A Handy Guide to Kodak Portra and Choosing the Best One

Kodak Portra comes in three variants, and they’re each for different styles and looks.

The look of Kodak Portra has helped define so many aesthetics for years. Lots of the most popular portraits in magazines in the 90s were shot using it. It continued even through the early 2000s. Kodak Portra is a beautiful film that was specifically designed to shoot portraits. It’s arguably also the best when it comes to being scanned. Digital, even now, still can’t quite reproduce its look. Lucky for you, we’ve reviewed the most recent Kodak Portra film emulsions. And we dove into our Reviews Index to figure out which one you need.

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Pro Tips for Shooting with Kodak Portra

Pro Tip: the latest emulsions of Kodak Portra were designed to be scanned. We recommend Portra 400 more than almost anything else out there.

Once you’ve loaded up your camera, we’ve got a couple of great tips for shooting it:

  • Kodak Portra of all sorts is a negative film. Typically, it’s light hungry. Meter for the shadows on someone’s face if you’re using it for portraiture. Otherwise, it’s not a bad idea to give it up to a stop more of light. On your camera, use the +1 exposure compensation setting.
  • The modern iteration of the Kodak Portra film was heavily designed for scanning. So it will translate into digital very well. Kodak Portra 800 wasn’t designed for scanning: it’s got a more classic look to it.
  • Kodak Portra is balanced to Daylight. That means that in orange lighting, it’s going to look really, really orange. To get an idea beforehand, use it alongside a digital camera and set that camera’s white balance to Daylight.
  • This film is mostly designed for the way it renders skin tones. If you’re photographing someone with darker skin tones, balance it out with a silver reflector.
  • If you’re shooting outside, the best thing to do is use a translucent umbrella to deliver really soft, smooth light on your subject.

Kodak Portra 160

Best Uses: Kodak Portra 160 is best used in a studio with a flash or in bright daylight outside. Use it before sunset and after sunrise, where there isn’t much shadow coverage. 

In our review, we state:

This is still a great film for portrait photographers, but I believe it to be best in a studio scenario. I say this because this is where you have the most control over your lighting. Sure, natural light is nice, but it can also be tough to work with because of how the sun moves. If you are working with it in natural light, I recommend using a reflector that compliments your subject’s skin tones very well.”

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Kodak Portra 400

Best Uses: Kodak Portra 400 is often considered the most standard of the films. It’s not a bad idea to shoot it at ISO 200 and develop it at ISO 320. You can use it in pretty much any situation as long as you’ve got great lenses that let in a lot of light.

In our review, we state:

“Kodak Portra 400 is a film bound to not disappoint you–especially if you can know and understand what you’re going to be getting beforehand. To do that, I really recommend shooting with your digital camera at ISO 400 and with daylight white balance.”

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Kodak Portra 800

Best Uses: Kodak Portra 800 isn’t as popular as the other films, but it’s one of our favorites. Use it for natural light portraiture in low-light settings. Note, it doesn’t have the same color style as the other two.

In our review, we state:

“Kodak Portra 800 is apparently based on Kodak’s VISION 2 technology whereas Kodak Portra 400 and 160 are based on the VISION 3 technology. In turn, this contributes to the more vintage look. Unfortunately, 800 didn’t get the update. Why? I’m not sure. But I’m not mad about it either; it’s a unique option in the lineup that I’ve fallen in love with. I think photographers who want that really beautiful vintage look of Kodak Portra should go right for 800 if they can’t find a solid roll of Kodak Portra 400 VS or NC. As with all high ISO films though, you’re best off using this one in natural light unless you’re very careful about your flash metering. Even further, I’ve seen it pushed very well.”

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.