Kodak Portra 400 & 800 Film
Matthew Osborne Photography
Film Photography in the UK – Colour Film
With our often grey and overcast typical great British weather the light levels in the UK are not that of say sunny Califoria. Many of the current ‘great’ colour film photographers seem to be based in Calforia and make full use of the amazing light they seem to have. Sunny weather is perfect for colour film use as unlike digital, the film retains the highlight detail. That and the fact that colour film often looks better slighty over exposed, for portrait and wedding photography especially giving flattering natural skin tones.
So in an ideal world I would live in Califoria and life would be good. Probably! By that I mean there is so much light I can use fine grain colour films like Kodak Portra 160 or even Kodak Ektar 100. On top of that there would still be light to spare so I could pretty much any standard lens with an aperture of perhaps f4 (like my Leica Elmar 135mm f4) and still be able to retain a fast shutter speed. In an ideal world I would use a lot of super fine grain Kodak Ektar, both 120 and 35mm and also Portra 160 for when shooting people in direct sunlight.
In a real world colour film photography is not like that here in the UK. For much of the year and especially the darker autumn and winter months we don’t have enough light for my taste. Due to lack of available light I have to use my fastest sharp lenses (Leica Summilux ASPH 50mm f1.4 and Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f1.2 ASPH ii) wide open and often with a slow shutter, 1/8-1/60 perhaps. For the colour film selection I find Portra 160 is too slow and I need faster colour film. 120 Kodak Portra 800 is an excellent choice for medium format but is expensive. I have not tried 35mm Kodak Portra 800 but I think it would be too grainy for my taste and is also expensive. For medium format the film nagatives are larger so grain is less apparent hence 120 Portra 800 is good. A happy medium for both price and grain is Kodak Portra 400. I have used a lot of 120 Portra 400 but never for 35mm. Today I have taken the plunge and will see how I find 135 Portra 400 in my Leicas.
Never enough light!
For 35mm colour film photograhy I can use my Leica M3 or Leica M2 cameras with a fast lens to shoot wide open at say f1.4, with a slow shutter if needed of 1/8 handheld for static subjects and have ISO 400 film. Great, I think. Then I remember colour film looks nicer (I think) overexposed and often with the brightest part of the image being behind the face (backlit). This means on an overcast day if I meter for the face into the light I may have a shutter speed of 1/60. Nice. I then turn the model to have the brigter sky on the back of her head and increase the exposure by +2 stops, say. That gives me a shutter speed of 1/15. Now I want to perhaps overexpose the face by +1 / +2 stops depending on the type of light / skin / look etc. If I go with +1 overexposed in camera that gives me a shutter speed of 1/8. OK that is all fine if I keep myself steady and the subject doesn’t move. I then take the same scenerio into a real life situation such as a wedding film photography and a church ceremony. Assuming the same amount of light and same settings I need to use 1/8 shutter for my ‘perfect’ exposure. I then realise I need a shutter speed of 1/60-1/125 minimum to freeze the motion as the couple walk down the isle (depending on speed of walking! Slow ideally otherwise use 1/125-1/160). Assuming they walk at a ‘normal’ speed I might want a shutter speed of 1/125. This means I am now -4 under exposed for all the photos even with ISO 400 film and a f1.4 fast prime lens. Slightly undercxposed colour film looks muddy and dull at -1 stop. I wouldn’t want to under expose the film any more than -1. I then remember I can use 120 Kodak Portra 800 for an extra +1 stop of light. It all sounds promising until I remember than most standard medium format lenses are f2.8 widest aperture. My Mamiya 645 Super has a 80mm f1.9 lens (say f2) so in this example Portra 800 gives me a +1 but the lens gives me a -1 stop (vs a f1.4 lens) so no gain overall. Therefore no gain and I would not want to use medium format cameras much slower than 1/30 handheld due to the mirror slap in most of them. This means my little mirrorless Leica M rangefinder cameras give me in theory +2 stop gain over my medium format cameras as I can use at 1/8 (if subject static)(wait for them to stop!)(assuming using the f1.4 lenses on 35mm and f2 lens on medium format).
To date I have only use ISO 100 Kodak Ektar, ISO 160 Kodak Portra and cheaper ISO 200 Fujifilms. I am hoping 35mm Kodak Portra 400 gives me more chance to shoot colour film when there is not enough light for Portra 160. I might also buy a roll of 35mm Kodak Portra 800 film and/ or perhaps 35mm CineStill 800T film to try. CineStill 800T is supposed to be pushable like Kodak Tri-X is for B&W so could be a solution for those darker lit shoots.
Lastly, Black & White film
Black and white film is perfect for the UK light and for my work. Luckily I love B&W but am trying to start shooting more colour film too. B&W film such as Kodak Tri-X 400 can be pushed to ISo 800 or ISO 1600 in processing easily so can be used for the darkest of shoots. I don’t mind grain for B&W film photos whereas perfer less grain for colour film photos. As I develop my own black and white film I can adjust my development process to make highlights brighter, retain more shadow detail etc etc. For colour film I send to a lab and develop at box speed so not to incur additional costs. This means for colour film I need to get exposure right in camera and that normally means I need more light!
A few 120 Kodak Portra 400 film examples