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What's the Deal with Portra 400?

Kodak Portra 400 might easily be the most popular color film in the world of photography. It certainly doesn’t hurt that its one true contender, Fujifilm Pro 400H, gracefully (or not so gracefully depending on your feelings about that film stock) bowed out in January of 2021. Portra 400 is so popular that not even a significant price increase in January of 2022 could knock the champ from its throne.

But why is it so popular? Sure, it’s the only remaining true professional 400-speed color film. But what about other 400-speed color films with lesser price tags? Wouldn’t these do just fine? Well, If Portra 400's elusive nature and committed fanbase are any indication, one can assume there is no substitute for this iconic film stock. Let’s pick apart why everyone desires that 400 ISO film inside the purple and yellow box.

The data sheet for Portra 400 on Kodak’s website states:

“KODAK PROFESSIONAL PORTRA 400 is the world's finest grain high-speed color negative film. At true ISO 400 speed, this film delivers spectacular skin tones plus exceptional color saturation over a wide range of lighting conditions. PORTRA 400 Film is the ideal choice for portrait and fashion photography, as well as for nature, travel, and outdoor photography, where the action is fast or the lighting can't be controlled.”

If we are to believe Kodak’s 1998 promo video, the Portra “family” of films are daylight-balanced professional color negative films, made primarily with portrait and wedding photography in mind. They were introduced in two formulas, NC ("natural color") and VC ("vivid color"), in two speeds, 160 and 400, and replaced the professional Vericolor films VPS and VPL. Portra 800 was also released the same year but only in one formula. The 2011 update to the Portra family of films saw the end of the NC and VC varieties opting for a formula that incorporated a number of technological advances from Kodak’s motion pictures line of films. These improvements from the new formula included improved sharpness over 400 NC brought out by finer grain and more naturally rendered skin tones that were better than the previous NC and VC formulas.

The finer grain also improved the scanning performance of the film. Portra retained an orange “mask” for optical printing, but the decision to merge the two formulas, NC and VC, was based on the assumption that most prints were now being made from digital scans. With the film being primarily scanned digitally, adjustments for different levels of contrast and color saturation were likely also being done digitally and therefore rendered the specific formulas for each film’s traditional color darkroom printing process unnecessary.

Why do so many photographers rely on Portra 400 as their go-to film stock?

Many would suggest that the “film look” is based on Portra 400. It’s warm but also muted. Portra delivers a sunny feel with colors and contrast that realistically enhance the image. It’s known for its impeccable skin tone rendering, keeping them smooth and true-to-life.

But what truly makes it so popular is its ability to deliver reliable image quality while remaining one of the most versatile and forgiving films. Portra’s 400 ISO box rating is a great middle-of-the-road film speed. It's great for shooting in just about any scene, whether it’s a sunny day outdoors or in low light, or indoors. Regardless of the lighting, the results are reliable. Portra’s exposure latitude makes it hard to get unusable images and makes it respond well to being pushed, pulled, underexposed, and/or overexposed, even all within the same roll, without having to alter your development times.

So is it the best color film ever? Maybe. But let’s not forget that brand recognition and ubiquity can go a long way for a film stock too. Kodak has been producing film for over a hundred years, for both still and motion pictures. To say that they’ve built a reputation for quality film stocks would be an understatement. And as noted at the top of this article, Portra 400 is being produced still today and widely available (maybe not in the quantities that film fanatics would hope for). There really isn’t another film stock out there that contends.

But I can’t get my hands on any Portra 400!

It’s no mystery that Kodak is suffering the same manufacturing challenges that many companies in the photography industry are currently facing. As demand for Portra 400 stays high, and the ability to produce more of it can’t increase to match the demand, photographers may have to look elsewhere for solutions. Albeit, there are differences across the three film speeds of Portra, staying within the same family of films will probably be a photographer's best bet. Below are samples of the same scene shot on Portra 400, Portra 160 pushed one stop to 320, and Portra 800 pulled one stop to 400.

Kodak Portra 160
Pushed 1 Stop

Kodak Portra 400

Kodak Portra 800
Pulled 1 Stop

Kodak Portra 160
Pushed 1 Stop

Kodak Portra 400

Kodak Portra 800
Pulled 1 Stop

Kodak Portra 160
Pushed 1 Stop

Kodak Portra 400

Kodak Portra 800
Pulled 1 Stop

Kodak Portra 160
Pushed 1 Stop

Kodak Portra 400

Kodak Portra 800
Pulled 1 Stop

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