Until I switched to a digital SLR in April 2005, I had used ISO 400 color negative film for nearly all my photography since 1996. That’s when I tried a roll of Fuji’s Super G Plus 400 and projected the resulting slides. I was amazed to see essentially no difference between the ISO 400 film and the ISO 100 films I had been using. (For many years, Dale Laboratories made mounted slides from color negatives using motion picture print film. They discontinued that service in August 2009, and no other lab offers it.)
ISO 400 color negative film is a “universal” film, suitable for prints, slides, and scanning. It provides the closest thing to an ideal balance between convenience and image quality. It’s fast enough to avoid the need to lug a tripod for most outdoor photography. There’s rarely any reason to use a slower color negative film.
The slightly finer grain and extra bit of sharpness may make 100-speed negative film worthwhile if you use professional-grade lenses, consistently mount your camera on a heavy tripod, and make mural-sized enlargements. But if you’re doing that, a slow slide film is an even better (and more common) choice; it provides the greatest sharpness and most saturated color you can get directly from film, as long as you get the exposure exactly right.
I used Fuji’s Super G Plus (later renamed Superia 400) until March 2000, when Kodak introduced Supra 400. Supra 400 was a “professional” general-purpose color negative film that I considered the best choice for my travel and scenic photography. It had great color, finer grain than most slower films, and it scanned exceptionally well.
Kodak discontinued the Supra line early in 2003. As my supply of frozen Supra 400 dwindled, I tried various films in search of a replacement. Here are my observations about each of them.
The Kodak films I discuss are those available in the United States as of August 2007. For reasons known only to Kodak’s marketeers, the line (range) of professional and “advanced amateur” Kodak color negative films varies considerably around the world. Some films may be the same under different names, or they may be entirely different products.
In Europe, Elite Color films (not to be confused with the Elite Chrome slide films sold on both sides of the Atlantic) seem to occupy the same place in Kodak’s lineup as the Ultra Color line in the U.S. They’re even packaged and advertised the same way. But are they the same films? The 400-speed film might be. A film with the characteristics of Elite was once called Portra 400UC. That film was renamed Ultra Color 400 in North America and Japan but continued to be sold elsewhere as Portra 400UC until Elite Color 400 replaced it (and the Royal Supra range) in October 2004. I’ve seen Internet reports that the edge marking on Elite Color 400 sold in at least some parts of Europe is “400UC,” just like the American Ultra Color 400. Confused? So am I! But the lower-speed version of Elite Color is ISO 200, while the corresponding Ultra Color is ISO 100.
In Australia and New Zealand, Kodak sells Supra films. Is it the same Supra I used in 2000? I have no idea, but if I lived there I would be asking Kodak why they seem to be palming off film Down Under that’s obsolete everywhere else.
I can’t understand this strategy at all. Going to the expense of marketing multiple products (which may or may not actually be the same) in an increasingly integrated Global Economy makes absolutely no sense to me. But Kodak’s executives must feel there’s a compelling reason for it. Perhaps they believe that a “divide and conquer” strategy will give them tighter control over their distributors, discouraging “gray market” imports by giving them a different name. It certainly causes a lot of confusion and makes for lively discussion in Internet forums. As I find it impossible to keep track of the twisty passages of Kodak’s global marketing labyrinth, I can offer only apologies to readers outside the United States.
Kodak Ultra Color 400
Kodak first introduced Ultra Color 400 as Portra 400UC, part of their aptly-named Portra line of “natural color” films intended for portraits, weddings, and “people” pictures. It seems to have taken Kodak’s marketeers a year to figure out that this colorful general-purpose film didn’t really fit in with the Portra brand. Although they renamed it Ultra Color, it’s still commonly called 400UC. I first used it for the Eastern Sierra Nevada pages.
In many ways, 400UC is an incremental, evolutionary improvement over Supra 400. When scanned, it has pretty much the same bold and saturated color with moderate (but slightly lower) contrast, and the same very fine grain. It’s supposed to solve Supra 400’s problem of excessive contrast in skin tones, but I haven’t had the opportunity to verify that claim. I definitely do notice better detail and finer grain in underexposed shadow areas. Supra 400 had an unfortunate tendency to get “dandruff” in underexposed shadows. Those areas would show large “flakes” of multicolored grain that are very difficult to conceal in digital processing. Like any color negative film, 400UC shows grain in underexposed shadows. But that grain is much smoother, finer, and easier to remove. This is a worthwhile improvement.
One thing that hasn’t improved is the noticeable grain in blue sky. High-resolution scans of all color negative films show this to some extent, requiring various combinations of blurring, smoothing, or de-speckling (sometimes accompanied by incantations to mysterious deities and the pointing of chicken bones). Supra 400 had very fine grain in blue sky, possibly the finest of any film I have seen. If anything, 400UC has slightly coarser sky. Thanks to NeatImage, it’s not that big a deal. But I would have expected better handling of this persistent problem in what Kodak touts as the finest-grained ISO 400 color negative film.
VueScan does not include a profile setting for 400UC. The “Generic Color Negative” setting yields scans that are too dark and contrasty for my taste. Kodak claims that the entire Portra “family” has the same printing characteristics, so I tried the settings for the other Portra films. If there are differences between those settings, they’re too subtle to notice; they all produce a greenish color balance with the “White Balance” option. But I discovered that the setting for “Royal Gold 400 Gen. 2” provides a good neutral balance, so that’s what I use and recommend for this film. The “Supra 400” setting also works, and provides a slightly different color balance and a slightly brighter scan.
When I use film, I use 400UC. It has all the characteristics I valued in the old Supra 400, but with improved grain and detail in the shadows and possibly better skin tones.
In September 2008, Kodak announced that they would discontinue 400UC at the end of the year. Their stated reason is “the superior performance and very positive response to our new Portra 400NC and VC Films.” But neither Portra film is a direct replacement for 400UC. The NC has much lower saturation and contrast (since it’s designed for natural skin tones), while VC has somewhat less saturation but slightly more grain. If you’re scanning film for digital processing, it should be a simple matter to use NC and increase saturation and contrast as desired. If you’re making optical prints, the discontinuation may be more significant. The silver lining is that Kodak has also released Ektar 100. They claim this has all the characteristics of the nearly grainless discontinued Ektar 25 from the 1980s, but at a more convenient speed and with greater exposure latitude. As of April 2009, 400UC was still in stock at all the mail-order vendors I checked.
Kodak High Definition 400
Kodak’s High Definition 400 (HD400) looks a lot like an improved consumer version of the old Supra 400. When scanned, it has very similar color and very fine grain, as well as the same distinctive “dandruff” grain in underexposed shadows. Another clue is that HD400 scans well with VueScan using either the “Supra 400” or “Royal Gold 400 Gen. 2” profiles. The differences between these two profiles are subtle, but I have settled on the “Royal Gold.”
I extensively tested HD400 in Santa Barbara, where I also used up the last of the Supra 400 from my freezer. I discovered one very visible difference between Supra 400 and HD400 when I had the film processed and printed at a mini-lab there. The prints from Supra 400 were the typical mediocre product I expect from a mini-lab. But I was amazed to find the prints from HD400 (made at the same time by the same operator using a Noritsu optical printer) looked beautiful. The color was spot-on accurate and “snappier,” although the contrast wasn’t noticeably different. I also brought a roll to a mini-lab in my area that uses an Agfa digital printer and has produced typically mediocre prints in the past. Their HD400 prints were also beautiful, and looked very similar to the other lab. I have to conclude that Kodak has tweaked the Supra technology to make better mini-lab prints.
What I don’t like about HD400 is the game Kodak’s marketeers are playing with it. It’s available only in 24-exposure rolls. The slick silver packaging suggests that it’s meant for family snapshooters who want the “clearest” baby and vacation pictures from their point-and-shoot cameras (even though almost none of these “clear” pictures will ever be printed larger than 10x15cm). This strategy seems deliberately calculated to make the film unappealing to “serious” SLR photographers who could most benefit from this film, since they’re more likely to want 36-exposure rolls. Presumably, such people will buy the more expensive (and likely more profitable) Ultra Color 400.
High Definition 400 vs. Ultra Color 400
HD400 is similar to 400UC, reflecting their possible common heritage from Supra 400. HD400 more closely resembles Supra 400, with what looks like some tweaking to yield better mini-lab prints. HD400 is a good film, but 400UC is better. It has finer grain in shadows and greater tolerance for underexposure. I haven’t had any mini-lab prints made from it, so I can’t say whether it includes HD400’s tweaks.
As a “professional” film, 400UC is available only in 36-exposure rolls. For a while Kodak experimented with selling the Ultra Color films in discount stores (Wal-Mart and Target) and some drugstores. But that experiment seems to have ended in failure, as it has been a while since I’ve seen it at any of those places. So you’ll probably have to buy it at your local “Kodak Professional” dealer or from a mail-order house. Conversely, HD400 is available only in 24-exposure rolls. It remains widely available in supermarkets, convenience stores, and all the other places that sell consumer film.
Ultra Color 400 is probably the best color negative film on the market today, so it’s worth looking for. But if you run out of 400UC while traveling and you can’t find a store that carries it, or if you need a 24-exposure roll for some reason, HD400 is a very respectable alternative.
Fuji Superia X-Tra 800
I am very impressed with Fuji’s Superia X-Tra 800, especially when rated at E.I. 640. It compares quite favorably with the old Super G Plus 400, with perhaps slightly finer grain, greater sharpness, and more vibrant color. While the grain certainly isn’t as fine as the latest ISO 400 films, the image quality is amazingly good— the higher speed requires very little sacrifice. Superia 800 is cheap and easy to find, which makes it an excellent choice if you need something faster than 400.
Fuji Superia X-Tra 400
Fuji started shipping the current version of Superia X-Tra 400 during the summer of 2003. Their press releases claim it’s the finest-grained ISO 400 color negative film. But Kodak makes the same claim for High Definition 400, even though their own 400UC has noticeably finer grain.
I haven’t tried this film. But Bill Tuthill has tested it. A frequent photo.net contributor, Bill has a Web site with exhaustive information about whitewater rafting in California as well as the technical specifications of films. He found that it has smoother skin tones than the previous version, but blue sky tends to wash out. Reds are excessively saturated and tend to block up (lose detail). While the film is quite fine-grained, greens are inexplicably grainy. His verdict is that it’s “definitely better than [Kodak MAX Versatility 400] but whether it is better than HD400 is hard to say.” I don’t see any reason to try it myself.
Kodak’s MAX Versatility (ISO 400) and MAX Versatility Plus Plus (ISO 800) have grain the size of beach balls and circus-clown color. They may be acceptable for 10x15cm snapshots of the kids, but nothing else.
Also avoid any ISO 200 film. In real-world use, the one stop of extra speed does not make it much more convenient than an ISO 100 film, and the grain really isn’t noticeably finer than an ISO 400 film. The faster shutter speed and/or smaller aperture an ISO 400 film allows may also negate the theoretically greater sharpness of a slower film. Because manufacturers have concentrated on improving the faster films in their line, the 200-speed versions may actually use older technology that yields poorer image quality than the 400. That’s also true of Kodak’s Gold 100 and 200, both of which have coarser grain than 400UC.
Kodak, Fuji, and Agfa all sell a range of “professional” films in addition to the ones you’ll find at the supermarket or discount store. They market and distribute these films through different channels, so you’ll have to go to a large camera store or mail-order house to buy them. A “professional” film isn’t necessary better than a similar “consumer” film. The term “consumer” isn’t meant to be pejorative, but is merely the opposite of “professional.”
Some “professional” film is exactly the same as the familiar “consumer” version, although it may come in a different box or possibly have a different name. A good example is Fuji’s Press color negative films, which are identical to (and sometimes cheaper than) their Superia films. The manufacturer may handle and ship the film refrigerated so that the color balance will be consistent from roll to roll. This can be very important for commercial applications where an exact color match is critical, but otherwise it isn’t worth the extra cost.
Other “professional” films are specialized for particular types of commercial photography. Kodak and Fuji offer several “professional” negative films optimized for skin tones, typically with low contrast and muted colors. You might not want to use them for scenery, but they’re just the thing for portraits and weddings. The skin tones are natural, and you’ll get the detail in both the bride’s bright white dress and the groom’s black tuxedo.
Kodak sells a few “professional” Ektachrome slide films that were state of the art in the 1970s and 1980s. Commercial photographers and printers are experienced with them, and these films reproduce the colors of fabrics and dyes more accurately than newer, more colorful films. You wouldn’t use them unless you’re shooting a clothing or furniture catalog, or unless you really don’t like the unnaturally bold color of current “high-saturation” slide films. They are also much more expensive than newer films, probably because of the specialized, very limited market for them. Kodak discontinued the two oldest members of this family in December 2007, presumably because most of their users have finally switched to digital cameras. Two of the “legacy” Ektachromes remain available: an ISO 64 tungsten-balanced film for studio work and Ektachrome 100 Plus (EPP), which had high saturation by 1980s standards.
Some “professional” films seem to have that designation purely for marketing reasons (e.g., the “professional” label justifies a higher price). Such is the case with Kodak’s Ultra Color and (former) Supra lines. These are general-purpose color negative films, with nothing particularly special about them except that they contain the latest technological advances in image quality. They don’t even require refrigeration, as many “professional” films do.