This article pits Kodak’s medium format Portra 400 against CineStill’s 800T in a head-to-head. Both films utilise Kodak’s VISION3 motion picture emulsion technology and have a vastly different look if social media is to be believed.

I thought it would be nice to make a direct comparison of the two as a follow-up to my 2018 blind film review, which set Fuji Natura 1600, Kodak Potra 800 and Lomography Color Negative 800 against each other in a day-to-night head-to-head.

Here’s how this review breaks down:

Kodak Portra 400 vs CineStill 800T

Kodak Portra 400 and CineStill 800T or Kodak VISION3 500T 5219 – the film that provides the base for CineStill 800T – are modern photographic films designed to be used as part of a digital workflow.

VISION3 500T was baked from the ground up to be a flexible, hybrid process motion picture film capable of handling extreme punishment by filmmakers and Kodak Portra 400 and 160 both have VISION3 DNA as part of their makeup.

In photographic terms, this infusion of VISION3 results a very wide exposure latitude and an ability to be heavily under or overexposed and still produce useable images, amongst other things.

As it relates to this review, the main difference between these two films is the way they react to light:

  • Portra 400 is an all-rounder film which leans towards a daylight colour balance (over exposure and filtering can correct this under artificial light).
  • CineStill 800T (Kodak VISION3 500T 5219) is a tungsten-balanced film. It will perfectly render tones under artificial light but needs to be warmed with a “warming filter” when used under daylight.

Considering the similarities between VISION3 and Portra 400 and 160, I’ve been lead to wonder on numerous occasions if Portra is simply motion picture stock in disguise.
There’s probably more than a grain of truth in there but that’s not to suggest that one is simply a rebranded version of the other. That’s a rather shortsighted view in my opinion.

Kodak Portra 400 in disguise (Source credit: Parallax Photographic Coop)
Kodak Portra 400 in disguise (Source credit: Parallax Photographic Coop)

I’ve more Portra/VISION3 tests to complete through 2019 and look forward to sharing the results with you as and when they’re ready to publish. In the meantime, you can read more (much more) about motion picture film and the differences between it and traditional “print film” in the excellent Cinematic Storytelling series here on EMULSIVE.

The shoot

I shot the two during the daytime on a trip to Hong Kong between Christmas 2017 and the New Year 2018. Both rolls were shot back to back in the same Hasselblad 2000FCW using the same Planar F 80mm f/2.8 lens and Sekonic L-608 light meter at EI 800.

The skies were overcast and the light was relatively cool. Both rolls were shot partly at the beach and partly on the streets.

I didn’t correct the Cinestill with a warming filter because as you’ll see below, the light did quite a bit to help on that front.


The results

Both films were sent off to be developed within a few days of my return to home ground. They were developed in fresh chemistry and scanned on a Fuji SP-2000 scanner. The results posted in the two galleries below have been resized from the originals to 1200x1200px. Just click or tap on a thumbnail to open them full screen.

Each gallery has all 12 images from each roll. I’ll leave you to make your own call about keeper rates. I’ve also labelled the films in the same order I received them: “Film 1″ and “Film 2”.

Neither film has been corrected in Lightroom, etc., and although it might be quite apparent to you which film is which from the outset, the point here is not to try and convince you the films are identical. More, what I’m trying to do here is give you examples of how they work under the same light at the same speed. Also, guessing is kind of fun.

On to the galleries:

Blind film 1

Strong, intense colours and bags of contrast. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the tones, as I didn’t expect to get them from either film. Was the overcast weather a contributing factor? Perhaps the vision in my mind’s eye wasn’t quite right. It had been a while since I’d shot either film.

Honestly, my first reaction was to think this was CineStill 800T due to that nice contrast bump from cross processing motion picture film in C-41 chemistry. Still, if that was the case, where was the blue cast? I hadn’t corrected the film with a filter for daylight use. Hmmm…

Frames 11, 10, 8, 4 and 1 are by far my favourites from the roll and I’ll definitely be going back to photograph the bar (frames 11 and 10) for a nice cold pint of Guinness.
Click or tap each image for a full-screen view.

Blind film 2

A mixed beach/urban roll here and again, I was surprised by the tonality. This was much closer to what I expected Portra to look like. Lovely, occasionally pastel colours and hues, especially yellows and golds, accurate colour rendition and fine grain.

Frames 12, 10, 9, 4 and 2 are among my favourites here and again click/tap an image for full screen.

The reveal

So…any ideas? Write something down on a piece of paper before you scroll down and please, if you’re sharing this review on social media, etc., please don’t spoil the result.

As with my first blind review, I wrote this not knowing for sure which of the two stocks each of these sets of scans were and went to great pains to ensure I didn’t see the negatives before I finished writing this article.

To view the results, highlight the two blocks of BOLD text below and the film names will magically appear.

If you can’t see them clearly, just highlight, copy and then paste it somewhere.

Here goes:

<<< USE YOUR MOUSE/FINGER TO HIGHLIGHT TEXT FROM HERE >>>
Film 1: Kodak Portra 400 (shot at EI 800 + 1-stop push processing)
Film 2: CineStill 800T (shot at EI 800)
<<< … DOWN TO HERE >>>

Conclusions

As with my previous blind film review, I had a manic patch after returning home and sat on the scans for a while before reviewing them. Was I surprised? Bearing in mind that I viewed the scans in the same order as you (from frame 12 to 1), I was a bit, yes.

It wasn’t until I got to frame #1 of each roll that I was absolutely sure which was which. Still, I still went back to check I hadn’t gotten the two rolls mixed up. It made me wonder just how much harder it would have been had I filtered the CineStill roll.

When you look at these frames together, it’s screamingly obvious which one is which – the coldness of the CineStill frame gives it away.

The Wright Brothers at CineStill tell us that we should be shooting 800T at EI 800 (because research), which makes the film technically a stop-ish faster than Portra 400 in the real world.

Over the years I’ve done various tests of modern Kodak films, subjecting them to over and underexposure, under development, over development and combinations of all three. Bottom line, if you were to shoot Portra 400 at EI 800 in decent daylight and not have it push processed, it would honestly not be the end of the world.

My quick and dirty solution to the film speed difference for this test was to shoot the Portra at EI 800 and push process one stop. The result is a little higher contrast and saturation that one would normally expect from a roll of this film and this is probably why I’d mistaken some of the CineStill frames for it.

Another side-by-side:

If someone showed me the CineStill frame above and told me it was Portra, I’d believe them no questions asked. It’s not a look I’ve come to associate with CineStill 800T, especially as this was my first time shooting it during the day and most people publishing pictures from this film lean towards night shots with plenty of neon.

CineStill 800T’s reputation as a film capable of only producing Bladerunner-esque visuals is undeserved in my opinion and I’m planning on spending more time with it during daylight hours. Based on the above results, I’m not sure I’ll be filtering it either.

Portra 400 at EI 800 is honestly lovely. Many people consider Portra 400 (and Fuji Pro 400H for that matter), to be “boring” film stocks with no punch or bite to them. It’s worth remembering that they’re designed to be utterly dependable and consistent. Call that boring if you will, I don’t buy it.

It takes some beating in-camera to change the default aesthetic of Portra 400 but it can be done. A little push processing on an overcast day brings a character to the film that’s a world away from the heavily edited “SoCal” aesthetic that’s so prevalent on social media today.

Why on earth you’d want blindly use digital presets to edit away the character of a film stock is beyond me. Perhaps I’m just not the target audience for filter packs and presets. It seems I’m at risk of turning this into a rant, so I’ll stop there and make a point of coming back to it in the future.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the examples above and if you’ve done something similar in the past, I’d love to see the results. Drop a link in the comments below, tag me on Twitter or post to the EMULSIVE Facebook group.

As ever, keep shooting, folks.

~ EM

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11 COMMENTS

  1. It’s easy to tell the difference if you just look at those bright spots of light. Great article. Lately I’m using cinestill a lot. I really like the red halos.

  2. The Cinestill images are consistent images appearing in other reviews. Likewise, the Porta 400 pushed look great also. I like the “pepsi” challenge, Thanks for taking time out of your day to showcase your images. Much appreciated.

  3. Well, I got it wrong! And I was so sure too 🙂

    I recently did something similar using HP5, XP2 and Tri-X. I can’t tell the difference, which surprised me. I put it on the Negative Positives Facebook page.

  4. Thanks for the interesting read. For me it was pretty easy to distinguish Portra, as I’m accustomed to the way it renders the blue tones 🙂 It’s my most favorable film to shoot water (on the other hand, I don’t like the way it renders green very much 🙂 I wanted to try Cinestill in the future as well, but for the night shots. After reading this, I’ll probably use it also in the daylight 🙂

  5. I used Cinestill 800T in a mixed light situation — indirect sunlight from large windows + incandescent + fluorescent — in a daytime indoor location. I had read about 800T for such mixed light uses and the consensus rec seemed to be to shoot it at 500. So that’s what I did and the results were stunning. Beautiful natural color and skin tones. It’s a wonderful and quite versatile film.

  6. Interesting. I picked the two no problems, I really notice the halation effects in the Cinestill. What was interesting was the results from Cinestill, I had expected much more blue shift than is apparent. Perhaps the scanner adjusted for it somewhat?

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