Fuji X Weekly reader Luis Costa asked me if I could create a Kodak Portra 400 film simulation recipe for the Fujifilm X100F. I liked the idea and thought it would be a fun challenge, so I agreed. What I didn’t realize is that challenge was the keyword, as this was extremely difficult to figure out. I gave up a couple of times, but then some inspiration pushed me forward, and eventually I got it right. Or, at least, very close to right.
Portra 400 is a daylight balanced color negative film made by Kodak. There have been four different versions made since it was introduced in 1998: the original film (1998-2000), 400NC and 400VC (2000-2011), and the current version (2011 to present). I’ve used Portra 400NC (“neutral color”) and 400VC (“vivid color”) in the past, but I’ve not shot on Portra film for at least a decade, and I’ve never used the current one. There isn’t a huge difference between the different Portra 400 films, but there are small distinctions as they each have a slightly varied look.
As the name implies, this film is designed for portraits, and has a warm tint in order to enhance skin tones. Being daylight balanced means if you use it on a cloudy day, indoors, under artificial light, etc., it will look different. It’s designed for use in daylight, and using it in other circumstances will skew the white balance (which could be good or bad, depending on the image).
White balance became both the key to this film simulation recipe and the problem. I first tried auto-white-balance (with a white balance shift of +2 Red and -5 Blue), and I got good results a few times and not good results a bunch of times. Next I set it to Daylight (using the same shift) but it wasn’t quite right. Then I tried setting the Kelvin value, starting with 5600K, but couldn’t find one that was correct. Finally, I used Custom White Balance, but it took seven or eight different measurements before I got it right. I did get it right, though.
The measurement that worked was out the back door of my house midday, slightly back-lit, partly cloudy with a lot of green in the scene. Interestingly enough, once I got it right I then tried to get the same custom white balance on my X-Pro2, but it measured slightly different. My suggestion is to use auto-white-balance, and once you capture an image that looks right, use custom white balance to make a measurement of the scene and set it. I think that should work, anyway. Otherwise, just keep trying to get the custom white balance right by taking different measurements until you find one that looks good.
Nailing down an exact Portra 400 look is tricky business because it depends on which version of Portra 400 film you are talking about, plus whether it was scanned (and which scanner) or printed (and which chemicals and paper). To verify that I was close, I put a couple of images through the RNI Films app on my phone using their Portra 400 preset, and compared it to my Portra 400 film simulation recipe. It was very close, but who knows how accurate their Portra preset is and what exactly it is supposed to be simulating (which film version and process). It was good verification that my recipe is at least in the ballpark, as I’m sure their preset is in the ballpark. I also examined images captured with actual Portra 400 film. I don’t think any film simulation is going to be an exact match because there are too many variables, but I think it’s perfectly alright to not be 100% spot on, as long as it gives the right impression, and this recipe does just that.
There are a few of the settings that I’ve debated, going back-and-forth over what’s most accurate. I think that the white balance shift gives the right color cast, but perhaps a bit too strongly. I’ve tried changing it, but, to me, this is what looks most correct. I’ve tried the shadows at +3 but think +2 is better. I’m still not completely convinced that highlights should be at -1 as sometimes 0 looks better, but more often -1 looks right to me. Sometimes I think that color should be at -2 and not -3, but -2 almost looks too saturated. There is certainly room to play around with the settings if one doesn’t completely agree with what I’ve chosen.
The most difficult part of my Kodak Portra 400 Film Simulation recipe will be getting the white balance correct. I didn’t find an easy way to achieve it. It’s going to take trial-and-error. With any luck you’ll get it on the first try. There are three custom white balance settings, and you can make three different ones and see which gives the best results. Just remember that Portra is a daylight balanced film, so measuring a daylight scene will give you a better chance of getting it right.
Here’s the recipe:
Dynamic Range: DR400
Noise Reduction: -3
White Balance: Custom, +2 Red & -5 Blue
ISO: Auto up to ISO 6400
Exposure Compensation: +1 to +1-1/3 (typically)
The photographs labelled “Portra 400” (which are all of them except for the two RNI Films examples) are straight-out-of-camera JPEGs. I did slightly crop a couple of them, but no other adjustments were made, just minor cropping.