Kodak UltraMax 400 is a medium-speed, fine-grained mid-range colour negative film. It renders natural tones cheaper than Portra and better than the new ORWO films.
UltraMax is a relatively affordable ISO 400 C-41 emulsion, rumoured to be the only film in this class. In this review, I will compare it to its former (Fujifilm Superia X-Tra) and current alternatives (Portra 400, ORWO Wolfen NC 500). Advanced properties, such as measured granularity and dynamic range will also be discussed and explained simply in the exposure guide.
Is Kodak UltraMax the best general-purpose ISO 400 colour negative film?
I’m inclined to say yes to all of that. There are a few options available today when it comes to ISO 400 film:
Fujifilm Superia X-Tra 400 used to be the direct competitor to UltraMax. A medium-speed colour negative film that doesn’t break the bank. It featured fine grain and natural-looking renderings (with some tendency towards purple shadows in some scans). Unfortunately, Fujifilm had recently discontinued the film — though you may still find it in some stores — while supplies last.
But most likely, you’ll see another film Fujifilm now sells in new packaging that some photographers suspect to be rolls of rebranded Kodak UltraMax. The new packaging will say that the film is made in the USA, which is unlikely (but possible) to be produced by the rapidly downsizing Fujifilm paper factory.
✪ Note: I’ve got my hands on the new film and will compare it to the classic Superia and Kodak UltraMax in an upcoming post. Make sure you’re subscribed to the Community Letters to catch it once published.
There’s also a new ISO 400 colour negative film made in Germany by ORWO that I’ve recently reviewed: Wolfen NC 500. Unfortunately, it’s neither cheap nor capable of rendering colours as accurately as UltraMax. It has charm and applications, but you can’t use it the same way as consumer colour films. Additionally, the rolls I got did not have DX coding, rendering NC 500 unusable on most point-and-shoot cameras.
This leaves us with Kodak Portra 400, the only* remaining freshly-made, non-rebranded colour negative film that isn’t UltraMax or NC 500. However, Portras do not fit in the “general-purpose” category since Kodak markets them as “professional” films. This means higher prices and fewer chances to find some at a local drugstore (though I would argue that the new ORWO film is also relatively rare).
✱ — See the note about the updated Fujifilm Superia packaging above. I’m leaving out CineStill 400D, as it’s also based on a Kodak emulsion.
My main reason for shooting Portra films is their impressive dynamic range (12+ stops for ISO 400 & 800, 7 stops for 160) and impeccable colour accuracy. Can UltraMax match or at least come close to those results at a lower price and greater availability?
I think that UltraMax is an excellent or even the best general-purpose film. It renders scenes and skin tones realistically in fine grain and gives way to be manipulated digitally after the fact without losing too much fidelity. But it’s not as versatile as Portra 400. You won’t get away with over-exposing it by three stops. And to get the best colours out of UltraMax, you may need to spend a little extra time adjusting the colour balance sliders or avoid rainy or dusky weather altogether.
There’s also delicate colour nuance that consumer films can’t replicate; Portra and certain slide films have no rivals in rendering even the slightest skin pigmentation detail in a soft, flattering manner that other emulsions would gloss over. Not that anyone needs that level of precision at all times — which is why UltraMax is such a great choice for ISO 400 colour film.
Grain structure, resolution, and sharpness.
Kodak has long moved on from rating the granularity of their films with RMS values. Instead, they recruit groups of people to pass judgements based on various samples and quantify those surveys for various magnification factors. This new system is called Print Grain Index or PGI. UltraMax’ PGI is 46 when a 35mm negative is printed on 4x6” paper.
This means that UltraMax is about as grainy as Kodak Gold (PGI 44). It’s a little grainer than Portra 400 (PGI 37) and a lot grainier than Ektar, which is less than PGI 25 — a threshold Kodak uses to describe grain no longer visible to the naked eye.
Though UltraMax’ grain is chunkier than Portra 400’s, it appears smoother as the individual granules aren’t as sharp. In practice, this means fewer fine detail but a less “grainy” look for UltraMax.
Your film’s dynamic range measures how well it can render shadows and highlights in the same shot and how contrasty the results will look.
Generally speaking, photographers like films (and digital camera sensors) with a wide dynamic range to get as close as possible to our eyes’ incredible ability to see into shadows and discern bright details simultaneously. But as film shooters, we get to choose each time we load film; plus, there’s some value in narrow DR/high-contrast films for the look you can get with them.
From Kodak’s datasheet, we can see that the delta lux-seconds is about 2.5, which converts to 8 stops of dynamic range. This is noticeably less than Portra 400’s 12 stops and somewhat less than the original/Japanese Fujifilm Superia X-Tra’s 13 stops. (For complete instructions on how to read film characteristic curves and derive dynamic range from lux-seconds, read this.)
In practice, eight stops of dynamic range are sufficient and reasonably easy to work with. This is close to what you’d expect from most films and not far off modern digital sensors’ abilities. However, I would not expect good results from UltraMax if it’s over- or under-exposed. Metering mistakes may ruin your shot, so a light meter is advised for all manual cameras.
Kodak UltraMax exposure guide.
Even with a perfect metering technique, UltraMax will exhibit different looks depending on the colour, intensity, and complexity of ambient light. In this sense, it’s a bit more finicky than Portra 400, which tends to look good no matter what you shine on it.
For best results, avoid cool colours in your scenes, such as rainy or cloudy days. Whereas strong or warm-toned shades work well with UltraMax, blue or grey weather often throws it off-balance, leaving you with colour casts in the shadows that are difficult to correct.
You can do a lot in Adobe Photoshop with the Colour Balance adjustment layer if you aren’t happy with the results from the scanner. Still, fixing UltraMax’ blue hour colour casts isn’t straightforward. The shadows will need to be shifted toward yellows, whereas the highlights will need to be shifted toward the blues.
I also had some issues with the casts appearing in certain image areas after being balanced out in others. This is why I think it’s a lot easier to work with this film in full sun or warm-tone lighting. An exception to this rule may be skin tones, which appear natural in most conditions (whereas building materials, the sky, and certain natural textures will suffer).
Tip for those looking to shoot in overcast weather: consider Kodak Gold. Gold is one stop slower than UltraMax but is known to perform well in cool light/overcast days (as long as you don’t under-expose it). It’s just as affordable and even more available than UltraMax.
Scanning Kodak UltraMax at a minilab.
When I started shooting film about a decade ago, I did not develop or scan it. Instead, I enjoyed the convenience of popping a roll into a camera, dropping it off at the lab, and getting all my scans or prints a few hours later.
This may have something to do with the fact that I used to live in sunny Chiang Mai (Thailand) or how the ancient minilab machines interpreted the colours of this film. The white balance was always on-point, and the exposures looked spot-on.
This affordable film and the convenient minilab service were a perfect combo for my lifestyle back then. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which type of a minilab machine it was or if the people who processed my rolls did anything special. In fact, I am not sure whether that shop is still around (it’s been years) — but if you are in the area, maybe you can drop by and see for yourself. It’s called Analog.
How much does Kodak UltraMax 400 cost, and where to buy it.
As of this writing, a single 35mm roll of Kodak UltraMax 400 costs around $15 — significantly cheaper than all other ISO 400 colour films. This includes Fujifilm Superia X-Tra. It is widely available and can be found in most places that sell film.
Make sure to check all buying options/stores for this film below for the best price. UltraMax was very high in demand and out of stock at most shops up until recently, thus there is some fluctuation in the sticker price.
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.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Kodak UltraMax 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!