When I was putting the final tweaks on the edits for this roll of film a couple weeks ago, I found myself asking why I ever bother with shooting any color film other than Portra 800.
The Kodak Portra family is probably the most commonly used color film(s) on the market these days, and it’s no surprise why given their versatility. Even though they’re primarily designed for portrait photography (portait -> portra) and are specifically tuned for skin tones, they can also produce beautiful landscape images if you’re shooting a subtle color palette. For example, Alex Burke is a wonderful film photography who shoots a lot of images on the eastern plains of Colorado and he seems to be using Portra (specifically Portra 160) more and more these days.
The Portra line also does very well with the warm look that so many photographers seem to be drawn to. The 160 and 400 versions in particular tend towards yellow highlights and they seem to de-emphasize some of the cooler colors like blues and greens.
I’ve shot a lot of Portra 400 and have found that this color palette isn’t really my favorite. I like the warmth, but the saturation is so low that the warmth usually feels like a subtle afterthought as opposed to a main feature of the color palette of the image. That’s great for portraits so the colors don’t overpower the subject, but it leaves something to be desired when it comes to street photography. This, combined with the lack of saturation, means that I typically have to do a decent amount of work in post-processing to get the images looking the way I want.
You might be wondering why the heck I shoot Portra 400 so much if I don’t really like the results. The reason is that I just haven’t found a suitable alternative. I could try Fuji 400H, but I dislike its color palette even more than Portra. And other films that have a better color palette tend to be less forgiving with exposure and are slower speed (Ektar, Provia, etc.).
Fortunately, Portra 800 solves a lot of the color palette issues that Portra 400 suffers from. The warmth is definitely still there (especially when overexposing), but it doesn’t seem to de-emphasize the cooler colors as much as 160 and 400. For example, take a look at the third and fourth images in this roll. These were taken on a late afternoon photo walk, and the warm evening light is punch and saturated, but the coolness of the shadows is maintained! This creates a wonderful push/pull color balance that really rounds out the frame. The same images on Portra 400 would still have the warmth, but the shadow areas would likely be more desaturated and would be missing that blue/cyan cast. Furthermore, Portra 800’s overall characteristic of higher saturation and deeper blacks better aligns with the look I’m typically going for.
When it comes to versatility, Portra 800 is pretty close to 400. Oddly enough, though, I seem to get the best results when I expose Portra 800 at a lower ASA than Portra 400. So even though it’s a faster film, I find I need more light than I do with 400. In low light scenarios, I’d rather have a roll of 400 in my camera (and push it a couple stops) than 800. But outside of that, and especially during sunny days, I’d opt for 800 just about every time. I have no issues overexposing it 1–2 stops, and on top of that I usually push it another stop in development (this creates more contrast and adds a little punch to the colors). So in total, I’m almost always effectively overexposing by 2–3 stops. This particular roll was overexposed by 1 stop (give or take) in camera and then pushed a stop in development, and you can see how vibrant the colors are using this combination of overexposure and pushing.
As much as I love Portra 800, I haven’t actually tried it in 35mm format yet (though that’s coming soon…). Part of the reason for this is that I’ve been too scared of the grain. In medium format, the higher speed (which comes at the cost of more grain) and the fact that I typically push it (which creates more grain) is barely noticeable. I mean, unless you’re really squinting at the photos in this roll, you can’t even see any grain. In 35mm, though, I imagine the grain will get pretty pronounced. I’m going to test it out soon, though. I don’t shy away from grain in black and white and almost always push my HP5+ two stops, so I don’t know why I’m so hesitant to see grain on my color images…
Anyways, I’m going to stop rambling about how amazing Portra 800 is now and let you enjoy it for yourself!
All photos were taken with my Mamiya 7II and the 80mm lens on Kodak Portra 800 shot at ISO 400-ish and pushed one stop in development. They were developed and scanned by The FIND Lab, and I adjusted contrast, the tonal curve, and clarity to most of the images in Lightroom.