Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Review: Kodak Professional Portra 400

A Perfect Film for the Hybrid Workflow

By Marianne Drenthe

Film is not dead. Brilliant technical advances in the forum of film creation have brought about Kodak Professional’s newest film, Portra 400. Kodak touts it as having the “world finest grain at 400 speed,” and I do believe that claim to be true.

kodakportra400a.jpg

I trialed the Portra 400 film in the 35mm format. Kodak has always been known for their consistent and smooth reproduction of all skin tones, and I couldn’t wait to use this film in my comfort zone—children’s photography. I trialed several rolls of the brand new Portra 400 film using my trusty Canon EOS Elan 7 and a variety of Canon L glass, using manual settings for all my exposures. I shot with my favorite Canon lenses: the 50mm 1.2L, the 135mm 2.0L and the 24-70mm 2.8L. I hoped the combination of the L lenses with Kodak’s track record for smooth skin tones would prove to be a winner. It was.

The wait and see nature of film sort of forces you to finish the process of taking the photos—not to stop and check the back of the camera LCD after taking a shot and second guess yourself. I took photos of a variety of child subjects utilizing natural light. I took some photos outdoors (no easy feat in the Midwest December cold!), on location in my home and indoors at a client’s home. Once I finished shooting came the patience part. I sent my rolls off to Burrell Colour Imaging in Crown Point, Ind. (one of my pro labs of choice), and waited. Patiently. Their turn around was pretty good; I had proof images and scans in about a week.

201102we_portra001.jpg 201102we_portra001edited.jpg

In this and the following examples, the first image is the original scan and the second has been edited in Photoshop. Click for larger view. ©Marianne Drenthe, Marmalade Photography

When I opened the envelope with my proofs I was immediately pleased with the grain. In the 3.5x5 images, grain was not perceptible to the human eye. The contrast was perfect, the color was beautiful as I expected. Highlight and shadow detail did not disappoint. Because film in general tends to create a sort of intangible quality of softness and richness, this is where this film hit a homerun. It really excelled in that film quality I so love. There’s a certain depth to the images in my printed proofs that pleases my eye, an almost indescribable, magical quality that sounds lofty when you try to put it into words. At the heart of it, combined with the fine Canon glass, the Kodak Portra 400 produced lovely skin tones coupled with wonderful sharpness, depth and contrast, no easy feat to achieve at 400 speed.

201102we_portra004.jpg 201102we_portra004edited.jpg

©Marianne Drenthe, Marmalade Photography

For me the real test came in Photoshop. Thankfully Kodak understands the needs of today’s film photographer: film quality and the convenience of digital editing. We love the quality of film, the craftsmanship that goes with it, but we don’t want to give up what digital offers us: unlimited creativity in the realm of finished imagery. To that end I ordered negative scans of my film and was very pleased with the grain quality of the scanned 35 mm images. In digital photography noise is a very different quality, mostly undesirable, but in film grain gives an image a sort of realness that adds to that feeling of magic that I described earlier. In my large high-resolution scans, the grain is noticeable but expected, and in fact it’s an appealing trait. The grain truly is fine. It’s not 100-speed grain, but at 400 speed it’s remarkable. Some grain is good.

My overall impression with Kodak’s Portra 400: gorgeous skin tone reproduction, lovely color reproduction, amazing depth, great highlight detail and really beautiful shadow detail. I am pleased with the sharpness and contrast this film offers, and I’m very impressed with the grain at this higher speed.  Kodak has successfully created a film that bridges the needs of the photographer who uses an analog/digital workflow.

201102we_portra006.jpg 201102we_portra006edited.jpg

©Marianne Drenthe, Marmalade Photography

With film you have to trust. Trust the film, trust your camera—more important, you have to trust your knowledge. Film takes courage, acceptance and patience. It requires the user to have discipline and a good set of technical skills. In this age of quickie … well … everything, it’s a beautiful thing to just slow down and trust the process. I have no qualms trusting this film to produce images that my clients and I will love.

Marianne Drenthe is a Chicago children’s photographer. Visit her webpage at   marmaladephotography.com.

 201102we_portra010.jpg

 201102we_portra011.jpg

              201102we_portra014.jpg 201102we_portra013.jpg

©Marianne Drenthe, Marmalade Photography