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Kodak’s New Portra 400 Film

19 Stops of Dynamic Range?

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Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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Looking in Amateur Photographer this week shows healthy signs that film is nowhere near dead yet. They have featured a whole host of vintage great recently and the current issue has a 'Bigger Pictures on a Budget' which includes medium format cameras available second hand - although some aren't quite so budget as the recent purchase of a Mamiya 7 kit demonstrate. More about that in a future article. The back of the magazine also features page after page of film cameras for sale at far from 'disposable' prices - people spending this sort of money are taking the cameras fairly seriously.

One of the messages we hear repeatedly on forum after forum whenever film is mentioned is that 'Film is Dead' and no amount of 'no it just smells funny' can get people to shut up about it. Far from being dead though, film is undergoing a little bit of a renaissance. Talking to Fuji representatives recently had them admitting increased film sales over the last year or so and Kodak have reported 'a very real resurgence in film'.

This resurgence in film nowhere as well demonstrated as in Kodak's decision to release three new film types in the last couple of years. First came Ektar 100, a very fine grained and bold coloured negative film stock. Then, last year, we got Kodak Portra 400 - a replacement for the old Portra 400 NC and VC stocks. Finally this year we have Kodak Portra 160 - a replacement for 160 NC and VC. It's supposedly based on Kodak's 'Vision 3' movie film which has had millions of pounds of investment over the last decade (and is still used for most motion pictures).

So why? Why are people using film in this most digital of ages? Well for various reasons but not just sentimentality or because of some luddite tendencies. Film still has some advantages including resolution (a drum scanned 6x7 fine grained colour transparency is arguably equivalent to about 40-50 megapixels and there are some tests showing 200 megapixels of detail from a leica) and colour rendering (the popularity of velvia demonstrates this).

One of the biggest advantages that isn't talked about that often is dynamic range. People have talked about digital cameras having 12 stops of dynamic range and negative film is quite often talked about as having the same. However, it was the experience of a colleague recently that made me realise just how different the two platforms are. Andrew Nadolski, a photographer well known for working a little beach in Cornwall, is a well known proponent of negative film. A move to digital recently for commercial purposes left him having to work with graduated filters for the first time. How can that be if they have the same dynamic range? It's more likely the difference between dynamic range and 'usable' dynamic range.

Well the picture at the top of this article is taken with Portra 400 (the new film from Kodak that replaces the old 400NC and 400VC) from a workshop we held in the Peak District and is taken without graduated filters and I know for a fact that if I had taken this with my 5D I would have had to choose between the foregound or sky. The camera used was an Olympus OM1 with a 28mm f/3.5 Zuiko lens.

I tested the new Portra 400 recently by using my new (old) Olympus OM1 and taking shots of a sunset, without a graduated filter, with exposures ranging from -4 stops to +6 stops. I was expecting to see the film go pretty black at one end of this range and fairly blown out at the other end of the range. Well - here are the results.

And if we broadly correct these for luminosity and colour

I could have corrected the colour a little better, the bottom line is that there is still colour and detail (if noisy detail) everywhere!

Here's three of those shots - the first is the -4 stops show, second is my base exposure and the last is a plus 6 stops shot.

-4 stops

Base Exposure

+6 stops

Now bearing in mind that those shadows in the trees in the foreground are 5 stops below a mid tone and the 'glow' next to the sun is 6 stops above a mid tone, that gives a total 18 or 19 stops!! That is ridiculous!! (I should probably point out the stripes on the last picture - I think this is caused by the developing system - the flow appears to be going vertically across the picture and the stripes line up with the sprocket holes. I'm guessing that it's something to do with developer exhaustion as I see a similar effect ghosting above Alisdair's head in the top picture. Am going to ask the lab about it).

Having used 400NC before I know it's a good film but the new Portra 400 has a better grain structure and seems to hold it together a bit better. I don't know if it has more dynamic range than old Portra, I'll be doing some proper tests soon, but it's good - bloody good!

As a last note, here's a shot I took at Loch Tulla of a sunrise in the mist. The trees were silhouettes as far as I could see but Portra thought different!

New Portra 400 - Ebony 45SU Nikkor T-ED 500mm

I've added a few external links here for you to see what other people are saying about Portra 400 (there are some great tests in here also).


BJP Test

Portra 400 Pinhole Reciprocity Test

Audio review with some sample images (Figital Revolution)

Portra 400 Iso 200 to Iso 3200? (Twin Lens Life)

Portra 400 Three Stop Push - iso 3200 (Twin Lens Life)

400H and Portra 400 pushing to 12000! (Twin Lens Life)

Underexposure and over exposure (Twin Lens Life)

Comparing Portra 400 with the Vision 500T (Twin Lens Life)

Vision 500T (portra 400 technology)

Comparing Fuji 800 with Vision 500T (Twin Lens Life)

Outdoors Wedding shots with Vision 500T (Twin Lens Life)

Fuji 400H vs Vision 500T (Twin Lens Life)

Fuji 800Z and 400h vs Vision 500T (Twin Lens Life)


Michael Sebastian

  • dek

    Good Stuff

  • Tim,

    Certainly sounds impressive. I’d be interested how easy you are finding getting all that dynamic range scanned in? With my Nikon 8000ED I sometimes have to resort to scanning twice at different gain levels to get all the latitude out of a slide. I know the Howtek is better, but I’m guessing its mainly down to the film?


  • Hi Adam, These were fairly easy to scan in as negatives don’t tax the scanners dynamic range much. The key thing with neg is the bit depth of the scanner. I’m going to have a go scanning them on my Epson V750 and I’ll let you know what the results are like.

  • It’s not just the dynamic range of negative film that impresses. Film has a naturally S-shaped response curve, with a pronounced toe and shoulder, which holds tone and colour at the extremes even when detail can no longer be clearly resolved. This is particularly noticeable in the highlights and can be seen in Tim’s sunset shot. Even in the brightest part of the sky, the sun is not burned out and the image holds nicely graduated tones.

    In comparison digital sensors have a much more linear response curve. Again, this is easily seen in the highlights. Whereas film overloads gracefully and has a very natural look, digital sensors just clip blown highlights to pure white – empty pixels. This looks very unnatural and is something I have become very aware of since I began working much more in black and white. It’s not just the dynamic range that matters, it’s the tonal range and the quality and smoothness of the tonal transitions.

    In fact, after working only with digital capture for the last two years, I recently invested again in a film camera system specifically to be able to work with black and white negative film. The reason? Tonality. And, incidentally, I was able to get some very nice kit second hand at a very good price. I should add that I have nothing at all against digital, which is fantastic in lots and lots of ways. But, as Tim rightly says, film is far from dead and there are plenty of good reasons to use it.

  • stevefrance

    Ive used Portra 160vc, Fuji Pro 160s, and Fuji 400h for a variety of projects, and the new Portra 400 is easily the best film i’ve ever used. Ektar 100 all round versatility is exceptional, as its grain is so minimal, but the 400 is truely amazing. Used at box speed, down to 100, up to 1600 its very very nice, and even at 3200 its still good enough for prints (MF and LF taken.. 35mm is a little grainy!)
    Overexposing at box speed up to 3 stops in even light, still gives me plenty of details in highlights, and seen here, its possible to get more from it. This totally blows away digital.
    Technical advances in FILM with nothing much new happening in the digital camera world is greatly encouraging, and hopefully will stand film in good stead for a long time yet! Hurrah!

  • I certainly didn’t want to get into a film vs digital argument but I have to agree that in terms of an aesthetic tonality and tolerance of exposure, colour negative film takes some beating. Film and digital both have there advantages and it may make an interesting article in the future discussing what those relative advantages are. There is the possibility that these are the last advances in colour film for quite some time but given the range that is available now (over 20 different types of colour film!) we have quite enough. Even if we only ended up with Ektar/Portra for neg film and velvia/e100g on the transparency side, things woudn’t be so bad… as it is, just enjoy the variety that is available. Film photographers never had it so good!

  • stevefrance

    I wasn’t making an argument of film v digital…. far from it.. each to his own, and both have their pro’s and con’s… i was just saying that in terms of something new to the photography world, film technology for me seems to be making the bigger strides. Its so adaptable and gives great results in camera compared to digital files. Now in saying that, for example the Nikon D3s is an amazing camera, and so is the Hassy H4D… but for many of us, not an option due to cost. Film still delivers for ya buck :)

    • Oh I can agree with that! The fact that film is still receiving millions of dollars of investment is testimony to it’s popularity in discerning circles (and you can’t get much more discerning that cinematographers!). Even i you could afford a H4D or even one of the new phase IQ backs – they still wouldn’t have the dynamic range or tonal response of film – and you don’t need lens cast calibration issues on film :-)

  • That’s pretty impressive – looks like it’s going to be a hugely popular film. Do you know how the new Portra 160 compares? Will there likely be quite as much DR as the 400?

    • I’m going to be testing Portra160 next – I have a bunch of 35mm, 120 and 4×5. From the specs, it looks like it won’t be as sharp but will have incredibly smooth tonality and probably slightly less dynamic range. It’s aimed at portraiture but we’ll see how it handles a landscape or two :-)

  • EmDashMan

    Bugger. Just as I was getting to grips with digital! I know Doug Chinnery has just invested in a ‘blad and is getting all excited by it. Don’t think my photographic knowledge is yet at the level where I can justify spending dosh on a film setup – I think as far as I’m concerned digital is like using loads of effects pedals to cover up the fact that you can’t really play the guitar properly. Works for me :-)

    • A film setup needn’t cost very much at all. You can get some really good used film SLRs for peanuts these days – get a more recent model and you might even be able to use your DSLR lenses with it. You can learn the ins and outs of film relatively cheaply with an SLR and move up to MF (or even LF!) as and when you feel ready.

      And then you’ll be able to throw away those effects pedals and start playing acoustic! ;)

  • TB2012

    Hmm – I’ve been using Porta 400 in my Mamiya 7II – I dropped a role of exposed film as I was getting it out of the camera and rushing to tape it up… well at least it only it partially unravelled – now we’ll see what sort of latitude that film has!

  • Bugger…..my film fridge is full of the old Portra 160 VC & NC & 400NC & I really want to try the new type……better use the old stuff first looking at the results above if I don’t it will likely end up in the freezer!

    • The old stuff is great too – I imagine just better grain structure for scanning and color saturation between NC and VC – possibly another top of DR

  • GH

    I like both film and digital, but I’m not sure that this is giving digital a fair shake. The beauty of the latest digital sensors, especially the recent 16mp aps-c sensor from Sony that is in Sony, Pentax, and Nikon cameras, is that you can bring up shadows tremendously in the raw converter. In fact, there is barely a need for ISO adjustment with these cameras at all. You can just shoot all day at base ISO and boost exposure in the raw converter. This protects highlights, allows for an incredibly wide DR, and you can adjust tone curves to your liking.

    Digital sensor tech, like film, is actually humming right along, and I see no reason why a current digital sensor can’t compete with the DR above. Of course, color, look, etc, is another thing. :)

    • Hi, I’m honestly doubtful that film could get near this which is why I didn’t compare things. I’ll try putting it up against a 5DII to see how they compare.

      • GH

        The 5Dii unfortunately doesn’t quite compete when it comes to bringing up shadows, because it has severe banding issues at base ISO when shadows are raised. I more fair comparison would be a more recent Sony CMOS chip with the on-board ADCs, like the D3x, K5, D7000, NEX-5, X100, etc. The D7000/K5/A580, in particular, have incredible DR range flexibility, and they are among the first DSLRs to be nearly “ISO free.”

        Again, I’m not discounting film. I’m just not sure that this film is necessarily killing some of the better sensors out there in regards to DR. Thanks!

  • haimesa

    I know this isn’t really a landscape point, but the idea of having this film in a high-end film compact – an XA, T2, something like that – is really pretty exciting. The ideal of a full-frame compact camera with a medium that outperforms (or is on par with) digital, particularly given the cost of these cameras now, is quite a heady thought.

  • I have it on my agenda to order and test the new Vision based portra films. Just using up the last of my 160/400 VC (favorite neg film of all time for skin). Cannot wait to see the new stuff based on what I have seen on the net and what people who shoot the Vision stuff for films look like.


  • Just reading GH’s comments & one thing that strikes me straight away is that to use one of the new Sony chips on a regular basis you would have to buy the camera & lenses…..to use the Portra a few pounds for a roll of film seems a bargain….it’s like being able to change your chip in a digital system !

    • GH

      Not necessarily. You could buy a NEX-3 that is currently majorly discounted for a few hundred bucks, and it’ll accept OM lenses with an adapter.

    • GH

      Or, you could go to leitax.com and get a couple of converters to put the OM lenses on a Nikon DSLR. Most of Nikon’s DSLRs use Sony chips, too.

  • HI Tim,
    You’re a blessing to the community with your informative articles.

    Did you scan these with the Howtek? I wouldn’t think a drum scanner would do it, but those ‘sprocket ghosts’ can commonly be seen on overexposed frames due to flare from scanner light. I typically overexpose and I get it from my Epson all the time.

    • Hi Tom – This isn’t a scanner artifact, it’s probably ‘bromide drag’ and can be seen above alisdairs head. I’m not sure if this is a lab problem or not (I’m suspecting it is but am going to try a couple of different labs for a test next time). And yes these were all drum scanned. The Epson effect is ‘halation’ and can be minimised by masking the film before scanning I think.

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