First introduced in 1998, Portra 800 is a fast, professional film stock that's ideal for low light portraiture and even sports and action shooting. Today, the film is somewhat unique in that it's one of the last remaining 800-speed color film stocks on the market.
But despite being a member of Kodak's legendary Portra family, the 800-speed variety often gets overlooked in favor of Portra 400 and 160, which are arguably more versatile, and critically, less expensive.
This is unfortunate as Portra 800 has a truly unique look compared to its slower siblings, producing images with warm, vivid colors and strong contrast at the expense of a little extra grain.
That grain, of course, is the result of the film's relatively high ISO performance, which at 800, is arguably one of the film's biggest strengths and weaknesses.
Getting the best results from Portra 800 does require a decent understanding of exposure, especially when shooting in high contrast lighting. It definately pays to have a more modern camera with a decent light meter. But when you nail the exposure, the results are simply stunning. It's easily one of my favorite professional film stocks that I've had the pleasure of testing to date.
And while Portra 400 and 160 are certainly more versatle, I think Portra 800 is too often overlooked. Don't believe me? Read on.
For this month’s review, I put three 36-exposure rolls of Kodak Portra 800 through my Canon EOS-1 over the course of about about a month.
The images were captured in a wide variety of natural lighting conditions including broad daylight, open shade, golden hour, blue hour, and of course window light. I did not shoot much under artificial light, as I don’t own a camera with a flash. I’m working on that, I promise.
The film was developed and scanned by The Darkroom in California, and additional corrections to exposure, color temperature and composition were made in Adobe Lightroom.
You can learn more about how and why I edit my scans here. Any corrections made to the images have been noted in the caption.
Getting to know Portra 800
Portra 800 is a high-speed, professional film that can be had in 36-exposure 35mm canisters or 120 rolls for about $10-$13, depending on format.
As portrait stocks go, it isn’t cheap, but compared to other 800-speed color-negative films, it is a relative bargain. CineStill 800T sells for between $13 and $16 a roll, but If you’re looking for a budget option, and you don’t need the consistency and dynamic range of a professional stock, Lomography Color Negative 800 can be had for about $9 a roll or about $28 for a three pack.
With that said, in my testing, Portra 800 produced lovely images with sharp contrast, warm colors and well-controlled color casts. Unlike other professional stocks, Portra 800 consistently rendered images that required little to no editing.
This surprised me a fair bit since most professional stocks generally produce images with flatter contrast and lower saturation in order to give photographers more latitude for editing in post.
In many ways, Portra 800 is more reminiscent of Kodak’s consumer stocks, like Kodak Gold 200 or Ultra Max 400, than it is of its Portra siblings.
Metering for Portra 800
Like most color-negative stocks, Portra 800 benefits a fair bit from overexposure. For those coming from digital, this might seem counter intuitive, but giving your film a stop more light is usually a safe bet.
However, unlike Fuji Pro 400H, which needs to be overexposed by at least a stop for best results, I had no problem shooting Portra 800 at box speed with just one notable exception.
I found Portra 800 performed particularly well in open shade and during blue hour. In these conditions, the film’s warm color balance shined, producing natural tones and warming up the cool evening shadows nicely.
It was while shooting during golden hour that I had the most trouble. The film's high ISO enhanced the already stark contrast, overwhelming my camera's meter. Now, this really isn't a critism of the film, so much as something you have to be aware of. Portra 800 can render fantastic images when shooting with cool window light, where that stark contrast can be quite desireable.
When shooting during golden hour, overexposing seemed to help a little, lifting the shadows without blowing out the highlights too much. You'll just want to watchout for unwanted green color casts in the shadows, which cropped into many of my photos when shooting in high contrast lighting. Thankfully, the cast is limited to the shadows and easily remedied with a few edits in Lightroom. Aesthetically, I actually quite like the effect and consider it to be one of Portra 800’s more interesting quirks.
While it’s possible to shoot Portra 800 in bright mid-day lighting and get good results, you’ll want to stop down or pack a neutral density filter, especially if your camera doesn’t have a particularly fast shutter.
During a mid-day photo walk in Denver’s RiNo Art District, I was constantly pinning my EOS-1 at 1/8000 of a second even when stopped down to F/8.
Generally speaking, for mid-day shoots, I would stick to Portra 160 or Ektar 100 which are far better suited to bright shooting conditions and are much, much less expensive.
Indoors, Portra 800 is another story altogether. Window-lit subjects benefit from the film's naturally warm colors, but since this is a daylight-balanced film, you'll want to be careful with artificial lighting.
Okay, it's time we had a chat about Portra 800's grain, because you can't avoid it.
It actually has a rather fine grain for an 800-speed film. This is important as a fine grain is usually less noticeable than the courser grain your apt to find on consumer stocks. With that said, the grain is obvious in most of the images, especially in the out of focus areas. When used with intent, this grain can add a degree of character to your portraits that I find quite pleasing.
Portra 800’s grain isn’t going to be for everyone though. Personally, I find the grain to be a bit busy in the out of focus areas, but it's certainly not a deal breaker for me. If you’re looking for something cleaner, I’d recommend checking out Portra 400. The film has been updated much more recently than Portra 800, and while its a stop slower, it produces considerably cleaner images. I’ve also heard that Portra 400 pushes quite well, rendering images with less overall grain than Portra 800. However, I’ve yet to test this myself.
Note: because these images were scanned, it is difficult to say how much of what we’re seeing here is actually film grain and how much is noise introduced by the scanner. Additionally JPEG compression has a tendency to hide film grain. Paid members have access to the full resolution scans, which can be found here.
What you should know before shooting Portra 800
1. Embrace the grain
This is a fast film, and that means grain. So take advantage of it to add some character to your shots. If you can’t stand grain in your images, this is not the film for you.
2. Shoot with intent
Due to its 800 ISO, Portra 800 has to be shot with some intent. This is not a general purpose film that you can just throw in your camera and expect great results. You need to put some thought into why you’re shooting it to get the most out of it.
3. Overexpose in high-contrast lighting
While Portra 800 has excellent dynamic range, at box speed, its high contrast means you have to be careful not to lose shadow detail. This is particularly true when shooting during golden hour. When in doubt, overexpose by a stop. It's much easier to recover the highlights than the shadows.
4. Get experimental
Portra 800 is somewhat unique in that it is one of the few professional film stocks available at 800 ISO, and with a few exceptions, you should have no problem getting great results at box speed. Take advantage of this to shoot in conditions you wouldn't normally. You might be surprised by the results.
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Overall, I’m quite pleased with the images I was able to produce with Kodak Portra 800.
The film is an easy pick when shooting in low light thanks to its relatively high ISO.
Portra 800’s grain will be polarizing for some, but it's nicely balanced against saturated colors and sharp contrast which gives the film a rather unique aesthetic. And while Portra 800 can be a little tricky to expose correctly, it's surprisingly easy to work with in post, requiring few if any edits.
Portra 800’s pros and cons mean it won’t be for everyone. I’ll be the first to admit this film won’t be taking up permanent residence in my bag or my fridge. But it’s worth giving a shot, especially if it enables you to shoot in conditions you wouldn’t normally. Working with some creative restaints is a surefire way to get amazing results.
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What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- Have you shot Kodak Portra 800?
- Do you have a favorite film?
- What would you like to see me test next?
- How do you feel about editing film scans?