Kodak's Portra 800 Film
A High-Speed Solution, Without The Noise

This candid photo of Yvonne Gregoire and Rita Berube is a natural use of a film this speed. It's taken using the daylight in the room.
Photos © 2004, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

Regular readers will note that my articles are usually about techniques, not test reports. But when there's a new film out there for portrait photographers, that's right up my alley. The majority of my work is portraiture and I've long been a big fan of the Kodak Portra line of films. They give absolutely great skin tones; contrast is variable depending on the particular version of the film you choose; and colors are not exaggerated. Of course, when talking about color negative film, much is dependent upon your choice of processor also, so don't forget to take that very important factor into account. It matters how accurately they are calibrated and also what papers they are using. A Kodak neg printed on Kodak paper will not look the same if it's printed on Fuji or Agfa paper. Mix and match all the different companies' films and papers and see for yourself. The difference in the contrast in glossy or matte papers will also have an effect on your film choice.

Having said all that, let's get down to taking some pictures and looking at the results. My first test of the film was to use it Easter Sunday to take some photos of my mother-in-law Rita Berube and her friend Yvonne Gregoire. I had planned to use light on the porch but temperatures were still not very spring-like in the Northeast on that day and the elderly ladies don't take very kindly to the cold. So we went to "Plan B," which was to use a sitting room that faced northwest. While we had some sun hitting parts of the room, I avoided that, using light that was less strong but still very directional. I took some photos of Rita using the daylight to create a "short" light (you shoot into the shadowed side of the face to create a modeling and slimming effect).

This image of Ellen Bruton was taken on a dark and dreary day using light from a window and a couple of reflectors. Note the high sharpness and detail in the dress. (Nikon N80 camera, Tamron 28-105mm f/2.8 lens, 1/125 sec at f/5.6.)

My first surprise: Where's the picture? I shoot mostly digital now and it's been some time since I haven't been able to immediately confirm that I've "got" the image by looking at my photo on the camera back. Once I got over that, I started taking pictures again. Surprise #2! My 36-exposure roll was gone in a flash! If you don't think that your methods change when you leave the film world, you're mistaken. I can tell you that I did carefully meter the exposure with a handheld meter. While it did "jive" with the information the camera was giving me, I always like to be safe.

When doing portrait work, I've always relied on an incident meter. I guess I haven't told you yet, but the film they sent me was the 35mm version, and I typically shoot medium format. An 800-speed film, and 35mm at that--were they kidding? I figured I'd be lucky to get a good 5x7 out of these negs.

No Tripod, No Flash
The high film speed was really making things easy on me. I was in a pretty bright room and was shooting at 1/125 sec at f/5.6. With that amount of daylight, who needs a flash or a tripod? All my shooting was done on a Nikon N80 camera with a Tamron 28-105mm f/2.8 lens.

The next day I looked at the 4x6 glossy prints I had made and to say I was impressed is an understatement. Color--excellent. Sharpness--great. Contrast--plenty of snap. (Note: While the other Portra films are available as Normal Contrast (NC) or Vivid Contrast (VC), there is only one 800 version, with no initials after the name.) I suspect that because of the smaller market for a film this fast, Kodak figured they'd determine their own optimum contrast for this film. It looks like a "VC" to my eyes.

Capturing "grab" images without flash, such as this one of Rita Berube, is a strong point of high-speed films like this.

Having seen the results of the first shoot, I then set up another daylight situation for my second subject. I photographed Ellen Bruton using the light from the front window of my studio. My thinking was to use the film as it was intended. Given the high speed and small format, window lighting seemed like an ideal use of the film. And I was sure glad I had the speed on this day. It was rainy and dreary and so dark the cars still had headlights on at noon. Before my subject arrived, I hand metered the area and came up with 1/125 sec at f/2.8, two stops less than my previous shoot. I chose to shoot at 1/90 sec at f/3.3, figuring I could still hand hold the camera with the short telephoto length and get the depth I needed to ensure a suitable image. At any slower speed I'd have probably gone to a tripod, but an ISO of 800 opens up many opportunities.

I set up a couple of silver reflectors this time. One was to add light to Ellen's dark hair, the other to fill under the eyes and add another catchlight. At the last minute, I decided to use a tapestry I just purchased for the background. Not wanting to keep my young subject waiting, I had mom hold the background up behind her as I quickly fired off shots. Using the zoom lens, and not being on a tripod, I was able to go from headshots to 3/4 length poses with ease. Kids wear out in a hurry so a film that lets me ditch a tripod is a big asset.

I had the film done in an hour at the local lab across the street from my studio, then picked out my favorite and had an 8x12 made. I also had a couple of 8x12s made from the previous session. I had these made on matte surface paper to compare the differences. After shooting five 36-exposure rolls and scoping out the results, here are my observations.

Evaluation And Results
First, the film is a winner. It's sharp. Saturation is natural. When metering, I gave it an extra 1/2 stop of exposure for insurance, sometimes. Don't, it doesn't need it and the highlights don't like it. So the speed is a true 800. I liked the color on my one-hour prints but know my pro lab could do much better. Same with contrast. The contrast was a little high on my one-hour lab prints but the paper they use has more contrast than the pro papers that this film was designed for.

Second, since the film is part of the Portra family, it will print on the same "channel" as the other films. This means if you shoot a job like a wedding with both 400 and 800 speed films, the prints should match closely. This also means the negatives will scan just like the other Portra films, a big factor to consider in this age. And while this film can be retouched on one side, scanning is probably a more likely option for any retouching needs.

So it looks like film shooters have another weapon in their arsenal. At this speed, factors like noise are a major problem for digital cameras, so film shooting and scanning becomes a very viable option. I'm going to get some 120 and send it to a pro lab for further testing. In the meantime, get out there and do your own testing. You'll be impressed, too.

For more information, visit Kodak's website at: www.kodak.com.