I’m not the most intellectual or insightful person, but on occasion (very rarely) I do like to ponder life’s great mysteries. I’ll sometimes even torture myself by asking questions like “What is the reason for being?” Or “What came first? The chicken or the egg?” Or “Can I even call myself a film photographer if I have never shot Kodak Portra?” And while a few of those mysteries may take years to unravel, the last question is a bit easier to answer. Maybe.
My first experience with film was a bit of an ad hoc one. I just went to a store that was selling film (in India, yes, some stores do still sell film) and just picked up whatever seemed the best value to me. At the time, this meant that I bought a three-pack Fuji Superia Xtra 400. Having dipped my toes into this, the shallower end of the film pool, I always found myself comfortable with only budget films. Shooting a low cost film like Fuji c200 at a bazaar and coming away with results that honestly blew my mind (and still do today), I never felt the push to explore better (is “better” the right word?) film. Even when half of YouTube would rave about Portra being the best out there, I held my line, being more than happy with the results I was getting with c200, Kodak Gold, Ultramax, or even Pro Image 100.
While I say this to myself over and over, I hardly can refute that there was a small part of me who did want to dive a little deeper. So when the choice came to pick up Kodak Portra, I bought two rolls of Porta 160. Only two rolls, I told myself, couldn’t hurt much, could it? Part of the reason that I chose Portra 160 over the omni-popular Portra 400 was that, from the image samples I’d seen, I liked the colors of 160 better than 400. Another part of the reason was that Portra 160 was cheaper than Portra 400 by a couple of hundred rupees. After marveling (and feeling slightly giddy) at the fact that I was about to shoot a film that said “Kodak Professional” on the canister, I stowed it away in the freezer for another time, a better time.
What is Kodak Portra 160
Kodak Portra 160 needs no introduction. While it’s possibly the least loved out of the Portra family, that doesn’t make it an unpopular film. But let’s briefly define the stock anyway.
The Portra family of film was launched in 1998, and available in three speeds – 160, 400, and 800, with the 160 and 400 speeds breaking down further into VC (Vivid Color) and NC (Natural Color) variants, both of which my fellow CP writer Drew covered in an earlier article. The Portra film stocks that are available today are a part of a mid-life refresh by Kodak around 2010 or 2011. Portra 160 as we know it today first released in February 2011. The film stock itself is touted to have the sharpest images and very low grain alongside a much muted palette of colors. These fine qualities come at a cost, with it being one of the more expensive film stocks Kodak makes today.
When Josh wrote about Fuji c200 on this site back in 2018, he mentioned how freeing it is to shoot consumer-grade film. Being able to shoot quickly and cheaply and not having to meticulously consider every shot helps in enjoying the process a little more. There’s no pressure to create good photos and make the most of those 36 frames. He was right. And with Portra, I sadly experienced the exact opposite.
The compulsion to create meaningful pictures out of my two rolls of Portra 160 meant that the film stayed in the back of the fridge awaiting that one fine day, a day of ideal conditions, when the stars aligned perfectly (or should I say the sun, with golden light everywhere – the only light worthy of Portra). That was in December 2019, and rest assured, those two rolls never saw the light of day (at least for a year). All the while, I would keep watching and reading about the venerable Porta while having a monologue with myself about how that day was soon approaching.
Fast forward to the December of 2020. Lockdowns have been eased off and I was able to get out of the house (finally) for a short trek in one of the more accessible national forests here in Maharashtra, India. As I prepared to pack for the trip, there came the question of my choice of film. And there it sat; the yellow and black canister. Perhaps I’d like to imagine this sequence with a bit more flair, where I had a mini debate with myself about how important this trip may be, or how the colors might seem so different on Portra, but I don’t remember any of that. I just put it in my bag without much thought along with another roll of Fuji c200, and that was that.
National forests in India are so different in concept that even many Indians confuse them with the more common wildlife sanctuaries. As their numbers are far fewer and have been reducing steadily, these have become incredibly rare. Alongside a host of other problems, funding and a lack of proper maintenance have made it difficult for the local governments to preserve these beautiful ecological spots. As a result, they have implemented a set of strict visitation rules which are in place to prevent any further damage to these forests. What does this mean for most people? It means that these areas are quite difficult to spot and access for most. No one is allowed to have any private or even personal footing in these lands. That means no campgrounds, no shops, no resorts or amenities – nothing. Visits are usually carried out in the presence of government officials or rangers. Some parks even go a step further and set in place their own even stricter policies.
Consequently, my companions and I had to stay about two hours away from the park in a remote housing lodge (not too bad, since this lodge offered perhaps one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever enjoyed, with sunrise peeking through just in front of us). We started the day off with our backpacks and cameras in hand, mine loaded with Portra 160.
After an hour and a half on board a motorized dinghy, we reached the main entrance to what felt like one of the deepest jungles I have ever been to. The signboards proclaiming it to be a tiger sanctuary did little to alter that impression. We were the only fifteen people in what would be a 10km radius. Then my Dad proceeded to scare us a little more with tiger stories. My father’s family is from a small town called Hazaribagh, a town’s name which literally translates to a Land of Thousand Tigers. So stories of tiger sightings are in plenty, and while many of these may be apocryphal, none of them are comforting when walking into a forest. The forest officials were very particular about their regulations and even accounted for every bit of plastic that we were carrying with us into the forest. Upon returning they would recheck once again should anything be disposed of inside the forest without their knowledge. I have never encountered that before, and it somehow felt good that such care was being taken over these lands.
As we ventured onto the trail, the light levels quickly dropped, with dense trees covering every inch of the sky and only the occasional rays making their way down to the forest floor. In hindsight, I should have chosen a faster film, but I hadn’t anticipated how dark it would be. Every snap of loose branches or crunching of leaves had us looking over our shoulders. Remember those tiger stories? Yeah, not helping much now.
The light meter in my Nikon FM2n struggled with all the dark shadows and general lack of light. And carrying a film camera (or any camera for that matter) while navigating difficult terrain didn’t quite sit right with me, especially when I have a history of being clumsy, so I put it away. Only taking it out occasionally during water breaks. We came across this small stream where we decided to take our break. It’s where I shot the only images during this trek. For reference, I gave my Portra more light, rating it at ISO 100 and exposing for the shadows with my Nikon’s in-camera meter.
We never quite completed the hike, as we ran out of both time and energy. I didn’t even finish the roll, and emerged from the jungle with the counter reading “24.” With twelve frames still left, I took a few portraits of my mother much later back home.
Getting the scans back from the lab, I was happy, but not overjoyed. My first roll of Portra 160 resulted in nice photos, with the light and colors hitting home. The pastel shades and subtle colors were nice, but I got equally nice pictures from my cheap roll of Fuji c200. Yes, even as I type this, there’s a sense of skepticism – how could c200 be as good as Portra? I want to praise Portra like all the other bloggers and YouTubers. But the truth is, I can’t.
Maybe if I’d never shot Fuji c200, or any of those other great, less costly films, I’d enjoy the beauty of Portra a bit more. It’s not fair, I know, but the thing is, I am not at a stage where I can evaluate the merits of shooting Portra in a vacuum. As long as I’m shooting film there will always be those other rolls of film accompanying the Kodak canister. It really does put me at crossroads with myself. You may have sensed a tone of hopefulness throughout the length of this article, and that’s because it’s exactly how I felt. For all the time I spent waiting and anticipating the qualities of this film stock, I was left a bit underwhelmed by Portra 160. Which is not a problem of the film stock, more so with my expectations. It’s not the duty of the film stock to make my pictures invariably better.
To make a comparison with other budget film stocks, images from Portra 160 strike me as images from Pro Image 100 after someone in Lightroom has dragged the contrast slider a few notches down. Versus Fuji c200 there’s a host of differences regarding tonal capacities, sharpness and the palette of colors offered by each, but to my eye the differences are negligible at best. C200 does tend to a more greenish, cooler tone while Portra is the embodiment of the warm colors of Kodak. But then again, a simple slider adjustment on a scanned c200 image negates these differences as well. Portra 160 is a film which pushes for perfection, and that’s great. Portra 160 has a unique look when the scans are left alone. But truthfully, who among us can resist tweaking images in the digital age (film or not)? If perfection is something we are after, would we be shooting film at all?
Finally, there’s the question of me being a bona fide film photographer or not. Who knows? Like every other intellectual question, it demands more insight than I can offer at this point in time. It’s like an aphorism I don’t quite relate to. I’d hate for me to end with more questions than we initially started with. I don’t need to love Portra to be a film photographer (that much is obvious). And maybe things will change in the future for me and Portra. Maybe I’ll fall in love, given the right subject, conditions, and inspiration. After all, there’s still another roll of Portra 160 in my fridge, awaiting its day in the sun.
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