Kodak Portra 400: Latitude, Grain, And “Scanability” Combined

If you’re a confirmed film shooter, welcome to the new all-but-universal color film. If you’re new to color film, this is the place to start. And if you shoot both film and digital, but have been neglecting your film cameras, say three Hail Kodaks and repent, or at least, don’t sin again until after you’ve tried this stuff.

Portra 400 offers excellent colors; is fast enough for the vast majority of purposes; and is fine enough grained that the speed will rarely betray itself. Kodak bills it as the world’s finest-grained ISO 400 film, and although I have no means of verifying this, it’s certainly very fine-grained. You should only see the grain at 8x12” or above, so whether you’re shooting “street” or portraits or snapshots—even landscapes—it’s an astonishingly versatile film for its speed.

Neighbor. As its name suggests, Portra is optimized for skin tones. The film delivered unbeatable skin tones. Leica MP, 50mm f/1.5 Zeiss C Sonnar.
All Photos © Roger Hicks Ltd.

On top of all this, it’s fun, and it’s easy, not least because the latitude for over- and underexposure is remarkable. Stick a roll of Portra 400 in an old, unmetered, manual camera; memorize exposures for four common situations (see “Guessed Exposures” sidebar); and go forth and shoot. Err on the side of overexposure. Although at two stops under (EI 1600), things are getting desperate, two stops over are barely noticeable and even four stops over (EI 25) should still give you an astonishingly good image if you are prepared to fiddle about in Photoshop, though in contrasty scenes small areas of the brightest highlights may “blow” to a featureless white.

Misty cliffs. One of my favorite pictures with the new film. Leica MP, 75mm f/2 Summicron ASPH: a good lens for digital, an unbelievably good lens for film.

More exposure means finer grain, less sharpness, and an increasing yellow cast; less exposure means bigger grain, more sharpness (until the grain overwhelms it), and an increasing blue cast. These differences are unlikely to be noticeable unless you do your own scanning. When I put my first test roll through the nearest half-hour lab, with a state-of-the-art scanner and printer, I just couldn’t believe the quality across an altogether ridiculous range of exposures. Then again, at the US equivalent of $32.50 for a 36-exposure film D&P, or $8.50 develop-only (Editor’s note: the reviewer resides in France), they should be good. I’ll come back to this.

Quality from a 35mm negative is roughly equivalent to a 10-megapixel camera, insofar as this means anything. The relevance of this is that if you’ve scanned at 2700dpi, there is a magical transition as you enlarge the image. As you watch the screen and enlarge the image, there comes a point where you can’t tell if you’re seeing grain or pixels—until suddenly it’s pixels. I’ve never seen this happen quite this way before.

Still life. This is four to five stops overexposed (see notes on metering in the text) but required minimal adjustment to give a very convincing image. White polystyrene (ball) and black velvet (background) are about five stops apart in reflectivity. Nikon F, 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor-H.

If you use an exposure meter and scan your own images, you can introduce a higher degree of refinement. My Leica MP with through-lens metering left me very happy with a basic speed setting of EI (Exposure Index) 650, whereas taking an incident reading with a Gossen Profisix meter and shooting with a Nikon F really needed EI 320 to get enough detail. Neither is “wrong.” It’s just that different cameras and metering techniques, especially with old, well-used cameras and meters, really do mean that you need to establish your own exposure indices for optimum quality.

Nor is there any need for 1⁄3-stop precision: 400-800 would be fine on the Leica, or 250-400 on the Nikon, though obviously, the higher the speed you set, the lower the margin for underexposure. With autoexposure, EI 250 should take care of everything on most cameras.

Spa, St. Thomas. If you’re used to digital, it’s hard to get used to the idea that there’s no “on the fly” choice of white balance with film. But as you can see, Portra 400 handles mixed lighting (twilight and tungsten) remarkably gracefully. Leica MP, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux.

The point about guessed exposures is important. After the very first roll, I took out my old Olympus Pen W, arguably the finest (and certainly the rarest) of the Pen half-frame series. It seemed like an absolute natural for this film. Then I tried my beloved Kodak Retina IIa. Portra 400 really makes you want to get out cameras like these—tiny, pocketable, with very high quality—dust them off, and start using them.

To my surprise, I found myself taking a lot of landscapes on Portra 400—though I guess this is because I was testing the film, and I’d have used Ektar 100 otherwise. Even so, I was impressed by the small grain and high sharpness of the new film. Leica MP, 75mm f/2 Summicron.

Going in the opposite direction, Portra 400 is available in 120, too. A nominal 6x9cm image is most commonly 56x84mm, or 5.44x the size of a 35mm negative: the equivalent of anything up to 50 megapixels or so. Better still, you don’t have to worry about super-high-resolution scanners. Even 1800dpi, achievable with most half-decent flat-beds, allows a 6x enlargement to the generally accepted 300dpi standard for photomechanical reproduction. That’s near enough 13x20”. A double-page spread in Shutterbug is only about 11x16”. Then there’s 4x5” Portra. At a 1200dpi scan, that’s 16x20” at 300dpi.

You may have noticed that I have said nothing so far about wet printing at home, and this is for two reasons. The first is that Portra 400 is optimized for scanning. Even “wet process” minilabs nowadays normally scan the image, while the majority of film holdouts at home, quite honestly, make inkjet prints.

Mobile shop. The last shop in Fontpedrosa closed in September 2009. Now they rely on a mobile shop that comes to the village for an hour on Wednesday afternoons. Anyone for street photography? Leica MP, 50mm f/1.5 Zeiss C Sonnar.

This is why Portra 400 is able to replace two existing films, Portra 400 NC and VC. It is easy to be cynical about this, and to suggest that Kodak “doesn’t care anymore about film,” but a moment’s thought will show this to be nonsensical. If they really didn’t care, they could just drop one of the two existing films, and not replace it with something better than either. Those who care about contrast and saturation can adjust them in Adobe Photoshop or whatever program they use. Those who don’t care, won’t notice.

The other reason is that more and more people are using digital for color, and we are among them. In black and white, film still reigns supreme for us and for many, but traditional “wet” color printing at home is time consuming and expensive. If you shoot much color film, a digital camera soon pays for itself.

Some of the author’s 35mm candidates for Portra 400: Olympus Pen W, Kodak Retina IIa, and Leica IIIa.

All right, it’s an extreme example, but at the $30+ a roll I mentioned earlier (which didn’t include the price of the film, remember) a $7000 Leica M9 body is under 250 rolls of film. Even at $10 a roll, which isn’t much for good-quality film and processing, it’s still only 700 rolls. Keep your M9 for a decade, and if you shoot an average of a roll and a half a week, it will have paid for itself. That’s one of the most expensive “35mm style” digital cameras on the market. A $2000 camera pays for itself with 200 films at $10: a film a week for four years. (Editor’s note: And getting good processing results from a lab means you have to find a good lab, not something available except by mail for an increasing segment of the population.)

Interior of our living room. A truly swinish problem in color balance. Daylight through a window behind the camera; tungsten from the right-hand standard lamp (with red shade) and overhead lamps; “daylight-balanced” fluorescent in the left-hand standard lamp. Overall, competently handled by Portra 400. Leica MP, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux.

But yet, but yet… Economics can’t explain everything. First of all, if you prefer the look of film, well, that’s it: you prefer the look of film. There is no need for explanations and excuses. Between this and Ektar 100, Kodak is serving us very well. Second, if you’re shooting for pleasure instead of commercially, there’s no need to burn film. Sure, you might shoot three rolls in one day, but another film might sit in your camera for a month. It can take a long time to pay for a good digital camera at that rate. Third, if you’re shooting medium or large format, you can get incredible quality for a very modest outlay, and you’re not likely to be using huge quantities of film every week. At this point, Portra starts to look suspiciously like a bargain.

Will I go on using it? Yes. As I said, economics isn’t everything. I look forward to using it in both 35mm and 120. I’ve already mentioned the 1960s Pen W and the 1950s Retina, and as I sit here, my 1936 Leica IIIa is looking accusingly at me. Then there’s my Dreamagon soft focus on my Nikon Fs, and my old Pentax SV, the nearest camera I have ever encountered to a screw Leica with a built-in reflex housing. Move up to 120, and there’s a choice of formats from the 44x66mm of my Alpa via 6x7cm (Linhof), 6x9cm (Cambo), and 6x12cm (Horseman). I can put several of these backs onto one of my 4x5” cameras: Gandolfi, Toho, Linhof.

This gives me megapixel equivalents from about 30 megapixels (Alpa 44x66mm) to about 60 megapixels (Horseman 56x112mm) in cameras I already own. What would a 30-megapixel digital back cost me, let alone 60 megapixels? The view cameras also allow the option of camera movements. You can fake rise, fall and cross with Photoshop, but faking tilts and swings is so difficult and time consuming that it’s quicker and easier to do it properly. I probably won’t use 4x5 Portra 400 personally, because of the hassle of processing, but if you’re into top-quality big prints at minimum cost, it’s a powerful contender. Find a scanner that gives you 1800dpi and you’re looking at 24x30” (60x90cm) prints of repro quality.

So yes, I’m going to go on using film, and when I use color I’m going to go on using Portra 400. It’s all film. That counts for something.

Guessed Exposures
No meter in your camera? The author suggests the following exposures that, given the film’s latitude, will yield very usable results.

• Bright sun: 1⁄250 sec at f/16
• “Cloudy bright” (overcast, but with clear shadows): 1⁄250 sec at f/5.6
• “Cloudy dull” (no clear shadows): 1⁄125 sec at f/4
• Indoors, room light: 1⁄30 sec at f/2

For more information on Portra 400, contact Kodak at: www.kodak.com/go/professional.

For further information on the art and craft of photography from Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz, go to www.rogerandfrances.com.

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