Kodak Portra 800 Film Review

Treat Yourself

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Kodak Portra 800 is the most accurate high-speed colour negative film made new today. It’s not cheap, but if you want low-light sensitivity and realistic yet unmistakably analogue images out of your camera, this is the best option.

Expect medium to chunky grain, natural contrast, and excellent responsiveness to colour and exposure corrections in post. This film also has a fantastic dynamic range and latitude, making it easy to get good shots with, regardless of the camera/lens you use. Pushing and pulling Portra 800 is possible; I’ve got decent results shooting and developing at EI 3200 (+2 stops) — which I discuss in detail below.

Kodak Portra 800 with Olympus L-10 Super.

The most accurate high-speed colour negative film of the 2020s.

Kodak’s Portra films and Ektar belong to a special line of emulsions designated “professional.” This doesn’t mean that you need to get paid for every picture taken — although it would help, as they would cost more per shot than the other Kodak’s colour offerings, such as Gold and ColorPlus.

Kodak Portra 800 with Olympus PEN FV and 150mm F/4 E.Zuiko Auto-T.

They’re all colour films; however, the Portra series is less prone to colour shifts in the highlights and shadows. Even if you get your exposure slightly wrong or the scene appeared to have enormous contrast, you may adjust your image in post to restore its natural appearance.

Portras retain more colour information across all the exposure zones; this is the best currently-manufactured film to capture skin tones accurately at EI 800.

Expect fine-tuned and plentiful colour in places your viewers’ eyes are drawn to the most: humans.

There are freshly-made alternatives, such as CineStill 800T and other colour stocks, that can be pushed to ISO 800 safely, but they aren’t perfect. For one, emulsions with mechanically removed rem-jet layers are prone to strong halation in daylight, which may not always be a good thing. And, of course, pushing film is often done at the expense of colour accuracy and contrast — which often becomes exaggerated, even with Kodak Portra 800.

That is not to say that there are no options besides Portra. Fujifilm used to make excellent emulsions, such as Fujichrome Provia 400X, which renders skin tones exceptionally well. Though expired, those stocks can still deliver almost-new quality (or easily corrected using the histogram equalization method). However, these types of expired films are also expensive — and their stock is unreliable.

Of course, not every shot needs an ISO 800 film — especially with fast lenses and quality studio lighting. But if you’re shooting a telescopic lens without a tripod, you’ll need all the speed you can get, as long focal lengths are prone to camera shake.

Kodak Portra 800 with Olympus PEN FV and 150mm F/4 E.Zuiko Auto-T.

Grain structure, resolution, and sharpness.

Portra 800 certainly is not grain-free. I’ve shot it with a half-frame camera, which produces the smallest format you can reasonably expose this film at, requiring the greatest level of magnification. The grain is exceptionally prominent in that format, especially when scanned in high-res and viewed full-width on a large screen:

Kodak Portra 800 with Olympus PEN FV and f2.8 E.Zuiko Auto-S.

And yet, I find the enlargements of this film, even of such extreme nature, usable.

If you like the analogue format but prefer to see no grain in your scans, it’s best to shoot Portra 800 in medium format or choose another film, such as Kodak Ektar or Ektachrome. But for most occasions, this emulsion will work perfectly in any format, thanks to Kodak’s T-Grain technology that drastically reduces the size of photosensitive crystals.

The datasheet for Portra 800 defines its grain resolution in a Print Grain Index table. PGI is an updated human-centric experiment-based method of understanding grain. In contrast to RMS, which provides just one number, PGI is an observer survey that considers variations in grain size across various layers (whereas RMS sometimes produces non-sensical readings).

Kodak Portra 800’s Print Grain Index table.

The 800’s PGI for a 4×6 enlargement from 35mm film is 48. This is significantly chunkier than Ektar (Kodak’s finest-grained colour film)’s PGI of less than 25. But the grain size in Portra 800 is not that different from Kodak Gold’s, which stands at 44.


Kodak Portra 800 with Olympus L-10 Super.

Dynamic range.

The dynamic range of this emulsion is no less impressive than its remarkably-fine grain (for an ISO 800 film).

Kodak Portra 800 film characteristic curves when developed normally in C-41 at EI 800.

Looking at the characteristic curves of the film, I estimate about 𝚫 3.75 of total lux-seconds (where the curves produce an even, straight slope). This converts to nearly 12.5 stops of dynamic range! This is comparable to some estimates of the human eye’s DR and is far beyond most digital cameras’ capabilities.

You can really feel the difference if you compare Portra 800’s massive 12.5 stops of DR to Polaroid’s measly 2-4 stops.

This makes Portra 800 suitable for most light conditions, even the ones with tons of contrast. And by the same token, you can depend on this film to give you a usable image even if you or your equipment can’t make an accurate reading (i.e. if you’re using a toy camera with few to no exposure settings).

Kodak notes that this film has “best-in-class” under-exposure latitude. In practice, Portra 800 can still lose image information and render chunkier grain in the deepest shadows. But unlike most other colour stocks, when it does so, the results are easy to fix in post; as long as you got anything on your negative, there’s a good chance you can revive your under- and over-exposures later.

Above: Kodak Portra 800 with Voigtländer Vitessa A. Notice the extreme contrast variation in this scene — to the point of making halation visible (Unlike CineStill 800T, Portra retains its halation layer — but in this case, it got overwhelmed by the powerful outdoor light). In this shot, the film retains natural contrast and colours across all exposure zones — including the places where daylight mixes with fluorescent light.

Scanning Portra 800.

Some Portra 800 shooters note that it may not look good in all lighting conditions. Certain exposures may yield a green colour cast — as is the case with all films in this range (Portra 160 drops a teal cast).

However, that doesn’t mean that your results must remain unedited. Most scanning software is a black box of filters that change the look of C-41 negatives (which you can’t simply invert). Seasoned film photographers will agree that colour-negative film needs to be visually interpreted in print/during scanning; removing the colour cast is part of that process.

Note: You may consider this method, discussed in an earlier article, which is open and consistent regarding masked negative inversion. I used it in all of my film reviews for consistency and easy comparison across the stocks. Still, it requires a colour-correction step.

The value of Portra 800 colour renderings becomes apparent during the colour-correction step. The trouble with some stocks is that they often react adversely to changes in colour balance and contrast; some colour casts may even be impossible to remove without ruining some part of an image. But that’s not the case with Portra 800: I was able to make drastic contrast/exposure adjustments and colour corrections without much trouble.

Portra 800’s colour casts are remarkably easy to clean up. The film scans give enough flexibility to have their look changed drastically while still looking well-balanced/natural.

Pastel colours with Kodak Portra 800 and Minolta TC-1. Over-exposed by +2 stops (shot at EI 200), developed normally. Colour corrections applied in Adobe Photoshop.

How to create “pastel” and “airy” colours with Portra 800.

Hyperrealism isn’t always the point of photography, especially when your medium of choice is film. In fact, I’d argue that experimentation reached an all-time high in the past decade, thanks to the democratization of image manipulation tools like Adobe Photoshop.

Film is particularly conducive to creative exploration as it opens doors for manipulation during all stages of the process: from exposure to processing to printing and scanning.

Portra 800 is one of the few colour stocks that can be used to create a particularly popular effect used by wedding and travel photographers today — pastel colours.

Pastel colours with Kodak Portra 800 and Minolta TC-1.

Pastel colour in photography is an effect of lessened contrast and increased overall brightness without any loss in saturation. This type of look is sometimes associated with Wes Anderson’s cinematography.

This look can be achieved with the right combination of films/exposure, post-processing, and scene selection:

1. Film. Either Portra 800 or Portra 400 can make a good starting point due to their extensive dynamic range (whereas other films will not let you over-expose without erasing significant parts of the image). A big part of the pastel effect is the dominant bright colours, which can be achieved by over-exposing your film +2/+3 stops. For Portra 800, this means rating and shooting it at around ISO 200 and developing it normally.

2. Colour correction. Most films, including Portra 800, will produce colour casts when over-exposed. This will need to be corrected. I use the Colour Balance layer in Photoshop to do this. Though you’ve already over-exposed your film, you may also want to increase your image’s brightness digitally by pulling the middle part of your Curves layer (which will also preserve the contrast in the shadows and highlights).

There are no particular rules or numbers for colour-correcting over-exposed Portra films, as every image is different. Therefore, you may need to play around with your settings until you get colours that have a natural hue but are significantly brighter than normal.

3. Scene selection. This is perhaps the most challenging part of the process. Not every over-exposed shot will look good. Scenes with textured white shades (such as stucco), saturated, even colours and an overall minimalist look will work the best.

Experimentation is your friend when it comes to the pastel colour look.

Kodak Portra 800 pushed +2 stops to EI 3200 with Hasselblad XPan.
Kodak Portra 800 pushed +2 stops to EI 3200 with Hasselblad XPan.

Pushing Portra 800 +2 stops to EI 3200.

If you need more speed from your Portra 800, it can be pushed a stop or even two. When I was testing Hasselblad XPan for my earlier review, this was exactly what I needed: more light sensitivity. The lenses that came with the camera don’t open any wider than 𝒇4, which in the dim Vancouver fall season means little to no opportunities to shoot without a tripod. An ISO 3200 film is a chance to shoot normally in dusky weather.

The results I got with pushing Portra 800 to EI 3200 didn’t show a significant increase in graininess. However, the two extra stops made it a more saturated film, and the shadows showed a much more apparent loss of detail.

I suspect better results can be had by pushing Portra 800 to EI 3200 while exposing it as if it was an ISO 1600 film.

Note: You can see another example of this experiment here, which is a stitched panorama made of two vertical panoramas shot on XPan.

Kodak Portra 800 with Olympus L-10 Super.

How much does Kodak Portra 800 cost, and where to buy it.

As I’ve mentioned above, Portra 800 is not a cheap film. Its price has risen steadily over the years (though not as suddenly as that of Kodak’s cheaper colour emulsions, such as ColorPlus).

As of this moment, a single 35mm roll of Portra 800 costs around $20.

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.

Developing colour film at home is relatively easy, which can save you from paying $1 per shot with this film. Though there isn’t much that you can do to save further other than shooting it in a half-frame camera (examples above), which effectively cuts your costs in half at the cost of larger grain.

This film is a bit of a splurge, but it’s the best colour film we have in production today at this speed. There’s simply no other like it.

By the way: Please consider making your Kodak Portra 800 film purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!