Portra 400: I Was Doing It Wrong

Feb 9, 2018
5 min read

For this new episode, I went for a hike and explored the Cinque Terre with a Rolleiflex and two rolls of Kodak Portra: 160 and 400. The idea was to do to some sort of comparison between those two with the secret hope of finally having good results with the 400…and the magic finally happened!

Since I’ve started film photography, we kind of had a love/hate relationship together. When you get into film, you quickly realize that Portra 400 is at the summit of film chain for a majority of photographers. So like most people do when they start, I got myself a few rolls and started to snap around thinking about the beautiful images Portra would give me…Even if I was somehow happy with the results, they had nothing to do compared to what I got one year later.

The 2 reasons why I wasn’t 100% satisfied with Portra

Not exposing properly

Coming from digital, I was still discovering the basic principles of how to expose colour film. I didn’t know for example that C41 colour films prefer bright environments and could handle one or two extra stops of light without batting an eye.

When you shoot digital you have to expose for the highlights and know that shadows can always be recovered if you shoot in RAW. With film that’s the exact opposite, the general rule is that you should expose for the shadows and feed the film with enough light to record information on the negative.

At the time, my inexperience let me rely on the camera meter without ever questioning its decisions, but that was before…

How I meter the light today

The Rolleiflex I have doesn’t have a build in meter so I used an app called Light Meter on my iPhone for the entire day. Both rolls were shot at box speed and exposed for the shadows.

You can see that most shots were shot against the sun. This is a technique often used to give more depth to an image, by defining the contours around the subject but it can be challenging to meter.

A simple tip I useis to put my hand facing the light source and point the light meter toward the palm of my hand. By doing this, you ensure that the skin tones receive enough light to be well exposed.

This is also a way to increase the saturation. C41 colour film needs a lof light and has a wide exposure latitude so don’t be afraid to feed it with light 😉

On the other hand (pun not intended), you want to be careful if you are shooting with E6 slide film. This one is a bit of a princess when it comes to exposure and doesn’t handle over-exposition as good as C41. If you apply this technique with slide, the sky on the background of your hand will be also white and completely burned out. When shooting contrasty scenes with slide film, you have to decide if want to expose for the shadows or the highlights so bear that in mind.

​Scanning a pro film on an mid-range scanner

Until recently, I was still scanning my negatives at home with an Epson V550 but there’s a sad reality when it comes to scan colour film: some aren’t going to like it and Portra 400 is one of them. Sure there are techniques to edit colour film but it’s time consuming and the results aren’t always as good as they could be.

This time, I knew that it would be different as both rolls would be processed by the great guys from nationphoto.com.

I was sure that with having a proper development and scanning, and a better understanding of how you should expose film, all odds were in my favour to have decent images to look at!

From here you can have watch the video where you can see me shooting both films, followed by a selection of samples of Kodak Portra 160 and 400.

I’m sorry if this is not a proper and fair comparison as I should have done a proper side by side of the two films shot on the same camera, but life decided otherwise. Also, when I shot the Portra 160, the light conditions where far from ideal and the results aren’t that good as with the 400. But there’s nothing to blame on the film here!

Anyway, let’s look at some samples of the Portra 160 so you can get an idea of its look.

Samples of Kodak Portra 160

Samples of Kodak Portra 160 and Rolleiflex
Samples of Kodak Portra 160 and Rolleiflex
Samples of Kodak Portra 160 and Rolleiflex

For me, the most interesting shots came from the Portra 400. What changed between the two rolls is the light condition. The 160 was shot from 11am until 2pm, whereas the 400 from 2 to 4pm during winter time.

The only difference was the sun starting to set which resulted in a light more flattering especially at the end of the roll but I’ll let you judge by yourself.

Samples of Kodak Portra 400

Sample Kodak Portra 400 shot on Rolleiflex
Samples of Kodak Portra 400 and Rolleiflex
Samples of Kodak Portra 400 and Rolleiflex
Samples of Kodak Portra 400 and Rolleiflex
Samples of Kodak Portra 400 and Rolleiflex
Samples of Kodak Portra 400 and Rolleiflex

To conclude

I’ll probably do a proper comparison in the future as soon as I have 2 identical cameras in hands but I hope that this could give you an idea of what you can get from each Portra. If you have any suggestion about how to expose (and over-expose) them, I’d love to hear about so feel free to send me a message on Instagram where I’m the most active lately.

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One Reply to “Portra 400: I Was Doing It Wrong”

  1. Your posts made me happy because I took a few shots yesterday with Portra 400 during a digital (Nikon D750) studio shoot. I had the D750 shooting at ISO 100, 1/200 and F8 or whatever – typical flash sync settings! I set my F100 to the same settings with Portra 400. I find that the D750’s idea of ISO “100” is more like 160-200 on film, so I’m hoping it pretty much turns out ok basically being a stop over exposed give or take.

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