Just because something is called a "portrait" film doesn't mean you can't use it for other subjects. As you can see, Kodak Portra 160 does quite well with leopards pawing at the doors of small boutiques in the Rittenhouse Square district of Philadelphia. The light was from directly above but also quite flat, so I increased the contrast a bit. Even so, you can still see the subtle variations in the tones of the bricks.
A couple of months ago a Kodak field rep asked if I’d be interested in reviewing their newest color negative film, Portra 160. If the name sounds familiar it’s because Portra 160 isn’t entirely new. It’s the replacement for its predecessors, Portra 160NC and 160VC. Portra 160VC (for “vivid color”) featured higher saturation and contrast than the NC (“natural color”) version. Portra 160 has the same color saturation and contrast as 160NC and finer grain than NC or VC. Those who need more film speed may be relieved to know that Kodak still offers Portra 400 and 800, both of which are fine films in their own right.
Interestingly enough, Portra 160 has slightly lower acutance than either its predecessors or Portra 400. That’s because it’s primarly designed to be a portrait film. When you’re taking pictures of people you’re generally looking for smooth tonality rather than biting sharpness and microcontrast. Bear in mind that I'm referring to how the film grain looks at high magnification, not how sharp the overall image appears. That's ultimately up to you.
In these days of declining film sales it’s easy to understand why Kodak would decide to replace two similar films with one. Fewer SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) makes for greater efficiency. What’s admirable is that rather than simply discontinue one of two films they would offer a replacement that features significantly finer grain. Of all the Kodak color negative films now available only Ektar 100 has finer grain than Portra 160. On the other hand, Ektar 100 also has much higher contrast and color saturation and less exposure latitude. This means that even though Kodak markets Portra as a professional film—you’ll only find it in true photo retail shops, not mass-market retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, drug stores, etc.—you don’t have to be particularly careful with how you expose it to get great results. You can go at least a stop over or under the nominal speed with no ill effects.
As for why you’d want to use film at all, I’m not here to proselytize and convert the confirmed digirati. Suffice it to say that there are still significant numbers of photographers who shoot film and lots of it. Kodak has aimed Portra 160 at fashion, portrait and commercial photographers, which is why it’s available in 120, 4x5, and 8x10 formats. Thirty-five millimeter format was the last to be released, which is why it took a while for me to get a few rolls and test them. Because it’s a portrait film I decided my tests should involve at last one portrait shoot.
In addition to the four rolls I got for testing, I was fortunate enough to also have a roll of Portra 160NC on hand for comparison. My brother-in-law, a talented guitarist and generally handsome fellow, agreed to sit for a portrait. I lit him with two umbrellas: a small white shoot-through umbrella in front and to my left as the main light and a second one behind him and to my right for backlight. The backlight added “snap” to the portrait. Specular highlights are more noticeable on dark skin than on light skin. It also provided a test of how well either film could hold highlight detail. I shot both films in a Nikon FM3A body with a Nikkor 85mm f/2.0 AIS lens. I shot a few frames with my Nikon D7000 using the same lens for an additional point of reference.
I had both rolls of film developed at Mecca Color Lab, one of the few remaining custom photo labs in the Philadelphia area. They used Kodak C-41 chemistry and printed the photos on Kodak Endura paper with a luster surface. This served as my “control.” If you can’t get great results with an all-Kodak workflow then clearly something is amiss. That said, not everyone has convenient access to a Kodak lab or sees the value in seeking one out so I shot one roll on our famous Streets of Philadelphia and had it processed at a high-end minilab that prints on Fuji Chrystal Archive paper.
The results are presented below, along with my observations. For the record, all film images you see were scanned on my Nikon Coolscan V ED at 4000 DPI and 14-bit color depth (the maximum). I did no curve adjustments and no color corrections, mostly because I wanted to show how Portra 160 reproduced without corrections but also because no corrections were necessary. What you see is pretty much what I got out of the scanner. After reducing the scans to 800 x 500 pixels (approximate) I added a touch of sharpening, reduced the color depth to 8-bits and saved the images as JPEGs.
All this is to say that Portra 160 is easy to scan. I didn't have to go through any contortions to maintain highlight detail even when I overexposed by a stop. Slight overexposure is a common tactic among experience film shooters because it improves shadow detail without causing what digital shooters refer to as "highlight clipping."
This is a full-frame scan of Porta 160 shot at ISO 125, lit by two Dyna-Lite flash heads bounced into umbrellas. I did no white balancing before or after the scan, yet the grays and blacks are remarkably neutral.
Here's a crop of the same image at 100% magnification of the original scan. Click to enlarge for more detail. This is roughly equivalent to a 20X enlargement of a 35mm frame but the grain is barely noticeable.
Here's a photo of the same subject at the same ISO, using the same lighting and magnification but shot with Portra 160NC (now discontinued). The grain, though fine, is more noticeable than in the Portra 160 shot above.
Here's what the same crop looks like when shot with a Nikon D7000. Yes, there's less grain. There's also less fine detail and micro-contrast but more native contrast. (The contrast can be tamed by adjusting the tone curve.) Also keep in mind that if I had been shooting Portra 160 in a larger format, the grain and resolution balance would likely shift in Portra's favor.
Unfortunately, as good as these JPEG reproductions might look, you'll have to take my word for it that they pale in comparison to the prints. Portra 160 is, after all, a print film. You don’t use it simply to gaze at the negatives. With good technique it’s well-capable of producing top-quality 20-inch wide prints, even if you’re shooting the 35mm version. The 100% crops I’ve included should give you some idea of that. To see the grain you see in these crops you’d have to be as close to a 20-inch wide print as you are to your monitor. I can only imagine that if you were to use the same film in a 120 or 4x5 camera the resolution and tonality would be jaw-droppingly good.
Equally impressive was Portra 160's flexibility. It worked equally well in studio and outdoors, recording wide brightness ratios without blocking up in the shadows or highlights. This assumes proper exposure, of course. In all but the most extreme brightness ranges, Portra will easily tolerate up to one stop of extra exposure (otherwise known as reducing the ISO setting to 100) for improved shadow detail without risking blocked highlights. It will also tolerate a stop or two of underexposure while still producing acceptable, though not excellent, results.
Portra 160 is less ideal for shooting indoors in mixed lighting. For one thing, color film has no "auto white balance," so unless you filter appropriately photos shot under tungsten lighting will have an amber tint and photos shot under most fluorescents will look greenish. There's also the obvious fact that a nominal film speed of ISO 160 limits your options in low light. Kodak still offers Portra 400 and 800 for good reason.
The biggest challenge to using any film these days is processing. I live in Philadelphia, currently the fifth largest city in the U.S., yet I can count the number of custom photo labs in here on the fingers of one hand and still have a few fingers left over. Mini-labs are still common in drugstores and mass merchandizers but their quality and reliability are iffy. For examples, the prints produced by Mecca Color were more perfectly exposed and white balanced. The JPEG scans they saved onto a CD were equally impressive. In contrast, the prints I got from PhotoLounge, a popular mini-lab in Center City Philadelphia, were sharp and well-exposed but the overall white balance was a tad too warm. This is pretty much what I would expect. I would have my film processed at a pro lab when I needed pro-quality results and a high-quality minilab when convenience was most important.
So there you have it. I was impressed enough with Portra 160 that it's now my film of choice for shooting outdoors on sunny days or bright overcast conditions. I load Portra 400 when I need the extra 1.5 stop (approximate) of film speed. Given that they're both in the same family of films I appreciate being able to switch between the two while maintaining an overall consistency in color response. If you're interested in shooting Porta 160 yourself I'd suggest using it on your favorite subjects and bracketing exposures to see how it reacts. So much of film processing is automated these days that whatever results you see will be pretty easy to replicate.
If you don't have your own film scanner--and most people don't these days--I'd also suggest testing to see how well your lab of choice does at scanning the negatives and printing the results on a CD-ROM. These days most commercial prints are digitally printed and chemically processed, so it's easy for the lab to save their scans onto a disc for you. The trick is to ask them to use minimal sharpening on the scans and to use a medium-to-high resolution. You don't want sharpening artifacts showing up on screen and you're better off reducing a hi-res to low-res than the other way around.
I invited those of you who've already tried a few rolls of Portra 160 (I know you're out there!) to share your observations with the rest of us. They will find a sympathetic home here and I promise to keep any bigoted remarks from digital-only shooters to a minimum. As far as I'm concerned anyone who loves photography is a friend and should be treated as such.