Mat Marrash: Pushing Kodak Portra

Over the past 15 months, I’ve burned a whole mess of film, with formats ranging from 110 all the way up to 8x10! I’ve discovered firsthand the kinks and quirks of each emulsion, and have found myself coming back to certain favorites. Above all else, the film that I’m always shooting some of is the new Kodak Portra. It’s been quite an interesting year shooting it, so let’s just start from the beginning.

Last fall during PDN’s Photo Plus Expo in New York City, after doing a brief interview with these two crazy guys from New Jersey talking about film, I raced back to the show room of the expo, hunting for anything film-related. Much to my disappointment, many of the big names in cameras and photo stores had nothing to show the film world. Only a small handful actually talked film or had any new products to promote. But just as I was giving up hope, a heavenly beam of light lit up the midway as I approached the Kodak booth. Coming closer to the unforgettable yellow glow of the booth, I was greeted by a friendly Keith Canham and his monster 7x17” ultra large format camera! Things could only get better from here.

Duane Polcou, Kodak's Scott DiSabato, and Keith Canham @ PDN's Photo Plus Expo

Talking to Keith while still entranced with the deep-black carbon fiber beauty he had brought along, I got to asking him why he was there with Kodak. He was helping them promote not only ultra large format film orders, but a new film as well! “New film?!?”, I thought, “I’ve got to get in on this!” I said to Keith. With a smile, Keith guided me a couple of meters towards the back of the booth where Kodak was handing out samples of their newest emulsion, Kodak Portra 400.

With all this free film at Kodak's booth, who could say no?

Following up my trip out east, I was on a mission to test this film to its limits. I’d already seen what some of the very high-end wedding film shooters had been doing with it, pushing/pulling and such, and thought I’d give it my own try during the family holidays. At Thanksgiving, I shot two rolls of Portra 400, one underexposed at ISO 800 and the other at ISO 1600. Before sending off to Millers, my 120/220 pro lab, I consciously decided not to push the film (process it longer to compensate for underexposure). “Surely there’s going to be no usable images from these”, I thought. Much to my surprise, however, there were a whole bunch of interesting, decently exposed images, with grain finer than I’d seen shooting Kodak’s older Portra 400VC! Considering I still had no clue how to properly filter the tungsten and fluorescent light in this poorly lit conditions, Portra 400 still managed to handle scanning and color correct in post processing very well.

New Kodak Portra 400 shot @ ISO 800, no push processing.

Next came Christmas shooting. I already knew what Portra 400 could do with 1 & 2 stops underexposed, why not try a full 3 stops? Two more rolls were sacrificed to the cause, as I shot in fluorescent only light at ISO 3200. “Now there’s definitely not going to be anything there!” Again, I was stunned at the CD’s and prints that came back from the lab. Plenty of usable shots, all with 3 stops underexposed, and only 1 stop of push (25% extra C-41 processing time). What did this mean for me photographically? It meant I could now stick to one film and shoot at a range of 400-3200 with the confidence that a fine grained, usable image would be there!

"Crazy Aunt's Socks" New Portra 400 shot @ 3200, 1 stop push!

This is where the real abuse begins. Once 2011 hit, I was in full swing shooting Portra 400 whenever I got the chance. I found myself regularly shooting it at 1600 with no push, just to gain faster shutter speeds and sharper portraits. Heading out east a few more times for FPP recordings and the NYC meetup mid-March, I shot half a dozen rolls of the stuff, in 35mm, 6x4.5, and 6x6, with crazy ranges all mixed together! On one roll of 35mm Portra 400 in the trusty Olympus Trip 35, I took snaps of the FPP Meetup adjusting the ISO on the camera from 200-1600 to match the changing light, and ALL the shots came out great! When visiting Times Square with Lauren late one Friday evening, I captured this splendid portrait you see below.

"Lauren in Times Square" Kodak new Portra 400 shot @ 3200, 1 stop push!

By April, I had: shot it ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, processed it in 15 year old C-41 chemistry, left it in the sun for a week, and yes, even shot a roll at ISO 6400. Was there anything this new Portra 400 could not handle? With near “digital” ISO latitude, pleasing rendition of skin tones, and the ability to maintain stunning highlight detail, it was safe to say Portra 400 was my new go-to film. But just then, new Kodak Portra 160 hit the market! Just like its higher speed counterpart, Portra 160 quickly found its place in my camera bag.

FPP Gang at Macs Diner - New Portra 400 shot @ 6400, 2-stop push!

Going much easier on this “slower” emulsion, I didn’t do too many crazy things to the new Portra 160. On occasion, I did take some shots ⅓ to ⅔ overexposed (ISO 80-100), but overall, this film handled much the same way as Portra 400, with an even wider tonal range, and very soft, even skin tones. I think this goes without saying, but the grain/lack there of at 160 is pretty awesome too! Most of this summer, in fact, I’ve been shooting Portra 160 for casual portraits, backyard barbecues, and good ‘ole summer fun. On a nice, sunny day, one can always expect perfectly rendered blue skies, well separated highlights, and vibrant but not overly saturated tones. Again, I try not to leave home without some form of new Portra in my camera(s).

"Uncle Bob" on the Beach - Kodak new Portra 160 @ 100

So there you have it, all the nuts-n-bolts of my experiences with the new Kodak Portra 160 & 400 emulsions. If you haven’t tried it yet or are still on the fence about shooting it, I implore you to go out and try some for yourself. Whether you’re new to film or a long time shooter, there’s something for everybody in these beautiful color negative films. Even for those coming over from digital, Kodak Portra offers an easy learning curve, a wide latitude, and results that speak for themselves.

If you have any questions about these new wonder films, or would just like to see some more examples of this film in action, please hit me up via Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or email.

Happy shooting and long live film!

Mat Marrash co-hosts The Film Photography Podcast (Internet Radio Show)


tal's picture
great post and video! i just bought 3 rolls of the new 160, they are waiting in the fridge./... can't wait to load it in the Mamiya!
Woods's picture
I'll try to shoot the Portra 160 @ 100 when I have the chance ! Thanks for the tip. -- Woods
ani's picture
I have tried this (pushing portra 400 two stops) with less than stellar results. How are you scanning the results?
Nasir Hamid's picture
An excellent post. I enjoy reading about how you punish film. I've got 10 rolls of each coming my way to do some punishing of my own :-) Cheers, Nasir
Thom Stone's picture

Really awesome article! Amazing results! especially lauren in time square. I'm pretty sure I have that hat. This is the film I have been waiting for really. I love to shoot at gigs and in lots of low light situations where flash is prohibited so i have been pretty much stuck with digital having tried some high ISO films and have been pretty unimpressed. Now Kodak have come to the rescue, I can use my beloved film and get better results! so excited to gig this film, now just gotta choose a camera now.

Alice's picture
Great article, I found this very helpful. I had no idea how flexible that film was! I'll have to try it out for myself...
Stephanie Callaghan Smith's picture
Great article - also loving the new Portra 400
Anonymous's picture
Good article and nice pictures David Photographer from Paris, France Personnal website : En ligne
Ralph Hightower's picture
After this year, I'll have to try Kodak Portra. For 2012, I am shooting exclusively with B&W film.
polarhei's picture
PORTRA may be good. However it is for few areas,i'm afraid even I am able to get it. But,it is better to use cheap film to do since computer scanning can do the rest. If I had a chance,I shall take a try on it.
Christian Rudman's picture

I am so stoked to try this out!

Do you think that Fuji's PRO400H might also have the same exposure flexibility characteristics as Kodak's Portra 400?

Mat Marrash's picture

Fuji Pro400H is a slightly older emulsion that doesn't handle push processing nearly as well as Portra 400. That being said, they both have the same latitude on the overexposure side, aka pull processing.

Christian Rudman's picture
Thanks for the reply Mat! I am going to Illinois for the Cornerstone Music Festival this coming week, and I am taking a couple rolls of Portra 400 (alongside a whole lot of Neopan and Acros) and I will be taking advantage of this film's great range! Enjoy the show constantly, makes the drone of working at a digital-oriented camera store all that much more appealing. About to cue up #63, looking forward to many more with you guys, thanks for keeping the film aficionado spirit alive!
Christian Rudman's picture
Just to report, the film worked wonderfully across several stops of ISO ranges, and this will be my go-to C-41 film for color work from now on! Thanks!
Daniel Aquino's picture
could you post some? Regards
Avi's picture
Fantastic info! I had almost given on my quest for a fast color film for Northern Lights when I came across this post. Exactly what I need. I hate grain in my pictures and the fact that you can shoot at 3200 with only a 1 stop push is exactly what I was looking for. you think the results are lab sensitive? Did you use a single lab to process all these shots? Thanks! Avi
Mat Marrash's picture

I used the same lab for all the Portra test shots. It's VERY lab dependent. Find a good one that knows what you want and stick with them.

Joe from PeopleMakePictures's picture
Super article. What about Portra E6 ? Can I abuse slide negatives the same way?
Mat Marrash's picture

To the best of my knowledge, there is no Portra that currently comes in E-6. Either way, slide film has no where near the ability of a color negative film to push/pull.

Paul Cretini's picture
Thanks so much for this article, even though it was written more than a year ago it's still extremely helpful.
buetts 's picture
Hi, i got a CanoScan 9000f and experience in developing and printing black and white.. I want to try to develop Portra 400 C41 myself. I wonder if I am able to scan this much under/overexposed film with my scanner. Or do i need a big fat pro scanner to get decent results? For my understanding extension of der devtime should get the film back in the sweet spot of the scanner. Am i right?
adkjoe's picture

This is totally awesome! Kodak Portra is an amazing film.. You got me!

Tony Hicks's picture
I was searching the FPP forum for anything I could find on pushing Portra 800. I just got a roll of 800 from you guys at the FPP Findlay meetup and I'm heading down to Detroit this weekend to shoot house fires in the city at night (there are a lot of them). The guys I go with and I normally shoot with high end digital cameras ... but now that I'm hooked on film, I'm taking a bunch of Tri-X 400 (which I'm going to push to 1600) and some Portra 400 which I was thinking of pushing to 1600 as well. I was hoping I'd be able to push the Portra 800 FPP gave me to 32oo, but now I'm thinking I might be able to do that with the Portra 400 as well. If you see this in the next day or so and have any experience with pushing Portra 800, let me know. Otherwise I'll just give it a shot and see what happens. Fingers crossed.... :)
EricBryan's picture
I love Portra 160. Haven't tried 400. I have found it to give such great results even for landscapes that I often choose it over Ektar when I'm in the mood for color negs. Great article!
EricBryan's picture
In many ways I like Portra even more than Ektar, even though Ektar is supposedly the better film for landscapes. I have had so many great results with Portra, and I've even tested it by overexposing 3 and 4 stops and it has still given a very usable image.
Alan Cole's picture
The Mac's Diner shot - was it really pushed four stops to 6400 instead of the captioned two stops, or was it pushed the states two stops from 400 to just 1600? I shot a lot if Tri-X at 1600 in the day, but color neg at 1600 used to be crazy talk. I was more of a rule follower then, though. Microfilm in a camera? Wou'd 'a thought. Cutting big stuff down to little stuff? Putting film back into those 126 cartridges? Ludicrous!
Anonymous's picture
How do you shoot a different speed of film when using Portra 400 ISO? Not quite getting the whole "Portra 400 ISO shot @ ISO 800, 1600, 3200"
JamesSchinnerJr's picture

To shoot a film at a different speed, set your in-camera meter or handheld light meter to the ISO at which you want to shoot your film. For example, to shoot Portra 400 at ISO 1600, set you meter to 1600, for ISO 800, set your meter to 800, etc. If you shoot your film at a higher speed than on the box, make you tell the lab what ISO you used, so they can properly process it.

annmariapeter's picture

In my childhood days, the camera company Kodak was very famous and widely used by every camera operator. But I must say today the name Kodak is missing from some countries. I can’t see a single camera with Kodak company. What happened to them?

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