A major business goal of mine this year is to be able to photograph family sessions with film 100% of the time this Fall. I am so completely hooked on everything about film photography – from the tonal range, the luminosity, the depth of field, the highlight retention, to the creamy skin tones!
A huge part of getting a consistent ‘look’ with film, besides picking one lab to work with, is choosing your go-to film. Different films render colors, highlights, and shadows in different ways.
I’ve narrowed down my favorite outdoor film for shooting in Seattle (which tends to have blue/green light almost all the time) as gorgeous Kodak Portra 800 medium-format film. I had been asking around how I should rate this in a full-sun situation. Some film photographers said box speed, some said 640, some swore by 400, and a few even said 200! Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I decided to do my own test. I recruited my amazing, beautiful friend to be my model one sunny day at noon.
I shot five rolls of Kodak Portra 800 film rated at 800, 640, 400, 200; and Kodak Portra 160 rated at 160. I shot part of the roll in full-sun and the second part in open shade to see which rating would give me the best results and best ideal shutter speeds for shooting locally. How did I meter, you ask? For each roll, I compared four ways to meter: bulb-in @ 45 degrees, bulb-in in the darkest shadow of my subject, in-camera meter (+2) on subject’s forehead (I use the Pentax 645n), and the Sunny-16 rule. I was impressed that for the most part that all four metering methods were giving me the same reading. (All rolls were developed and scanned by Richard Photo Lab.)
This first comparison also shows how color and skin tones rendered in full sun with p800 and the last roll – Portra 160:
Comparison of Portra 800 only:
Look at how forgiving Kodak Portra 800 is! I was blown away when I saw the results. I really thought I would see more differences since rating the film at 200 is already two stops over box speed. I am also amazed at how well a good photo lab can make your film scans look consistent, even when rated differently. There is a 4-stop difference between the p800 rated at 800, shot at f2.8 @ 1000 vs. p800 rated at 200, shot at f2.8 @ 250! So develop a relationship with and love your lab. 🙂 Please see my straight-scan comparison I added at the end of the post.
And here are the same comparisons of Portra 800 in the shade with the last comparison on Kodak Portra 160 film
Comparison of Kodak Portra 800 only:
Edited to add:
I found out RPL tried to match up scans from the Kodak Portra 800 film rolls into one cohesive set since all rolls were submitted in one order. I asked them to re-scan one image from each roll and do a straight scan since I was testing exposure. A straight scan means that the photo lab doesn’t do any adjusting. Here are the results:
I’m still quite surprised to see there is not much difference in exposure, colors, or contrast. I can see a difference in skin tone but that may be attributed to the difference in the color of the field. The Kodak Portra 800 rated 640 photo was taken in an adjacent field with less green.
What differences do you see? Which is your favorite?
I also love to rate Ilford HP5 several different ways depending on lighting conditions and you can check out the versatility of this film by clicking the link. It’s my go-to b/w film, in 35mm or 120 format!
Feel free to check out other film-related tutorials and articles like:
Film Camp – a retreat where you can learn how to shoot film for family photography
The Zone System