Test Shoot with Expired Portra 160 Film

Test Shoot with Expired Portra 160 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 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. 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.

WARNING! These images are going to load SLOW, even with lazy loading. So please be patient. Thank you.

Hint: For digital shooters, you expose for the highlights so you don’t ‘blow them out.’ For film shooters, you expose for the shadows because you lose detail there if you don’t. The handy trick for films balanced for skin tones (like Potra) is that you overexpose them by +1 but develop them normally. During the development, the photograph retains nice shadow detail. The bonus part about shooting negative films is that you can never ‘blow out’ the highlights unless you really try.

Image #1 - Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL spot meter (c) Thomas Ott

Image #2 - Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL spot meter, +1 Stop (c) Thomas Ott

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.

Image #3 - Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL average meter (c) Thomas Ott

Image #4 - Closed NYSC, f/16 using TTL average meter, +1 Stop (c) Thomas Ott

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.

Image #5 - Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter, +1 Stop (c) Thomas Ott

Image #6 - Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter (c) Thomas Ott

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.

Image #7 - Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL average meter (c) Thomas Ott

Image #8 - Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL average meter, +1 Stop (c) Thomas Ott

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.

Image #9 - Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter (c) Thomas Ott

Image #10 - Abandoned car dealer, f/16 using TTL spot meter, +1 Stop (c) Thomas Ott

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!

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