Photography

The beauty of Kodak Gold film

What happens when we talk about our photography technique in the open and share all that secret sauce? All the magic secrets that lay behind how get our results? I’ve come to the understanding we have to talk about these in the open because this secret sauce will disappear if it isn’t shared openly, and my secret sauce is the beauty of Kodak Gold film.

We shouldn’t fear that by revealing our ‘secret sauce’ that we will instantly see our business take a nose dive and someone else will steal all of your existing customers. Wrong. However if we keep a secret like this one then we risk seeing our secret sauce disappear entirely.

I read an interesting article from Japan Camera Hunter about the future of analogue photography and it really resonated. There is a lot of interest with newcomers to film at the moment. I witness this first hand so often these days when at a wedding I have children and even teenagers asking me what is that? Most children don’t even really know what film is but those interested in photography will see mentions of it on Instagram when the ‘social influencers’ (human billboards…) casually mention that some ‘dope’ photo was taken with a Contax T3 or the likes, and they think huh I like that aesthetic.

And so they look into film, and it’s these newcomers we do need to encourage. As the article from Bellamy (Japan Camera Hunter) points out none of these newcomers will pay a large price for their film or development, so we have to do everything to encourage the newcomers to really succeed with their endeavours with film, or it will just the dwindling few using it and then it will be dead.

And the same applies to the likes of consumer films like Kodak Gold 200 and Kodak Ultramax 400. Both are beautiful consumer grade 35mm films often passed over by working professionals for Kodak’s amazing Portra line, but I find Kodak Gold 200/Ultramax 400 even more to my liking.

(I will refer to them both as Kodak Gold from hereon as Ultramax is a slightly revised Kodak Gold 400 that came out around 10 years ago.)

Paris Elopement – Kodak Gold 200, Nikon F80, 50mm f/1.4G
(Dress: Cherry Williams London, Ring: St. Gyles Northampton)

We need to talk about Kodak Gold

Kodak Gold almost has a bit of a mythical status. For some the name conjures up memories from back when digital photography didn’t exist and the queues in Boots to get to the film lab counter in the summer were not inconsiderable. The colours were rich, and when underexposed a reddish tinge made up for the lack of shadow detail.

It is also revered in some ways in the digital community in some circles looking for that Kodak Gold look, which seems to mostly mean some really whacked out presets that just overcook it completely with far too many variants of it (yes I am talking about VSCO) meaning it will often look nothing like real Kodak Gold shot under the exact same scene and light.

And there is party shots that some of the ‘it’ crowd of young adults that they enjoy – direct flash, late at night, a bit worse for wear – you know the vibe, it’s the kids born in December 1999 doing their ‘I’m a 90s kid thing’ (sorry I can’t help myself, it’s kinda cute though right?) by having photos that look like the photos from the 90s that they really like – and that’s no bad thing really, I just find it cute, after all, even just 10 years ago I would go on nights out with my Canon EOS 5 loaded with cheap film and we’d shoot shots using the direct flash, just cos…. This is one where I (yes I look a bit younger after all it’s 11 years ago now, I was 23 – and yes once upon a time I had long hair) wasn’t looking totally wrecked…

My good self in 2006 and direct flash on film – is this all Kodak Gold is for? Nostalgia?

But the truth is that Kodak Gold is for much more than just nostalgia – it produces results that are just beautiful and when bought in bulk you can generally assume it’s not been sat stewing in a branch of Boots for the last 2 years maturing like a bottle of Tesco Value ‘Red Wine’.

Fuji Pro 400H and Kodak Portra

My style of wedding / elopement / couple photography tends to get called ‘fine art photography’, essentially meaning very stylised, but to be honest I don’t really associate myself with that phrase because I do like a certain amount of looseness and storytelling in my work as well, but I don’t really fall into the ‘documentary’ style either as I hate having a stray slipper in the background of a bridal prep shot. Instead I use the phrase ‘fine art’ more to refer to the look of my photos which is bright and soft, quite natural looking.

Usually ‘fine art wedding photographers’ will use Fuji Pro 400H or Portra 400 for their work and I do when it comes to medium format. They are utterly beautiful films in all formats including 35mm.

However Kodak Gold has a certain je ne sais pas quoi about it, an older look to it which I really like, and in reality it does look quite a lot like Portra 800, and somewhat like Portra 400 – except in the latter case it is grainier.

But you don’t shoot 35mm film for absolutely razor sharp detail – you’d use digital if you wanted to pixel peep. What I shoot it for is a feeling, a sense of imperfection that makes it perfect and the grain is all part of that mysteriousness of it.

Everything I do as a photographer is an interpretation of reality, in a way it’s like layering a chiffon-dream on top of everything (I am an entirely whimsical person, hands up) that removes the viewer from what we consider ordinariness, and that’s what I like about this film, it helps create the look that I love.

The secret recipe

The first key ingredient is a good film lab. I’m not talking about Boots or Jessops here, we’re talking a real film lab. I personally use Canadian Film Lab as I now have a relationship with them extending over a number of years, but others are available, In Europe there is Carmencita, Mein Film Lab… And in the USA there are plenty too including the famous Richard Photo Lab.

This is important because they will process your film in fresh chemicals, not what has been sloshing about at the bottom of the mini lab machine for goodness knows how long whilst they busy themselves selling expensive SD cards and whipping each other on the arse behind the sales counter with tea towels (an experience from my local chain camera store…)

Second they will scan your film to an excellent quality and over time they will nail your look so that when you send your film in, you will get your scans back looking almost always spot on with what you wanted. It’s a bit like paying someone to edit your photos, as I very rarely tweak anything apart from minor cropping and sharpening.

Next you need an incident light meter to measure the light landing on your subject not reflecting, this will give your film the exposure it needs. Colour negative film does not work like modern digital, it loves overexposure. Underexposure will give you substandard results that you will probably dislike with colour shifts, lack of detail in shadow areas and generally look a bit like the photos you took in Ibiza in 2000 on a disposable camera – not good for paying clients.

Light meter wise I use a Sekonic L358 with the bulb in. This is a great reliable meter that has sadly been discontinued but there are others out there.

Next, rate the film as follows:

  • I shoot Kodak Gold 200 rated at ISO 100. It gives a little extra exposure, and I shoot manual and let the light meter do the work. I do tend to set the ISO on the camera to ISO 100 just in case I flip over to auto exposure to make sure I don’t get a bad result.
  • I shoot Kodak Ultramax 400 at ISO 320 if I can, but have happily shot it at ISO 400 too.

Kodak Gold 200 is my general use daytime film, it will even work pretty well under tungsten light if you get the conditions right and you aid it with some off camera and/or bounced flash. But it excels in daytime natural light (see more examples at the end of this blog post.

Le Louvre et la 5e arrondissement à Paris
Kodak Gold 200 – Shot at ISO 100. Left: Nikon FM, Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4, Right: Nikon F80, 50mm 1.4G

Rannoch Moor, Scotland
Kodak Ultramax 400 – Shot at ISO 400. Both Nikon F80, 50mm 1.4G

Wrapping up

So I think you can see why I wanted to share this secret sauce. Both of these films give utterly stunning results when shot in the right conditions, processed by a decent lab and shot with good direction and creative flair.

We need to share and profess this secret sauce to all, because if we don’t and if we keep it close to our chests and guard it jealously, there will be no more secret sauce for us to enjoy because not enough people shot Kodak Gold to make it viable. Go out, and enjoy this beautiful film!

Finally, here are some of my favourite photos from a recent shoot in Paris, I am sure you will agree for a consumer film – it gives stunning results.

x

Paris elopement
(Dress: Cherry Williams London, Ring: St. Gyles Northampton, Flowers: Jessica Rose, Stationery: Laura E Patrick,
Filmlab: Canadian Film Lab)

Hi Victoria, thank you very much for the article, I really love it. My name is Javier Martínez Delgue, I live in La Paloma, a small town in Cape Santa Maria on the Atlantic Ocean, in Uruguay.
I really like your photographic style, I find it very emotional, beautiful and intimate.
I congratulate you for your great work and thank you for sharing it on your website.
Right now I'm making a transition to re-shoot on film and your article was the last push I needed. I plan that my usual film be kodak ultramax and your advice is welcome. In the last years I was shooting almost exclusively for black and white, color has always been a challenge for me, but once I decided to change the color, somehow I also decided to return to the film. I think the use of the film is important in a long-term project on the family.
I'm developing this family album primarily on my website, if you could see it any advice of yours would be much appreciated.
In any case I am very grateful.

Eric Hartke

October 4, 2017
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Hi Victoria
Fantastic article and gorgeous work! I agree that sharing your approach is a good thing and helps other and the craft. I just started my venture into photography as a career this year. I am a passionate film shooter once again. I am still relearning after many years of dedication to digital. I shoot a lot of Gold 200, but I have not tried overexposing it yet. After reading this article I am definitely going to try it out!

Marcos Santana

October 14, 2017
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Hi Victoria, thank you very much for this article. I will be shooting some more of kodak gold soon and needed a article like these to backup my theory of its possibilities. Thanks again

James Stevenson

November 18, 2017
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Really lovely photos and an interesting read! Good on you for sharing and amen to the sentiment!

I'm a passionate film shooter too and I'm recently enjoying getting really stuck into it again. I found this article as I shot some Gold and was really surprised how nice it was, someone gave me a batch for free!

I also agree about encouraging more people to shoot. With that in mind I'm in the midst of making a series of shorts for my YouTube channel: An intro to film, then four episodes dealing with shooting, developing, scanning and post processing. You might enjoy them! Here: https://www.youtube.com/JamesStevensonPhoto

Ralph

December 1, 2017
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Lovely article! Great photos aswell. I also love the tones of Kodak Gold 200. The colours I get from it is just vibrant! I haven't finished my first roll of Ultramax yet. But when I do, I know I'll get good results aswell.

Evelyn

December 27, 2017
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OMG. I love these shots.

Howard

January 30, 2018
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Love the work. Question though; if you shoot the 200 at 100 do you develop at 100 or 200?

Ric Donato

April 1, 2018
Reply

Hello Howard,
For over exposure develop at normal box speed; do not need to tell the lab. Overexposing film we are looking for the appearance of more detail in shadows, also often an ethereal more dreamy look. Asking the lab to adjust their development time compensating for our overexposure nothing positive is gained. Many films hold up quite well with up to three maybe four stops overexposed and normally developed.

The only time I ask the lab to change development times is when I knew the film was underexposed film more than one stop. Thus I have need to bring the film capability to box speed. My observation, over developing B&W works much better than for color film; of course it depends on the color look you are going for.

My information: for my first forty years I shot film mostly medium and large format, next ten years 100% digital, for the past ten years 100% film.

Truly hope the above is helpful.

Cordially and respectfully submitted.

Jens G.R. Benthien

April 29, 2018
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Dear Victoria,

thank you very much for sharing your experience with this type of film.I am really impressed and emotionally touched.

I always worked with film, with large & medium format cameras. Sure, I do have a digital since 2013, but that is just for quick shots, like in former times the Polaroid from the Polaroid back of the large format cameras. Or some quick documentation.

I used to work with slide film (Kodak and Fuji), but then switched to negative film, even for architecture photography. I am using Kodak Portra 160 and 400 for portraits, some Fuji Pro 160 NS and 400 H for architecture and industrial capture.

Being a professional photographer, I just decided last week to leave my digital gear in the closet during my vacation, and use a Rollei 35S as well as a Minox 35 GT. They are lightweight, small and reliable. Yesterday I researched information about the Kodak Gold 200, because I don't have any Portra in that format. After seeing your images I immediately went to the drugstore and purchased a roll Gold 200, which I will have developed in a professional lab.

Sometimes it is good to get a nudge into the right direction. Thanks again for your images, stay on your path and I really wish you all the best in pursuing your outstanding approach.

Martin Michiels

May 3, 2018
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So cool ! Thanks for the article and the wonderfully beautiful photos ! It decided me to buy some Ultramax 400 as my first roll for my brand new second hand (like Bob Marley once sung) EOS 3 camera. I love it, it takes all my canon lenses and has a better autofocus than on my EOS 6D. ;-) I have still 29 shots to go... And then to see the results. I think I will be like a little boy waiting for Christmas when I will send the film to the lab. ;-)

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