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The Unofficial Film of the 'Film Look’: A Long-Term Review of Kodak Portra 400

The Unofficial Film of the 'Film Look’: A Long-Term Review of Kodak Portra 400

Kodak Portra 400 was the very first film I shot when I get back into film, and it remains my go-to for color negative film. Sure, there are others. None of them come close, however, to the popularity of Portra 400.

What’s not to love about Kodak Portra 400? It has an amazing way of rendering colors in such a way that digital photographs just cannot compare. It has an exposure latitude that just does not seem to end (as can be seen here). It is by and large the most popular film out there and, as such, is widely available and relatively inexpensive. I would go so far as to argue that for color negative film, Portra 400 (also known simply as “Portra”) is the film people think of when they think of “the film look.” I know, I know, there are many films out there, each with their own look, and they are just as much film as Portra 400. So, why can’t their look be the "film look”? To answer this, I would first like to say that I have a fair amount of disdain for that phrase. That, much like I just pointed out, there are many different types of film, so to try and pin down one specific look as "the" "film look” (much like how it’s "the" Ohio State, not just Ohio State) is a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, it happens.

So, why then would I claim then that if there’s to be one film that is the film look, it’s going to be Portra? Great question. If you’ll refer back to my previous article analyzing characteristics associated with “successful” posts on Reddit’s Analog Photography thread, the Portra family comprised more than 40% of the top 1,000 posts on that thread. If we were to only talk about the color negative film, that number climbs up to more than 50%. That’s astonishing, isn’t it? In other words, among all of the top color negative posts, the 3 films in the Portra lineup had more representation than all other color negative films combined — regardless of brand. If you paid close attention just then and are wondering why I said “three films in the Portra lineup” instead of Portra 400, the answer is simple. Kodak has three different Portra films, each with its own distinct characteristics, with a similar color palette throughout.  

Within the Portra family, there’s Portra 160, 400, and 800. Personally, I prefer Portra 800 for almost every situation except in a studio environment. With that said, however, it is considerably more expensive, and because of its speed, it cannot go through airport scanners without expecting some fogging to occur. Portra 160, on the other hand, I don’t like much at all. I actually have a very love/hate relationship with Portra 160. On a trip last year, I took a pro pack of it and hated all but two images. Those two images, however, were my favorite two of the entire trip. When it’s good, it’s great. That said, I rarely think it’s good. Portra 400, on the other hand, seems to be the Goldilocks film of the three: it’s not quite as saturated as Portra 800 but more saturated than 160, it’s not as fast Portra 800 but the fastest box speed you can get before your film has to be hand-checked at the airport, and while it’s comparable in price to 160, it’s a good deal cheaper than 800. Lastly, Portra 800 is not available in sheet film, whereas 400 and 160 are. 

So, why then, if there are three Kodak Portra films, do I argue that Portra 400 is the most popular? Aside from the fact that it is the best-selling film at B&H, there’s also what can easily be seen through Google Trends. Compared with Portra 160, Portra 800, Fujifilm Pro 400H, and Cinestill 800T, four of the most popular films available in 120, Portra 400 has been far and away a more popular search term worldwide consistently over the past five years.

What I Like

  • Widely Available

  • Price

  • Color palette

  • Exposure latitude for days (even compared to other films)

  • Excellent for portraits (hence the name “Portra”)

  • For a 400 speed film, it has a really fine grain
  • Offered in 35mm, 120, and sheet film 
(4x5 and 8x10)

What I Don’t Like

  • For 35mm, Kodak Gold is so nice and so much cheaper, so it’s not easy to rationalize buying Portra 400 

  • Not quite as much saturation as Portra 800, which I prefer

Conclusion

Upon reflection, I find it quite amusing that film photography is deemed to be a relatively archaic medium, yet a film stock that is younger than many of the people shooting film today (originally debuted in 1998 and its current emulsion debuted in 2010) has become the most common film stock out there. Perhaps the most legendary films in existence are Kodak Tri-X and Kodachrome (neither of which are color negative films) and have little to nothing in common with Portra 400 other than the manufacturer. This helps put things into perspective for me. Taken in conjunction with the Google Trends results, it is clear to see that the popularity of the film is on the rise for a new generation of photographers.  

At this point, I have shot Kodak Portra 400 more than any other film stock by a mile. I’ve pushed it to as far as 1,600 with decent results, though I really like the results of it at 800. I’ve tried (and failed) to shoot it late in the evening with only artificial light. Processed at ASA 400, I’ve shot it overexposed and severely underexposed with decent to good results. All in all, I have more faith in Kodak Portra 400 than I do with any other film stock. It is so remarkably consistent that after a while, you can know what your shot will look like before you even have it processed. While it’s true that I prefer Portra 800 for the majority of shooting around home or on road trips and Kodak Gold is pretty hard to beat for 35mm, if I were going on a trip where I really wanted the best results I could get, I would pack Portra 400 over anything else. 

Have you ever shot film? What about Kodak Portra 400 specifically? What are your thoughts on this film stock?

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16 Comments

Andrew Mackauley's picture

A lovely write up on a wonderful film. I have remained with Ilford as I develop at home and am weary of developing color negatives, but these images may give me an impetus to challenge myself! Thank you.

James Madison's picture

Thank you! You say you've remained with Ilford - which stocks are you using? Delta 3200 has been a long time favorite of mine for 120 and I've recently been shooting a fair amount of Delta 100 with some success. I'm not sure I like it as much as TMax 100 but I've recently shot through one roll that and has been my favorite roll of the year I think.

Andrew Mackauley's picture

You're most welcomed! I use mostly HP5: a very versatile stock I have pulled/pushed from 100 - 1600 with good results. Delta is lovely, very sharp and contrasty and a much more modern look. If you want a more traditional grain style I would very much recommend HP5. But if you enjoy Delta 100 and TMax100 I would also recommend Fuji Acros (recently resurrected!) Gorgeous deep blacks.

James Madison's picture

Nice! I have some HP5 sheets (4x5) and haven't shot through too much of it in 120 (never shot it in 35mm). I do love Acros though I only managed to pick up 1 pro pack of 120 and a few rolls of 35mm before they quit making it. I've shot through some of Acros II in 35mm and 120 and as much as I like, I can't justify the price tag.

Andrew Mackauley's picture

Ah you are well versed in many stocks! And large format at that. Very glad to hear it. For the limited rolls I shot these days the price is not a factor for me, but for a professional as yourself I understand the desire for greater return on investment. Happy exposures to you, Mr. Madison!

Artur Walczewski's picture

Great article, inspired me to buy some films and go try them for the first time. Thanks!

James Madison's picture

That's terrific! You should circle back around and let me know what you think about it.

Petr Svitil's picture

I currently have 3 rolls of P400 in the freezer. Trully a lovely stock. Ive tried both Illfords and Kodaks 3200 films, but somehow always turned out far too grainy to be usable..

James Madison's picture

I could see that happening with your 3200 films, particularly if you're using a developer not well suited for it. What developer are you using?

Andrew Mackauley's picture

Would you mind explaining P400? What company made it? Thank you

Steven Meyer-Rassow's picture

I'm pretty sure he means P for Portra, he's talking about Kodak Portra 400, as per the article.

Andrew Mackauley's picture

Ah I see. Thank you. I was confused as he mentioned black and white films in connection with the P400 name, so I thought they might have been all black and white stocks.

Scott Kiekbusch's picture

I've shot B&W exclusively with my 6x6 medium format camera (T-Max 400), but this article has me wanting to try out some Portra 400

James Madison's picture

Nice! I love TMax 400. It may well be my favorite B&W film. You should definitely try Portra 400. You may be surprised just how nice it is converted to B&W. haha

Jerry Cargill's picture

Hey, wait, no portraits? I was told that Portra was engineered warm, for skin tones. If I remember correctly...but maybe I remember incorrectly, that was in 1994.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I shoot film almost exclusively and still have a roll of Portra 400 in my Fuji GX680. Very nice film. I shoot lots of slide film for landscapes, but am starting to shoot more print film to see what I get. Very nice article and lovely photos. Thank you sir and keep it up.