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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

••◊ Getting to know film: Kodak Portra 160

My friend Nolan is a fashion designer and part time fashion photographer.  He was doing a swimwear photo shoot and asked if I'd like to come down and check it out.  This gave me the opportunity to evaluate yet another film stock: Kodak Portra 160.  I already knew that I liked Portra 400's color and contrast, but it was a bit grainy for modern fashion photography.  So off to the camera shop I went to buy a roll...

I already tested and established that Portra likes to be over-exposed by at least one stop, so for the most part I overexposed it 1.5 stops here.  A challenge with film always seems to be exposing properly for people with dark skin.  In Claribel's case, she's a Latina with fairly dark skin, but the photographs don't necessarily reflect that.  For instance, the first photograph below gets reasonably close to her natural skin color, but the photograph has deep shadows, which wasn't necessarily flattering or what we saw in person.  This photo was probably taken near box speed with Kodak Portra 160.  The next photo shows her a bit over-exposed to hold the shadows of the grass hut and make her look a bit less contrast-y.  This photo holds more shadow detail, as you would expect from any over-exposed film stock, and was probably over-exposed by one stop.  The third picture is likely 1.5 stops over-exposed since her skin is much lighter than it naturally is, but the background holds up better.  Frankly, digital works better for people with dark skin.  However, most DSLR cameras won't hold the surf background detail like film.

Another challenge came in photographing Claribel under the shade of a grass hut.  I decided to split the difference between shade and sun - which turned out to be a mistake.  Always expose at box speed or faster!  This is why I test.  The good thing is that I was able to recover the highlights in scanning and still make a decent looking picture via Photoshop composition.  That's one thing I love about film - you don't have to worry about clipping highlights.  Highlights are always problematic with digital photos unless you can afford a Hasselblad.

The next day I was exhausted and dehydrated from the previous day's activity (which included much more than the previous shoot).  My friend Natalie emailed me; basically because she was looking for something to do.  I told her that I was going to keep things low key and go photograph some sunflowers down the street.  She said, "great, I've got a new green dress.  I'll be right over!"  Before I could talk her out of it she was in her car and driving over.  Alright, time to test the film stock on someone with much, much lighter skin color.

The main problem I had this day was that we had rolling clouds coming through.  I would meter exposure with my Sekonic meter, then by the time I had the camera composed and focused a cloud would either show up or go away.  So my exposure technique mainly revolved around metering for the sun, then metering for the clouds, and remembering to flip between the two lens f-stops as I saw daylight change.  I didn't always get it right but it worked well enough most of the time.  The first photo was obviously taken with a cloud blocking the sun; the second two with full sunlight.

What I didn't do right was expose properly for back light.  I'm still trying to get the hang of it.  The second photo below is lacking in contrast, mainly because I mistakenly under-exposed by not metering correctly for back light and had to bring the exposure up while scanning.  You might also notice the slightly red bias, just as in my previous blog entry's example from Kodak Portra 400.  If I had to do this again I might expose the face at box speed or a half stop more than box speed, then make fine adjustments to exposure while scanning.  It's always better to start with a "thicker" negative.

With Kodak Portra 160 the grain is even finer than Portra 400.  It's not really an issue for properly or over-exposed photos.  There's essentially very little noise in the highlights, so I had to purposely choose a bit of the photo above that shows shadow detail as an example of the grain pattern.  Even with a 20MPixel scan, the noise isn't objectionable in the shadows, unlike Fujifilm Pro 400H.  Kodak Portra 160 grain seems to mainly be monochromatic.  It says "film", but in a polite way.

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