Jonathan Eastland tries out the new version of Kodak's Portra film
The “world’s finest grain at 400 speed” is a big shout to make by the world’s best-known filmmaker for its latest incarnation of an emulsion type that, for decades, has struggled inch by little inch to catch up with the technical quality of reversal alternatives that long ago satisfied the needs of the most pernickety photographers.
Yet more or less since the launch of the first Kodacolor negative films of the 1940s, the type has shown its resilience to the exposure abuse lavished upon it by countless millions of snap shooters around the world. It was the emulsion’s exposure latitude that endeared it to studio portraitists, wedding and social function photographers, along with some reportage shooters.
In the 1970s and 80s, as a stringer for the Associated Press, I enjoyed some considerable experience of it. When the London bureau set up its World in Colour weekly distribution service, finding a way to offer top news stories of the day in a colour format that newsprint could handle easily and in duplicated quantity was the problem.
Large-format transparencies were much favoured in those days; something a picture editor could hold up to a window or a fluorescent light and see its content at a glance. But more or less since the launch of the Nikon F in the late 1950s, 35mm had been widely used in the world of press reporting.
Vic Heudebeurcke, then AP’s colour photo editor, had the brilliant idea of persuading staffers and as many freelance stringers as he could, to carry a few 35mm rolls of Kodacolor X on assignments. When he got lucky, those returning to London from Vietnam, Beirut or wherever else in the world they were assigned, would toss a roll of colour neg on his desk; they often only contained just a few frames exposed when a lull in unfolding events allowed time to load a cassette.
A selection of 8×10-inch prints with captions typed on strips of white paper were mounted on a large black card and hurried round the corner to a Fleet Street studio where the whole work was photographed on Ektachrome type B 10×8-inch sheet film, providing a set of conveniently large-sized transparencies for distribution. Editors simply took a pair of scissors and snipped out the image they wanted.
In those days, it mattered not that the contrast levels of these transparencies was off the graph, or even that moderately small details in an image were lost to all visual interpretation. What newspapers wanted was colour on the front, back and on feature pages.
They got it in large blobs; reds, yellows, blues – anything to lift the drudgery of the black-and-white smudges that had been the norm for decades. Print reproduction then was no match for the high levels we currently enjoy.
Looking at my few surviving colour negatives from that era, I do sometimes wonder why they were kept. High grain factors of even the slowest speed films (ISO 80) inhibited serious enlargement, rendering all but important historical documents useless for inclusion in a stock archive.
Technology moved on. By the end of the next decade, suitcase-sized negative scanners and transmitters had all but eliminated the need for prints, and Fujifilm was the order of the day. Kodak had somehow missed the boat, and a few more years had to pass before Royal Gold Select emulsions hit the display stands.
What saved the day was the advent in 1992 of Kodak’s revolutionary Photo CD digital system. Aimed mainly at enthusiasts, it nevertheless became apparent to many professionals that, while the quality of scans made with a dedicated 12-bit scanner were not the same as those obtained from a laser drum, they were more than good enough for mechanical print reproduction.
As Kodak had intended from the outset, the service the company’s labs offered, using RF film scanners to burn frames to a CD, was perfectly matched to the inherent qualities of its colour negative emulsions. I have hundreds of image files on hard drives from that era and, whenever I go back to them today, I marvel at the quality the software was able to extract from the negative. It was virtually impossible to match those levels using a wet darkroom.
As an alternative to the Kodachrome stock of choice, which seemed only ever reproduced best after being scanned on a laser drum, colour negative finally offered a viable alternative across all formats.
But what remained, if one was to continue shooting colour film in the face of a digital onslaught, was some stability for a homogeneous colour palette, the finest grain and excellent scanning ability.
Coming of age
All three of these conditions have been met for me in the past few years with varying but largely satisfactory degrees of success, in part due to the short-term manufacturing life of some emulsions, and experiments with differently specified film scanners affecting image appearance.
In the last couple of years, I have had thousands of older colour negatives digitalised on a Kis 5500, which in turn led to the further observation that a greater part of my life has been consumed in the past decade by machines that take several minutes to process each frame.
Recent delivery of a Sony commercial high-speed scanner promises, if the Kis experience is anything to go by, to handsomely deliver all my colour negative needs for the foreseeable future at nine seconds a frame.
Luckily, and in spite of the very real threat that digital might spoil the fun, Kodak kept going with its R&D, and a year ago delivered Ektar 100. Based on its Vision movie film technology, the stock has proved to be an outstanding performer for a wide variety of tasks where a relatively slow ISO is not a hindrance.
However, a higher level of sensitivity necessitates changing stock to the Portra range, which, until very recently, was available in two versions: NC – natural colour; or VC – vibrant colour. Which to use, especially when the scene demanded something closer to the palette offered by Ektar and neither could really hack it?
Launched at the turn of this new century in ISO 160, 400 and later 800 versions, Portra was primarily designed for use by portrait and wedding photographers whose demands for universally acceptable skin tones were often poorly met by client perceptions of their likenesses made on other stocks.
Kodak’s claims of “spectacular”, or “beautiful, natural skin tones” for Portra was fine for marketing purposes, but told us little about whether or not our perceptions of how someone looked in a print was a fair reproduction of the truth.
This has been one aspect of colour and hue rendering that has flummoxed filmmakers and the designers of digital camera firmware. As I mentioned in my 2008 appraisal (BJP #7686) of Portra 400’s third generation of the stock, Kodak would continue to tweak it. It has, taking the bold step of dispensing with the NC and VC variations to combine the beneficial effects of both into one, with what is claimed is the “world’s finest grain at 400 speed”.
The look of it
This move at least eliminates dithering over which stock to use for an event, narrowing choices to the essentials of sensitivity and rendition. For those converting negative frames straight to digital, the film granularity to speed ratio is visibly reduced from earlier products, enabling a hike in enlargements for today’s much-in-demand poster-sized prints.
The new colour palette straight out of the processed box leans toward a warmer look when exposures are made under flat or diffused natural lighting. Reddish tints can be measured in white areas of the image, but disappear entirely when the film is exposed under contrasty, cold, clear light. In the latter case, reds, greens and blues are rendered with a vibrancy that sits more or less between the older variations of Portra – NC and VC – but without the magenta/purple haze that affected reds and greens of the latter.
Natural High-contrast, bright and clear morning sunlight, with no hint of the warmer tints affecting the chip van image. Delineation of colour hues is sharply defined; brighter reds and some greens in this shot sit closer to the yellow end of the range. All images © Jonathan Eastland.
Detail of 100 percent crop from a 12.3-inch enlargement shows very sharp edge acutance at dark-to-light object demarcation with film grain effects more visible in out-of-focus shaded areas. The effect of inherent film sharpness would be manifest in larger print sizes at correct viewing distance, but I doubt the grain effects would be noticeable.
Reportage Bright and contrasty, cold morning light. Portra is not really intended for general-purpose field work as its colour palette is balanced more toward returning perfect skin tones. However, as ever, what it’s used for is a matter of subjective choice. In this scene, the intensity of colour rendition is perhaps a shade more neutral than would be returned by Kodak’s Ektar 100, but with the benefit of a higher sensitivity.
Grain becomes evident, but not intrusively so, as print sizes creep up the scale. When the longest side is at 12-14 inch, shadow grain can be seen with the unaided eye. Kodak’s own Print Grain Index, using a uniform perceptual scale for this emulsion, shows a set of figures for formats from 135 through to 4×5 having significantly low numbers.
At 8×10 and 16×20-inch print sizes, PGI readings are 59 and 89, well below the low sixties and nineties previously noted for Portra NC and VC 400. Negatives to be scanned don’t need the application of an unsharp mask because the film’s inherent grain structure effectively raises micro contrast on dark to light object edges, efficiently delivering high but non-aggressive apparent image sharpening.
This isn’t an emulsion Kodak recommends for general-purpose field photography; the maker emphasises its suitability more for portrait, wedding and social applications.
Portra can, however, be used across multiple disciplines, it just depends on the user’s subjective interpretation of how the scene will be rendered. Compared with its slower cousin Ektar 100, this new emulsion can render some scenes under specific lighting conditions similarly but it doesn’t, in my view, render them with the same kind of punch or hue that Ektar delivers.
Where Portra gains on sensitivity, it loses to the more-distinguished character of the slower film. This notwithstanding, portraitists will love what it returns under low ambient light levels and, when I am pushed into the realms of darkness, I will use it too.
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