A few weeks ago I was brainstorming ideas about how to bring more value to my followers and how to use my expertise to help you expand your craft. I thought about all the questions that friends around me who don’t really know much about analog photography but want to get started with it have, and what I can do as a somewhat experienced professional photographer, to make the process of shooting your first roll and getting back photos you’re actually happy about back from the lab, less daunting.
In this (hopefully weekly) series of articles, I want to take you through some of my favourite film stocks, equipment, and software, and to bring you some tips and tricks, as well as useful resources to get you shooting (and enjoying) film, as quickly as possible! Of course, if there’s anything particular you’ve got questions about, drop a comment down below and I’ll be sure to get back to you - I want this to be an open, semi co-operative space where every reader can gain something, so take ownership of it - your feedback is always welcome! With that out of the way, let’s get into the first film stock I’d like to review…
Kodak Portra 160
Unless you’ve lived under a rock your entire life, chances are you’re aware of Portra. It’s probably the first colour film anyone thinks of, and certainly the most popular. Famous for its pastel tones and fine grain, and synonymous with the resurgence of analog photography that’s taken place over the last few years, it’s the only appropriate place to start this series of articles. Importantly, Portra is also my personal favourite colour stock and the one that most often features in my work. I love it for its versatility, price, and unintrusive tones, as well as the variety of ISO it comes in - (160, 400 and 800).
Before I get into the characteristics, I’d like to note that the images used to illustrate the article are from two recent bodies of work - Bulgarian Rhapsody - a fashion photography project, shot for The Fall Magazine, and “Exemplary Home” - a documentary photography project I produced as part of my BA Photography degree at Westminster. Both works were shot on medium format - the former on my Pentacon Six TL, developed and scanned by Traia Photo Lab (some images re-scanned at home on my Epson Perfection v850 Pro). The latter were shot on a Mamiya RB67, developed at uni and scanned by myself on an Imacon Flextight.
Portra is likely best known for its “exceptional skin tones”. In my opinion, this statement holds true as few stocks I’ve ever shot have produced equivalently impressive results. Of course, this isn’t to say you’ll buy your first roll and all of a sudden get results that look like Alec Soth’s “Sleeping by the Mississippi”. It’s important to note that the signature portra look is only attainable through proficient scanning and under relatively specific exposure conditions. Like most colour film, if you underexpose you’re in for a bad time - muddy shadows, unpleasant contrast and more colour noise than you’d likely expect from “The world’s finest grain colour film”. Naturally, this problem is easy to mitigate by shooting a stop or two overexposed (i.e. setting your meter to ISO 80 or 50). This may sound counterintuitive at first, particularly if you’re coming from a digital background where underexposing is preferable to overexposing, however, you’ll find that with most negative colour films, you can get away with quite a lot of overexposure without significant difference. In fact, the most commonly associated look with Portra is one achieved at about two stops overexposure - the result is slightly flatter, and the subtle cyan and magenta biases of the stock start to come through more, hence the pastel tones. I’ve embedded a very useful video by Kyle McDougall that demonstrates this.
If you’re looking around for expired film, or just doing some further reading on Portra, you’ll quickly find two stocks - Portra NC and VC. These have both been discontinued, with the original abbreviations standing for “natural colour” and “vivid colour” respectively. The former film is more akin to what you’d likely associate the contemporary Portra look with, whereas the VC counterpart is punchier and more saturated. I couldn’t personally attest to any of this as I haven’t shot either of these stocks, and chances are if you’re shooting expired film you’ll be seeing some colour and contrast variations anyways, regardless of which of the two stocks you go for…
One of the best things about Kodak Portra 160 is its availability - if your local photography store stocks any film, chances are they’ll have it in at least 35mm, if not 120 and 4x5 as well. In terms of pricing, it’s important to note that as a member of Kodak’s professional range, it’s only generally available in 5 packs, usually at a price point around £50. If you’d like to order some online you can do so off Amazon using the affiliate links below! I get a nice little kickback and you get to enjoy your film quickly, and at a competitive price! (Please only do this if you DO NOT have access to a local independent camera/photography store - they need your business more than Bezos does!).
I leave you with some lovely images from my project, Exemplary Home. Do please let me know if you have any further questions in the comments below, share the post if you enjoyed it, give me some feedback and let me know if you’d like to read more. I’m hoping you find this series useful and I get to have an excuse to try out different film stocks in future!