Film Photography

Shooting Kodak Portra 400

Salem Cemetery

How is it that I’ve been back into film photography for 13 years but have never shot Kodak’s Portra 400? My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa gave me the nudge I needed by dropping two rolls into the gift box she sent.

Magnolia blooms

As I’ve seen others shoot Portra 400, some use it as a general-purpose color film and others find it most useful for photos that involve people. I don’t often shoot people. I tend to shoot things that don’t move. Like cemeteries. And flowers. In cemeteries.

Served

I had been shooting my Nikomat FTn and decided to keep at it for this roll. I had my 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C lens mounted. Portra gave me just enough exposure room to shoot inside, albeit with shallow depth of field.

Books

I can’t decide whether I think the colors are muted or not. So many people have said Portra’s colors are muted that I don’t trust my judgment. I see muted colors in these books, but that might be because the books’ colors are genuinely muted. The magnolia flowers and the American flag above don’t look muted to me. Are the greens below muted? I want to say no, but I also can’t recall how vivid the scene was in real life.

Down the path

I don’t notice grain in these photos at this size, but I do when I look at them at full scan size. It’s neither pleasing nor disruptive. It’s workmanlike grain, faint and unobtrusive. However, I scanned these on my flatbed scanner. Lab scans might have made the grain even harder to detect.

Flowers for sale

The Portra was at its best at early evening, the sun in that golden-hour sweet spot.

Blooms

Portra 400 is a very good film. I haven’t pixel-peeped to be sure, but it might have the least obtrusive grain of all the fast color films I’ve shot.

Starkey Park

But the film I use most, Fujicolor 200, suits me fine and costs a lot less.

Starkey Park

My EMULSIVE Secret Santa sent me two rolls of Portra 400, so sooner or later I’ll put the other one through a camera. I shot it at box speed this time, so next time perhaps I’ll shoot it at EI 200. Several photo bloggers I follow get really nice results when they do that.

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41 thoughts on “Shooting Kodak Portra 400

  1. The photos are really beautiful. I love the way that your 50 f/2 Nikkor’s qualities combine with the Portra 400 and your compositions. All the photos have a sort of timeless feel (might help that cemeteries and the like are rather timeless). I’m also not sure if I’d call the colors muted. They’re certainly not vibrant, but they also aren’t wanting for more color. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like these Jim, especially the shot of the grave and flag – the shallow depth of focus works very well there.

    I don’t shoot too much Portra either. I like it, but as with yourself, find it quite expensive and not the sort of thing I want to waste when I have it. The fact that I also have a lot of rolls of Kodak Colorplus and expired (but still perfectly good) Fuji Superia 100 that I bought at bargain prices tucked away in the freezer also means I don’t tend to buy more expensive colour film without good reason.

    I did make an exception on my recent visit to New York though, where I thought it was worth the expense to buy something befitting of the trip, so bought a 5 pack of Portra 400 in 135. In the end I only shot two rolls though (although I also shot a roll of Portra 400 and Ektar in 120 too) and, if I’m honest, much prefer the shots I got on the two rolls of HP5+ I also shot.

    The result is that I now have 3 rolls left. The danger here is that I do my usual trick of “saving it for a special occasion”, which can mean that it’s still un-shot months or even years later because an occasion I deem to be special enough hasn’t come around yet! I need to get out of this habit and shoot the good stuff for the sake of enjoying it. This is the same reason I havent shot the Eastman Double-X you sent me yet. :)

    Perhaps if I load a roll of the good stuff it will encourage me to look for the best photos!

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    • When I went to Ireland in 2016 I shot T-Max 400 – that’s how I splurged. My everyday film is Fujicolor 200. But I was shooting color on my digital camera and decided to use my favorite b/w in my film camera.

      I ought to write a post about just shooting the film you have and enjoying it! That’s why I shot this Portra on la-de-da subjects. Why not? Save it for what?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I think if you compare Portra to FujiFilm Xtra or pro400 the colours look muted. But I really like the softness of Portra. It is very good for portraits in my opinion. I also think it is nice for landscapes and your cemetery shots. I love a good cemetery. I actually shot a roll of Portra 120film at a cemetery the other week. I am yet to develop it but I am excited to see how it looks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. These photos are all wonderful. I have a thing for doors and gates so you really caught my eye with the cemetery gate and that door with the flower sign. That said, they’re all wonderful. I see what you mean about the colors. The brown books look muted to me. As for the others – hmm… I wouldn’t say muted but the colors seem pleasantly soft. Nice post today!

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  5. Nice images….I have not tried this emulsion yet, like you I shoot Fuji C200 mostly in 35mm, but I am using a mix of Portra 100, Ektar 100 and Portra 160 in medium format. Like them all, and I have some expired Ektachrome to try as well. I could have done with something a little faster last weekend though, we were at a bird sanctuary on a very cloudy day, and I was shooting with a long lens and slow shutter speeds…..

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  6. bodegabayf2 says:

    Nice series! After shooting Portra 400 for years at the rated speed, I’ve found the film gives me the look I Iike when I over expose it by a stop or even two.

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  7. Great stuff, Jim. Having never shot Portra 400 I am not a good judge of the muted colors, but from what I see in your prints they look great to me. I may just have to get a roll or two and run them through the F4 to see how I like it.

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  8. -N- says:

    The beauty of Portra 400 is with skin tones and subtlety of colors – as stated. I tend to for vivid greens in plants – to me, the world is intensely colorful and Portra is something I have to think about. It’s good when I want sublime, but when and where . . . on a foggy beach, early in the morning, in the undergrowth. Because of what we can do digitally in post, I tend toward UltraMax 400 as my cheap, go-to film and am happy with the results. Your series here shows the beauty of quiet colors, which you can change with your post production software if you want. I’m not so sure that it is possible to reverse bright colors to more subtle, come to think of it . . .

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  9. analogphotobug says:

    I’ve settled on Portra 400 as my general purpose color film. Portra 160 was formulated for skin tones and it is very muted, Portra 400 less so. I shoot it at 320 (suggested in an Emulsive article) and I like the color balance for landscapes.

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  10. richardhunter001 says:

    I think Portra 400 is realistic rather than muted, if the colour is there in the original scene it will capture it nicely. Nowadays we are so used to seeing images where the colour has been artificially boosted in photoshop, we forget what a genuine scene looks like.

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  11. Wow what a beautiful set of pictures. I love the cemetery gate, just wonderful. I wouldn’t say the colors look muted to me, but they do look softer and very natural. Well done!

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  12. Bart Swindall says:

    Hi Jim.

    I’m not normally a technophile, but I have to say, the shot of the bridge above the creek is a winner. Where is that bridge located?

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  13. I’m surprised you’ve not used this film till now but nice shots! Beautiful somewhat muted colors from this film. But now just like you I prefer cheaper films! 😎👍🏻

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  14. Jim, I’ve been having my own (digital) adventures with colour as you know, and your post highlights some of the struggles I’ve had.

    “Muted” might mean two things –

    It could mean that the colours that day were muted because of the climate, the natural light available, cloud cover etc. This is all unrelated to the gear and film used to make a photograph, it’s simply the ambient conditions of the scene at the time. And so a certain combo of camera/lens/film might capture this with near perfect authenticity, but the outcome still look muted.
    But “muted” could mean that the lens is perhaps older and lower contrast, even hazy or dusty enough inside to subdue the colours your eyes saw in reality.

    And/or it could mean that the film mutes all colours a few degrees of saturation.

    So in scenario 2, a scene with already naturally muted colours would be further subdued by the lens and/or film. Which might be a look that the photographer enjoys and so favours the same set up again, or it might be unwanted, so next time they use a different lens and film that’s more vibrant and punchy.

    And all of this is just one aspect of colour.

    Consequently, I’ve decided to stick to b/w for the foreseebale future, as colour just gives me too many options and too much brain overload, I’m just tired of thinking about it all.

    My favourite photo of yours here is the pink blossom, and I think that’s because the colours look very subtle and natural but in no way washed out. A consumer film here like Color Plus 200 or C200 might have made the pinks and greens a little too saturated.

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    • I am still that kind of photographer who asks, “What happens when I shoot this subject, in this light, with this camera/lens, on this film?” I don’t go after a particular look, I just want to see what I get. I still find great interest, sometimes even joy, in that.

      I’m learning as I go about how all of these variables are at play.

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      • I was like that with film for a long while, finding out what I liked best. I found it was Fuji Superia 100 and became pretty consistent with that.

        With digital it feels far more complicated. I should just get another K10D, I loved those colours!

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        • I think what’s happened to me is that Fuji 200 has become what I think color film should be, and when I don’t get those colors it feels strange somehow.

          Another K10D?

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        • Yes I know what you mean. Fuji 200 is the new normal and everything else looks, different.

          Half joking re the K10D, I know why I wasn’t using it. But it do make lovely colour images virtually straight out of camera…

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  15. Melissa Selena says:

    Beautiful photos Jim :) I think the colours are very natural. I love Portra, in all its iterations, but I agree it’s a tad pricey for what it is. The Fuji is a worthy alternative!

    Like

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