You don’t have to have a favourite film stock. And even if you do, it doesn’t have to be Kodak Portra 400. For a lot of people though, based on comments and conversation I see online, it most definitely is.
It’s by far the most searched for film on Google, according to my rudimentary research, and also the number one figure of fun on r/AnalogCircleJerk, which is a less scientific measure but also a good sign. Portra must be popular if it’s become a cliché.
The question now then is, how much does it deserve this simultaneous idolatry and infamy? Is it really that much better than other films? I’m sure some of its popularity is down to people following the crowd too, but to what extent?
Read on for some thoughts on that, as well as everything else you’d expect from a Kodak Portra 400 review, including plenty of example shots. If it makes you want to shoot some yourself, you can get yours from B&H Photo, from Amazon, or from Analogue Wonderland.
What is Kodak Portra 400?
Kodak Portra 400 is a pretty new film; especially when you consider how long Kodak as a brand has been around. It was born in 1998 and changed to what it is today in 2010.
That said, its lineage can be traced back to the middle of the last century. Hold on tight if you want to know how because this might get a bit meandering.
Back in 1949, Kodak produced a colour negative film called Ektacolor which came in Type A and Type B versions, for daylight and artificial light situations respectively.
In the late 1950s, these were replaced with Type S for short exposures and Type L for long exposures, before a newer version called Ektacolor Professional was introduced in the early 1960s. This also came in Types S and L.
Fast forward to 1971 and Kodak launched another colour negative film called Vericolor. This also had Type S and Type L versions, which were given the codes VS and VL.
These were sold alongside Ektacolor until 1974 when the upgraded Vericolor Professional II came along, with the codes updated to VPS and VPL. At this point, Ektacolor and the original Vericolor films were discontinued.
It’s Vericolor II that brings us to the Portra era, with the VPL one first being replaced by a short-lived Ektacolor Pro Gold 100T film in 1998. A year later, this was rebranded as Portra 100T, a film that was discontinued in 2006.
At the same time Vericolor VPL was replaced by that Ektacolor tungsten film, Vericolor VPS was also being killed off to make way for the new Portra NC – or natural colour – films, which were available in 160 and 400 speeds.
Alongside these was a Portra VC, which stood for vivid colour and also came in ISO 160 and 400 versions.
With most people still processing their work in a darkroom, the inherent differences in colour and contrast in these films were a big help.
However, as editing film scans digitally became more the norm, Kodak deemed it not worth producing the two slightly different stocks anymore. Not when a simple bit of Photoshop work could easily replicate the look of either.
So in 2010, Kodak Portra 400 NC and Kodak Portra VC 400 both ceased to exist as they merged together and became the simple, singular Kodak Portra 400 we have today.
The same streamlining happened with the ISO 160 Portra a year later, while the ISO 800 Portra was only ever available in a single version anyway.
If you want to know more about all this Kodak film history, I recommend you check out this website. It’s where I dug out all the information above from.
Kodak Portra 400 image qualities
As the name suggests, Kodak Portra films were designed with portraits firmly in mind. This means they keep skin tones looking nice and natural, unlike some of the more vivid Kodak films, and have very fine grain. The world’s finest grain at 400 speed in fact, if the box is to be believed.
These image qualities made Portra a favourite among wedding photographers in the days before most of them went digital, and among new film shooters in the more recent resurgence of analogue photography.
Kodak films do tend to give your photographs a warmness, especially when compared to typical Fujicolor offerings. Portra 400 is no different in that sense, and I think it’s that warmness combined with the more muted colours that brings it so many fans.
For better or worse, a lot of hobbyist film shooters want a certain vintage look. With its sunny feel and colours and contrast that enhance a scene without making it unrealistic, Portra seems to deliver exactly what they want.
Other films might push a certain attribute as their thing, like high contrast monochrome or excelling after dark, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Portra shines though by not turning anything up past around an eight, never mind all the way to eleven.
It works because nothing in the image is overdone, yet nothing is bland either. I assume, since I never shot them, that it’s like they took the differing attributes of the NC and VC versions and somehow got them to work together.
There’s good detail in the shadows too and it’s hard to get blown highlights with the wide dynamic range it has. Add some fancy emulsion technology that helps with the sharpness to that world’s finest grain at 400 speed and you can see why Portra is such a flagship product for Kodak.
Street photography with Portra 400
You might think a film designed for shooting portraits and weddings and the like would be a bit sterile for street photography. In my opinion, that would be a wrong assumption.
I’m not going to say any of the above films are better than the others because it’s all down to personal taste and how you like the representation of the specific scenes you shot with each. But I will say the image qualities engineered into Portra 400 with portraits in mind translate very well to the street.
It doesn’t matter if your photographs are posed ones with models or candid ones with strangers. Having natural skin tones on people is equally welcome.
There’s not much to say about the image qualities Portra brings to your street photography that wasn’t covered in the last section. The cleanness, sharpness, contrast, and muted colours just work.
The ISO 400 rating gives you all the versatility you need in different light conditions too; especially with the exposure latitude meaning it’s hard to under or overexpose and the dynamic range meaning your shadows and highlights should both hold up in the same photograph too.
The only elephant in the room here is something we maybe should have touched on earlier. It’s not cheap. In fact, depending on where you shop, Portra 400 might be Kodak’s most expensive colour negative film.
Whether it’s a price worth paying is up to you. If you haven’t shot it before, I’d recommend you try it at least once. I could see myself using multiple rolls for a project too, to take advantage of its quality.
But for general throwaway street photography, my current finances are such that I’d more often than not go with something less premium. Which is a shame, because it does give fantastic results, in my opinion.
Portra 400 specs and development
Kodak Portra 400 is an ISO 400, daylight-balanced colour negative film that’s available in 35mm, 120, and large formats too. The 35mm cartridges are DX–coded with the number 115334.
Before you shoot your rolls, Kodak recommend you store them at 21°C (70°F) or below, or 13°C (55°F) if you’re saving them for an extended period of time.
When you’re shooting your Portra 400, be aware that it’s one of the most forgiving films out there as far as exposure latitude goes. It’s supposed to deliver usable results at two stops over or two stops under, which means shooting anywhere between ISO 100 to 1600 without pulling or pushing.
Quite how much quality drop-off there’ll be at the extreme ends of this, I don’t know. But it’s useful to have if your scenes have a lot of contrast or you’re using a camera with no built-in light meter.
After shooting your Portra, it’s developed using the standard C-41 process. It’s also designed to be a great film for scanning, which makes a lot of sense considering its history.
As the old NC and VC versions were consolidated in 2010 due to the increase in digital processing going on, improving the scanning performance for the new version as Kodak did was a natural step forward too.
Finally for this section, there’s a Portra 400 datasheet right here that gives you more information than I care to parrot, although I will relay some impressive-sounding highlights.
First up is that Portra incorporates some technology from Kodak Vision motion picture film, which is still used to shoot some huge titles.
It also has – deep breath – antenna dye sensitisation in cyan and magenta emulsion layers, Kodak proprietary targeted advanced development accelerators, optimised emulsion spectral sensitivity and image modifier chemistry, Kodak proprietary DIR couplers, unified film emulsion technology, and micro-structure optimised Kodak T-grain emulsions.
Aside from the T-grain one, I have no idea what those things are and will definitely forget them once I’ve finished writing this. That’s fine, though. As any good salesperson knows, it’s not the features that make people buy. It’s the benefits.
And the benefits of all those words up there are, in no particular order, the world’s finest–grain 400-speed colour negative film, beautiful natural skin tones and superb colour reproduction, optimised sharpness, distinct edges, fine detail, and extraordinary enlargement capability from a 35 mm negative.
As someone who shoots film, doesn’t develop it myself, and likes to get good results, that’s more the kind of stuff I care about. Kodak can worry about how they make the film. I’m just very grateful that they do.
Where to buy Kodak Portra 400
If you have a camera or photography shop near you that keeps a good selection of film, they should really have some Portra 400. The only reason they wouldn’t is that they’ve sold out. It comes in a 5-roll box but any shop worth their salt should let you buy single rolls from open boxes too.
Whether Portra is in your local 1-hour photo place or pharmacy is less certain. The last time I went in mine, the only Kodak films they had were the consumer ones like Gold 200. Portra 400’s high price and those 5-roll boxes likely have something to do with this.
Fear not, though. If you can’t find any in person, don’t have time to go and look, want to find it at the best price before buying, or indeed want to buy less than 5 rolls, there are plenty of people online who will sell you some instead.
You can check current prices and availability through the links below.
- buy Kodak Portra 400 from B&H Photo
- buy Kodak Portra 400 from Amazon
- buy Kodak Portra 400 from Analogue Wonderland
Final thoughts on Kodak Portra 400
The bottom line here is that Portra 400 is a fantastic film and one that’s great for seasoned shooters as well as newcomers to analogue photography.
It’s the same attributes that make it good for both groups; the flexibility, the reliability, and the consistency it brings with its image quality and qualities.
If I had a special occasion to shoot or a trip or holiday that I wanted to save on film, Portra would be high on my list of candidates for the job. I think it’d give me results I’d love.
If I wanted to give one of my point ‘n’ shoot cameras to a friend who doesn’t shoot film to try and see how they liked it, Portra would also be a likely choice. I think it’d give them results that’d make them want to shoot more film.
That said, I do want to touch on how and why it’s become so popular that it’s now a bit of a cliché with people shooting it in their $1000 Contax T2.
Looking at the number of times the hashtag #portra400 has been used on Instagram versus #kodakgold200 for example makes me wonder how much of it gets shot because it’s well-known or even because it’s cool rather than just that it’s good.
I’m sure that herd mentality is a factor. It’d be easy for people to see what film someone with more followers than you or I will ever have is shooting and be influenced to go with that too.
It’d also be easy for people to read all the gushing reports, the reviews like this one you’re reading extolling the many virtues of Portra, try it before they do any other film, and develop an attachment to it.
It then becomes a bit self-perpetuating as people new to film talk it up too and the Portra flywheel keeps on spinning.
All that said though, does it really matter? It’s a point worth mentioning because it’s a real phenomenon and I couldn’t write this review without bringing it up. It’s not something worth preaching about though. You can shoot what you want.
If Portra helps more people to enjoy film and keep buying it, Kodak will make more money and will be able to keep producing all their films for all of us. And that’s kind of where I’m going with this.
I’ve shot and reviewed quite a few different films now and I plan to keep building out that library. For reasons of learning and also for content for this site, I couldn’t stick to just one film type no matter how good it is.
Portra 400 is good. It’s very good. It might be the best colour negative film out there. But it’s not the only one. Buy some from B&H Photo, from Amazon, or from Analogue Wonderland. I’m sure you’ll love the results.
But maybe don’t buy only Portra. Do yourself, your knowledge and experience, and other films a favour and pick some of those up to play with too.
Even if that’s only to confirm with yourself that Portra 400 really is, like with so many people before you, your genuine number one.
If you found that Portra 400 review useful, why not take a look at these to learn about even more great films:
- A review of another Kodak Professional film
- A review of one of Kodak’s cheaper films
- Check every single film review on My Favourite Lens
And if you think others will enjoy or benefit from this Portra film review too, help them find it by giving it a share. 😀