Kodak Portra 800 - A High Speed Wonder
Portra 800 is a film I've been curious to shoot for a while. I typically shoot landscapes and the occasional cityscape, so I'd never thought much about shooting Portra 800 for such cases. I've had a roll sitting in the fridge for quite some time, waiting for a family event or something of that nature. A friend of mine recently invited me out for an evening shooting the Bikes, Blues, and BBQ event in Fayetteville, Arkansas. That's when I knew it was time to break the Portra out and give it a fair shake.
I debated back and forth on my way to Fayetteville whether or not to shoot this film at the rated 800 ISO or to push it to 1600 ISO. After some thought, I decided to keep it at box speed for my first go with Portra 800 and I'm quite glad that I did. 800 ISO paired with my Minolta X-700 and a few relatively fast lenses kept me shooting into the blue hour at Bikes, Blues, and BBQ.
The tonal rendition of this film is excellent. I particularly love the color and feel that the images I shot after sunset display. The slightly green hues in the shadows with realistic reproduction in the mid-tones and highlights make for beautifully cinematic looking photos. I'm particularly impressed with how well Kodak was able to engineer this film to retain shadow detail. Portra 800 still retains highlights much likes its sibling, Portra 400, but it seems even more apt at retaining shadows as well. Quite impressive!
Portra 800 During the Day
I've always thought of Portra 800 being a high speed film for low light or action situations and never given it proper considerations for other uses. I'd only managed to shoot 14-16 frames the evening I spent in Fayetteville and needed to finish the rest of my 36 exposure roll. During the next week, our part of the world experienced torrential rainfall, resulting in some intense flash flooding along the creeks and rivers. I still had plenty of film in the Minolta and my curiosity had peaked on the flooding, so the wife and I headed off to explore.
The shots I exposed here and earlier in the day in Fayetteville certainly surprised me. The grain structure of the film was exactly what you'd expect from a professional Kodak film, pleasing and unobtrusive. The photos are much cleaner than I expected from an 800 ISO film, and retained a very good level of sharpness.
I tend to scan my negatives with relatively flat contrast, preferring to add it back in post, and Portra 800 provided me with the perfect canvas in this regard. The film isn't overly contrasty and delivers those signature soft and pleasing colors that Portra is known for. I scanned the film into TIFF files and the combination provided me with near RAW-like levels of post-production flexibility.
And of course, Portra 800 for Portraits
I still had a handful of frames left on my roll of Portra 800 after exploring the flooded Tanyard Creek park area. At that point I realized I hadn't used any of the film for what it's known for: portraiture. I somehow convinced my wife to tag along yet again and do some shooting at Lake Atalanta in Rogers, Arkansas.
We arrived mid to late afternoon and it wasn't long before I found my first few spots to shoot. The first setting had my wife in bright sunlight against a heavily shadowed backdrop of woods. I thought it might simulate using a strong strobe in order to kill the ambient light in the scene and it worked out quite well. After shooting it on my Sony A7, I gave it a go with the Minolta and I have to say, I quite prefer the look of the Portra 800 shot to the digital one. It handled the harsh lighting with much more subtlety and even managed to retain more shadow detail.
I was again surprised by the color palette and overall pleasing look of Portra 800 for daytime shooting. It beautifully renders skin tones, as one would expect from a Kodak Portra film stock. It also portrayed some wonderful colors for the few landscape frames I attempted on that day. It's flexibility continued to astound me after scanning. I never expected an 800 speed film to display such characteristics in so many situations, in fact, it's so far been difficult to find any negatives to this film stock. While it won't replace Kodak Ektar for my primary landscape film, it certainly will be a film I shoot more often.
Kodak Portra 800, Worth Shooting Again?
After shooting this roll of Portra 800 over the course of 3 or 4 weeks and in multiple situations, I'm thoroughly impressed with its versatility. It's grain is fine and pleasing, the color palette is pleasant and versatile, and it scans and post-processes with aplomb. In fact, after only shooting one roll of the film so far, I'm quite pressed to find anything negative to say about it. The only thing that comes to mind as a potential negative is the cost.
Most places that I've seen who stock the film have it priced around $10-$14 per roll making it, on average, a couple bucks per roll more than Portra 400 and roughly double the cost of consumer films like Kodak Ultramax 400 or Superia 400. Having said that, there are obvious advantages this film has over the consumer films and potentially even over it's sibling. While I have pushed Portra 400 to 800 ISO and quite enjoyed the results, I would like to do further evaluation of both films before I were to pick a favorite of the two for my 800 ISO endeavors.
Overall, if you're looking for a versatile and great looking film for shooting color at 800 ISO, it's going to be tough to beat Kodak's Portra 800.
If you'd like to see more of my roll of Portra 800 as well as footage from the scenes described above, check out my YouTube video below!