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.

Interview: David Chan

“Once I got the hang of it, it was easy to see why so many photographers are (re)discovering film. The way that light renders on film is simply magic…”

David is an avid film photographer in California. I came across his work shortly after a trip he took to Banff and I was blown away by his work. His panoramic photos made me want an X-Pan (or Fujifilm TX-1), the colors in photos made me want to try Ektar again, and the energy of his work has inspired me to travel and take more photographs.

JM: Thanks so much for doing this.  Your shots in Banff have inspired me to try Ektar again after one failed roll.  I’ve really appreciated all the direction and advice about my trip to Banff and photography in general.

JM: Why do you shoot film?

DC: I took some film and darkroom classes in high school and college, but it wasn’t until about a few years ago that I started seriously pursuing photography as a hobby again after purchasing a Sony a6000 with a 16-50mm kit lens for a trip to Hawaii. I was amazed with the capabilities of that little camera and began to accumulate lenses and accessories for it before completely upgrading to a full-frame Sony system later on.

DC: It was exhausting keeping up with the rapidly evolving technologies after a while, and I was beginning to feel burnt out from spending most of my time in Lightroom, rather than shooting. I must have spent hundreds of hours culling through terabytes of RAW files, watching Youtube tutorials, installing presets, trying to give my images that ineffable “film look”. At the same time, I was seeing more and more photographers that I admired dabble in film, with gorgeous results.

DC: I started looking into film cameras and ended up buying a beautiful silver Olympus OM-2n and a pack of Superia on Amazon. The package arrived minutes before I was set to leave for the airport. I spent the entire flight trying to figure out how to load the film, and not realizing that it needed batteries to operate shutter speeds other than 1/60s. Needless to say that first roll was complete dog s**t!

DC: Once I got the hang of it, it was easy to see why so many photographers are (re)discovering film. The way that light renders on film is simply magic, the tones and colors have a natural richness that is hard to replicate in digital. I find myself being a lot more deliberate and thoughtful with each click, and not having the ability to “chimp” is actually very liberating. Finally, it could be days, weeks, or even months before you see your images. It’s a lot of fun for me to look at those memories again with fresh eyes.

“Sometimes, even those carefully planned shots can turn out like crap, but a random click of the person sitting across from you can blow you away. It’s all part of the fun!”

JM: What is your favorite film?  Camera?

DC: For my favorite film, I’m going to be cliché and say Kodak Portra 400. It’s such a versatile film that works for 90% of situations. Fast enough to use at most lighting, amazing exposure latitude, pleasant grain and tones. It’s the best.

DC: I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of great cameras to choose from, but if I have to pick a favorite it would probably be my Hasselblad Xpan. It’s a camera that I actually don’t use that often due to its special format and its “slow” lenses, but in the right situation it has produced some of my favorite images.

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

DC: I would say about 25%. Being on film and having no way to verify your results, I usually play it safe and take 2-4 frames if it’s something important. Sometimes, even those carefully planned shots can turn out like crap, but a random click of the person sitting across from you can blow you away. It’s all part of the fun!

JM: When do you call a photo ‘finished’?  When it’s printed? posted on IG? scanned?

DC: Well, it’s “finished” as soon as the shutter curtain close, isn’t it? I just hope that I or the lab don’t screw it up after! In all seriousness, I think it really depends on what you are trying to achieve with a particular image. Whether the goal is to post it on social, hang a large framed print on your wall, or email it to your grandma, to me it’s finished once you are satisfied with the result.

JM: Though it’s really tough to choose a favorite photo of yours, I’d have to say it’s one you took at Consolation Lakes (15Sept2018).  What’s the story behind it? Where does it rank for you?

DC: Thank you, it’s one of my favorites from that trip! Such a memorable day. My wife Crystal and I started early in the morning to Moraine Lake with the plan to get some photos and canoe on the lake. As the morning went on, the area became more and more crowded with tourists, waving around their selfie sticks and whatnot. After a while, it was impossible to get any unobstructed shots and we were desperate to get away to somewhere more secluded. We discovered the Consolation Lakes trail and decided to explore despite the large ominous sign that warned of bears!

DC: It was a beautiful trail through the woods that ended with a scramble over some large boulders to get to the lake. My wife being a former gymnast, is much more nimble than I am. I got as far as I am comfortable with while she continued to work her way over the rocks. I had been saving the last frame of Velvia in my Xpan, and decided to use it as she was perched on the large rock in the center. It was one of those rare shots where it turned out even better than planned. I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out!

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

DC: Oh man, that’s a tough one. There are a lot of shots that I am proud of and a few that have received some recognition, but as far as my personal favorite, it would probably be the of Crystal doing her makeup in the mirror while we were in New York. Just a simple, intimate moment captured on black and white film that I hand developed. 

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

DC: Get a full manual camera with a fast prime lens and just shoot, shoot, shoot. Stick with one type of film stock so you can learn the characteristics and have something consistent to measure your progress. Most of all, shoot what you love and have fun!

You can see more of David’s work below.