In all my years researching, shooting, and developing film, I’ve found there’s really only two kinds of film photographers: those who push every film they touch, and those who think that’s sacrilegious. And when it comes to consumer films like Kodak Gold, people look at the price tag and immediately write it off as an inflexible, bad film that isn’t worth touching.
Maybe if you have the money for a Leica, it makes sense to only shoot films like Portra, Aerochrome, and Ektachrome. But I’ve only got enough for the Poor Man’s Russian Leica, so you bet I’m filling my fridge with nothing but cheap beer and some of that sweet Kodak Gold.
But if this is the only color film available, is it flexible enough for push and pull processing?
Kodak Gold has a surprising tonal range for a consumer film. Gold 200 will easily push 2 stops to ISO 800, and pull 3 stops down to ISO 25 and still produce beautifully saturated prints and scans.
And over this last year, I’ve been putting it to the paces. I’ve shot 30 rolls of Kodak film, and used it as my daily driver in everything from the Harman Reusable, to my favorite Canon EOS 630 with modern Canon lenses. Overall, using this film has been a lot of fun. I’ve taken a lot of my favorite shots with it — especially summer evenings on the beach, walking around with a camera in hand.
Who is Kodak Gold for?
If you’re new to film photography, you’ve probably been told over and over again how virtuous and heroic Portra is. And to be fair, Portra is one of the the GOATs (Greatest Of All Time) in the film world. But Portra 400 costs like $22 in Canada right now. And that’s a bit of a downer when I’m just having a drink with some friends, or hanging out with the geese and herons along the beach. Every shot feels precious and unworthy. But with a $6 roll of Kodak Gold in my camera, I’m not worried. I’ll snap away and have a better time.
But if I’m heading to a professional shoot and there’s still half a roll of Gold in my camera, I’m honestly not going to be worried. The film isn’t as clean as Portra for sure. And I’ll often just get a couple of fun shots while setting up. But they always turn out brilliantly, and are sometimes even the favorites in the set,
That’s the beauty of this film, is that it completely lacks pretension, but it holds up when you need it to. Heading into the sunset and need an ISO 400 speed film? Shoot Kodak gold and process normally according to Kodak’s technical data sheet. Need ISO 800 when it gets a bit darker? Just push the roll one or two stops and develop some slightly more saturated images.
How to Properly Expose Kodak Gold
Getting a perfect exposure isn’t easy with film since you don’t get an immediate result. As well, it’s hard to know what went wrong when you only see the negatives a week, or even a couple months later. So getting the right exposure requires you to be proactive.
The general rule with film is to always expose for the shadows. Highlights are easily recovered with color negative film because, but shadows usually what gets lost. So it’s always better to overexpose your images to capture more detail.
When underexposing, or pushing Kodak Gold, you’ll notice that the shadows become muddy and green when they’re shot around ISO 800. This can be a really cool look if that’s what you’re going for. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why I keep shooting Kodak Gold, even when it starts to get dark. It’s fun to play around with beams of light for contrast.
But if you want to avoid those noisy green shadows, be sure to lower your shutter speed, or open the aperture to let in some more light.
Letting in more light feels counter-intuitive to pushing film. And it is. But the truth about film is that over-developing, or pushing doesn’t increase the exposure as much as it does with digital photography. Film is a physical medium. If there wasn’t enough light to excite the electrons in the silver halide emulsion, they won’t magically become developable with longer development times. Pushing film does allow the developer more time to work and find developable grains in the shadows, so there is a marginal speed increase. But it will create some other effects in the process, like increased contrast, saturation, and graininess.
How to Develop Color Film at Home
If you’re already into developing B&W film at home, color won’t require that much extra equipment. The chemicals are a bit different, having a specific developer, blix (bleach/fix), and a stabilizer step at the end (rather than just dev, stop, fix for B&W). But the main difference between color and black and white is the need to keep the temperature at a consistently higher temperature, and every film uses the exact same developer and time. So it’s actually a simpler process overall, but the biggest difficulty for most users is the temperature. For most color developing it’s suggested to keep the temperature at 104°F/40°C.
Luckily, most tap water comes out above these readings. My own tap water in Vancouver runs as hot as 120°F/48°C. So I often start by filling a water bath at the hottest temperature possible, and then leaving it to cool down to the required temperature. By the time it’s cooled down enough, (usually 45 minutes to an hour) the bottles of developer and blix are warmed up to the right temperature.
Then, I keep the water at the same temperature using a Sous Vide. In the past, I used to periodically run hot tap water through the bath while checking the temperature. It was a pain in the ass, but it worked — even if I was using a Chinese Dollarstore thermometer that definitely wasn’t accurate.
Follow the times laid out in your color developer kit. Since color film developer isn’t a one-shot process like most B&W film developing, you’ll have to add 8% onto the development time for each roll you develop. That means if the development time for the first roll is 3.5 minutes, the second roll will need to be adjusted to 3.5×1.08 or 3.78 minutes. Using this formula, the 10th roll will take 6 minutes and 20 seconds.
The good news is that you don’t need to rinse film between the developer and blix stages. So keeping a consistent temperature between the steps is a lot easier.
Once you’re finished with blix, rinse the film and container thoroughly. Failing to do so at this stage will contaminate your stabilizer and the developer in the next round. I use Ilford’s rinse recommendation, of filling the tank three times and agitating to ensure all of the blix is is gone. Complete 5 inversions the first rinse, 10 inversions the second, and 20 inversions the third time.
After rinsing, you’ll be able to expose the film to light and rinse the film with the stabilizer solution for 30 seconds. The final step is to rinse the film once more with distilled or deionized water before hanging to dry.
Can you develop color film at room temperature?
It is possible to develop at room temperature, but the process takes longer, the negatives will have a reduced exposure, as well as color shifts. Looking at these tests, the results really aren’t that different, and can easily be corrected in post production.
The biggest downside to developing at room temperature is that it’ll greatly extend the development time. The Arrista Color Dev kit that I use suggests that it’ll take 17.5 minutes to develop a roll at room temperature. By the tenth roll, that development time will increase to an insane 31.5minutes! That’s too long to be waiting around for a roll of 120 or 2 35mm rolls. But if it’s your first time, and keeping a steady temperature isn’t possible, then developing at room temperature might be worth it.
Kodak Gold Limitations and Final Thoughts
The biggest limitation of Kodak Gold over other professional films is that it’s not recommended for pushing three stops. When it’s pushed to ISO 1600, the film begins to look mushy in the shadows, and the grain becomes way too apparent.
In terms of spectral sensitivity, Kodak Gold sees a much greater loss of spectral sensitivity between the color forming layers than the professional films like Portra and Ektar. This means that there will be more contrast between colors than other films, which means that the negatives aren’t as flexible in post production.
But that’s no reason not to shoot it. I’ve used this film extensively over the summer, and I have to say it’s quickly become one of my favourite films. Kodak Gold is a ton of fun to play around with, and can give you some great results if you give it enough light.
It’s not Portra, but just like the Russian Leica gives you 90% of the Leica experience, Kodak Gold will give you 90% of the Portra experience. But the cheapness of this film is what makes it so much fun. When I put Portra through my camera, there’s always a feeling that I have to be more serious and careful about what I’m taking a photo of. And that can make me take forever to get images and end up with pent up expectations and underwhelming results. But I take more chances with Kodak Gold, and often come back with more of the fun images with less of the pretension. And for that reason, I’m never going to stop using this film.
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Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.