I'm trying to gain a better understanding of taking pictures in film. I usually shoot in Portra 400 and I love how contrasty the pictures are, but iI can't help but notice that when I shoot with Portra 400 my photos are darker than when I shoot with Portra 160.

When using digital, I've noticed that higher ISO results in brighter images, and I'm trying to understand why that doesn't seem to be the case with the film I'm using.

Portra 160 is really bright — how is that possible if the lower the ISO is supposed to darken your photo while the higher the ISO is supposed to brighten your photo?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure the title matches the body of the question. Are you interested in the differences between film and digital ISO, or are you interested in why a lower-ISO film yields brighter pictures? To me, these are two different questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – inkista
    Aug 14, 2018 at 4:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the differences in terms of sensitivity between film and digital, please see With the same camera settings, will a photo always be exposed correctly across different cameras? and Why are these film photos brighter than digital photos taken at the same time with the same settings? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Aug 14, 2018 at 8:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you changing the ASA dial on your camera to match the ASA of the film you are using. The cameras light meter does not know what the film speed is unless you tell it. What is the cameras ASA dial set to when you are shooting 400 speed film and what is the cameras ASA dial set to when you are shooting 160 speed film? \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Aug 14, 2018 at 11:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ “ How is that possible if the lower the ISO is supposed to darken your photo while the higher the ISO is supposed to brighten your photo? “ technically the ISO/ASA Does not do anything to your photos in and of itself. ( dynamic range and sensitivity/ brightness of the shadows aside ) It is simply a measurement of how sensitive the film is too light. A higher ASA film will be more sensitive to light thereby allowing faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures then 160 ASA film. ( given that the lighting is controlled and has not changed when switching from one ASA do it another ) \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Aug 14, 2018 at 12:24

2 Answers 2


ISO (derived from ASA), can be approximated as the reciprocal of the shutter speed which, at f/16, produces a satisfactory exposure in bright sunlight. E.G. old Kodachrome, ASA 10, required 1/10 second exposure at f/16 in bright sunlight. Portra 160, at f/16 and 1/160 s in bright sun, should produce as dense an image as Portra 400, at f/16 and 1/400 s in bright sun.

However, Portra is a color negative film, meaning a print was made from that negative. Unless you developed the negative and you made the print from that negative yourself, you're relying on the processing lab's judgement of how the finished product should look. It's not unlikely someone thought the Portra 160 was underexposed, or Portra 4oo overexposed, and compensated in printing. To actually demonstrate which is more sensitive, you'd have to make images of identical subjects under identical lighting and have the lab process them the same.

  • \$\begingroup\$ ...or just scan both with the same settings (apart from reversing the negative).... \$\endgroup\$ Aug 15, 2018 at 21:05

Speed and contrast is determined mainly by the recipe used to make the film. The chief ingredient is crystals of silver salts (there are three). These are called silver halides (Swedish for salt maker). The crystals are grown in a gelatin solution. The size and shape of the crystal are carefully controlled. Fast films have a tendency to have larger crystals as these have a higher probability of being hit by photons during the exposure. The three halogens in order of sensitivity, least to greatest, are iodine, chlorine, and bromine.

If pure, these crystals have low sensitivity and respond only to violet and blue. Impurities encourage higher sensitives, plus the shape of the crystals is also modified. The crystals are then dyed to expand their sensitivity to the various colors. The final film is a hodgepodge of different size crystals. Fast films contain a more coarse mixture. Slow films contain tiny crystals.

Films with a broader range of crystal sizes have a broader scale with inherently less contrast. Small slow films thus are softer in contrast, however they have a finer grain structure.

Negative films are only a means to an end -- the end product being a print on paper. Thus the photo paper used to make the final display has a profound effect on the contrast of the displayed image. A simple color film can be constructed using three emulsion layers: one for red, one for green, and one for blue light. A modern color film will have multiple emulsions for each of the primary colors. As an example, a fast red, medium red, and slow red.

The actual ISO and contrast is also a function of the processing chemicals. Because color materials are exceedingly adjustable by the chemicals and timing of the process, the chemicals and the specifications are rigid if the final ISO, color balance and contrast, are to be as specified. Any variation in the processing and printing will induce unpredictable differences.

Digital cameras only roughly use the ISO (International Standards Organization) methods. These standards pertain mainly to photographic films. Digital manufacturers only loosely follow the rules.


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