Images shot on Kodak Portra 400 in Yashica Electro 35 GSN
It took me a while but I finally did it. After shooting such household names as Oriental Seagull and Fujicolor Industrial, I managed to get hold of that obscure film known as Kodak Portra 400 and give it whirl in the streets of Shanghai.
I joke, of course. By the two measurements I’m basing this on, Portra is Kodak’s most popular film, as well as its most talked about and possibly most shot too.
The first of these measurements is Google search volume, which seems a solid, stats-based indicator. The second is how Portra has become a meme on the pretty good r/AnalogCircleJerk, which I suppose alludes to social proof at least.
I don’t think Portra was produced with street photography in mind. The clue is in the name. But that’s what I was shooting in Shanghai so that’s what I shot with it. Read on to see how it went.
A very short introduction to Kodak Portra
Film companies aren’t always the most imaginative when it comes to naming their stocks. Natural looking images from Fuji Natura. Velvety smooth results from Fuji Velvia. Landscape photography at mouths of rivers with Ilford Delta.
And of course, portraits done with Kodak Portra. Although I shot people going about their business rather than sitting them down to pose, you can see from the results what they had in mind when coming up with this film.
This leaves you with good skin tones and an all-round more muted, pastel-shaded feel to your shots. You can also expect good sharpness and low grain. In fact, the box proudly states Portra has the world’s finest grain at 400 speed.
It all sounds perfect for weddings, soft portraits, and long summer walks in flowery meadows. But street photography with Portra? Actually, from what I can tell, also yes.
Street photography with Kodak Portra 400
You probably shouldn’t be surprised that a film like Portra 400 does well with street photography, as all the qualities it was given to do its portrait work will transfer over to other genres too.
It’s obviously not the right choice if you like dramatic and dirty monochrome street shots with high contrast and big grain. If you’re shooting colour though, things like the sharpness, the low grain, and the natural skin tones are probably welcome.
One complaint people have with Ektar 100 – which has a box proudly stating it has the world’s finest grain of any speed – is that its vivid colours make skin look unrealistic. That’s not something you can level at Portra.
Despite the muted colours, there is some of that trademark warmth that Kodak films give when compared to their Fujicolor friends. Add that to the overall high image quality – the sharpness and low grain – and you have a film that I will be shooting again.
A quick and effective way to shoot this street photography
The photographs you see on this post were shot after I’d used more than half of the roll at Shanghai’s famous Jing’an Temple.
It was a little bit of a case of just trying to get through the remaining exposures and get the thing developed. That meant following a tried and tested technique that I’ve spoken about on here before.
It’s worth mentioning again though because the likelihood is you haven’t read those other posts. And even if you have, not everyone else will.
Regardless, it goes like this. When I’m shooting to finish a roll rather than to document a place or make any other specific set of images, my first and most important concern is the direction of the sun.
I’ll then find a street or area that allows me to start with it behind me, shining on everything that I see as I walk. Quite who I come across isn’t important, though. The idea isn’t to find interesting subjects. It’s to find well-lit ones.
It’s far more efficient than having to constantly turn your head left or right or even behind you to see the best light. And unless you’re at some event, you’re always going to find more normal people in the good light than you are people doing something special in any kind of light.
All told, it’s my favourite way to quickly get some passable street shots when I have some film I need to finish.
If you need a little more of a visual explanation, take look at the direction of the shadows in the photographs here and think about where the sun was to make them be going the way they do.
Wrapping up with Kodak’s most popular film
Although at the time of writing I’ve only shot one roll of Portra 400, I can see why it’s Kodak’s most popular film. According to my keyword research and some loveable Reddit goofballs, that is.
Just by shooting it in situations it wasn’t specifically designed for, its quality is evident. That shouldn’t really come as a surprise though, as its qualities are things that should work with plenty of things other than portraits et al.
Most films are great in their own right but their respective attributes might not transition to other styles quite as well. It’s probably better to take a Portra and use it for street photography than it would be taking a JCH Street Pan and using it for a wedding, for example.
I suppose that comes down to versatility as well as quality. I also think I might be rambling now about a film I’ve not shot enough of to be able to say much more on.
So I’ll end this here with the usual reminder that if you want to get some Portra 400 yourself, you can do from B&H Photo, from Amazon, or from Analogue Wonderland. Whatever it is you shoot with it, I hope you’re as impressed as I was.
If you enjoyed that post, why not take a look at these others to stay inspired or learn more about some other Kodak films:
- Full review of this fantastic Kodak Portra 400 film
- Other shots from this roll of Portra 400 at Jing’an Temple
- Shooting an even more expensive colour film in Shanghai
And if you think others will enjoy this post on Kodak’s most popular film too, help them find it by sharing or pinning. 😀