whereas if you shoot with Ektar you may get tomato-like skin tones. Like most films, Portra 160 loves to be overexposed but not too much and if you underexpose it the shadows in this film may have a blue-ish influence.
Examples of Portra 160:
Portra 400 at box speed has a very natural and neutral look, but it can also look warm, bright, and saturated when it’s overexposed. This film also handles skin tones, as well as natural landscapes, beautifully and at a 400 ISO it’s super handy in changing lighting conditions. Portra 400 has a warmer palette, whereas Fuji 400H has a much cooler palette. Portra 400 tends to be more yellow and Fuji 400H leans towards a more green color and turns its blues more turquoise. Again, there is a lot of urban tales about how each film looks at the end, and the truth is that nowadays if you add retouching to any film stock you can make it look very different than what it naturally does. So, does that mean you’ll never see a warm picture shot on Fuji? Nope, we just mean that the “warmth” might go a bit more towards the magenta tones than the yellow tones.
Examples of Portra 400:
Portra 800 has a higher saturation and it’s slightly grainier than its counterparts, but it kicks butt when it comes to tough lighting conditions and bright colors. The colors in Portra 800 have a wonderful intensity and the blacks are very rich. It is ideal in capturing vivid colors and renders skin tones so creamy that this film stock will just melt like butter on your screen. Many photographers love this film stock, with its only downside being the cost of it.
(Something to bear in mind, if you shoot Portra in 35mm there will be an increase in grain and a slight loss in the depth of color, but if you’re shooting medium format that doesn’t really matter.)
Examples of Portra 800:
We know we’ve covered a lot of ground in this post and if you’ve made it this far, high five the closest human near you! Hopefully the information we’ve provided will be useful to you and in case you can’t remember it all, here’s a nice little summary of each stock from Portra’s line:
- Low saturation
- Extremely fine grain
- Medium contrast
- Ideal for controlled lighting
- Less flexible on exposure
- Medium saturation
- Fine grain
- Medium contrast
- Ideal for most lighting conditions
- Very pushable
- Higher saturation
- Fine grain
- Superb sharpness
- A lot of room for overexposing
- Ideal for vivid colors while keeping skin tones in place
As of yet, there isn’t a film we’ve met that we haven’t loved and Portra’s line is no different. Between Portra 160, Portra 400, and Portra 800 you have a variety of options for different looks and lighting conditions. Each film stock from Portra’s line is versatile, unique in its own way, and compliments each other. If you’ve not tried one (or any!) from the Portra line order one immediately and get to snapping and creating great images! You will not be disappointed by the experience and certainly not by the incredible images you create!
As a film photographer, we feel it’s good to know the ins and outs of your craft and the tools and techniques available to you. That being said, don’t get cray-cray, good light is worth it’s weight in gold (or in this case film) and it will render incredibly in almost all film stocks. This doesn’t mean that because you choose one film stock over another all your images will be great. It is highly dependent on the quality of light you have to work with.
That being said, we believe every film stock has its own unique personality and when that goes along with the feeling of your work, it’s becomes a perfect match!
The most important thing, as always is to keep shooting, keep playing, keep pushing the boundaries, and keep exploring! Everything that you know and experience will eventually translate and show itself in your own work and that will only make it more interesting for the ones seeing it = )