Black and white film high EI shootout part 1: Kodak Tri-X 400, T-MAX 400 and Ilford HP5+, Delta 400 at EI 12800
A few months ago I wrote a post about experimenting with pushing Kodak Tri-X from ISO 800 to 12800. It went down quite well and in the time since, has raised a bit of thought and discussion about the real limits of this film.
With all the recent super high ISO digital cameras announced these past few months, I thought it was time to revisit the article and write up a high-EI shootout covering and comparing other fast high speed black and white stocks on the market today…hang on, EI?
Ah yes, sorry.
In my haste to write the Tri-X article I used ISO to describe the film speeds, when I should have used the more appropriate term Exposure Index. Why? Well, when we talk about pushing or pulling film, we’re not changing it’s ISO. That would be impossible. We’re shooting at a different Exposure Index from the published ISO value and then compensating for it using expansion, or contraction development.
Here’s Erik Gould to help explain:
Often these terms are used interchangeably but they actually designate two different things.
The ISO number is a measure of film sensitivity, or film speed as determined by the manufacturer under a standard and verifiable testing procedure. It is an international standard (ISO- International Organization for Standardization) which has been used by all film manufacturers since 1974. The ISO number is what the manufacturer says it is. It can’t be changed because the sensitivity can’t be changed, as long as the film is in date and properly stored. This number is given as a guide which you may choose to use or not. This is where EI comes in.
EI- exposure index, is the speed you choose to assign to your film. The EI may match or deviate from the ISO rating. It is a number based on the specifics of your complete system: camera, lens, development and developer, and especially you. You may find through testing and experience that an EI quite different from the ISO number is what you prefer. This is where the art lies in film photography. The materials are capable of many different looks, it’s all there for you to decide what’s best for your own work.
One last thing, sometimes ISO is called box speed but there are instances when box speed isn’t the ISO rating, or at least it’s not what you might think. Ilford Delta 3200 and Kodak T-MAX P3200 are high speed films that are marketed as EI 3200 but are actually ISO 1000 speed films. Deceptive? Maybe, but they are made to give very acceptable results when exposed and processed as recommended at the higher setting. Both Kodak and Fuji made E6 films that were similarly designed for push processing.
Well put Erik and much better than I could have mustered. So, now that’s settled, let’s dig in.
This article will show you some (relatively) controlled examples of what happens when you take the four ISO400 black and white films from Kodak and Ilford up to EI12800 – a five stop push.
Part two of this article, covering the same films at EI25600 will be released next week (ish). [UP
The films covered today are Kodak Tri-X 400 from the original article, Kodak T-MAX400, Ilford HP5+ and Ilford Delta 400 Professional. Together, they’re the most popular high ISO films on the market today and between them represent the current pinnacle of high speed Cubic (traditional) and newer T-Grain emulsions.
Abstract and warnings
For those of you not wanting a long read, shame on you. I spent a long time putting this together, so please come back when you have more time. All joking aside, I’d like to get down a little summary before jumping in further and I don’t blame you if you want to bookmark for later; we’re all busy.
I’ll start off by saying that bad light is bad light and no amount of pushing, pulling, agitation, chemical concentration, or darkroom magic is going to change that. Sure, we can use photoshop to make things look better but I’m not here to talk about that.
This experiment started because I love pushing film to get the most out of available light but as time has gone by, I now find myself pushing for effect, compensating for high contrast scenes and generally to see what will happen. The purpose of this extended experiment falls into the latter camp – to see what will happen – and not to find out if I can make something amazing out of poor light. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, after all.
What you’ll see below is (mostly) what happens when you push for greater shutter speed and smaller apertures and it’s important to state that I’m not trying to make a case for film versus digital here. If you have a new super-high ISO digital camera, you’ll get much better results using that to capture detail in total darkness, rather than shooting at the speeds discussed here.
All of the films used were fresh rolls in 120-format and had been frozen until the day of purchase and permitted 4-6 hours to warm up. They were all using the same camera, same lens and same film back; and exposures were metered with the same light meter.
The setup was a Hasselblad 2000 series body, A12 film back, Planar F 80/2.8 lens and a year old Sekonic L-308 meter with a fresh battery. The only real difference in set-up is that in the months between the Tri-X 12800 roll and the rest, the film back was CLA’d.
No colored filters were used but I did have an HZ-0 filter installed on the lens when shooting. Each shot was taken at between f/8 and f/22 but I tried as much as possible to normalise at around f/8 at 1/1000 sec. Average light readings were around the EV18-19 mark.
With the exeption of the final rolls of Delta and TMAX at 25600, which are discussed in part two, all of the films were shot under similar dull, boring, natural winter light.
Each roll was shot within a maximum of 60 minutes and developed within 24 hours in HC-110 1+79 at 23c using a continuous first minute plus 5 seconds each minute thereafter agitation scheme.
Here are the times I used for these 5-stop / N+5 pushes:
- Kodak Tri-X 400: 20m 00s
- Kodak TMAX-400: 24m 30s
- Ilford Delta 400 Professional: 39m 30s
- Ilford HP5+: 21m 30s
I expect the immediate questions will be about my choice of developer and concentration. The answer is simple, this is the combination I used for the initial Tri-X EI12800 push and I wanted to keep the results consistent. Additionally, it’s a low-concentration mix, which provides a nice balance between chemical reactivity and development time.
I plan on repeating this test in the future using Ilford’s own developer, so watch this space.
The results: EI12800
Kodak Tri-X 400 at EI12800
We’re starting with Kodak Tri-X. This is an old roll, shot in March 2015. The purpose behind this roll was simple; I just wanted to see what would happen on a grim, gray day.
Had I shot a series of landscape shots, I imagine that the results would have been bit better but that’s not normally my style. I’m still rather pleased with the outcome, as this was the highest intentional push I had completed at the time of shooting.
Ilford HP5+ at EI12800
The results for HP5+ weren’t too far off from the Tri-X example above but dealt with the drab day and dark shadows much better, in my opinion. The blacks are rich and deep and there’s just enough there to spy detail in the shots taken of indoor environments.
Kodak TMAX400 at EI12800
This test was a total disappointment, with only the first frame (the first example below), coming out as expected. I almost didn’t shoot the film at 25600 for part two of this test. The negatives are essentially black and with the exception of the first, took some work in post to get to their current state.
Ilford Delta 400 Professional at EI12800
Unlike it’s T-Grain counterpart above, this film left me gobsmacked. It was much better than the Kodak T-MAX400 result and any thought of traditional grain films being better suited to the task of extreme push processing went right out the window.
Granted, blacks aren’t as rich as the HP5+ but on the whole it seems to me that this roll performed rather well.
There we are. Not exactly a well-controlled scientific test but I hope it’s enough for you to go out and try it for yourself. A few points before closing out:
- With the exception of the roll of Kodak Tri-X 400, the other three were shot on the same day, under the same terrible light. The world around me looked like an 18% gray card. Drab and terrible contrast.
- Ilford HP5+ showed the lowest grain of all four rolls and left me rather surprised at how “clean” it looks. It really is an amazing film.
- Kodak T-MAX400 was the worst performer by a very wide margin but failure at these EIs is to be expected. It’s completely beyond what these stocks were designed to do.
- In hindsight, I would have chosen to develop each roll in a developer more suited to pushing film. Something like Ilford DD-X, perhaps.
I don’t think it’s fair to select a winner here but for me, the newer Delta and TMAX emulsions simply don’t cut it. Whilst Tri-X and HP5+ handled the situation very well, I would most likely go with HP5+ if I wanted to push at this level again. The sheer clarity of the negatives and wonderful softness to objects not in crisp focus really got me and I’m looking froward to trying a roll again in the spring, or summer, once the sun comes out of his hole and gives me a little latural contrast to play with.
Part two will be out very, very soon. No spoilers here but I will say that you’ll see how things change when a little more sunlight is thrown into the equation.
[UPDATE: Part two at EI25600 is right here.]
Keep shooting, folks.