Shooting My First Roll of Kodak Portra 160

Shooting My First Roll of Kodak Portra 160

2000 1125 Hemant Chatterji

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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Hemant Chatterji

I've always looked for a medium to tell my stories. It's only when photography came into my life that I found my true calling. When I'm not photographing daily life I'm most enthusiastic about building things as a budding engineer.

All stories by:Hemant Chatterji
  • Good post. Like you, I shot a roll of Portra 160 and couldn’t figure out what the big deal is about it. I’m going to shoot another and see if my opinion changes, but to me it wasn’t that much better than the roll of Fuji Industrial 100 I shot previous to it. I seem to like Portra 400 better, though. But I tend to stick with the “consumer” grade color stocks when I can.

  • I do like the warm colors but the film clearly struggles with harsh shadows. Nevertheless I liked the little history about National Forests in India. Incidentally I like to shoot simulated Portra 160 on my Fuji quite a lot…

  • Victor Van Natter March 10, 2021 at 7:11 am

    Great article. I’ve never been a huge fan or portra and cannot understand the expense compared to gold or ultramax. Now Ektar, I love that stuff and I feel that’s worth the extra money for the occasional time that I shoot it. But otherwise I don’t get the whole professional versus consumer film

    • Hemant Chatterji March 12, 2021 at 2:42 am

      Thank You Victor! I definitely love the look of Ektar from the few sample images that I have seen online. Ill be sure to pick up a few rolls next time, have a great day !

  • Hey great article! My outside hiking adventure camera is a nikon fm2 I wouldn’t be afraid of nocking it around a little.. They are pretty tough! As to you dilemma with portra 160, I have never been a real big fan of it either. Its a little too soft of contrast for my taste. I think My biggest realization with portra 160 is the fact that I shoot more landscapes and I always am left with wanting more contrast. I want to love it but I always gravitate more to somthing cheeper like kodak color plus 200.

    • Hemant Chatterji March 12, 2021 at 3:15 am

      Thank you so much Robert ! I completely agree with you on Portra 160, On the other hand color plus 200 is a great film to use everyday. Thank you once again for reading and have a great day!

  • Merlin Marquardt March 10, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Wonderful article. Film is ….

  • For slide film, expose for the highlights. For print film, expose for the shadows. I usually overexpose Portra by one or two full-stops, regardless of the box speed, and have always gotten wonderful results from it.

  • Charlotte – 35mm March 10, 2021 at 3:02 pm

    Great piece Hemant. I’ve found Portra wanting in landscape environments (except for the beach!), but so lovely for skin tones. I love the portrait of your mother at the end – for me, that’s where this film stock really shines.

    • Hemant Chatterji March 12, 2021 at 5:39 am

      Thank you so much for reading Charlotte! Ill definitely try to keep that in mind about Portra, next time I go out with it. Have a great day !

  • Ryan McLellan, Jr. March 10, 2021 at 3:14 pm

    Great article. Interesting to see more divergent opinions on Portra. I’ve never shot Portra 160, but I love Portra 400. However, it doesn’t even break my top five favorite films. My favorite color film is 100% ColorPlus 200. Great tones, an amazing resolving ability, and a perfectly versatile ISO. The price is just the cherry on top. Portra will always be a great film for professional work, but anything beyond that is more of a choice for variety in film stocks than for trying to get “quality images”. I can get those with just about any film stock.

    • Hemant Chatterji March 12, 2021 at 5:53 am

      Thank you so much Ryan! ColorPlus 200 is really an amazing film stock for pretty much everything. Have a great day!

  • Victor Van Natter March 10, 2021 at 4:14 pm

    But what makes it for “professional” work?

    • Professional film is intended to be shot and processed somewhat immediately after production, while consumer film is formulated to be shot long periods of time after its made (with colors intentionally “our of spec” to provide for color shift over time). That’s part of it, anyway.

  • Thank you so much for your great pictures and great writing.
    You seem to master Portra 160. I have tried this film with my Leica M6 and the Rollei Sonnar 40mm/2.8 black versus few years ago.
    I have found my pictures flat. So, I returned to Ektar 100 and ProImage 100 mostly with my Leica M3 this time. But your pictures give me a hope to make a new try 😉

  • Nice photos! I pretty much like any film I come across, and like you the nuances seem to be lost on me. Fuji C200 gives me the results I want, as does Portra, Lomo 800 etc. I have never found one to be ‘better’ so I just load up on C200 and relish the fact that I can buy two or three rolls for the cost of one roll of Portra 400!
    Kodak ProImage 100 also says pro on the canister… but according to ‘sources’ it is repackaged Gold 100.. I like both those films too!

    • Hemant Chatterji March 12, 2021 at 6:08 am

      Thank you so much for reading, ProImage and C200 do happen to be my favorite film stocks as well! Have a great day !

  • Amazing pictures and a great post. Very insightful for someone who knows very little about photography.

  • This site is great for thought-provoking articles and this one provokes thoughts on several topics — including tigers, which may be a first!

    It’s always fun to see received ideas challenged, and the idea that Portra embodies ‘the film look’ (whatever that is) was due some scrutiny. Now that most film images are presented digitally, how much of the ‘look’ can we even attribute to the film itself? For my own purposes, I look at Portra on retailers’ sites, balk at paying £12 a roll, and either order some C200 instead or pay the extra for slide film. Now that stuff really does feel a bit special.

  • Having shot most of the many of the more common 35mm films available in the US, mostly Kodak and Fuji to my eye there are very distinct differences between most of them. Fuji Velvia 50 gives a unique result not at all like Kodak Ektachrome or Fuji C200. And on the lower cost side Kodak Gold 200 has a completely different palate than Fuji C200. I was able to get really excellent results last year from Portra 160 in our spring weather near where I live in San Diego, CA. We tend to get lots of mixed clouds, sun, and marine layer overcast. I find Portra loves this kind of weather and gives very bright colors with sharp details. On the other hand when you go up to the local mountains and walk through the pine forests Fuji C200 with it’s affinity towards green tones gives very attractive color renditions and also good details.

    Kodak comes in boxes usually that are yellow and Fuji boxes come in green. I use that as a guide and tend to go Kodak when shooting dry warm scenes and Fuji for green forests or shots where green is a prominent color.

    I find some films do well in full sun like Kodak Gold, Kodak Ektar, Kodak Ektachrome, Kodak Ultramax, Fuji Velvia 50, Fuji 200 or Superia 400. Plus the two black and whites I use, TriX and Tmax. Cloudy weather or mixed clouds and sun is the time to bring out the Porta 160 or 400 (I have never used the 800) and the Fuji’s 200 and 400.

    I do not agree that if film is scanned properly that the look of film is lost. I do agree that when you have prints made when you get the film developed or especially slides made when you shoot positive film that the results tend to be better. But well scanned film can give beautiful results.

    I would say if you only shoot the low cost films that you cheat yourself of getting some really good results that some of the other films can provide. And black and white. Tmax 100 or some of the finer grained Ilfords give gorgeous results and they are unfortunately in the Portra 160 price range.

  • I really like shooting Portra 160. It’s a great option for me when I’m shooting medium format and I don’t want the rich colors of Ektar, but I don’t want to shoot a faster film like Portra 400. Good for sunny days when I do not want the overexposed look of Portra 400. And, after all, consumer stocks like Gold 200, Fuji C200, and ProImage 100 are not available in medium format rolls.

  • After reading your article about the Portra, I said to myself, hey I have a roll of it sitting around! I have a 36 exp roll which expired in 12/2008. Should I expose at 80 or 40 ISO? Regardless, I’m looking forward to feeding it through a Minolta X-700 with a 45mm f2 Rokkor lens. It will be fun maiden voyage for all three of these vintage beauties.

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach March 14, 2021 at 9:24 pm

    I use Portra 160 quite a lot, also with a Nikon FM2n and a selection of Nikkor glass. It’s probably my favorite film for its intended purpose, that is, portraiture, but I aso like it quite a lot for street photography and, surprisingly enough, low light photography. It works great with fill flash in either situation, but when underexposed slightly, specially with the light sources inside the frame, it’ll give you much better shadows and color contrast. At least that’s what it seems to me from experience… Not a big fan of Proimage, BTW. I only shot two rolls and both came out muted and yellowish

  • One thing I’m struggling to understand here is are the people commenting on Portra–particularly those who don’t really fancy it–depending on scans from a non-professional lab to judge what it can do? If you’re doing that, you’re commenting more on the lab’s knowledge and skill, and the scanner’s (human and electronic) preferences, than on the quality of the film and its characteristics.

    It *is* color negative film, after all, which has way more flexibility in what the final output looks like than transparency film–and it’s been digitised, god knows how, on what kind of machine, and by whom.

    If you’re wanting to get the best out of it, either (a) send it to a professional lab which has proper profiles for the film and knows how to use them, (b) scan it yourself and make sure you know how to convert a digital file from a color negative into a file that properly represents its color palette and dynamic range, or (c) best of all, print it in a darkroom on Kodak Supra Endura paper.

    If you ever do that–which I did fairly regularly when I actually had my own darkroom–you will find out that Portra 160 absolutely sings. Unfortunately, that *is* not a feasible option for most people nowadays, *that* will show you what it can really do.

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Hemant Chatterji

I've always looked for a medium to tell my stories. It's only when photography came into my life that I found my true calling. When I'm not photographing daily life I'm most enthusiastic about building things as a budding engineer.

All stories by:Hemant Chatterji