Is Kodak Portra a film without character? For me, for what I want from film, yes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be negative about what is an excellent film. It’s just to me, Kodak Portra is too perfect. There are a lot of reviews out there for this film praising it, and rightly so, but to me it lacks character.
Kodak Portra captures every detail: Colours are accurate, if anything a little muted, the highlights don’t blow out easily and the shadows are kept open. It is difficult to crush a black or blow out a white with Portra and its accurate, ever so slightly warm colour tones and ability to capture fine details with minimal grain visible just shows how perfect a film can be and hold its own against some of the best digital sensors out there. The film is also so forgiving, and still produces very usable results even if you under or over expose a few stops, and actually can produce a very pleasing look when compared to other films.
Kodak Portra is just too perfect for me. It is a perfect film for editing, as it gives you a great looking image with lots of latitude for editing at the post processing stage. Why it forms the basis of a lot of motion picture stocks by Kodak.
Originally it was available as a SC (Standard Colour) and VC (Vivid Colour) variety. What we have today, Portra 160 and 400 are a midpoint between them. In their day, for a fine detailed, perfect fashion or studio shoot they were the go to films. And you can see why. They were good run and gun films too. Excellent for editing. When I first started shooting film again I was amazed by it, and still say it holds up against digital. Even the best sensors used in Canon, Nikon, Sony or Leica.
Probably one of the best demos of Portra against Fuji Pro 400H I’ve found
The Kodak Portra Look
However, when I think about when I was shooting film before my first digital camera in 2000, I remember the character of certain consumer films. Films like Kodak MAX or Fuji Superia. These were sharp (not necessarily detailed) well balanced films with a saturated look and had a certain character. They produced an optimised, post processed look on the print or scan that was pleasing. They were harder to edit because of crisp sharp blacks and vibrant colours. They both had, Fuji more so I think, a certain character that captures the atmosphere of their times. The look as I remember the photo journalism pictures of the 1980s and 1990s did. Photo journalists loved these films as the results, when used correctly, produced an image that looked good without post processing. Kodak Portra or Fuji Pro 400 can certainly produce better results but needed more post work.
Maybe it’s the nostalgia of the 1990s (hey, its when I grew up), but it’s why I like the look I get from consumer films with a bit of character where certain colours could be blown out or over saturated or blacks can be crushed. It’s also effecting my craft now though. If I load up a film which I know produces a certain look – Velvia, Superia, MAX, whatever, I find myself composing my images and being selective about what I shoot to capitalise on the look they will give me. Superia over saturates reds. So sometimes I might find something with reds that could look striking and take a photo of it with Superia.
I like films with character, not necessarily perfection. It gives me the creative look I love about film. When I want perfection and latitude for post editing, I shoot digital.
So is Kodak a film with no character? Is it just too perfect? I’ll let you decide. Horses for courses.