Written – 11/07/2023
Over my years of shooting film, I’ve shot a bunch of Ultramax 400, so I know all the pros and cons of this budget film stock.
Kodak Ultramax 400 is a budget colour film stock that has saturated colours, mediocre exposure latitude and fairly harsh grain. Kodak Ultramax 400 is a film stock for the everyday user rather than a professional but it’s still a good film stock.
If you want to find out more about Ultramax, what kind of photography it’s best for, is it worth it and much more!
A Brief History Of Kodak Ultramax
Interestingly, yet unsurprisingly, Kodak Ultramax 400 was originally a part of the Kodak Gold family, it kind of makes sense that it’s effectively Kodak Gold 400 (not exactly though). It was first named ‘Kodak Gold Max’ amongst other things.
In 1997, it was actually called ‘Kodak Gold 400’ and it only became Ultramax in 2007. According to Bluemooncameracodex , there have been 9 revisions of Kodak Ultramax over the years!
Whether or not the Ultramax of today is similar to the Kodak Gold 400 of all those years ago isn’t really clear. My own assumption is that Kodak decided to tweak Ultramax until it didn’t really resemble Gold and they thought, ‘Why not just make it its own thing’.
So here we are, with one of Kodak’s cheapest film stocks that descended from the Kodak Gold series and all we’re wondering is, is it any good?
Ultramax is a consumer-grade film stock so nothing about it is really perfect and the grain of Ultramax is no exception.
As you can see here, I’ve zoomed in on this image to show the grain, even in the top left portion of blue sky, the grain is really noticeable and pretty big.
Ultramax doesn’t have the fine grain that Portra 400, Portra 160 or even Kodak Gold 200 has. That being said, it’s not as if the grain destroys the image by any stretch, I’d just say it’s somewhat textured.
Kodak Ultramax 400’s exposure latitude (or dynamic range) is probably one of the key things that lets it down as a film stock.
If you don’t already know, exposure latitude is basically how much you can over/underexpose your film and it’ll still retain data. What that means when it comes to film photography is that if you have a film stock with good exposure latitude (or dynamic range), you’re more likely to get a more evenly exposed picture.
You can see in the pictures above, the left one is a picture taken on Ultramax and the picture on the right is taken with Kodak Portra 400. The picture on the left has much less information in the shadows due to Ultramax’s poor exposure latitude, whereas the picture on the right has more information because Portra 400 has really good exposure latitude.
Exposure latitude is really important to professional photographers or anyone that’s trying to take really good, high-quality images and that’s why I see this as a massive downside to Ultramax 400.
That being said, there is another way to look at this, Ultramax is a consumer film stock and if you’re shooting it perhaps you want this high-contrast look, if so, that’s fair enough.
Saturation & Colour
There’s a reason why Ultramax is called Ultramax, it’s very saturated and it makes colours pop.
This highly saturated, high contrast vibe does give a pretty vintage feel to Ultramax, I can see why you’d enjoy shooting it for sure.
Reds, yellows, greens and blues are all gonna be popping is Ultramax has anything to do with it. Also, that saturation will be pretty even, it’s not so likely that one colour will take over your image, all of them will be saturated.
This makes sense when you consider the Ultramax target audience, consumers who want beautiful, bright and saturated images of their holidays or daily life. Whereas, generally, professionals would prefer flatter images that they can edit and manipulate for themselves.
Kodak Ultramax’s skin tones are generally OK, it’ll depend on your lighting situation, if the sun is low on your subject’s face then it’ll probably add to the intensity of that, whereas in normal, soft light it’ll probably look pretty natural.
I’m a dufus, so when I was testing Ultramax, I didn’t actually take any portraits, but you can kind of get the picture here. If anything I’d say that it could add a little bit of a golden feel to your skin tones.
The only issue is, I feel that when people talk about skin tones, they aren’t usually talking about a variety of skin tones. If you’re taking proper portraits, it’d always be my suggestion that you use Kodak Portra 400 or Portra 160.
Kodak Ultramax is alright, it’s alright and that’s what it’s meant to be. It’s not meant to be professional film, it’s not meant to look natural and it’s not meant to have great exposure latitude.
What you’re getting is a consumer-grade film stock, that’s meant for daily life and travel, it’ll be bright and saturated and it’s affordable in comparison to most other stocks these days.
I’d basically say if you like Gold but you need it to be a bit faster then Ultramax is the one for you.
How Much Is Kodak Ultramax 400?
Currently, Kodak Ultramax 400 is £13 for a roll of 36 exp on Analogue Wonderland. This isn’t too bad and there was a period where they sold them for £10 a roll and these days, that’s cheap.
Of course, prices will vary a bit throughout the US and Europe but it’ll always be cheaper than Portra or Cinestill.
Is It Worth It?
At around £13 a roll, is Ultramax worth it? Well, that all depends on what you’re shooting and what you want to achieve with your photography.
If you just want to shoot travel and day-to-day life then I’d probably choose Kodak Gold unless there’s a reason why you want 400 ISO film. Perhaps if you’re shooting in locations in the evening or early morning then Ultramax might be a good option.
There probably isn’t another film stock other than Ektar 100 that provides so much saturation, so perhaps Ultramax is a good option for you if that’s something you want in your images.
In short, it’s not a bad option but I’d personally probably use Colorplus or Gold if I was just taking general shots that didn’t need that extra ISO.
What Format Is Ultramax Made in?
At the moment Ultramax is only made in 35mm format and personally, I can see it staying that way. I know Kodak Gold 200 was produced in 120mm but I can’t picture Ultramax being produced in the same way.
Can You Shoot Out-Of-Date Ultramax?
The answer to whether you can shoot out-of-date Ultramax is ‘yes, but it’s complicated’. You can shoot any out-of-date film but your results will vary massively based on a lot of different aspects.
First how old is your film? Well, with Ultramax it’ll only be as old as 2007, before that, it’ll be under one of its numerous other names. I’d say, up to 10 years old, most changes to the film will be fairly subtle unless it’s been stored incorrectly.
Secondly and arguably most importantly, how was the film stored, has it been stored in a refrigerator for all that time or has it been stored in a very hot and humid place? Film is best in a cool and dry environment and it degrades most quickly in warm and damp environments.
There are other factors too, Colour film doesn’t last as long as black-and-white film and the higher your ISO is the more quickly film will degrade.
In short, 5-10 years of unknown storage will still be okay (it won’t be perfect but you’ll probably be fine), after that it gets a little more tricky.
What Kind Of Photography Is It Best For?
Ultramax 400 is best for travel and day-to-day life, I’d also say you could shoot street photography on Ultramax if that was the kind of style you’d like (it’s definitely not the best for street, but it’s personal preference).
I wouldn’t suggest it for anything professional or anything that needed to be really sharp or clear, if you wanted that then I’d suggest something like Kodak Portra 400 or 160.
What’s The Difference Between Kodak Portra 400 & Ultramax 400?
Well, lucky you, I did a whole article of the difference between Portra 400 and Ultramax 400. But if you don’t wanna read that, I’ll give you the low down.
Portra 400 is more true to life and natural, whereas, Ultramax is more saturated and contrasty. Portra 400 has far better exposure latitude than Ultramax which makes Portra 400 a lot more of a professional, high-quality film stock. Finally, Portra 400 has a lot finer grain than Ultramax, so it’s sharper and clearer too.
There’s quite a gulf in price because there’s quite a gulf in quality when it comes to these two film stocks.
Can You Shoot Kodak Ultramax At Night?
Of course, you could shoot Ultramax at night time but I don’t really think it’d be preferable. Okay, it’s 400 ISO which isn’t too bad but you’d really have to be sure about your exposure because of Ultramax’s lack of latitude.
I think there would be a pretty noticeable amount of noisy grain coming through too. This isn’t to say ‘No, don’t shoot it at night’ but it’s worth being aware that it probably won’t look great.
I don’t hate Kodak Ultramax 400, it can be a nice budget option for someone that wants to shoot a 400 ISO colour film. In my opinion, it’s a good option for people that want a day-to-day stock.
It’s nowhere near the quality of any of the professional film stocks and that’s just fine. If you want to shoot this saturated bad-boy film stock, then go for it.