Kodak Portra 400 is a premium colour negative film with excellent colour reproduction qualities and outstanding dynamic range.
If you’ve been shooting film for any length of time, chances are you’ve heard of Portra. And at ISO 400 box speed, this is likely the most sought-after variant. Indeed, the results you get with this film look different than with the 160 or the 800. And they’re all priced differently.
In this review, I’ll examine all the key film properties — sharpness, resolution, grain, dynamic range, and colours — as well as compare Portra 400 to its siblings sold in the ISO 800 and ISO 160 speeds.
Portra 400 vs. 160 vs. 800.
I’ll explain all the aspects mentioned here in further detail below. But for the purpose of comparing Portra 400, Portra 160, and Portra 800, a brief overview:
Colours. All Portra films reproduce colours in medium-low contrast relatively accurately. These films have some trouble with keeping greys neutral in the shadows — as is the case with most colour negatives — but can deliver remarkable results in most well-lit scenes. For greater colour accuracy, consider Kodak Ektachrome E100. Portra films deal exceptionally well with well-lit skin tones.
Dynamic range. Portra 160 seems to have the least forgiving latitude, whereas Portra 400 can handle 2+ stops over-exposure with some interesting side effects (see “pastel colours” below). In all three speeds, the film shows some colour shifts in over-exposed areas; however, they are relatively easy to correct in Photoshop.
Grain, resolution, and sharpness. As the ISO increases, Portra films appear to show sharper but also larger grain.
The Portra film origins and reputation.
Portra films are often mentioned in the same breath as the popular CineStill emulsions — for a good reason. As the 800T and the 50D are pre-processed and re-packaged Kodak Vision films, Kodak’s Portra series are also direct beneficiaries of the same technology. As a result, some photographers may find similarities in how all those emulsions render colours; others will notice similar top-tier pricing and popularity with wedding photographers and internet sharers.
☝︎ Further reading: I wrote up the history of Kodak’s Portra series at greater length in my Portra 160 film review.
The Portra series began its journey back in 1998. The same year America Online collaborated with Kodak to launch “You’ve Got Pictures!” Those who’ve been around back then may remember the CDs AOL drowned the world in and the TV ads’ joyful “You’ve got mail!” exclaims.
Grain structure, resolution, and sharpness.
When shot in 35mm, Portra 400 grain does not look particularly fine — probably due to how sharp it is. Compared to slide films in the same speed and format, like Fujifilm Provia 400F, Portra looks noticeably coarser.
I would also argue that CineStill 400D has finer grain, although that emulsion is a) brand new and b) based on newer technology. But neither Fujifilm nor CineStill uses Kodak’s Print Grain Index to measure grain structure (which I think is a much better method than the legacy RMS used by Fuji and many other brands), so they can not be compared using numbers.
I explain how PGI works in my review of Kodak Ektar film.
Luckily, we can still (scientifically) compare Portra 400’s Print Grain Index to other Kodak films to see how its grain is expected to behave in relation:
Portra 400 appears to have a somewhat finer grain than Kodak Gold 200. Although, it’s still chunkier than Portra 160 and Ektar.
The grain’s sharpness is a separate concept from grain size. It refers to the amount of definition around the edges of the film particles. For example, slide films tend to have less grain sharpness, which makes them appear smoother when enlarged. However, sharp grain can make things like distant text appear more legible even if the granules are large.
On the grain sharpness scale between smooth and coarse, Portra 400 skews hard towards coarseness. In larger formats, this may give advantageous results if you’re looking to add a lot of fine detail to your scene.
Portra 400 has an impressive dynamic range of about 12 stops, according to the characteristic curve posted in their datasheet. To understand how I got it from the 3.5 lux-seconds you see in the graph below, read this.
Let’s put this in context. The human eye is often estimated to have between 10 and 14 stops of dynamic range; others quote it at 20. And in 2022, top-of-the-line digital cameras can record just over 13 stops.
Keep in mind that over-exposed film does not clip like a sensor: while you may still be losing detail, most ill-exposed emulsions look better than over-exposed digital images.
The results you get with Portra 400 will depend greatly on what you’re printing on or the DMax of your film scanner. Whatever it is, with Portra 400 you’re likely to have the best luck in high-contrast scenes and when metering using the Sunny 16 rule.
Portra 400 is so flexible that you can meter it at ISO 100 and develop normally without significantly sacrificing the information stored in your image. As a result, your results will look less “realistic;” however, this effect may be exactly what you’re looking for.
How to get “pastel” colours with Portra 400.
“Pastel colours” is a trendy way to render images on film in 2022. You may have noticed a few popular posts showing up on your favourite social network that look like they’re made with playdough. It’s a lovely effect that, with practice, can create pleasing results.
Portra 400 is not the only emulsion that can deliver this look. However, it’s a popular choice for the task that requires a high dynamic range/low contrast colour negative film.
The “pastel” look is defined by bright, low-contrast mids/highlights with high-contrast shadows. However, this look doesn’t work with every scene — ideally, you want minimum clutter, simple lines and bright colours that the film will turn into desaturated yet well-defined hues. With Portra 400, this can be done by over-exposing it by 2-3 stops in bright daylight with a suitable subject.
While some scans and prints of Portra 400 will produce “pastel” colours straight of the scanner/darkroom, many will require tweaking in Photoshop. This is due to the tendency of this film to produce colour shifts in certain situations.
Scanning Portra 400.
Portra films usually scan well. The ISO 160 version can yield teal colour shifts in overblown highlights and blue shifts in under-exposed shadows. The ISO 400 film does that less — but it does happen. Your scanner software may resolve that for you automatically. However, if you’re inverting your negatives by hand for maximum control, you may need to adjust the colour balance after the fact. I had to do this a few times for my “pastel” experiments.
The good news is that most of the dynamic range of this film is well below DMax of 3, which most scanning devices should handle well. It also helps to have a sharp, well-defined grain which makes focusing with your digital camera or a dedicated scanner like PrimeFilm XAs easier.
Even if you have to make adjustments to counter colour shifts, Portra 400 lets you do that without much loss to the image. I had no issues shooting it in all kinds of conditions, including nighttime, and getting the desired results after just a few minutes with Photoshop.
How much does Kodak Portra 400 cost, and where to buy it.
As of this writing, Portra 400 goes for $16.48 per single roll of 36exp 35mm film. The price of colour Kodak films has been increasing steadily since 2018 when I started tracking them. The pandemic and the supply chain disruptions made the cost of this prized film go up faster than 2% per year (a typical governmental target inflation rate). It’s getting more expensive. But at least there are no current threats to its existence, which is a perpetual state of most Fujifilm stocks.
If you’re interested in film prices and would like to stay on top of them, the best way is to subscribe to the free semi-annual reports on film costs. I do all the hard work surveying a curated variety of film stores across the world on this and many other film stocks.
Availability is another issue. Most shops that sell film want to stock Portra emulsions, but the delays in production have been causing shortages throughout all of 2021 and 2022. Some say things should get better soon — I hope they are right. Thankfully, if you can’t find Portra, there are still many great alternatives on the market, though not all of them will deliver the same colours or dynamic range.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Kodak Portra 400 film purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!