Test Shoot with Expired Portra 160 Film

A fun experiment with an expired portrait film

I recently did a test shoot of expired Portra 160 film using my Mamiya RZ and the TTL (through the lens) metering prism. I did this mainly to see how much the color shifts on the film and try the spot vs average metering capabilities of the prism. I usually shoot with a handheld incident meter and the waist level finder but I noticed that my metering is sometimes off. Usually in the hardest light situations.

So I loaded up an expired roll of Portra 160 and headed out some closed stores/buildings along the highway where I live. Some closed before Covid19 and others during the pandemic. It’s all a really sad thing to see but I’ve been attracted to the neglected, abandoned, or empty spaces for many years. Here are the resulting photos and my notes on the TTL metering and whether or not I overexposed them or not.

I shot all ten frames at F/16 since it was a nice sunny day but I overexposed some frames by +1 (stop). The reason is that Portra is fantastic to overexpose by +1 because it really brings out detail in the shadows as you’ll see in the images below. They’re also not color corrected from scanning, a straight scan, and unmodified. I’ve uploaded the high-resolution scans of the images in the body of this article, just right-click on them to open up another browser window and zoom in.

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #1 – Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL spot meter.

Expired Portra Film Test

 Image #2 – Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL spot meter, +1 Stop

These are the first two images from the roll. Right off the bat expired Portra 160 looks to shift to more of a reddish cast when it starts breaking down. The roll that I had wasn’t stored in a refrigerator and I suspect that the colors would be different if I did store it in a cold place.

Fixing the color cast in post-production is a handy fix. Also, the color tones appear to be muted and washed out. I also notice quite a bit of grain which isn’t too bad but the most important thing I was interested in was the slight differences between the first and second image. If you look in the dark areas of the right window, you get better detail of the reflected signposts in the overexposed image (#2). That’s what I was aiming for.

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #3 – Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL average meter

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #4 – Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL average meter, +1 Stop

For these two images of the same subject, I used the average metering setting of TTL prism. The same differences between the normally exposed and +1 exposed frame is the same (i.e. the detail in the right window) but the overall exposure barely different. That’s because the entire scene was lit in 3 PM sunlight but if you open the high res versions of the images you’ll see that the frame’s exposure is more across the entire frame than the spot version. My preference is spot but in situations like this, especially when something is pretty uniformly lit, I would go with the average setting and a +1 overexposure.

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #5 – Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter, +1 Stop

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #6 – Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter

For these two images, I left the +1 stop exposure setting on and shot with that setting first. The same things apply as the image #1 and #2 above. The spot metering made a very slight difference in the image but bringing down the ‘hot areas’ of the image. The top of the building has a better visual definition than the average metered ones next.

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #7 – Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL average meter

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #8 – Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL average meter, +1 Stop

Once again images #7 and #8 were average metered and did ok here, my preference still leans to the spot meter with +1 overexposure for shadow details.

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #9 – Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter

Expired Portra Film Test

Image #10 – Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter, +1 Stop

The final images above (#9 and #10) close out the experiment. Shooting with expired Potra 160 film isn’t too bad provided you can deal with the color cast, grain, and washed-out tones. The washed-out tones are the one worry for me considering that Portra was always meant to be used for skin tones, but I’m thinking like a Portra purist.

You can shoot anything YOU want with this film because now you know how expired Portra works. Good luck and leave me a comment!

A Photography Guide to Shooting Film

This is a rant piece that aims to be somewhat informative, ideally. Right now there are so many “film” shooters selling courses or workshops on how to shoot film. They opine on how much better film is than digital, how it’s purer experience, etc. It just pisses me off and I figured it was high time that I share my 15+ years shooting print and slide film. As a disclaimer, I’m a 90% digital shooter now and I will explain why later in the rant piece.

Digital to Film

Here’s my biggest piece of advice. Start out shooting digital. Just do it. Make your mistakes, see them on the screen. Learn about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and all the other technical things that you’ll need to know as a photographer or hobbyist. It costs a lot of money to buy and develop film (see below), so make your mistakes on digital and don’t repeat them on film!

Shooting Film costs Money

There’s no way around this, if you want to shoot film it’s going to cost you money. You have two big expenses, buying film and developing film. You can argue about storing film in freezers both require a freezer and electricity but let’s not be a wiseass, ok?

My guess is that you’re going to start with 35mm film camera and a roll of film. I suggest starting out with some 400 ISO film to get your feet wet and and a roll of Kodak Gold 400 – 24 exposures is going to cost you $6.49 without tax. That’s $0.27 per frame without development.

Depending on where you go, it could cost you between $11 to $39 to process **and** scan your images. Don’t give me any sass about the scanning part, you’re going to want to share your film photos on social media anyway. I usually get my film processed and scanned here.

Let’s say you go with with the large scans, that’s $19 and puts you back an additional $0.79 per frame. Total cost is *$1.06* everytime you click the shutter. Tired of the lame Kodak Gold film and want to shoot some nice Portra 160 or Ektar 100 with 36 exposures? That’ll be $11.28 per roll or $0.31 per frame. Add in the development…you get the picture. It’s $1.10 everytime you press the shutter.

But…but…you need a computer and LightRoom and storage for digital! Right you are but you’ll need the same + plastic sleeves + physical storage if you want to post your masterpieces online.

Film slows me down

Oh shut up with this. You can shoot a roll of film just as fast and get shit. Whether I shoot digital or film, I take my time. Have I shot a lot of fuckups on film, you bet! I have I messed up digital, you bet. Cameras are like a hammer – a tool. An experienced carpenter can build you a house but a rookie can just make holes in drywall. Go as slow or fast as you want, don’t say film is superior because it’s not true.

Film gear is really cheap now!

The majority of it is but because of these Film nuts enthusiasts, really good cameras and lens are pretty darn expensive. I’m a big fan of the Ricoh street cameras and they go for about $500 on ebay now. WOW. I can get a Canon 50d for half that price!

If you really want to shoot film

Buy film in bulk, store it in a freezer, find a good lab that will develop and/or scan your images, OR buy a scanner.

You could always learn how to develop black and white, which makes a lot of sense IMHO. You can cut down your costs that way as well.

End notes TL;dr

Start with digital, make your mistakes and learn from them, then move to film. Save your money from “I love Film” courses. Go out and take pictures.