Thoughts on Shooting Film

My First Experience With Portra 400 – Guest Post by Aukje

My first year of shooting film Part 9

(Read Part 8 here)

Time for reporting about my next step in film photography. In this post I want to share the results I got with Portra 400 in Curaçao, discuss some mysterious white spots in my photos, and compare the scanning results from two different labs. So lots to talk about!

I have been on a quest for colour, and trying Portra 400 was next on the list. Coincidently I had a holiday planned in the Caribbean (I know how lucky I am 🙂 ), so lots of colour all around. I brought my M2 and my Minolta Riva Panorama.

Sun beds in the morning.

Sun beds in the morning.

Morning read.

Morning read.

Up till now I had shot very cautiously, most of the time only 1 or 2 shots per photo expedition, where I take most of my photos with a digital camera. For this holiday I decide to bring 5 rolls an gave myself permission to shoot them all during these 10 days. However after 5 days I still found myself being scared. I always bring my digital camera, and I noticed that I only take the M2 out when I have a good feeling about a digital photo. Then I take a photo with the M2 at the same spot. But it feels a bit like cheating. And I realised that I would like to be more relaxed about shooting the M2. So I had a chat with myself and came to the conclusion that I let the fear of making mistakes get in the way of the fun. Shooting film has its cost, which makes you more deliberate, but I let it go too far. I also realised that if I want to learn I also have to make mistakes.

Curacao-15

Quiet morning beach

On day seven we went to a beautiful beach, and here I decided that would just take my camera and shoot what I like, without over-thinking it. I did some metering for the first photo, but after that I just shot away…

Curacao-7

Splash.

But then I made a mistake 🙂 . I had brought two new rolls as the films in both the M2 and the Minolta were almost full. The plan was to reload the M2 with Portra 400, and  the Minolta with Tri-X. However, I somehow forgot to look at the film, and loaded the M2 with Tri-X, thinking that it was Portra 400. I guess being on holiday made my brain shift to a lower gear, and I just picked one of the two. And of course with a 50% chance I picked the wrong one. In my defence, they both have a yellow label! At the end of the day I realised my mistake, and came to grips with the fact that I had shot black and white, and did not capture those colours I thought I was.

But two days later we went back to that same beach, this time I loaded Portra 400, and again just wandered around with my camera and shot casually (or something close to that) about 25 photos (I will not show them all, although I have trouble editing 😉 ).

curacao-30

Waves rolling in.

Curacao-10

Fisherman.

Rocks and water.

Rocks and water.

This next one is my favourite. I remember waiting there until the sun hit the little white house in the distance. What I don’t really understand is why this photo looks more grainy, it is less crispy than some other photos, specifically the morning shots. I thought that underexposure or lack of light would cause more grain, but with the amount of light here, at midday, that can hardly be the case. I used a polariser, for which I compensated one stop, but I already over-exposed by two, so there should be some margin left. The negative looks dense enough, but lacks contrast. Maybe even more exposure would have been better?

Curacao-8

Little white house in the distance.

I guess you can’t go on a holiday in the Caribbean and not make photos of a sunset. It is really hard to keep the camera in your bag when you see the sun sinking in the sea, and every day there seem to be different colours. So I want to share a couple of those too…

Metallic sea

Metallic sea.

Curacao-16

Colour in the sky.

Curacao-18

Looking for something.

It was with the sunset photos that I first noticed a problem, or issue. I don’t know what it is, but there are white spots in the sky. I asked twitter what it could be, and the first reaction seems to be that it is dust. However the photos were developed and scanned by AG photo lab, who are known for their quality.

Cloudy Sunset

Cloudy Sunset.

After spotting this I checked my other photos, and they appear in almost every photo. They just stand out more against a dark sky. Not necessarily a dark background, as in the image below, with the underexposed dark background, they seem to be smaller.

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Curacao-19

Cheers!

I decided to ask AG photo lab for advice. They asked me to send the negatives back to them, so they can have a look at them and help me figure out what went wrong. Basically their suggestion is that there must have been a storage problem. I am not sure if that is possible. So here is my summary of the circumstances:

  • Bought film in The Netherlands
  • Stored it in the fridge in a plastic multi-film holder
  • Put in my hand-luggage in the same plastic box
  • In Curaçao put the plastic box in the fridge
  • Loaded the camera with the film, the camera was on a table most of the time
  • Humidity in Curaçao is about 80%
  • After shooting the film I removed it and put it in the fridge
  • Put it in the hand luggage for the flight home

By the way, I see the same spots on my black and white film, and I see it in all films shot with both the M2 and the Minolta Riva. If anyone have a suggestion what it can be, please leave me some comment. If you think it is indeed a storage issue, what would be the proper way to store film?

One more note on colour, as I have been looking to get the colour I want in film, Portra 400 doesn’t disappoint. In comparison with Fuji pro 400H the colours seem to match the real colours better. Where Pro 400H is mostly on the green side, making blues more turquoise, Portra 400 seems to be more yellow. Is there a relation with the label colours, or is that a coincidence? Two more examples of the Portra 400 colours, with natural morning light and with artificial light in the bar:

Morning clouds

Morning clouds.

Cocktail time!

Cocktail time!

All previous photos were developed by AG Photolab. But I tried UK Film Lab for my last roll shot with the Minolta Riva Panorama. After some discussions following my last post Hamish prompted me to UK Film Lab’s service of giving feedback on the negatives and a free-of-charge  tailored scanning profile. I have a couple of images from them to compare to the AG photo lab results. First, Karakter beach with red parasol:

Developed and scanned by AG photo lab

Developed and scanned by AG photo lab.

Developed and scanned by UK Film Lab

Developed and scanned by UK Film Lab.

Next a little lake with cloudy sky:

Developed and scanned by AG photo lab

Developed and scanned by AG photo lab.

Developed and scanned by UK Film Lab

Developed and scanned by UK Film Lab.

As you can see the images coming from UK Film Lab are a bit more yellow and more green. I can make them very similar in lightroom by adjusting the white balance (temp -5, tint +15). I guess it depends on personal taste which you would prefer, but the scans from AG photo lab look more realistic to me. I have to mention again that UK Film Lab has a free service for a personal scanning profile, where you can give your preference with respect to contrast, colour, toning etc, so I could ask them to change the colours a next time.

As I mentioned before, UK Film Lab also gives you feedback on the negatives. They include a word-document in the download file, the feedback looks like this:

Feedback

In this case the photos were made with the Minolta Riva, so it says more about the auto-exposure of that camera, but useful none the less. On the downside, their standard procedure is that they keep the negatives until there is a large enough stack before they send it back. It does reduce cost, but it means that I cannot judge the negatives myself. I assume they are willing to accommodate other arrangements, but this is the default procedure.

I’ll finish with a panorama from Curaçao which I quite like, apart from the red smudge caused by a strand of my hair flying in front of my lens. Just a reminder that you just have to keep paying attention to every detail…

Curaçao, Kodak Portra 400

Curaçao landscape.

Thanks for reading, and Hamish thanks for having me!

Read Part 10 of journey into film here.

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26 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    rollbahn
    April 15, 2016 at 11:49 am

    AG have done very little to help the scan look good to my eyes. I own a Fuji Frontier and it has really opened my eyes to what is actually achievable versus what we take for granted from lab scans – which I did for years.

    The AG scans look like they have had very little manual intervention eg a little exposure tweak and some CMY tweaks would have got much better results.

    I am absolutely no expert but having been through many labs over the years and finally getting my own scanner (and have scanned about 300 rolls) I can straight away see what could be fixed. UK Film Labs to my eye have done a much better job.

    I am not sure about the white spots – that’s very odd. We have 80-90% humidity regularly here in Australia and I’ve never seen that issue. It certainly looks like a development issue but for a pro lab that would seem to not be a possibility. I’ve just carried 50 rolls of Portra to Japan, through X-Rays and in and out of different temperatures and haven’t seen the white dot issue – very strange.

    Anyway – nice images and I’d suggest always setting Portra 400 to 100 on an Auto camera (either in camera or tweaking the DX codes on the canister) as you ALWAYS want to be on the over-exposed side with film.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks for your comments Rollbahn. I am a little disappointed in AG photo lab this time as I also see a hair in the colour photos. I guess I’ll try a couple of rolls with UK film lab. I am not (yet?) ready for buying my own scanner. Recently I thought about it when there was a discount on a lower-end scanner, but I am really unsure about the quality.
      About setting the iso in the auto-canera, I have yet to figure out how to do that. I guess I’ll google before I load my next roll. Thanks for the tip!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Matthew
    April 15, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Nice review, interesting as ever.
    I prefer the AG Photo scans, but as ever its down to personal preference.
    I used a few rolls of Portra 400 pushed to 800 in my M6 at a friends wedding a couple of years ago now.
    I have to say I didnt find anything special about the Portra and so have stuck with my usual Poundland Agfa 200 used at 400 (dev time isn’t changed to its not technically pushed), and at about a quarter of the price its hard to justify it when I currently have the consistency of the same film and film speed across most shots.
    Im always tempted to try it again but with a stack of Agfa in my bag, I cant see the point.
    Using 120 film however – I like to experiment there, just tried Fuji 400 Pro and have some Ektar, but my Yashica 124G really needs the lens cleaned (I’ve discovered, oil on the lens seems a common issue).
    Keep em coming.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks Matthew.
      Good to hear that you found a film that works for you. It seems like a good suggestion to me, but agfa is not that easily available in the netherlands. I found one store which sells it for the same price as portra 400. But it is at least a good suggestion to try some cheaper films as well.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Pieter Geloen
    April 15, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Lovely post again Aukje!
    As for the spots, just a thought. Did your handluggage go trough any scanning devive at the airport? (assuming you flew there)
    That might be a cause of ‘damage’ to the film. I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard from frequent flyers that film doesn’tlijke to go trough X-rays.
    Also, I’m more a fan of the UK Film scanned images, love the contrast, the colours have more pop to them.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 3:40 pm

      Hi Pieter, thanks! My hand luggage did go through the x-ray scanner, but I understood that if there is any damage it is likely to be an overall haze.
      And I am still undecided which scans I like better…

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Brian Shields
    April 15, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    Hi Aukje nice photos.
    I have been happy with the colour processing and scanning from AG, but have had issues with black and white medium format film. The last few scans from them have had dust and hair clearly visible and some negs showing scratches. I did email them but they said they thought it was a camera problem, even though two different cameras were used. I was not happy with the response so have stopped using them for colour and black and white.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Thanks Brian! I had a hair too on a black and white photo, and AG referred to their paragraph on dust removal where they explain that with black and white this is normal as they can’t use the automatic ICE system. I will give UK film lab a go for the next couple of films and see how that works out.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Terry B
    April 15, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Hi, Aukje. The white spots are interesting, especially as you have experienced them with both b/w and colour film,

    My experience of d&p is with B/W film and one thing I would discount is dust on the film at the time of exposure. Dust would prevent light reaching the emulsion and thus the emulsion would not get exposed and the area covered by the dust would develop out as transparent ( the unexposed silver in the neg being washed away by the fixer) and give a black spot in a print. I would assume a similar situation with colour neg film. Another cause could be during development and microbubbles, or even impurities in the water used for the developer, could attach themselves to the emulsion and prevent that spot from developing. But, again, leading to a black dot in a print.

    What all this means is for a white spot to appear in a print via a negative, the relevant point in the neg has to be black. An opaque impurity being laid down along with the emulsion during film manufacture would lead to the required black dot, but you say you are getting the same effect on two different film emulsions which is odd. So what is the common denominator? Could it be the printing environment? If so, at what point is the problem manifest?

    IMO, this is more likely the problem area. It is easier to get a white spot on a print during the printing process or, more accurately, when the paper is being exposed. Two potential causes will be dust settling on the paper leading to the paper not being exposed at these points (white hair marks were often attributable to this) and this will leave a white dot when the paper is developed. (Analogous to the neg situation.) Another possibility is a defect in manufacture by microscopic areas where the emulsion hasn’t fused properly to the print base, thus when this is developed there will be no chemical reaction leaving the white paper base to show up as a white dot.

    These are my personal views, and are offered only as possible causes of what you have experienced. One final thought, as a control, have you had films developed and printed but without scans at the same time?

    Funnily enough, I am beginning to see

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 3:49 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts Terry. One remark though, the negatives were not printed, but scanned directly from the negatives. So the common denominator is that they were in my possession (experienced the same storage and travel treatment) and that they were scanned by the same scanner.
      I am not sure what you are beginning to see….

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Terry B
        April 15, 2016 at 5:54 pm

        Aukje,

        Yes, a slip here. As I edited my post I deleted some narrative before the last incomplete sentence which was not showing in the box and I missed completing it. What I was beginning to see with my home scans of negs using a Minolta Dimage Elite II, and viewing at 100% on screen as I was editing out defects in areas of sky, were some odd, white, defects and which looked like there was no emulsion present as the edges were sharp. These didn’t show up on prints I had made at the time, and are only visible at 100%. So, to me, it does look like there can be manufacturing defects that pass normal viewing. It is not clear to me at what point you become aware of the white spots. Could you elaborate?

        Was the scan done at the time the film was developed, or did you send them later for scanning?

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Aukje
          April 15, 2016 at 6:13 pm

          Both development and scanning were done by a lab, I don’t know if there was much time in between. I only saw the white spots in the scans in lightroom. I couldn’t see anything on the negatives. After sending the negatives back to AG photo lab their response is as follows: ‘we have made a number of prints from various negatives with no visible problems – but it seems that the issues relate mainly to the panoramic images. Apart from the possible storage issue and any problems with the camera, I can’t make any other suggestions’ . I don’t agree with the remark that it seems to relate to the panoramic images as I see them very clearly, and in countless numbers, on the cloudy sunset.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    JK Lockwood
    April 15, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Well done Aukje. Several thoughts;
    Portra is optimized for skin tones, thus the name. It gives a natural color palette. Ektar 100 would be a better choice (IMO) for this tropical environment to increase color saturation, especially since you had a dSLR as your prime camera (for evenings and low-light situations). Ektar has extremely fine grain too. ISO 100 may sound impossibly slow, but is in fact considered a medium speed film. Hard to believe in this age of hyperspeed CMOS sensors, but true.

    Yellow box vs. Green box reminds me of the reputation Fujifilm had over Kodak as the better choice for landscape work. Of course this was mainly regarding slide film, Kodachrome vs. Velvia. With print film, the lab has a large hand in creating what you see.

    Regarding the white spots and color balance, you have swerved into the biggest area of improvement of digital photography; the photographer is in complete control. During the film era, pro shooters were completely dependant on our labs to chemically develop, color and density correct our film and print it. If any of these steps went awry, we had limited ability to improve it. Once we started shooting dSLRs, we assumed the responsibility of “developing” correcting and processing our own images. Truly a double edges sword for a business.

    Remember: “Film’s not dead, it just smells funny”!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      Thanks JK. I might have to give Ektar a go some time soon. Even pricier than portra though! But even though Portra was meant for skin tones, I really do like the colours I get here. And I am not sure I want more saturation than this, I even considered toning it down a bit…
      I am undecided yet on the lack of control with film: it gives me a shared responsibility which is nice, but indeed I am not completely in control anymore! That is part of the journey for me, figuring out which parts I like, or not.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    JK Lockwood
    April 15, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    BTW: The two images of the red umbrella on the beach can not be compared. The lower one was taken at a completely different time of day, look at the shadows. First image, the light is behind you. Second image, you’re shooting into the light and the color of the water is washed out due to reflections off the water. Note the vibrancy of the water’s color in the second image visible through the window of foliage in the far right of the frame. That cove is receiving light from 90 degrees of your camera position.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 4:03 pm

      You are right about the different day and time, but to me it still showcased the difference in colour. But good addition!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    RK
    April 15, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    An aged or worn fabric shutter curtain can produce white spots on the negative, since light exposes the film prior to releasing the shutter. Test for this problem by pointing the camera at a light source with the lens cap off, then expose the frame with the lens cap on. When the film is developed, that frame should normally be black. Any leaks in the shutter curtain will be reveled as light spots on that exposed frame. .

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 15, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      Thanks RK, that is a good suggestion. My M2 is away for CLA right now, so I will hear next week if there was such a problem with the curtain. Although I didn’t see the spots before in my previous film, but they are not always that obvious.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Terry B
        April 15, 2016 at 7:54 pm

        Aukje, taking on RK’s suggestion, it shouldn’t be necessary to use a film to do this test. If the pinpricks in the shutter curtain are large enough to be revealed in a print, you will see them easily by opening the rear plate of your M2 and shining a torch through the front flange, lens removed of course. Better to do this in the dark. I doubt any leakage from the curtain would be detected quite easily. But by all means, as a backup, try RK’s suggestion on a couple of frames, views that emulate as far as possible those that are giving you the most problems.

        In my first post I was suggesting what was the common denominator as you were experiencing the same problem with B/W and colour films. With RK’s post, this denominator could also be the camera. In an odd way of looking at it, the best result would be testing the curtain revealed this to be the culprit, as it can be rectified at a cost. But if the curtain passes the test, you are still left none the wiser.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Terry B
      April 15, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      RK, this is a possibility, but I would expect the fogging of the film, which is what you are talking about, would appear as blurry spots, and not having a sharp outline. This results from the pinhole leaks in the shutter curtain acting like a pinhole camera, but diffraction would soften the outlines.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Nick Clark
    April 18, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Aukje, without making any comment regarding the quality of AG – those white spots look absolutely identical to the dust spots I get scanning my own negatives with an Epson V550. It’s not X-rays, as that would fog/haze, and it isn’t pin-holes in the shutter curtain (the spots would be identical on all frames, which they aren’t, and would only be on the M2 frames – if you look closely they’re also there in the AG scanned panos).

    Long story short – dust reduction software isn’t perfect…

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Aukje
      April 18, 2016 at 3:36 pm

      Hi Nick, thanks for your input. I realised that the photos developed by UK Film Lab also traveled with me to Curaçao, and I don’t see any of the spots on those photos, thus dismissing storage issues. So I also came to the conclusion that it must have been something in the process at AG. Thanks for pointing out that dust spot look like this, it’s good to have a logical explanation.

  • Reply
    Curaçao on Film - What Aukje Sees
    April 20, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    […] My First Experience With Portra 400 – Guest Post by Aukje […]

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Miriam
    April 29, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Sorry that you had some difficulties, but the shots you got are stunning! I have serious vacation envy as I’m at home in rainy England at the moment.

    http://www.miriamwoodburnblog.co.uk

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Marc-paul
    May 11, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    Very nice pictures Aukje!

    But I am wondering how ISO 400 worked with a Leica M in tropical midday? I can hardly expose Tri-X correctly in The Netherlands summer in full sun due to the shutter limited to 1/1000.

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