Thoughts on Shooting Film

Pushing Kodak Portra 400 to 1600 – by Simon King

Portra 400 at EI 1600 pushed two stops

I recently wrote about shooting my first roll of Portra 400, which I had shot at EI 800 and pushed a stop. There were a few commenters who seemed surprised at the results of pushing this film one stop, which surprised me as I have always had great results from both naturally underexposing film, and chemically pushing after shooting.

I think there is sometimes an assumption that underexposure is seen as a “risky move” which is a shame, because it means that many photographers end up refusing to shoot film in troublesome light situations, opting for comfort over potentially unusable images. In my experience as long as there is light, and a rough stab for correct exposure to that light, the film will record it, and enough chemical pushing will give you a scannable negative – within reason, of course.

I decided shoot my next few rolls of Kodak Portra at EI 1600 – which I knew I would be shooting in a low light environment – two stops higher than the box speed of 400. Low light does not mean no light. I think that the high dynamic range of digital sensors, along with the natural amount of post processing that goes along with shooting digital has spoiled some photographers (including myself!) in their capacity to pull detail out of the shadows. However this has also led to the rise of some excellent low light photographers who’s “look” would not exist without this extreme latitude. Nevertheless, metering for low-light photography on film has been one of the trickiest things for me to learn, and it’s something I’m sure I’ll continue to work on as time goes by.

Portra 400 at EI 1600 pushed two stops

London in the winter can leave very little time in the day with workable sunlight, and night gathers very early. This means if I’m to capture any kind of useable image at all in the style I’m trying to achieve that I make the most of my pushed film. Higher ISO ratings are very useful when lighting conditions are otherwise unreliable, and helped me to keep my exposures fairly even when metering. If anything I feel like I should have pushed most of these rolls to 3200, as I was very happy with the results from ones I did, and wouldn’t have had to make compromises in shutter speed in a few shots.

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I don’t currently develop any of my own C41 film, so I had to find a lab which would be happy to push my film chemically – not as easy as I thought it would be. I eventually found a place in Hatton Garden, and have never been disappointed in the results.

The quality of the images is very good, and very useable for my purposes. I have printed some of these up to A2, and the grain and tones have a wonderful aesthetic to my eye. Sometimes there is a yellowish colour cast, but this is easily removable in photoshop during the scanning process. There is also a slight colour shift. in the shadows especially, but again this is nothing that can’t be adjusted in post.

Portra 400 at EI 1600 pushed two stops

I’m impressed by the high latitude of Portra 400, and think it really deserves it’s reputation as one of the best all-round films available to date. As long as exposure is close and light is used appropriately images will come through as the photographer intended.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on pushing Portra 400 to 1600! If you’ve enjoyed my work here please consider following me on Instagram!

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13 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Steven Bleistein
    March 21, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    Simon, this is really good to know. I love the first photo of the woman in red. For analog photographers in Japan, I have found that most labs in Tokyo and elsewhere will push process for you if you ask, whether color negative or slide film. A lot of photo shops around Japan have machines on the premises, and if they do, often they will turn around a job in matter of hours–like Bic Camera in Yurakucho, Tokyo–but typically only for the FujiFilm color negative stocks. Pushing ISO 400 film is a nice option, given that FujiFilm discontinued Natura 1600 and it can no longer be found in the shops.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Simon
      March 21, 2019 at 11:17 pm

      Thanks so much! I absolutely agree, the capability to push is wonderful, although not at all fulfilling in the same way shooting a native 1600 film would be. Hopefully that will be one of the next emulsions back from the dead, that way I could actually be able to try it out!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Phlogger
    March 21, 2019 at 10:01 pm

    nice work dude

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Simon
      March 21, 2019 at 11:15 pm

      Thank you kindly!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Dominique Pierre-Nina
    March 21, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    HI Simon,

    I think the imagers looks great I have Never used Portra but have used Ektachrome and Ektar in the pass and was very happy the results.

    After your experiment of pushing Portra i think I might add a roll of Portra to my cashé of rolls that I will be taking to Tokyo next week and do some night photography at 3200 and see the results.

    I will keep you posted.

    Regards,

    Dominique Pierre-Nina.
    [email protected]

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Simon
      March 21, 2019 at 11:19 pm

      Thanks Dominique! Ektar at 400 is actually one of my favourite looks for film, and something I always encourage others to try. The colours and grain structure are simply perfect to me!

      Good luck with your Portra at 3200! If you’re able to try it I’d also reccomend shooting a roll of Cinestill at 3200 and pushing the development – absolutely unique aesthetic to that one. I look forward to seeing what you produce!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Michael Kay
    March 21, 2019 at 11:22 pm

    I’ve pushed Portra 400 & Fuji Pro 400H 3 stops in the past. Totally fine results. The only issue I ever have is the pro lab who always like to warn me pushing 3 stops doesnt “create for optimal results” (bloody Germans!).

  • Avatar
    Reply
    JB Leman
    March 22, 2019 at 6:06 am

    Hi Simon, nicely done! I’m really loving the first and second images. I’m guessing the higher contrast is from the push processing. Love the look!

    I bought the Cinestill cs41 powder kit recently in the hope of pushing ASA400 colour film as the lab here where i’m from don’t push process colour film. I’ve not tried developing with it yet, as I’m still figuring how to maintain the temperature for colour developing. I’m imaging to get something akin to the look of the Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys grain and colour palette… Hehehehhe..

    Nice to know that it’s possible to have colour film push-process in Japan, i will be visiting Tokyo in June, so that will be something i can try doing. Thanks for the tip Simon!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Graham Orbell
    March 22, 2019 at 11:14 pm

    Thanks for an interesting article and some nice photos Simon. I don’t believe that “correct” exposure is an absolute value for any scene that contains a range of light values. If you use an incident light meter and stand in the spot you want to “correctly” expose you will get fairly close. Or you could use a grey card with a reflected light meter the same way. But a reflected light reading from the camera position ( with say a Weston reflected meter or through the lens) will never give an absolutely correct exposure. One stop increase from 400 Asa to 800 Asa is not much difference for a colour negative film ( not pushed in processing) that might have 4 stops useful latitude. Then there is the question whether you equipment is correctly calibrated. Your combination of camera shutter, lens and meter calibration could easily be one stop different from another combination. Push processing usually increases contrast.
    All I am saying is, as you have done, to experiment and find what works best for you with the equipment and film you use. Also stick to the same processing lab as any good lab is usually consistent day to day but often there is variation between different labs.

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    Reply
    Sciolist
    March 25, 2019 at 12:26 am

    Absolutely love those shots. Bailey was doing something similar in the late ’70s, I recall a set produced from a graveyard. I prefer yours. I’m not sure he knew what he wanted.

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    Reply
    Chris Pattison
    April 6, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    I too love the look of these images. My hat is off.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    STUART ANDREWS
    June 7, 2019 at 9:44 am

    I like the first shot in the Barbican a great deal. I may well go and a few rolls of Portra 400.

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