Film review: A roll of Kodak Portra 800 (Nikon F3 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AI-S) – by Dorothy Key
As a beginner film photographer, all I had ever heard was Portra 400 this and Portra 800 that. Kodak’s one color stock that reigned above all other colors stocks — with its accurate skin tones and delicate pastel nuance. But, up until my first trip to Seattle, Washington, I had only shot a couple rolls of Portra 400 and 800 in both 35mm and 120.
My journey as a very amateur film photographer began with a delightfully plastic Lomography Diana toy camera that my sisters and I were fascinated with. Famous for their highly ‘experimental’ images full of light leaks and faulty exposure, my mother obtained one of these sentimental cameras the summer of 2017, back when you could buy a 120 pro-pack of Kodak Portra 400 for little more than $30. That July we visited the coast of Oregon. Armed with my little baby blue Diana, Portra 400 and Ektar 100, I shot several rolls on the gorgeous northwestern coast. Needless to say, my rolls were far from successful, equally due to the remarkably low quality of the camera as well as my zero experience. Thus, into my living room cabinet went four pro-packs of 120 film (a true tragedy they were not refrigerated). It wasn’t until about 4 years later that I dug up those boxes after I acquired a real medium format camera, my Yashicamatt 124.
Now, 5 years later, I had decided to return and try once more the dreaded Kodak Portra films. Anticipating the signature rainy, overcast weather of Seattle in May, I brought some faster film stocks: a three pack of Fuji Superia 400, two rolls of Kodak Portra 400, two rolls of Portra 800, a couple rolls of Cinestill 800T, and various black and white stocks. Over a three day trip to Seattle Washington I shot eight rolls of 35mm film on my newest SLR, the Nikon F3 with the MD-4 motor drive and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AI-S lens. As well as the above mentioned Yashica-mat-124, which I also shot a couple rolls of Portra 400 on (the abandoned pro-pack from July of 2017).
To my dismay, the weather was eternally bright and chock full of EV 16 sunshine upon my arrival. But despite this I ventured on, like the antifragile film photographer I was attempting to be. I was not about to ditch an entire hoard of film and replace it with Walgreens overpriced Kodak Gold 200 all for barely over half a stop of exposure compensation. Because of this, my color 35mm rolls ended up being slightly overexposed, just as every film photographer says is the sweet spot for Portra 800. As you can see in these next couple photographs, the highlights are just on the edge of overexposure.
I was fairly happy with the majority of how my roll of Kodak Portra 800 turned out, especially with how homogeneous I felt the exposures were and the fine detail that both the shadows and highlights rendered in post. I did end up appreciating the higher iso films as they allowed for maximum shutter speeds that paired well with fast paced street shooting. As a younger person with a monstrous black Nikon SLR, a decidedly vintage TLR, a large camera bag, and a Fuji instax square camera to top it off, I got more than a few perplexed glances on the downtown streets of Seattle.
One of my biggest disappointments with the roll was the tonality difference between the images. I scanned all of these with the Pakon 235F 35mm film scanner, and I did very little editing on the images, nothing that would have changed the warmth of the photographs to this extent. As you can see, the two images here were taken near the exact same time and yet the tonality is much warmer and golden (almost turquoise) in the first shot than the second. I’ve concluded that the metering on my F3 must have underexposed a tiny amount for the first shot.
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Over the three day trip, we visited the Seattle Aquarium, Puget Sound, the Space Needle, the Chihuly glass exhibit, Pike Place Market, took a ferry to Bainbridge Island, and strolled Gasworks Park. It was a full trip filled to the brim with plenty of street shooting and me complaining about how I somehow managed to mess with the functionality of my MD-4 motor drive, which is, in reality, achingly simple.
Some of the photographs I took of the Chihuly glass exhibit near the space needle (seen above) absolutely stunned me once I started scanning the negatives. When I was shooting, I was afraid the larger grain of an 800 iso film would distract from the delicate and colorful glass, but the way in which Portra 800 handled the bright reds, yellows, and oranges was very impressive. It beautifully captured the ethereal and dramatic pieces of blown glass with an amazing level of detail and sharpness I was not expecting out of the stock.
If I had only checked the weather forecast of the planned trip, I would have realized it would not be overcast as I expected, but bright and warm, and perhaps I would’ve chosen slower speed film stocks. Instead of taking a hint from almost every street photographer ever, I could have brought one of my much more silent and inconspicuous rangefinders perfectly fitted for street photography; but rather I was set on shooting several rolls of Kodak Portra 800 and Cinestill 800T, with a true beast of an SLR, the Nikon F3 and MD-4, which I had never shot up until this trip.
Despite this imperfect pairing, my summer trip to Seattle definitely cemented my love of Portra 800. The way in which it tastefully handled overexposure and rendered the blue and orange shades of the city stunned me into compliance with almost every other film shooter: that Kodak Portra 800 is truly an exceptional film stock.
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