Mat Marrash: Pushing Kodak Portra

Posted: 08/10/2011

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, Scott DeSabato, Keith Canham
PDN Photo 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.

Pick up some Kodak Portra at the FPP On-Line Store!

Happy shooting and long live film!

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


FPP Newsletter

Enter your e-mail address and receive our newsletter directly to your inbox.