Posted on April 28 2020
This article is one of our community-lead pieces that pulls together views, opinions, and sample photos from the wider analogue group to provide recommendations and education for fellow film photographers! You can read more from our 'Best Film...' series here, and contribute to the project by submitting a film review directly through the product page on-site.
What Makes a Good Portrait on Film?
As always your unique artistic vision for a shoot is the most important thing, but with portraits people are typically looking for:
- fine detail to show the unique nuances of the person you're looking to capture
- good presentation of mid-tones so that faces aren't turned into oppressive dark shadows and over-bright spots
- accurate rendition of the skin tones that flatter the subject's natural colouring while helping them stand out against the background
Photo (c) Paul McKay
I know for a fact that whenever I'm taking a portrait of my wife or young daughter I want the result to be as close as possible to the light and atmosphere of the situation I'm hoping to capture!
And in fact these are the characteristics that tend to be specifically mentioned when reviewing films that are tagged as 'Good for Portraits', although there are other films with a particularly unique aesthetic that work well for capturing human faces in a particularly striking way.
There is a huge set of choice when we look at the 35mm options so let's start with options in black and white.
The Best Black and White 35mm Film for Portraits
Across the thousands of community reviews submitted, a few monochrome films stand out as having particularly high scores in the Portrait category. Let's countdown the top three!
Kosmo Foto Mono is an ISO 100 black and white 35mm film - inspired by Soviet artwork and the Space Race. It's average community rating at time of writing is a highly impressive 4.8/5, but within reviews tagged specifically for Portraits this rises to a perfect 5!
Film photographers call out its great fit for portrait photos thanks to its "fantastic, subtle graininess & harsh but beautiful contrasts; it makes for very striking portraits... perfect for strong light/shadow play" [Chuck]
Other photographers appreciated its flexibility after developing, saying it "scans very well, so if you want to bump a bit more contrast in afterwards then it's great for this too" [Jamie]
So if you're looking for an affordable Soviet-inspired 35mm portrait film then Kosmo Foto Mono is a great place to start!
Photo (c) Neil Piper on Kosmo Foto Mono
Ilford HP5 Plus is a classic film for most settings, racking up over 70 5* community reviews across the various film formats. And the things that make it a perennial favourite - great tonal range, strong detail, fine grain - are particularly well suited to portraits.
Photographers talk about the 'silky smooth' look that it gives to portraits [Fran] and the versatility is frequently mentioned as well. Outside of a studio setting you can never guarantee the lighting for portraits, and often it is essential to capture a mood or emotion quickly. This requires a film that can cope with low light, harsh contrast, or fast speeds - and HP5 Plus can certainly do that!
Photo (c) Gary Quinn on Ilford HP5 Plus
Kodak Tri-X is often mentioned in the same breath as Ilford HP5 Plus as a contender for 'Best Film of ALL time!' and it shares many of the same characteristics: reliable, flexible and providing that magic 'something' to elevate photographs from good to great.
It's also generally accepted that Tri-X gives images a bit more punch than the others in this list - a touch more contrast, slightly more accented grain - and this can be of great benefit in giving portraits some extra character. It is probably this feature that made Tri-X the go-to film for photojournalists across the back half of the 20th Century. They could trust that their photos would come back well-exposed with lots of detail but could also be relied on to grab the attention of editors and readers.
Ian Simpson summarises the community's feelings best with his review: "Kodak Tri-X 35mm really is a classic, beautiful subtle tones and lovely fine grain. It can be used in so many different lighting conditions and records every tiny level of detail"
Photo (c) TamedProcess shot on Kodak Tri-X 35mm
The Best Colour 35mm Film for Portraits
It might be surprising to the modern film photographer to see a slide film in the top three for Portrait photography. In recent years the slide film landscape has been dominated by Velvia (with a strong red bias, not ideal for attractive portraits) or cheaper slide films that are better-suited to creative photos or cross-processing.
The 2018 launch of Ektachrome E100 35mm film has blown away these preconceptions, with a 4.8/5 rating for portraits and photographers like Ted Smith saying "I'd have no concerns using this to photograph skin tones and you will get the added vibrance that one sees in colourful subjects like the subjects eyes which I think is very pleasing"
Other phrases that jump out from the reviews - and that will be of interest to portrait photographers - include
- "Low to no grain and wonderful colourful representation" [Ben]
- "Flawless silky smooth pictures" [Peter Carey]
- "What has impressed me the most about this film is its faithful colour rendition and excellent colour saturation" [Robert Kenny]
So put aside any ideas of what slide film might do, and enjoy the creative possibilities of an outstanding new addition to the 35mm film photographer's arsenal!
Photo (c) Louis Smith shot on Kodak Ektachrome
Any film that comes from the Cinestill stable is going to be heavy on dramatic interest and impressive colours. And sure enough, their 800T 35mm film (the 'T' stands for Tungsten-balanced) is an outstanding emulsion for delivering jaw-dropping portraits. The high-speed nature of the film (ISO 800) also gives 800T an advantage in low light versus many of the other colour options available to 35mm shooters.
Antony Mo captures the general mood with his review, calling 800T "a great film for getting cinematic shots, especially in low light conditions", and in fact 'cinematic' is one of the most used words in reviews of Cinestill!
It can also be used to create unique portrait effects - if you include artificial light in the background of the subject you can get a red halo effect around the light source which is particularly striking.
Photo (c) William Pavli shot on Cinestill 800T 35mm
We've lumped all the Kodak Portra 35mm film range into one - because it felt unfair to the other brands if we'd left them as separate 160, 400 and 800 speed!
'Portra' is short for Portrait, and this shows the intent that Kodak with this range of 35mm film. Gorgeous colours, unbeatable skin tones, and soft contrast - and you can choose a film speed to match the expected lighting situation!
Maya Beano describes their experience of Portra (specifically Portra 160) as follows "What I love about this film is its low contrast, which gives the photos a smooth look overall. The gradation in the tones is very soft, such that there are no harsh jumps from tone to tone. The colours are very natural and creamy in texture with a touch of pastel. If you choose a scene that is already quite gentle, the effect can be strikingly peaceful."
One of the best-selling film ranges in existence today, there is no reason not to start with Kodak Portra film when shooting 35mm portraits!
Photo (c) James Walker shot on Kodak Portra
Some other options!
Are you looking for some subtle yellows and blues to add character to your portraits? Well look no further than Dubblefilm's Apollo!
Rated 5/5 for reviews featuring portraits, and with exceptional examples from the brand itself - Apollo 35mm is a wonderful creative film for experimental photos of your favourite people.
Photo (c) Emily Jackson shot on Dubblefilm Apollo
When it comes to portraits of cows, the same requirements apply!
Great detail, strong mid-tones, and a film that will capture the essence of your subject :-D
Bergger Pancro is a relatively new 35mm film to market, and has fantastic detail and exposure latitude thanks to its dual-grain structure. If you're looking for a slightly different monochrome result with your portraits then this is a great film to try.
Photo (c) Deborah shot on Bergger Pancro 400 35mm
Huge thanks to the wonderful contributors who wrote reviews and submitted photos for the greater knowledge of the community! If any contributor would prefer us to send a credit link direct to their Instagram/Facebook/website instead of the review then please let me know by dropping a quick line to firstname.lastname@example.org