They say that there is a first time for everything and this was my first chance shooting a fast colour film. Months ago a box arrived from Analogue Wonderland. Inside said box were a number of films. One of which was a 36 exposure roll of Kodak Portra 800.
I had never shot it before and had no idea what to expect. I used the hashtag in Flickr and Instagram and saw a lot of low light portraits illuminated with some street lighting or neon lit windows for background and to be honest, they looked pretty good and I really wanted to try it out. Also, winters in this country are so long and it’d be nice to carry on shooting after dark without a tripod which I was hoping the extra speed would allow me to do.
Over the bank holiday weekend I went to Norfolk and decided to drop the Portra into the camera bag. My weapon of choice for the weekend was the Minolta Dynax 5. It’s an SLR I’ve used quite a few times: it’s lightweight, auto load, advance, rewind and auto focus and exposure. You almost don’t have to be there. That said, alongside all these features there is still quite a bit of room to take make manual adjustments to aperture, shutter speed and ISO selection as well as that often used toggle button that switched from auto to manual focus.
It’s not sexy, and few would refer to it as a classic camera, but on long trips a heavy SLR with a number of lenses and accessories gets really heavy, really quickly and the Dynax is fitted with a 28-70mm lens just works. It’s not fast, but it’s adequate and if one is honest it’s quite convenient…
One night I packed a bag and popped out into the rain. The weather was pretty bad that weekend alternating between with horizontal rain and annoying drizzle so I sought refuge in an amusement arcade. There was a lot of neon on show and the amusements were covered with a range of different lights.
I shot a number of scenes at different aperture settings and allowed the camera to match the shutter speeds accordingly. Shutter speeds on the Dynax 5 can be as long as 15 seconds so I stuck the Dynax on a tripod and got comfy.
For this first shot, I sheltered under some scaffolding and set up the tripod. Despite the drops of rain on the lens I’m impressed with the colour of the darkening sky and the contrast of the rich yellowy light inside the pub.
At box speed this film is fast enough to freeze this scene but I’d have to open the aperture up to f/3.5. I considered the shallower depth of field which might look cool but would be trickier to manually focus with the short throw lens. Also I didn’t fully trust the auto focus in the dark and at f/3.5 it isn’t the fastest lens. For this reason I closed it down to about f/11. The camera’s light meter calculated a 2 or 3 second exposure which was just enough for a very short light trail.
I had previously seen a shot of this pier by someone else a while back and tried really hard to replicate it. The tripod was necessary as the sun was well down, the meter suggested 1/8s and the clouds were a smooth, uniform cerulean blue. The 28mm-70mm lens went wide enough to capture the whole scene and I didn’t really need a shallow depth field for this particular image, in fact, once again I’d be closing down the aperture to about f/11 which would give me a longer exposure time. This was probably a couple of seconds and yes, I probably should have taken notes.
As I arrived at the seafront it was quiet with very few people around. It was Sunday evening and the weather was uninviting, drizzly and colder than normal.
Inside the arcade.
I would have loved to have used this roll on a model shoot but during this time nobody was really available. I also really want to see how it reacts to different types of skin tones in natural light.
With little to no editing I’m blown away by these colours. My first forays into analogue photography were based on a deep foundation of Agfa Vista Plus 200, Fuji C200, and Kodak ColorPlus 200, so using Portra 800 I really felt like I had more options: I could shoot later into the evening and didn’t necessarily need to lug a tripod around with me. With Portra the tones are punchier and a bit more true to life than the above films, the blues deeper and the yellows really pop out. Yes the grain is noticeably more pronounced than some of the slower films but this is to be expected and it adds a texture of reassuring quality to the images.
As I mentioned earlier I want to try a roll of this on a model shoot but I’ll also try shooting something much faster like street photography or a sports event where the 800 ISO film can be given a different challenge. I also reckon it’d be interesting to over expose it a stop just to see what happens.
This is a really good film in low light, it rewards you with punchy tones and allows you to retain some detail in the shadows. When I want fast colour film I would normally pick up some Lomography CN 800 but looking closely at the Portra the colours seem to be more realistic and it does not suffer that slight yellow tinge in lighter spots of the frame. Also with Portra the blacks are much deeper and the grain a touch smoother. I have to be clear that I can only make judgements based on my separate experiences of shooting both films. I have not scientifically compared Lomo 800 to Portra 800. Portra 800 might cost a bit more than most other films but you get a really sweet emulsion for that money: realistic rendering of colours, less grain than other fast films and a good details in the shadows. I can’t wait to use it again.
You can read Hamish’s review of Portra 800 here – he really likes it too!