I’ve shot a lot of Ultrmax and a lot of Portra 400 and over the years I’ve discovered all the little differences between these two classic film stocks.
Kodak Ultramax 400 has moderate exposure latitude and quite saturated colour whereas Kodak Portra 400 has very fine grain, great exposure latitude and a fairly flat look.
If you want to see these two compared with one another and find out exactly how these differ then read on!
Only a few years ago, we used to be able to pick up rolls of film for £3-4, it kind of didn’t matter so much, you could just get the best film and it wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t have wondered ‘Is Ultramax a good alternative to Portra 400’, I’d have just bought whatever film I wanted because I could afford it.
These days that question is much more important because there’s a big difference in price between Ultramax and Portra, so it begs the question, is there a big difference in quality
We had to put these two classic film stocks head to head so that we could find out for ourselves. I loaded these bad boys into two Olympus MJU I’s and took the exact same pictures to see if we can actually see any difference.
This article will help you to decide which of these you need to go for, what will work better for you and which of these is the best in general.
There is a vast gulf in the prices of these two film stocks and that’s what makes this question even more important, if the lowly Ultramax can stand up against the incredible Portra 400 then you could make a big saving.
Kodak Ultramax can be bought for as little as £10 a roll from Analogue Wonderland whereas Kodak Portra 400 is online for £20 a roll. Double the price for Portra 400 but is it double the quality?
Saturation And Colour
There’s quite a difference in the saturation and colour of these two film stocks. Ultramax 400 is known for being quite saturated and even inconsistent.
As you can see with Kodak Portra 400 on the left, the magentas are a bit lighter, almost more pastel in tone. If you take a look at the building on the right-hand side you can see that it’s more white than the Ultramax on the right, I’d say there’s a slight yellow hue on the Ultramax.
If we look at the yellow of the tram in the lower right-hand side of the image, the Ultramax is clearly more saturated than the Portra 400. The yellow is more bold and prominent and even the blue of the sky is a little bit stronger.
This could be looked at as a positive but it could be looked at as a negative. Portra 400 is more true to life than Ultramax. Ultramax has a significantly noticeable look when compared with Kodak Portra 400.
If you want to shoot more professional types of shots then Portra 400 wins in this department because it’s there to be edited, you can choose what you want to accentuate and what you want to edit. Kodak Ultramax doesn’t really give you an option, it has an aesthetic identity which is undeniable, and it’s better suited to daily life and travel-type photography in that respect.
This one’s a biggy, exposure latitude is super important, especially if you’re shooting something like portraits, editorial, landscape or anything that’s a bit more professional.
What is exposure latitude? Exposure latitude is basically how much a picture can be under or overexposed and still be usable. So for instance, Portra 400 has very good exposure latitude, which means you’ll get more information from the shadows and highlights.
We can see the dramatic difference in exposure latitude in these two images. On the left, Kodak Ultramax 400 has mediocre exposure latitude and that’s very visible. The details in the shadows are quite muddy and there’s clearly less information than in the Portra 400 shot.
This difference in exposure latitude results in a lot of contrast for Ultramax, whereas Portra 400 is really evenly exposed and the highlights and shadows aren’t as harsh.
Portra 400 wins again here but it is down to personal preference and what kind of photography you’re doing. If you want a more professional look with good exposure latitude, then you need Portra 400 or something similar. If you aren’t as worried about exposure latitude and contrast then Ultramax 400 will be just fine.
I’m bad at what I do so I haven’t really demonstrated this very well. But basically, both Ultramax and Portra 400 render good skin tones but there will be a difference between the two.
Due to Ultramaxs saturation, it might not be perfect for skin tones as it might render some colours a bit bolder than you might expect. Portra 400 on the other hand renders pretty natural colour and skin tones.
When it comes to taking pictures of people there are perhaps some other really important aspects. This is where exposure latitude comes back into play.
Due to Ultramaxs bad exposure latitude, you’re less likely to get a nice even portrait. Also, this might not favour people with darker skin tones, so it’s yet another reason why Portra 400 would be a better option.
There’s yet another big difference in the grain of these two film stocks. Kodak Portra 400 has some of the finest grain available, even for a medium ISO film, whereas Ultramax 400 has fairly big and harsh grain.
As you can see in the close-up of Portra 400’s grain, it’s quite small and soft, even in the shadows, you can see that it’s not that harsh. Portra 400 has notoriously fine grain and as you’ll see below, it’s a lot more fine than Ultramax 400.
As you can see in the close-up picture of Ultramax above, the grain is noticeably harsher. There’s quite a lot of noise in those shadows too.
This is yet another section where Kodak Portra 400 is superior to Kodak Ultramax 400, (that’s if you want fine grain, of course, some people will want noticeable grain.
What Are They Best For?
So it seems pretty clear that there are some big differences here, so the question is, what are these two film stocks best for?
Well, let’s face it, it seems like Kodak Ultramax isn’t cut out for professional photography, it’s better suited for travel and day-to-day life. This doesn’t mean you couldn’t use it for other types of photography it just means that Ultramax’s attributes don’t make it the best for more professional kinds of photography.
On the other hand, Kodak Portra 400 is better suited for professional kinds of photography or any photography that’s more important to you. Street photography, documentary photography, portrait and editorial photography is what Portra 400 is all about.
Portra 400 is suited to more professional types of photography for a number of reasons including its price. To me, if you’re shooting Portra 400 then you need a good reason to do so when it’s £20 a roll.
So, ask yourself whether you need to shell out on Portra 400 for some high-quality shots or if the quality doesn’t matter so much, perhaps you can grab some Ultramax!
So Which One Is The Best?
Kodak Portra 400 is objectively better than Ultramax 400, there’s not really any question about it. However, how much that matters depends on what you’re shooting and what actually matters to you.
I’ve taken amazing pictures on Kodak Colorplus, Kodak Ultramax, Fuji C200 and all kinds of other film. Ultimately, what matters is the person behind the camera, their understanding of their camera, their gear and the taking of the picture.