Kodak Portra Color Negative Films

By Ctein Back to

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“Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain famously said. But silver halide photographic film could just as easily say that today. As we all know, the film market is declining rapidly as more and more photographers take up digital photography. Declining, though, is not the same as deceased. Film is not dead. Maybe it will be dead in 10 years or 20 years. But right now? No sirree, Bob!

The best evidence for this is that we’re still seeing new films introduced. Not in large numbers, and not by many manufacturers. But if the film business were really dead, would any manufacturers even bother?

That’s a rhetorical question

Late last year, Kodak introduced a brand new set of Portra color negative films, consisting of revised and improved versions of Portra 160NC, 160VC, 400NC, 400VC, and 800. These films are all available in 35 mm, 120, and 220 roll formats. All except 800 also are avail- able in sheet-film sizes.

Kodak makes a number of claims for the new Portra films. First on the list is noticeably finer grain. They also say the films hold better highlight and shadow detail and have longer exposure ranges. Certainly, the characteristic curves look great. All these films have well over a 10-stop range, with ruler-straight characteristic curves. Sharpness has also been “optimized” (whatever that means), and Kodak says the new films have better scanning characteristics.

As PHOTO Techniques’ resident color-negative-film tester, I felt obliged to put in some time investigating these new films. It was worth my while; these really are new and improved products. They’re not just minimal, incremental improvements that can only be seen in laboratory conditions by hopeful marketing types.

I ran all five films through their paces. I compared the new Portra 160NC, 400NC, and 800 to their previous versions. I also compared 160NC to its major competitor, Fujifilm Pro 160S and Portra 800 to Fujifilm Pro 800 (the film formerly known as NPZ).

Grain and sharpness

The first characteristics I looked at were grain and sharpness, because that’s where Kodak makes its biggest claims. Kodak has used a lot of new film technology to improve these characteristics. There’s a new T-grain emulsion structure, for starters. All by itself, a new grain structure would make for finer-grained photos, but Kodak didn’t stop there.

Kodak also added chemicals that make it easier for the developer to find the latent-image site in the silver halide crystal. In principle, it only takes four photons of light to produce a stable latent image that can be developed. In practice, a silver halide crystal usually has many, many latent-image sites, but only a small percentage of those get activated by the developer. Anything that improves that percentage makes the film faster without increasing the grain. Conversely, you can make the grain smaller and still keep the same film speed.

Finally, Kodak added new sensitizing dyes to the 400 and 800 speed films. Those are the chemicals on the surface of silver halide crystals that make them sensitive to red and green light instead of just blue light. Kodak now uses a double-layer of sensitizers that are more efficient at capturing those red and green photons and transferring their energy into the crystal.

Put it all together and you’ve got a lot more film speed for the same sized grain, or a lot finer grain for the same film speed. Kodak went the latter route, mostly, but I suspect there’s a bit of the former in the mix, based on my tests.

So much for the technical back- ground; what really counts is how the films look. Today’s complex grain-minimization technology makes old-fashioned granularity numbers obsolete. Different hues and tones can have very different granularity levels depending on how the film’s been optimized.

I constructed Figure 1 from enlargement prints from each film to show what these new films can do. The enlargements are extreme: on the magazine page, they correspond to 100× enlargements of the original film. All the prints were made on Kodak Supra E color print paper, which is the most accurate color paper I’ve tested to date. Each square in the figure is a small portion of a GretagMacbeth ColorChecker Chart color patch. The squares in the rightmost column are from the 100 lp/mm row of a high-resolution test target I photographed. In practice you’ll never be making prints this large, but I’ve done it here to clearly show the differences in grain structure.

The top three rows compare the old Kodak Portra 160NC, the new Portra 160NC, and Fuji Pro 160S. The bottom three rows compare old Portra 800, new Portra 800, and Fuji Pro 800. I adjusted the tone and color of the individual squares so that the colors look the same across all three films each comparisons set. In reality, the films have different tone and color rendition (more about that later), but I eliminated that in this figure so that you could more clearly see the grain structure differences.

Overall, in the slow-film category, Fuji Pro 160S still wins. It has finer detail, more sharpness, and finer, more uniform grain in all the Macbeth patches. But it no longer wins by very much, especially for lighter tones where grain is most noticeable in a print. The new 160NC is hugely improved over the old. That’s especially true in darker colors, but every single color looks better by a lot. In fact, the difference in overall graininess between old 160NC and new 160NC is as significant as the grain differences we usually see going from a slow film to ISO 400 films. This is a wonderful improvement. Portra 400 (not pictured) shows similar levels of grain reduction.

The gains are even more dramatic for Portra 800. The old Portra 800 was slightly grainier and less sharp than Fuji Pro 800. The difference in graininess wasn’t a lot, but for most colors and tones, Fuji had the edge. The new Portra 800 turns that on its head. It’s much finer grained in every square except the very darkest tones and colors than either its predecessor or Pro 800. It does not have quite the sharpness nor resolu- tion of Fuji Pro 800, but it’s getting closer. And, remember, we’re looking at the 100 lp/mm bar target. None of these can be said to be unsharp films!

Just how good is the new Portra 800? Figure 2 is a full-frame print from a 645- format Portra 800 negative. Figure 3 is enlarged from a very small central portion of that frame. Notice how uniform and tight the grain pattern and how good the detail is. The photograph doesn’t resolve individual hairs or whiskers on the two lions, but it’s almost there.

Scanability

Kodak also refers to these films as having “enhanced scanning performance.” Exactly what that means is as much your guess as mine. Certainly, plenty of problems and pitfalls can arise when scanning color negatives, especially in terms of exaggerated grain and noise. So, what’s different?

I scanned old and new versions of Portra 160NC, 400NC, and 800. The 160 and 800 films were 35 mm; the 400NC was 120 format. All scans were made in a glass carrier at 4800 ppi on my Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro scanner, with Digital ICE3 turned off. The results were surprisingly mixed.

Overall, the Portra 160NC scans show finer grain in the new emulsion, as one would expect, just as we saw in the traditional darkroom prints. But it’s not simple. Figure 4 shows a small portion of the scans. The old emulsion is on the left, the new on the right. Grain and noise are hugely reduced in certain colors in the new film, such as the purples and magentas, shown here, and the blues (not pictured). On the other hand, the greens and yellows are at best only slightly better than in the old film. Overall, there’s a gain, but it depends on just what colors and tones you’re talking about.

Portra 800 yielded different results. The new Portra 800 produces finer-grained scans, but just about in proportion to the improvement in grain in the film in every tone and color. It doesn’t represent any change in scanability, it just reflects the much finer-grained images.

The results for Portra 400NC in 120 format were more noteworthy. Again, improvements depend upon the color; reds and oranges and skin tones were incredibly smoother and finer-grained in scans from the new film. Blues and purples were modestly better, while greens showed only very slight improvements. But much more importantly, scans from the new film were much less noisy.

I won’t go into all the characteristics that contribute noise to film scans; a lot of it has to do with the physical characteristics of the emulsion and the back coating on 120 film. In other words, they’re structural problems that get in the way of good scans, not image problems. Well, Kodak seems to have cleaned those up significantly (Figure 5). Look at how much less noise the new emulsion’s scan has (bottom half) compared to the old emulsion. This is a real gain in quality that goes well beyond the finer grain characteristics of the improved emulsion. Good for Kodak!

Built for speed

Another characteristic that seems to be improved in the new emulsions is light sensitivity. In all the film comparisons, both against the older Portra emulsions and against the Fuji competitors, the new Portra films consistently showed better shadow detail. I wouldn’t describe it as an honest-to-goodness ISO film-speed difference. Rather, it seems like the new emulsions pick up shadow detail better and have a slightly longer toe. They appear to be a bit more contrasty in the shadows, so underexposed negatives are going to print better.

The improvements are modest, averaging maybe half a stop gain in shadow detail. If I only saw them in one film, I would attribute it to emulsion-batch variations. Seeing it in all films, I’m convinced it’s real. These new films definitely will handle underexposure better.

Push comes to shove

Portra 800 and Pro 800 are both pushable films. Extended development squeezes an extra stop of usable speed out of either film. But you’ll be able to wring more speed out of Kodak Portra 800. I gave both films an extreme-push development: 5 minutes instead of the normal 31⁄4 minutes. Kodak was the definite speed champ. I would say it held a good stop more deepest shadow detail than Pro 800 did. Part of that, though, comes from the fact that Portra 800 picks up a lot more contrast with push-processing than Fuji Pro 800 does.

If you need extra speed without excessive contrast, Fuji is still going to be your choice. It also exhibits less color crossover with pushing than the Kodak film does, although both are pretty good. Pictorially, I think it’s the better film for push processing. If you need to extract every last bit of light gathering capability out of the film, Kodak Portra 800 will give you more usable results.

Look and feel

Last, and most important, how do the new films render tones and colors? Kodak says that they’ve tweaked the new VC films to have less contrast and more color saturation than their predecessors. In other words, they should have about the same contrast as the NC films but be more saturated. (Unfortunately, I was unable to compare them directly to the old VC films because those emulsions were unavailable to me.)

That pretty well matches what I see. Portra 160NC and VC appear to have similar overall contrast. I think there is a bit more shadow separation and a bit less highlight separation in 160VC, but the difference is small. The color saturation of 160VC is substantially higher than 160NC; in this case that means it’s the more accurate film.

Portra 160NC is an undersaturated film, and I’ve never been happy with that. It renders colors duller than they are in real life. 160VC comes closer to capturing correct color satu- ration (Kodak Ultra films do that the best). The overall color rendition of Portra 160NC hasn’t changed very much. I would say the new film produces slightly more accurate greens and slightly less accurate blues. Overall, colors are bit cleaner in the new generation emulsion and a bit snappier. It’s an improvement over the old 160NC, but I’d still rather use the new VC.

How does Fuji Pro 160S stand up? Compared to Portra 160VC, it’s a toss-up. Kodak has slightly better skin tones and reds; Fuji has better greens, blues, and purples. Kodak wins for cyan; Fuji wins for orange. Kodak’s turquoise is much closer to being correct, but it can’t capture lavender the way Fuji can.

It’s a tight race, and I call it a draw between Fuji Pro 160S and Portra 160VC. That’s a gain for Kodak; last time around, Fuji nudged into first place. The incremental improvements in quality that Kodak made have paid off.

The story is much the same for Portra 400NC versus VC. The new NC saturation still looks dull to me, but it’s much better than the older film, which was noticeably desaturated. The saturation in the VC film is even closer to reality and more attractive. As with the 160-speed films, 400VC looks to have a bit more shadow contrast than 400NC does. Overall, 400VC does not produce quite as accurate a color rendition as 160VC does, but they’re similar enough that if you mixed prints in a portfolio no one would ever notice.

Finally, we have Portra 800 versus Fuji Pro 800. These two films have been jockeying for high-speed supremacy for years. In previous rounds I’ve given the nod to Fuji. No longer. As I said earlier, Pro 800 holds the edge in sharpness, but Portra 800 now has a substantial lead in fine grain. And, when it comes to color and tone rendition, it’s now a tie.

Overall, Portra 800 has slightly better color saturation than Pro 800 does. Pro 800 produces a slightly more neutral gray scale, while Portra 800 has a little bit of yellow-highlight/blue- shadow color crossover. Kodak has better reds, greens, and purples; Fuji has better blues, oranges, and magentas. I think I’ll give it to Fuji for skin tones, but it’s a really close call. Taken in total, I really can’t make up my mind. Sometimes I think the Portra looks better, sometimes I think the Pro looks better. Portra’s much finer grain decided for me; Kodak now has my favorite 800-speed film.

But, that’s now. Who knows what will show up next year? A year ago, industry scuttlebutt had it that Fuji was trying hard to get out of the film business. But they don’t seem to have done so, and as long as they are in the business I can’t imagine them conceding the film quality race to Kodak.

Even if film is “dead.”


About the Author

Ctein
Ctein
Ctein is a technical writer and expert printmaker. He is also the author of Digital Restoration and Post Exposure—Advanced Techniques for the Photographic Printer.