Kodak Portra 400 has long been a staple in the film photographers bag. It is one of the best known and most widely used color negative films in the modern world, and has been a hit since its 1998 introduction. The film was updated in 2010 touting increased sharpness, finer grain, and easier scanning capabilities. Portra 400 is well loved due to its amazing exposure latitude, natural color palette, and it's versatility. The look of well shot Portra is instantly recognizable.
The Versatility of Portra 400
One of the things I most enjoy about shooting Portra 400 is its versatility. This is a film that many photographers shoot overexposed by one and even two stops over! If you're unfamiliar with this practice, it sounds a little crazy in the digital world. Portra handles overexposure so well that you can shoot it at 200 and even 100 ISO and not blow out your highlights with careful metering. Shooting the film in this manner slightly mutes the color palette and gives your photos the popular "light and airy" wedding style feel and look.
Of course you can also shoot Portra at it's box speed of 400 with no problems. It's extremely forgiving to shoot, allowing you to meter for the shadows and not worry about losing your highlight detail due to the aforementioned exposure latitude. At the box speed of 400, Portra displays nicely saturated colors that aren't overstated, decent contrast, fine grain for a 400 speed film, and a large dynamic range.
Pushing Portra 400
If you have been looking for Portra 800, but can't bring yourself to spend the extra money over Portra 400, I have the solution for you. Yep, more Portra 400. This film pushes extremely well! I have personally only pushed it to 800 ISO, but I had great results. Some people even push it two stops to 1600 ISO. Pushing color negative film typically results in greater contrast, more saturated colors, and more grain. Portra 400 is no exception to that, however, it does work exceptionally well at 800 ISO.
The grain surprisingly doesn't become terribly exaggerated compared to shooting at box speed, even on 35mm. If you're careful with your lighting situations, the increased contrast doesn't hinder your shooting much, if at all. The saturation does increase, but if you're like me and love Ektar, you won't mind that at all.
The following two photos were shot on Kodak Portra 400, 35mm format, pushed to ISO 800, and with a Minolta X-700.
Practical Properties of Portra 400
If you're the type who likes to develop and scan your film in house, you'll appreciate the properties that Kodak engineered into this film. It is one of a few films that consistently dries flat and relatively free of curls, 35mm and 120 format alike. This contributes greatly to its ease of scanning. When your film stays in the negative holders on its own and keeps flat, scanning goes so much better. It doesn't matter if you're scanning with a DSLR or a flatbed, curly film is a huge pain in the hindquarters.
Due to the aforementioned popularity and common usage of Portra 400, getting the colors right is relatively easy as well. Epson scanners tend to handle this film pretty well using it's stock software. Software like Silverfast for flatbed scanners even have built in color profiles specifically for popular film stocks like Portra. Negative Lab Pro also does a fine job with most every color film out there if you're scanning with a DSLR and need an easier solution for color film.
To Sum it Up
With Kodak Portra 400 having all of these great qualities, is Portra my favorite film stock? Almost! When I want to shoot color film, it's hard to choose a favorite. I love the Cinestill films. I love Portra 160. Ektar 100 is usually my choice for landscapes, but I've begun to fall for Portra 160 and 400 more lately. I don't think I have a favorite film!
Portra 400 is always a film I will have in stock in my fridge, though. The versatility of this film is nearly unmatched. You can shoot it from 200 ISO to 1600 ISO in some cases. It's almost impossible to blow out highlight detail. It's got a great grain structure that is extremely usable in many use cases. The 35mm and 120 versions of this film definitely have contributed to some great photos for me. If you have never tried Kodak's line of Portra films, you definitely should at least once!
Make sure to follow me on Social Media below! Also, here is a YouTube video I filmed shooting a roll of medium format Kodak Portra 400 in my Yashica Mat 124G. I hope you enjoy!