If you've ever shot film or been even remotely interested in shooting film then I'm sure you've heard of Portra, one of the most well known colour negative films ever made. Originally developed to be a professional grade film for wedding and portrait photography, the accurate rendition of colour as well as the flexibility soon meant that not only professionals wanted this as their primary colour film, but hobbyists alike. We took a few rolls of 35mm Portra 400 through the local streets, accompanied with an Olympus OM-1n and a 50mm ƒ/1.8 Zuiko lens, to see what all the fuss was about.
The first thing to note are the variations of Portra: there is Portra 160 known for its warmth as well as being the most fine grain version of Portra, there is Portra 400 which is the most versatile whilst maintaining its fine grain, there is Portra 800 which is even faster giving it more latitude in low-light however with more noticeable grain and contrast, and then there are a multitude of Portra variations that have since been discontinued such as the infamous 160VC and 400NC.
We decided on the ISO 400 variation as that seems to be the most versatile and generally used film stock available, and understandably so. We shot this film in a multitude of circumstances such as the middle of the day, middle of the night, fully blown out white-clouded skies, areas with huge contrasts in shadows and highlights, and what did we find? Exactly what we expected. Consistency. We were forced at times to back off to ƒ/16 in order to accommodate for the light and the results were still not incredibly blown out, at times in extremely harsh conditions you lost detail in the highlights however we believe that to be more of a limitation of the Zuiko lens than the film itself. In cases like this the grain was obviously much more evident than in other shots however with a decent enough scan you still maintained a lot of detail. At night stopped down to ƒ/1.8 and with a reasonably slow shutter speed we were able to get some good results, not amazing necessarily but considering the conditions highly adaptable and respectable.
The absolute highlights for a film such as this have to be its colour rendition, which was lorded and is simply sublime. Where we found Ektar 100 screaming at you, Portra 400 is soft, accurate, warm without being too warm and overall offers a beautifully nostalgic palette. We are yet to test the ISO 400 variant in a 120mm format however we believe it would be even more exceptional. The sheer latitude of medium format photography alongside the ability of this ISO 400 film would be fantastic. Now to be entirely honest this film is fantastic, at a cost, and that cost is your wallet. Currently Portra 400 is selling for around AU$17 per roll, and whilst this isn't a crazy amount of money for a roll of film it is still more expensive than something like Kodak Ultramax 400. The necessity in picking one or the other is entirely in your requirements. Do you need fine grain? Do you need fantastic colour rendition? Do you shoot in a wide array of conditions? If you answered yes then we would recommend Portra. If you're a very casual hobbyist who enjoys the process of shooting film but isn't entirely invested in paying that extra money for a jump in quality then there are a large amount of alternatives out there to suit your needs also.
At the end of the day, with a few rolls shot and our negatives developed and scanned, we were incredibly happy with the results. This will undoubtedly become one of those films that we keep in our pockets when we know we'll be photographing in almost any condition, in a place with beautiful colours that we need accurately portrayed.