The Kodak Ultramax 400 is one of the stars at souvenir and retail stores, cheap, all-purpose daylight color negative film with ISO 400/27°. We can feel the amateur target all around the package with the stockphoto family pictures and the uses for the film, however, I love the vintage feeling of Kodak canisters with just the plain Kodak yellow. With a not-so-great reputation for his grain and yellowish skin tones, let’s see how this cheap film response in the real-life test.
|Name||Kodak ULTRAMAX 400|
As a broke film shooter, the first thing that catches my eye is the price, a roll of Ultramax 400 is around US$4~5 making it one of the cheapest films in the shelf of the store, competing directly with (at least here in Taiwan) with the Agfa Vista Color 400 and the Fujicolor Superia X-tra, however, in almost every store, I find the Ultramax a tad cheaper than the rest, maybe a negligible difference, but interesting to point out whatsoever.
I tend to love high ISO film, I like fast and versatile film, especially for everyday use. When I don’t know what kind of assignment or situation I will find, I will load a cheap, 200-400 ISO film and close the aperture to f5.6-8, making me able to snap almost everything in focus with my favorite focal length (28mm). That’s why the Ultramax 400 really suits my needs, cheap, fast, versatile and easy to find. However, that wouldn’t be important if the colors weren’t correct or unpleasant. Even I used this film quite a lot in the past, I wanted a fresh start, even usually I buy 2 rolls for these reviews, I had some of the Ultramax ready for some tests in different environments.
First roll… In my face, I’ve found out that my Nikon F3 had the light seals destroyed… and every picture has that nasty light leak coming through the right side of the frame. However I was quite surprised to see that the colors are really pleasant and true to color. If the photos are lacking a bit contrast here, I think is because the landscape was like that, Kaohsiung (City in the south of Taiwan, worth the visit!) can be a little bit foggy in the early dawn.
Eventually, this light leaks is what led me to sell my F3 and buy the Nikon FM, I know people love the F3 but… I prefer to have a couple of LED for the lightmeter instead of the small LCD.
Decomposing the review a little bit by color, I felt that the red is really neutral and balanced. Red doesn’t pop up so much like other cheap films (Like the Fujicolor X-TRA 400 for example), in fact I would say that was a little bit off. However, I quite enjoy the feeling that gives on the skin tones (more on that later)
For the blue tones, I found something quite interesting. In harsh light it will give quite bright but normal blues, however, with the light at dusk, will give surprisingly vivid blues, maybe even too much, giving the image a slight blue tint. It can be really useful if shooting in yellow light.
The greens are really on point, true color, vivid, but not distracting. I wouldn’t use it so much for shooting landscapes, however I would take this film on a hike for example, the one of the farmer is in a high mountain in Taiwan. The high ISO it let me close the aperture to f11 and still having a shutter speed over 1/250.
The yellows are really vivid, in both of these pictures the subjects were take in the shade, and even so, the yellow really pops out. Even we can see clearly the yellow spots in the thorax of the spider, something that, when I took the picture, I thought it would be unnoticeable in the negative.
I used in different portrait situations, with a lighter skin tone subject (Maria), darker skin tone (Ailton), with and without direct flash.
In the darker skin tone portraits, Ailton has a subtle yellow hue, we can even feel it in the white tile in the back. Even not annoying, we can feel that the yellow tone takes over the whites in the picture. The blue tone of the direct flash balances the picture a little bit, however, we can still feel the yellow and grain, the two problems of this film. In lighter skin tones, Maria’s skin tone is really true to color, really balanced. Except for the grain, I really like the color for portraits.
Color chart and measurement of the colors.
RED Average Colour R:221.0 G:153.0 B:103.0
BLUE Average Colour R:66.0 G:150.0 B:194.0
YELLOW Average Colour R:234.0 G:216.0 B:78.0
GREEN Average Colour R:153.0 G:210.0 B:104.0
See also: How do I measure the colors?
After checking the results of these sets of films, I’m not only quite pleased but really surprised, I think, the Kodak Ultramax 400 is my favorite cheap film for a daily use. I love high ISO film, either to be used in a compact camera (I use the Olympus mjuII extensively) or in any other camera with a small aperture. It’s cheap, if you want to experiment a little bit with it, or just not feeling bad after using 2-3 rolls in a day, and it’s easy to scan, it gives really pleasant colors with the default settings of my scanner (Epson V600).
The major disadvantage is the grain, the grain is quite obvious, if you look at pictures slightly underexposed like the guy with the yellow pants we can see grain all over, or for example in the one with the farmer, the grain gives the picture a much more “messy” or fuzzy feeling because it gets all mixed up with the foliage and the bushes. Other options (way more expensive though) like Portra 400, or Fuji 400H will give you much better results if we are looking for a grainless fast film. For me, grain is not that important, in fact I quite like it, I feel it goes hand and hand with shooting film and the organic feeling that it gives. If I were looking for a clean image I would go for a 100 ISO or even digital.
- Daily use, load it in your camera and ready to go. It will respond correctly to any situation.
- Use it for portraits of your friends, a party, it really responses very well to flash, balancing the yellow hue for a more neutral one
- Experiment with it, is one of the cheapest options if you want to try your own redscale, loading it in a new camera for testing or an adapter for a medium format.
- If you are looking for an organic, grainy, old-school feeling.
- If you are looking for a sharp, clean image. Go for an expensive option or a cheap lower ISO film.
- If you are shooting under tungsten light, or yellow backgrounds. It can give you an undesired oversaturation of yellow.
- Professional landscape or portrait photography.