More experiments with film: Portra 400 and longing for the Kodachrome feel

Bethany Film Portrait #1 - Austin, Texas

Bethany Film Portrait – Austin, Texas

I got back my second roll of film the other day. I wasn’t crazy about the results, at first. I’m in the midst of an experiment with film. One that I started recently with a 45-year-old Rollie 35 and a new box of Kodak Ektar 100. The unexpectedly good results from that camera hurled me into more experimentation.

If you are familiar with my work, you know that I like saturated colors. I use HDR, not to create technicolor clown vomit, but for richly saturated “realistic” images. My exploration of film is for the same end goal — rich colors — though through a different process. I see the colorful portraits from Steve McCurry and I’m mesmerized. I’ve come to find that much of that unique color is through Kodachrome, a film which is no longer manufactured or being developed. In fact, Steve McCurry shot the last roll of Kodachrome which was documented through National Geographic. You can see his images here. And while Mr. McCurry is known for portraits, he also shoots urban landscapes. This is what really interests me.

I’m not trying to replicate a certain style, rather I’m trying to capture a richer, more organic look. For all the love I have for digital photography, I feel that its images look clinical. This may work well in certain cases, but the analog softness also entices.

Bethany Film Portrait #2 - Austin, Texas

I shot these photographs with a modern Canon Rebel T2 film camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400. Portra, as the name suggests, is geared more for portraits. To that end, many of pictures on this roll were of people and family snapshots. The Rebel T2 is as easy to use as a modern digital camera, other than not getting a preview on a LCD screen. It takes none of the fiddling and manual setup that is needed for the Rollei 35. On the other hand, this computer controlled plastic tool has none of the charm of an old camera.

Being a portrait film, Portra’s colors are more muted than Ektar 100. I knew that going in but wanted to see what it looks like. My first reaction — disappointment. For a person who likes a lot of color, even more than what Ektar gives, Portra was way too muted. Of course, it also had none of the richness of Kodachrome. My outlook changed when I discovered how to apply the right amount of post-processing to create the look I wanted. It wasn’t perfect for every photo but my results are promising enough that I’m keeping an open mind about this film.

Lucky by the stairs - Austin, Texas

No photographic test would be complete without Lucky. I shot him with a 35mm lens probably wide open at f2. His brownish fur was dull before post processing.

I shot Bethany with a 85mm f2, wide open. Post processing has also transformed these portraits from muted to dynamic. I’m happy her skin tones still look natural, even after greatly increasing saturation. Oh, and her hair, yup it was really that red. Portra seems to live up to its name. Skin tones, at least in good light, appear accurate. All I need is some digital post processing to bring out the film’s full potential.

Woman from Bikinis Sport Bar - Austin, Texas

I created candid portraits on 6th Street of women who work at Bikinis Sports Bar. They were more than happy to help me with my film test. Their skin was more yellowish-brown than I liked but Aperture 3 was able to improve the colors.

Soft Soho Glow, 6th Street- Austin, Texas
Woman from Bikinis Sport Bar - Austin, Texas

Would Portra work for non-portraits? Yes, I think. Especially with post processing. Ektar only comes in ISO 100 which makes night work difficult without a tripod — ISO 400 on Portra makes it easier to hand hold especially with a fast lens. I noticed more motion blur with the SLR at slow shutter speeds. A rangefinder or even the Rollei works better, there’s no mirror slap to add unwanted vibration and movement.

The final tally? All photographs came out and there were no true duds. I suffered motion blur in those dark handheld photos, especially of action on 6th street. It probably makes more sense to shoot night action, such as live music, in digital. Unless I use black and white film, that is, and really push the ISO sensitivity. That might be fun to do in the future.

A few portraits achieved something special — something that I think goes beyond what my digitals have produced. One in particular, of my kids, is a true keeper. If I squint long enough, the color, texture and grain has the feel of Kodachrome, perhaps a bit better. I’m using digital post processing to achieve my look, but that’s okay. I’m not a film purist. I see no problem combining the look and feel of film with the power of digital photography.

More tests to come.

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7 thoughts on “More experiments with film: Portra 400 and longing for the Kodachrome feel

  1. Portra 400 is a very versatile film. I’ve even shot some action at the hockey rink with it, pushed to ISO 1600. The portraits of Bethany are interesting. I love her expressions. There is something odd about the skin color of her hands though, at least to my eyes (take with a grain of salt what the color blind guy says.) They look kind of mannequin-like in contrast with the more natural skin tone of her face. I’m guessing they were in harsher light and close to blowing out while her face was shadowed by her hat. As far as processing, I tend to like the “natural” look of Portra. I’m betting you’d really like slide films for that saturated look you love.

    1. Mike, yes you’re correct about the exposure difference between the face and hands. I found a way to tweak this in post to improve the color, somewhat.

  2. I don’t know if it’s still available, try Fuji Reala. (Sadly, I checked online and it too is extinct) You may be able to find some old rolls. Where I got the best
    results is with Zeiss T* lenses on a Hasselblad. I tried the film shooting Nikon lenses and didn’t get the same color pop. After getting rid of the Hassy, I
    tried to duplicate the results with a Contax and Zeiss T* lenses, this was around 1998 to 2001. Sadly this is when I was also transitioning to digital with
    both scans and the first Digi-Cams, the Contax got sold too.

    Here’s the Flickr feed for Reala: I haven’t checked to see if there are any Zeiss T* lens samples…

    Mamiya 6 - Roll 24 - Frame 12

    (As a side note: Keep up the good work. At first, I was disappointed that you moved away from Olympus, since it’s the new photographic path I’ve taken.
    I’ve sold most of my Canon stuff, only one L lens and one EFS lens left. But I find your forays into other worlds on point, since they somewhat mimic my
    own; or at least my tendencies.)

    1. R Y, thanks for your comment. The Reala images look wonderful, too bad they don’t make the film anymore.

      Also, thank your for your kind words. I haven’t moved away from Olympus, per say, I just keep adding different cameras and brands. I’m on a film and Fuji kick for now, but that will change and I’ll circle back to Olympus. Just having fun and not being a professional gives me a lot flexibility to play.

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