If you’ve been keeping an eye on my recent work you’ve probably noticed that I’ve got a passion for Portra. This film can have such a unique color palette that is flattering for many types of subjects and light conditions, but it’s also one of the films that I’ve gotten the most questions about when it comes to metering and shooting. Countless people have messaged me saying that they’ve tried Portra themselves and just weren’t happy with the results, so I think with a few quick tips we can demystify this magical film and unlock its true potential.
Generally speaking Portra is all about the subtleties, but that doesn’t mean it’s a one-trick-pony. The more I use the film the more it becomes clear how versatile it really is. Sunset, golden hour, twilight, and even midday light all have a special charm on this film. Let’s go through some images in a variety of lighting conditions and I’ll show you how I metered for them. It might also be a good idea to read my article on metering to get a general grasp of how I work. I’m a huge fan of average metering and use a small mirrorless camera as a light meter and exposure preview. By no means do you have to do it this way, you can use a dedicated light meter or even a metering app on your phone to get the perfect shots on Portra.
This film loves overexposure and seems to know no limits in this regard. For that reason I meter the 160 version at ISO 100 and the 400 version at ISO 320. Yes, I notice that these are not the same exposure difference for the two different versions but that’s mostly because I use the two stocks with different goals in mind. On large format I only use the 160 version because I’m going for ultimate quality and lower grain along with a specific look. When I use Portra in medium format I almost always go with the 400 version as my goal is more of a general all-purpose landscape film and since I’m using a smaller camera it’s nice to have the option of hand holding it every now and then. I generally end up overexposing a little bit less when using it on medium format because I want to retain a bit more of the color saturation of the film for the landscape shots.
Aside from just metering Portra 160 at 100, I also err on the side of overexposure. I pay more attention to the average reading in the foreground rather than the entire scene including the sky and I often have exposure compensation on my metering camera set to +0.7 for an extra two-thirds stop. This means that the film is almost always being overexposed by more than a full stop, and skies might be overexposed by a stop or two (or sometimes several) more than that.
In most of these images you can see that there is still plenty of detail and color in the highlights, but that colors in the brightest parts of the image are certainly on the soft side which is a desired look that I’m wanting to achieve. If you want to use the film and still retain more saturation, I would recommend not adding the additional two-thirds stop as I do and then also using GND filters to control the sky. You can actually end up with quite a bit of saturation on Portra if exposed this way, but be careful as shadows can get muddy and oddly oversaturated.
Even Daytime Light
Let’s start with something simple and move up to more challenging metering situations. This type of light is common during the golden hour where both the ground and sky have direct sunlight on them and the only variation in light is in the shadows in the subject. Let’s take a look at the image below, where we have a light-toned grain elevator with a partly cloudy afternoon sky behind it. The light on the subject is more or less direct, but there is a thin high cloud behind me diffusing it slightly which softened the shadows. This sort of metering is straightforward, I just average meter the entire frame (remember that I have my meter ISO set to 100 for the 160 version of Portra) and add ⅔ of a stop to make sure that the grain elevator appears light in tone. For most of my subjects on the prairie I would add a similar amount of exposure compensation as I like the tones of silver, white, or weather-worn silos to all appear somewhat light. I would consider adding less or no compensation for an object that I want to appear more neutral in tone, such as a green tree or a red barn.
If you’re uncertain of how your subject should be exposed the sky can be a good reference point in this sort of light. On Portra I feel that the sky, whether partly cloudy or clear blue, looks best when exposed with that extra ⅔ stop of compensation. This reduces some of the saturation in the sky, which often leans towards an unattractive cyan on Portra. If your entire scene is in daylight, chances are that metering the sky and adding this extra exposure will result in a good exposure for your image on Portra, no matter what the subject is.
Sunrise or sunset
A lot of my recent work has been shot in these conditions. For the sake of this article I’m going to consider sunset and sunrise to be the time when direct sunlight is no longer on the foreground or subject, but the clouds in the sky are lit up with color. This light condition can happen as much as 20 minutes before sunrise or after sunset, and the further the sun is below the horizon the more even the light tends to be. The stellar dynamic range of this film makes shooting in these conditions a breeze, but if it’s possible I’m still going to use a soft GND filter to even out the exposure and retain the sunset hues that make the skies so beautiful. When it comes to exposure on Portra (and most negative film in general), once you scan the film you’ll find that your exposure choice doesn’t have so much to do with retaining detail but it does play a huge role in how much color saturation you’ll have. Overexposed negatives have softer colors and underexposed ones will have more saturation and eventually get severe color shifts in very deep shadows. Even using a one or two stop soft GND filter can help you retain some of the richer colors in the sky, but they will always be somewhat subdued on Portra.
Let’s take a look at the image below. The building and ground were both about the same color and luminance: winter prairie golden-brown. The only thing that would separate them is the different textures, so it really helped to have some pink and purple hues in the sky to make the large swath of golden-brown stand out in the image. For this scene I average metered the ground and the sky separately, observing about a two stop difference between the two. Using a two stop GND filter is a bad idea with a tree sticking so high into the sky as you’d end up seeing an obvious dark line, but you can always get away with a soft one stop filter and Portra can handle the difference. I placed the filter with the transition area near the horizon and used my meter reading for the ground to make the exposure. To me, this golden grass that isn’t in direct sunlight should be about ⅓ stop over a neutral tone so I added that compensation while metering.
Don’t have a GND? Don’t worry about it, you have two options here. First you can just shoot for the ground and rest assured that Portra will handle the highlights, essentially just ignore the sky when making your readings. The image would appear nearly the same but with a slight reduction of color contrast in the sky. Your other option if you are shooting with long enough exposures (over a few seconds or more) is to just dodge the sky for half of the exposure by waving a black item such as a glove or a film darkslide over the top half of your image, just in front of the lens. This will reduce the exposure of the sky by one stop relative to the ground and so long as you wiggle the dark object during the shot you’ll never know that you were holding something in front of the lens. By “half the exposure,” I mean that if your meter reading of the ground calls for an 8 second exposure, wave the dark object over the top half of the lens for 4 seconds. I use this tactic all the time when I can’t afford to waste time digging out filters as light is changing.
In this next image the sun was still hitting the upper portions of the grain elevators, but there were buildings behind me that cast a shadow across the entire foreground from the railroad track up to and including part of the elevators. Even with Portra’s incredible dynamic range, I don’t like to let the shadows go too deep if I can avoid it. Since there was a clear line where a GND filter could be placed, I average metered the ground then the sky and found a nearly three stop difference. Since I want the sky and sunlit structures to appear bright and the rails to appear a medium tone, this means a two stop filter would be perfect. I placed the soft-edged filter along the area where the sun hit the buildings and then took the exposure using the meter reading for the ground.
Adverse Weather Conditions
Sometimes the weather just isn’t going to allow for filters, and perhaps the light is changing so quickly that you don’t want to waste precious time metering. For this next image, the classic Scottish weather of wind and rain was spitting droplets onto the lens. I don’t mind getting my gear soaked, but drops on a lens can easiliy ruin a photo. I composed the frame with a plastic bag over the lens and used a separate meter to get a reading. The middle of the sky was starting to catch some sunrise colors and was three stops brighter than an average reading of the ground (including waterfall), but there was no way I was going to be able to use filters when they would immediately catch water droplets.
It’s times like these when you just have to take a chance and let Portra do the work. I metered the waterfall - which I wanted to be one stop overexposed - then metered the darker soil at my feet and out of the frame to get an idea of what the ground should be. I wanted the ground to be a bit darker than a neutral exposure, which worked perfectly because it was about a stop and a half darker than the waterfall. This means that as usual, an average metering of the entire foreground would do the trick. Using Portra 400, I wanted to retain a bit more saturation for this landscape scene so I average metered the foreground at 320 and shot just like that. The result was a bit less overexposure than I have done in the other images which also allowed the warm colors in the bright sky to come through.
Snow and Fog
Snow and fog often result in very even light throughout a scene with only minor contrast, which makes them a breeze to meter for. I’ll be brief here; just average the whole scene and add a stop! If the snow is in direct sunlight, then add a bit more up to nearly two stops. It would be hard to overexpose Portra in a snow scene and the soft saturation is really quite flattering in a winter wonderland. I treat daylight fog the same way as it should be rendered at least a stop over a middle tone to keep the subtle contrast and color.
Night and City Lights
Now this quite a fun time to use Portra with some really interesting results! Night scenes with lights in them are going to have an incredible amount of contrast so a film like this really shines. It’s important to still make the image look like it was taken at night, so remember that shadows and unlit parts of the frame should still appear properly dark. My first tip for these scenes is that you shouldn’t worry at all about overexposing the light sources, instead concentrate on what part of the image you want to see rendered as a middle tone.
For the image below, I wanted the building itself to render as a midtone so I focused on the center of it when taking my meter reading. Luckily enough, the small m43 camera that I use seems to average meter these scenes flawlessly and so does the cell phone metering app that I have. To check exposure I have done a test shot on the digital camera and it’s obvious that a single exposure has no chance of handling the bright neon lights when the building is a middle tone, but Portra does this with ease. It might be tempting to try to reduce exposure so that you don’t overexpose these lights, but don’t worry about them at all! Once you have your reading, don’t forget to add a good bit for reciprocity. Portra does not have very good reciprocity characteristics, so when my meter reads a 30 second exposure I double it and go for a minute. If things get much longer than that you’ll have to do your own experimenting!
Scanning Portra and getting the colors just right
With negative film there’s still a bit of work to be done after shooting and developing. I have a feeling that many people who are dissatisfied with Portra are having troubles getting the colors right during the scanning process. I recommend reading through my guide on Scanning and Editing Color Negative Film to help you nail the colors.
I should also cover the topic of drum scans as many of you are aware that I’ve been using a drum scanner for all my recent images. While it’s true that drum scans give an edge in sharpness and tonality, you can most certainly get outstanding results from your Portra film using a flatbed or DSLR to scan it. In fact, more than half of the images on my website that were shot on negative film are just shown as flatbed scans as I haven’t yet been able to work through my archives with the drum scanner. I don’t want anyone thinking that you need top end equipment to get solid results from a beautiful film like Portra, because that just isn’t true and my goal is to never make people feel as though gear make the image. The image below is an older one that was scanned using the flatbed and using the editing techniques I outline on my blog.
The drum scanner has created a different workflow for me because I have to invert my images manually, but the approach I take to color is just the same as it was back when I used the Epson to scan everything. If you want to dive even deeper into these topics, I recommend you check out my ebook “Film in a Digital Age.”