Experiment 2: Kodak Portra 160 vs. Portra 400 vs. Portra 800

This article is going to compare Kodak films Portra 160, Portra 400, and Portra 800. For exposure testing data on Portra 400, Portra 400 shot and developed at 800, Portra 800, and 8 other film stocks, please refer to this article. For an additional reference of Portra 400 shot and developed at 800, please refer to this article.

To ensure consistency throughout the experiment, all of the shots were taken using the exact same camera/lens combo. To accomplish this, 3 different film backs were used, each loaded with a different Kodak Portra film. The control conditions were as follows:

  • Camera: Mamiya 645 Pro TL
  • Lenses: 80mm f/2.8 N, 150mm f/3.5 N, 300mm f/5.6 N-ULD
  • Lighting (Portrait Only): 2 Profoto B1X with diffusers
  • Light Meter: LUMU Light Meter iPhone app

All films were developed at a local lab here in Columbus, OH and scanned at home using an Epson v600. All provided images were the converted negatives straight from the scanner software included with the v600.


As perhaps could have been expected, I didn’t prefer one film over the rest in all contexts. Overall, I preferred Portra 800 over 160 and 400 in most situations with a strict exception to portraits.

All told, we took 3 different sets of portraits (though only posting one) and in all 3, Portra 800 was far too saturated. To a level that I, personally, looked jaundiced. I honestly expected Portra 160 to shine here but I honestly thought all of the scans turned out equally as pale. So much so that they looked a bit distasteful. I do expect that I could have remedied a good deal of that in settings in the scan or in PS after but again, all of the presented images are straight out of the scanner’s software.

Probably the only example series where I personally preferred Portra 160 over 800 and a little over Portra 400 was in the library. Portra 800 had a tendency to be too saturated in a situation when the color palette was fairly white. Similar to the portraits above, Portra 800 tends to turn whites yellow in a fairly unattractive way. Portra 400 was right in the middle but in a scene I would have preferred to remain bright and airy feeling, I preferred no yellow tint.

As for the other 3 samples, I did strongly prefer Portra 800. In the vines sample, I think 800 blew the other two out of the water. The colors are intense but in a way that accentuates the present colors without changing them into something undesirable. For the tower, all three returned a pretty distinct color palette – so much so that I went back and rescanned each with the expectation of getting more uniformity then but the scans came back virtually the same as the first pass – that all 3 are distinctly different. Finally, for the vertical tunnel at the OSU campus, I really think the saturation of Portra 800 shined. I loved the way those colors turned out.


I’m not sure that my opinion between the three is really going to change. I will continue to shoot more and more 800 in and around Ohio (or at least on trips where I’m not flying) and I will shoot Portra 400 as an old reliable.


Special thanks to Matt Seal for being generous with letting us use his studio, Dr. H for being an uncomfortable model, and Nevin Johnson for his help with the scanning.

Review: Kodak Portra 160

To see reviews of the other films in the Portra family, go here for Portra 400 and here for Portra 800. To see a more formal comparison of Portra 160 with the other two members of the Portra family (Experiment 2), go here.

In all honesty, I have a love-hate relationship with Portra 160. Every roll I’ve shot through is almost entirely full of shots I don’t much care for if not some of my least favorite I’ve ever taken. That said… The shots on a roll that I like are some of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. So where do you go from here? I would really like to shoot through some rolls in a studio environment where I have much more control of the lighting. Perhaps there I will have more consistently desirable results…


Compared with the other two films in the Portra family, it is by and large the least saturated when properly exposed. Even slightly overexposed and it gets a sort of a nasty looking warm tint to the shots – sometimes it’s seems a bit yellow and sometimes it has pink/red undertones. Properly exposed and the color rendering is unlike any other film I’ve used. The colors are delicate while still being intense. By that I mean, it picks up colors better than most films stocks up doesn’t render them with as much saturation.


I’ve not used Portra 160 in a studio but I feel like it could shine in this context. As for portraits in natural light, I’ve not been too pleased. In the middle of the day, they come out looking so yellow, I could be convinced they were jaundiced. In the evening, at dusk, there’s a distinct pink/red tint to skin tones that make people look sunburned. With this said, my experience has been somewhat limited to a couple friends, my girlfriend, and my father – all of whom share a lack of pigmentation in their skin so it may well be that this stock may be more flattering for others.

Dynamic Range

The dynamic range is not particularly good in my experience. As mentioned before, this stock does not quite the flexibility of its 400 and 800 cousins. Even just a little under or over exposing and do not turn out to my liking.


Given the already slow nature of this stock, I doubt there will be a day where I’m pulling it. As far as pushing the film is concerned, I have no experience nor do I see myself doing it.


I suspect that I will one day find that I haven’t been using this film properly and that there’s a trick to getting it exposed just so that it the results are consistently great. But with all of the errors in the trail/error process, I’m not inclined to give it a regular place in my film stock rotation. I will, on the other hand, plan to give it a go in a studio and additional attempts here and there.