Hong Kong on Portra

In June of 2019, as I began to cover Hong Kong’s Anti Extradition protests in earnest; I made the decision to shoot on both film and digital. At the time, I was armed only with a Leica M6 that I had procured in a quaint little camera shop in Rome. It was a rare moment for me, as a photojournalist, to have a little money in my pocket and grappa in my veins. I had certainly found myself ensorceled by Rome, like many a traveler before me. Whatever the impetus may have been, the sleek little camera, dressed in all black like the Omen, grabbed my imagination and, like a Hong Konger facing down her government…refused to relent.

By July, I had added a Nikon F6 to my arsenal and found myself headed into the boiling protests with two film cameras, often leaving my workhorse Sony a7II home alone, neglected. There was a large contributing factor in my choice to cover the protests (when possible) on film. Somewhere in the labyrinthian streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, sunk halfway beneath the busy sidewalk is a little photo lab called DotWell. It was discovering these beautiful, hard working film geeks that was the real revelation in my decision to shoot film. Starting at $4 usd to develop a roll of color film…it was a no brainer. Not to mention that they often turned around in less than an hour. I would drop off a couple of rolls, and after having lunch and a coffee I would find an email with my scans ready to go.

With a little time on my hands now, I’ve decided to put together a few articles around the filmstocks I’ve shot covering the protests, the first of those is naturally Kodak Portra.

Portra 160

I liked the 160 a lot. As advertised, it was easy to shoot, rendered nice colors and had plenty of latitude. I’ve been meaning to shoot a few rolls of it in better lighting conditions to see what it could really do. All of the above photos were shot in June of 2019. For those of you who’ve never been to Hong Kong in June…ugh. It is oppressively hot and humid. 90ºF with 80% humidity is common. It feels like 110ºF and you will never, ever be dry. There is so much hazy water vapor in the air that, as you can see in the photos, the light is very diffused, very flat. Still, the 160 built confidence and stoked my imagination of what it would be possible to shoot.

Portra 400

I found Portra 400 to be just as usable, and dependable as the 160…though for some inexplicable reason I never felt dazzled by its performance. Everything looked good. But only good. It may just be my being nit-picky about it, but I never felt that it was a good match for the way I like to shoot. However, I will confess that while I was happy with the prices of film and developing in Hong Kong…it still wasn’t free. This fact, I’m sad to say, did make me a much more conservative shooter. I didn’t push or take chances with my metering and exposures the way I do with digital, and thus, many of the rewards of that sort of risk taking never came my way. Some of this was due to the fast pace and unpredictable nature of these protests. Still though…there were quiet moments when I could have pushed myself more; it’s not fair to saddle Kodak with the blame there.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the Portra 400 performed in low-light. The above frame was shot at night on the Nikon F6. While I was taking advantage of the light inside the MTR station, I was still shooting with a relatively slow shutter here. I liked how the photo came out, how the colors were rendered, and the detail that can be seen in the shadows around the edge of the frame. I honestly didn’t expect it to come out as well as it did. So bravo to the gang at Kodak for that one.

The above photo was another pleasant surprise. I don’t particularly like the photo. It didn’t make it all the way through my editing and cutting process for culling photos. A sharp eye can tell that it is actually the helmet of the second riot officer that is in focus…not good enough. Not to mention that I hate pictures of peoples backs. My mistakes not withstanding, the way the film rendered the greens in these conditions surprised me. It was near dusk when this photo was taken. In the frame is partial natural light rendered a little blue, and then the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the footbridge, which rendered yellow. What jumped out at me is the rich and subtle shades of green…if you look from the far left of the frame at the uniforms of all the riot police, then roll your eye across the image to the trees you’ll see something on the order of twelve different shades of green. Pretty cool.

Portra 800

I really like the 800. I found it to be really lovely, reliable and producing great colors as one would expect. Solid stuff. By this time in my shooting, late August by the caption, I had done some reading about the film stocks I was shooting. Forum after forum, comment after comment warned about the low light performance of the Portra 800. “Not a true low light film stock” they said, “muddy images” they said…sigh…they were right. I didn’t find it to be terrible when the sun went down. It performed. But it won’t be the first thing I reach for at night. To be honest, the best low light film I used was the Fuji 400H; but we’ll get to that another day. As you can see in the above image, the colors are muddy. It’s not terrible. But it does feel drab. Many of the street lights in Hong Kong give off a pretty gross red/orange/yellow hue. Even when shooting digital, it can be difficult to correct your white balance for the light cast by the street lights.

You see? Not terrible…but not that great. In the daytime though, Portra 800 was great. I was happy to have it, happy to have a bit higher shutter speed to lean on, and happy with the results. I only wish I’d shot more of it. Often I would have my Sony a7ii and the Nikon F6 with me. Then in a given situation I would switch between the two. Many of the following images were produced in that way.

All told I found the Portra films to be exactly what they are advertised to be. It didn’t take long for me to start skulking around Sim City in Mong Kok to hunt for different stocks to shoot on. More to come on those…

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Aaron Guy Leroux

Photojournalist & Documentary Photographer / Member NPPA & NHJA / University of the Arts London alumnus www.aaronguyleroux.com