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 800

To see Portra 800 exposure tested, follow this link. As a reference for Portra 400 shot at 800, follow this link. To see a more formal comparison of Portra 800 with the other two members of the Portra family (Experiment 2), go here.

I waited far too long to really give Portra 800 a fair shake. The main reason was the price – coming in at $15 more expensive for a pro pack of 120 and half again the price of a roll of 35mm, I considered more of a luxury than something I would regularly shoot. A couple months ago I caved and picked up a pro pack of both 120 and 35mm in order to write a review on it. I can honestly say that I won’t be defaulting to Portra 400 any longer. The colors of 800 are fantastic. The colors are quite punchy and given the additional speed from 400, the grain structure is minimal and pleasing.


Much like Portra 400, this film stock is great for shooting portraits. The tones are nice and warm with a lot of depth. At the time of writing the Portra 400 review, I had only shot one roll of 800 at box speed and a couple others at 500 or slower to intentionally overexpose as that’s what had been suggested to me. Some of the shots at box speed really turned out well but I don’t know that I cared much for a single shot from the rolls of it overexposed. So, naturally, when I decided to give it another go I wanted to shoot most all of it at box speed. I couldn’t have been happier with the results. The colors are more saturated than Portra 400 while not being quite as strong as Ektar. That said, compared with Portra 160 it’s got saturation for days.

Properly exposed it actually doesn’t have a terribly different rendering that Portra 400 underexposed. The warm tones are spot on with this film and even the cool tones may by favorite of any other color negative film. The greens are just unreal…


Similar to Portra 400, it’s literally in the name. It’s crushes portraits in daylight, low light, and while I haven’t experimented with it in the studio, I expect it too would be great.

Dynamic Range

To see a head to head comparison with other color negative film stocks, please refer to the exposure testing article. I was truly blown away by Portra 800s ability to retain detail while being underexposed. While being the highest speed color negative film we tested, it keep good detail even at 3 stops underexposed – that’s metering at 6400ISO!!! While I wouldn’t personally shoot it at this speed on the regular, it gave me a lot of confidence in really low light situations to open up the lens and shoot as slow as I could go while trusting the outcome to be solid. Well.. relative to any other color film shot at 6400ISO, I had confidence.

As for overexposing, I don’t much care for it. I think this is where I had the problems before… It gets too yellow and all around too saturated for my taste. for now, I’ve learned my lesson in intentionally underexposing this film. In fact, if I find myself in tricky conditions (which isn’t uncommon hiking in OH) I may in the future meter for half or even a whole step underexposed. Maybe… I only say that because I’ve still had too many shots come out undesirable because some parts of the frame were still too bright and the whole shot was lost to unattractive colors.


I haven’t done either as of yet. I fully expect that at some point I’ll try both as 800 speed gives enough to move in either direction and still be fine.


I love this film. Plain and simple. If it was less expensive, it would be my go to film probably. But it isn’t… It’s almost half again as expensive as Portra 400 on all fronts and that’s a real concern – it adds up fast if you’re shooting a lot. So for now, I’ll continue to shoot with it as much as I can and play around with it in different situations to really get to know it. But I don’t really see the day where it takes 400’s place in my heart or freezer.

One caveat to all of this: I’ve not yet brought up but is a consideration of mine is ease to travel with. As an 800 speed film, this film must be hand checked if you’re flying. As it happens, Portra 400 doesn’t need it at all – I’ve gone through security 4 times with the same rolls and not had a single issue with it. With everything I’ve ever read (in addition to the TSA website and signs in the airport) about traveling with 800 speed or faster film, you have to hand check it and that’s just a pain. More of a pain than I typically feel like dealing with. Perhaps if I was going on a huge trip and needed a lot of fast film for whatever reason and I knew I’d want to take Ilford Delta 3200, maybe then I’d go through the hassle. Otherwise, I’ll likely keep leaning on Portra 400 and Ektar when I’m flying.

Interview: Gareth Morton

“Film feels random and organic and beautiful. I love how different films have different qualities…”

Gareth Morton is a film photographer based in the U.K.. His work is quite strong and he is quite humble about it. You should check out his website and/or instagram. Recently he started The Ten Shot Project with Rick Davy in which they post ten shots with one theme from one photographer. Please check out the website and instagram.

JM – Why do you shoot film?

GM – This would have to be the first question, ha. It’s one of those that I find most difficult to articulate an answer for. Firstly, it would have to be the aesthetic qualities of film. The colour palette that certain films give as well as the natural grain structure, a by product of the silver in the emulsion. Film feels random and organic and beautiful. I love how different films have different qualities like more or less contrast, more or less saturation, different colour qualities and the way negative film renders from the highlights to the shadows.

GM – Secondly, I like the way film makes me shoot. No screen to distract or check after every image. No shooting 100 frames of the same scene and hoping for the best. I am more careful and considered with film and I truly love the process.

GM – Finally, having printed in the dark room recently, I am not sure there is much that is comparable to that. Developing and printing your own film from start to finish is magical and the qualities of a silver halide print are just beautiful. 

JM – What is your favorite film?  Camera?

GM – Absolute favourite? Kodak Portra 800, especially in 120. The grain, contrast and saturation are just beautiful and I have even shot it in bright sunshine for the certain aesthetic that it gives. I tend to lean towards Kodak for colour negative and always shoot travel on Ektar 100 which is amazing and gives great colour renditions with the added saturation, although it isn’t always ideal for people, I do have images where it works very well. I will be travelling to Vietnam soon and am going to shoot almost exclusively on Portra 400 for consistency and versatility. 

GM – My favourite camera is a little more difficult as I have had quite a few and still do. Film cameras, unlike digital, all shoot very differently. Different formats, different sizes of different formats. 35mm in normal or panoramic mode with the XPan. 120 in 645, 6×6, 6×7 all the way up to 6×17! (I have never shot 6×17). I think if I could choose one of each, 35mm and 120 it would be my Leica M3 and a Hasselblad 500cm. I had an M2 first and instantly regretted selling it once I did so this M3 is for keeps. Both of those cameras, the Leica and Hasselblad are completely mechanical, no batteries, no electronics, no distractions. Plus, viewing the world through the ground glass of a waist level finder is a beautiful sight. 

“Despite changing tastes for what I seem to be shooting at times, a few things remain constant that I admire in other peoples work and finding what compels me – a cinematic aesthetic…”

JM – What proportion of your shots turn out as you hoped (or better)?

GM – Oh crumbs. I have very low expectations on how my shots are going to turn out so anything that I class as a keeper or worthy of public consumption is a bonus. Every now and then, I get a surprise when something turns out better than I had hoped, but often on a shoot, particularly if I am shooting portraits, if I feel I am on to something and everything comes together in the viewfinder, I get really excited and that comes across to the client. That’s when I cross my fingers and hope it comes back as good as I remember.

JM – What is one thing that you’ve changed in your approach to photography?  What was the catalyst for this change?

GM – Honestly, the biggest change I made to my photography was selling all my digital equipment. I am not anti-digital as far as photography is concerned because the end result is what matters, not what it was created with, but for me personally, once I started shooting film it seemed a natural progression until ultimately, I sold the last of my digital equipment in September 2017 and I have no desire to go back. If I could try and identify the catalyst for this, firstly it would be that I was finding a lot of the images I truly admire were created on film and the photographers I alluded to earlier all worked pre-digital and it you look at their images, they are just beautiful and it’s because of the content, not the medium. I would also say I grew tired with the constant upgrade cycle that the internet leads us to believe is neccassary to produce great photographs. I was in a local, well known photographic retailer with a friend for the first time in a while recently and was absolutely blown away by the vast amount of current digital bodies that are available, all promising amazing things, all largely irrelevant for making better images for the enthusiast. That being said, I still have a yearning for a Leica M6 one day, even though it’s irrational and not needed. Ha. 

JM – What do you look for in a photograph?  Is what you find compelling in a photograph different when it’s one of your photographs compared with one from someone else? 

GM – Despite changing tastes for what I seem to be shooting at times, a few things remain constant that I admire in other peoples work and finding what compels me – a cinematic aesthetic. An image that could be straight from a movie and that stirs emotions with a combination of moment, light and colour palette. I love strong black and white work by the great photographers like Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank and Vivian Maier who captured real moments in time with such confidence and conviction and I feel this shows in their photos. I love flare. Something that a lot of photographers deliberately try to avoid, as well as chiaroscuro, which is something that other people seem to do very well but I haven’t quite grasped yet.

JM – What is your favorite shot you’ve ever taken?  What’s the story behind it?

GM – Favourite shot? That’s a tricky question as I very rarely hold any of my photos in high regard. That’s why this request to be interviewed was quite a surprise. There are different aspects that I think make certain shots special, whether that’s taking you back to a time and place, or stirring up memories of a loved one or friend that you haven’t seen for a while. I have images that remind me what it was like to be stood in a particular place, therefore I think I would have to go with the sunset we experienced when driving through Glencoe in Scotland. I had been travelling with my two American friends, driving through the landscapes and stopping to take photos whenever we saw something we deemed worthy and one evening we decided to head out for a sunset drive which had been fairly uneventful and the sun had all but set behind us amongst the snow covered mountains and then, all of a sudden, BAM, the sky was on fire behind us with the most magnificent sunset! It blazed through the mountains and into my rear view mirror. I had noticed it and was desperately looking for a pull in to stop the car when a voice from the back seat, my friend, Sarah said as calm as you like, “are we gonna stop or….?” As we pulled over, I made only three frames of this moment and it was the last shot on a roll in the Hasselblad XPan (a camera I bought to try and create the cinematic feeling I described earlier). It was loaded with Ektar 100 so I metered the light, it was fading fast, and set the shutter speed as low as I dare (it was either 1/15 or 1/30, I don’t fully remember) and shot the last frame, as well as two on the same film stock on the Pentax 67ii. Those colours, as well as the memories will stick with me for a lifetime. 

JM – If someone told you they were thinking of getting into film, what would your response/advice be?

GM – Just do it, don’t think about it. I often hear photographers who have only taken photos digitally saying they think it’s going to be hard, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Buy a fairly inexpensive film camera, such as the Canon AE-1 or Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, whatever equivalents, get some film and start shooting. Photography ultimately is about content and light and feelings and stories and moments, not about megapixels and high resolution screens and more frames per second. 

More of Gareth’s work can be seen below: