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A SOMEWHAT LONG OVERDUE PORTRA 400 BW REVIEW!
Today is the beginning of…well….not quite a friendship, but something more of a sigh of relief. About 6 months ago I went out to Kent, WA. for a yearly camera sale/swap held in a large community building. My girlfriend, being the kind and supportive person she is, helped me get over to this event I had never been to or even heard of till just weeks before it was set to take place, while also planning to see friends we hadn’t seen in a while. Our friends live closer to Seattle and it cost money to get in, Sally wasn’t interested in this whole ordeal, so she dropped me off in the parking lot and headed over to the mall for a bit. I went in, paid, got my little wrist band and proceeded to wander around in some kind of daze among treasure after treasure, around heaps and piles, between bins and boxes for the next 2 hours. I saw cameras I had never seen and witnessed some wonderfully curated tables. Tables meant to showcase certain cameras, from certain eras, used for certain purposes, by certain people and I certainly checked those out.
There was a KEH outlet table that was more of a Leica-specific table, which I promptly scooted passed knowing I was out of my depth. There were so many things to look at and so many people, eyes wide, or in squint and aglow with a simmering sheen of sweat as they passed judgment on sellers, and their wares. Some had their arms hung low or reaching out, trying to find their dream lens or camera body, seeking, searching and perhaps they found it, pausing for a moment, they scrounged deep in the sag of now empty pockets, leaving them to barter; and in the end, getting what they’d always wanted, but at what cost? Under all those cheap fluorescents nonetheless!
I had brought only one camera with me to this event, and I would realize pretty quickly how silly it was bringing it, other than the two shout-outs I got from strangers it wasn’t the best choice for the lighting that would be consuming those two hours indoors. I brought the HorizonT and some basic, yet lovely, bulk rolls of Ultrafine Extreme 400. The 3 photos I took while in there turned out like underexposed grain splashed garbage and they were quickly dragged across my desktop and into the trash. There were quite a few moments I saw a camera, walked over, picked it up, and tossed back and forth my imagined future with it. Left brain to right brain, to center where it would promptly find that dark gooey grooving chasm and slide its little imagined self right into the forefront of reality when I turned the camera ever so slightly and saw the outrageous price the seller was asking. Even if the future was to be sparkling, successful, and fulfilled and regret was to be just a blip in and out of time, I would set it down and feel the departure fully, with no return ticket to that feeling till moments later I would discover another. I did end up picking up a nice, used Nikon F with the metered prism and no lens for $60 and then continued my scouring. That went on for a while and then about 10 minutes before I left the event, I came across a table selling film. I made so many loops and passed so many of the same table once, twice, three times, never seeing this table. I saw whole boxes of Fuji 800 color film and some odd bulk rolls of some press film, some x-ray film of unknown origin, and loads of other color films I had never heard of. I took some aside, planning to purchase them, and then saw a box of 5 rolls of 35mm Kodak Portra 400 Black and White, which expired in 2005. I never knew this film existed, and I didn’t know what to make of it, but it caught my interest and caused a rapid-fire dumping, those other rolls ending up right back where they came from and the search for more of this new (to me) wonder film commenced!
This is the first photo I took when arriving at the Palisades.
All in all, I ended up leaving with 7 rolls of Portra black and white for $5 a piece, I was excited to get to the house we were staying at and look into what it was all about. I was too nervous to just throw some into one of the two 35mm cameras I brought with me, I didn’t want to waste it. The first thing I noticed was the C-41 on the canister. I have only shot one other black-and-white film that was meant to be developed in color chemistry and you’ve most likely heard of it, Ilford XP2. Such a wonderful film, with great contrast and a very unique look to it, while not being buried in grain. Don’t get me wrong, I like plenty of grain, but it’s a good feeling to have more options across the vast plains of layered grains when it comes to black and white and color film. This was a new beast to me though, never having shot expired XP2, I wasn’t sure how developing a color emulsion or Chromogenic film, now almost 18 years expired, would properly unveil the magic beneath. From what I have found online, films like XP2 and Portra 400 BW are Chromogenic films, these have a single layer of black dye with couplers instead of 3 layers of cyan/magenta/ and yellow. Some people consider Chromogenic films to be genuine black and white, easier to scan, and with somewhat more crisp results without having to rely on darkroom magics. Another thing I have come across though is that there is the potential for lack of longevity when wanting to print after just 10 years or so. I am sure some die-hard users have found ways to work with this shortcoming, but I don’t think this is a draw for me in the future. I will use what I have and then continue with my DF96 or HC-110 developing B&W films I enjoy using and know what to expect on the negative, on the screen, and on paper.
HorizonT, photo of Opi and Piper playing.
Winter is here again and it is coming on something fierce! These last few weeks have been a swift kick in the pants to the 5-day long autumn we had here in Spokane, and perhaps everyone all over the damned winter-speckled earth feels this way as well. Even still, In the last week and a half, there have been some wonderful outings and innings.
For some reason, this rapid onset of white and harsh reflective light, even on the now more common cloudy days, felt like the right time to reach back into our tiny fridge and grab up a roll of that Portra BW 400. The emulsion side of the film has a very rich color to it, a sort of mauve with a lean into the maroon. I loaded it up into my HorizonT and we were off! The first day of using it was only a few frames around the neighborhood; a short 18-degree walk in the thin, crisp air. The light spread out over everything and wasn’t hindered by a single dotted cloud. Bent shadows, like a freshly rolled print, rich and covering, popped everywhere. Branches brushed across lawn after lawn. Frozen dew tips of pines that lined the streets became lowland stars as the sun shimmered across the sky, slow in its ancient rolling.
First of few frames around the neighborhood.
One thing I do enjoy about winter is its palette, its cinematic nature, and the inviting of the new. The newness of sound and soundlessness, the passing hand that is silence. What’s to be seen and how differently something may seem even having passed it day after day for three seasons. Having gotten to know of it and its place, what can it be now? Half buried and sparkling. The distance between the normal and what is to be expected in the busyness and stimulation that can be found in almost any neighborhood or city, and how much that shifts once the chill comes, and the fluff falls and begins to make of this place we’ve known, a wonderland.
Sally and I walked for about 45 minutes in that wonderland, cold and looking, chatting and laughing, and I saw some fun little scenes. All the while hoping something would come through on the film.
One of many stranger dog meetings at the palisades.
Fast forward about two weeks later, Sally and I got picked up by her mom to go up to the Palisades and have a walk with the dogs. We met up with her Sister and her sister's husband and crunched along. It was bright so some of us were dabbling in the sunglasses game, and it was just warm enough to allow the snow to melt and refreeze; giving the reaches of sight full beam on all sides, from downed tree to tall tree, a marshmallow fluff shine that slid across the whole of everything.
We walked on for about an hour and a half, with the south facing us the whole way around the bend. A clear view of the train tracks beaming down below and smoothing through tree lines and building complexes alike, the great divider and connector all in one. A massive cloud, a dense bruise spreading thick from the southwest, rubbed heavy through the sky, pressing passed the almost transparent cerulean and bringing on a surprisingly early wash of night. We turned back shortly after noticing its rapid travel and met some stranger dogs along the way.
Another of the neighborhood photos.
There is something about shooting one or the other, black and white or color film that makes me laugh almost every time I use it. Some say they “see in black and white” or what have you, but I feel that one always brings out the longing for the other, not the entire time I am using it, but some moments beg the question, what if? There were a few times that the color of a reddened pine against that day’s sky just popped, I looked at it, had a twinge of regret, and then just stopped to appreciate it in real-time. That’s just what will continue to happen I guess, considering I don’t plan to shoot much color film in the future. And with that, I don’t plan to shoot much more C41 processed black and white film either. This Portra film is special, it seems like someone who wants the ease of developing color film and black and white at the same time in one of those 8-roll Patterson tanks would have a blast. It is a nice, well-rounded film, yet it doesn’t pull me in, it isn’t something I will think of much once it's run out, just like with XP2, I don’t care if I ever shoot it again. Now, I won't say Chromogenic films are novelty films, I don’t even really think some films people consider novelty films are all that novel, like Lomo Turquoise or Purple, Ultrafines Red Dragon III, or even FPP’s Blue Ultra, these are specialty films. They are short runs, used for special projects or special outings, and they give your images a special little pick-me-up if you’re into that sort of thing. I will say that this type of black-and-white film just doesn’t butter my visual bread. It doesn’t fit my workflow or my interest flow. I was excited to get it, afraid to use it, and unenthused by its results. It turned out better than I thought it would, and it isn’t terrible by any means, but I want that tabular grain and the ease of developing all my black and white in one solution and knowing what to expect. This could be a very fun film for you or that person over there, and I don’t truly have many negatives hanging over my decision to pass on it, but I find it interesting that there are so many options, and yes I know that this is expired, not in the film game anymore, but even still, I can’t even list half of the films that are available on today's market.
There are loads of black and white films to choose from, and honestly loads of color, there are just way more people shooting nowadays. Recovery time is real, and I hope that factories that are producing color and b&w films don’t just decide that it's too much effort, with not enough payoff to try and get back in the swing of things. After all, we aren’t the most forgiving bunch, but no one group of excited hobbyists or “pros” or one night a week at a bar snappers should up their chin at the number of options there truly are. Maybe we just have to wait and while we wait, try new things, maybe that makes you sad, maybe you’ve done it already and nothing stuck. Well….if so I apologize, and if you haven’t tried Portra BW 400, go get some and give it a whirl! We’ve been gifted by past generations with their hard work that has paid off and given us time-sensitive, light-sensitive, memory strips, how cool is that!? How lucky are we?!
The weirdest frame on the roll. A mix of light leaks and maybe some potential inconsistencies in emulsion sensitivity.
I guess, now that I am swaying this way and that and getting slightly off track; what this film has taught me is it is good to try things, to overcome discomfort and learn from that, and to reach out and grasp at discovery. I’m not sitting by candlelight or in a wood shack on a rainy day trying to create new emulsions and see what light-sensitive materials or compounds react to what chemicals, I am looking at products online or in a store already neatly packaged and waiting to be scooped. Most of which I have never tried, so if you would be so bold, and I will try and do the same, let us grab something new and plop it in our camera(s) and see what it does, why not? What do we have to lose after all of this? Maybe you will be moved to share your results with a friend and they will fall in love with that film even if you decided it wasn’t for you. We’ve been given almost endless possibilities within this medium, I am amazed every day. In the end, I would just like to say, Thanks to Portra BW 400 for helping me appreciate the B&W films I already enjoy and showing me that it isn’t so scary to journey out and try new things from time to time, even if it is freaky at first. For out there are endless bubbling hills of wonder and awe, waiting to be marked by fast feet with trails of discovery and bound to hold many a joyful secret.
Ok, I lied, this is the weirdest frame! or the best...ehhh..?