I wrote an article here on EMULSIVE in April 2019 where I discussed some of the steps I made early on in my film photography process. I covered my earliest roll in 2016 to my then most recent work on Kodak Tri-X 400. I had sampled almost everything on offer by ILFORD, quite a few by Fujifilm, Agfa, Cinestill, and Kodak – but had left trying Tri-X, Kodak’s most iconic black and white emulsion until very late in my journey up to that point.
After trying so many options I was hoping to start to reduce my selection down until I had maybe three or four core films to shoot on for the rest of my film career. Tri-X represented iconography and mysticism to me, and I’m glad that I gave myself the chance to demystify it a little, by shooting across a range of situations, pushing and pulling, over and underexposing, and generally testing its limits in live situations (no “test-rolls”).
I feel I’ve experienced what Tri-X has to offer, and my impressions of it are largely positive. It deserves all of the accolades it’s received, and is a fantastic emulsion which I’m sure will serve any photographer who chooses to shoot it very well.
I’ve been writing about my thoughts on different aspects of photography ever since my first ever post to my personal blog, in May, 2017. My style both in writing and photographing has evolved since then, but the purpose behind my writing hasn’t changed much; I’ve always enjoyed just putting my experiences and opinions into writing.
It gives me a way to focus and frame my learning experiences and also serves as a great resource for me to look back at my progress in a mostly well-curated timeline. I can see how my opinions have changed, as well as seeing how goals I wanted to accomplish earlier either were overcome, changed, or ignored entirely. I also enjoy the ability to use the multiple platforms I now write for to share these views with the photography community, and feel that I’m contributing to something a little larger than just my own career.
When it came to writing a follow up to my Tri-X article there were a few options available to me. In my first draft my inclination was to write some further thoughts on my use, maybe a comparison to ILFORD’s Delta 400 Professional or HP5 PLUS which is it’s nearest equivalent. I could maybe write about the differences it has to its predecessor which I’ve shot in the form of Cinestill BwXX, or about the way it renders using certain modern or vintage lenses. How it responds to overexposure by five stops or underexposure by the same.
The more I weighed my options, the worse I felt about the idea.
I didn’t feel that any of these concepts were truly valuable and worth my time to talk about, nor worth offering an audience to read about. Tri-X just works. It’s had so many pieces written about it over the years, and more telling than any words are the images themselves; some of the most classic and iconic photography of all time made with this film. These are such an ultimate testament that I really don’t feel I have much else to really offer in that arena.
I want my writing to involve things that I learned the hard way, to provide real values and interesting anecdotes to people those ideas would actually help. I don’t want to write or shoot out of an obligation to produce content – I want to build a body of work that represents more than just someone with opinions, but rather someone with insight, and character, and story. A worthwhile showcase of a worthwhile application of talent.
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So my ultimate verdict is that Tri-X is fine. It works. All romanticism, and deconstruction, and technical analysis aside, my decisions around using Tri-X are not affected in any way by the quality, or aesthetic, or price, but the factor of simplicity. As good a time as I had shooting with Tri-X the experience was annoyingly marred by it just being one more decision I needed to make when selecting what film I wanted to shoot. Every time I bought more rolls I questioned why I was adding both Tri-X and HP5+ to my basket when they realistically offer the same thing to my workflow.
This meant I was spending energy reviewing my images taken with Tri-X not in hopes of better curating but examining what the aesthetic was offering those frames. This is not the healthiest approach for me for my photography, and the feeling of FOMO or whatever it is that drew me to incorporate Tri-X must be overcome so that my focus can return to simply making images.
In a direct comparison, I don’t honestly think that there’s really anything that Tri-X does well for me that can’t be achieved with HP5 PLUS. The differences are so slight and lost so easily in a scan or similarly exposed print that it isn’t worth the perceived hassle. Artists looking for something in particular from Tri-X will surely find it, but I’m personally not chasing a look, or an aesthetic: I’m chasing scenes, interesting characters, and moments that resonate with me.
Every second spent making choices about what film to render it on is just a waste of time at this point.
I think the main thing writing this article has given me is the follow-through to decide that I’ve bought my last roll of Tri-X. I won’t be shooting it again after I finish my current reserves. The same actually stands for all other Kodak black and white films too, a decision made as a result of an experience in India where the similarity of the canister markings led me to make a stupid error.
When I was about halfway through writing this article someone referred me to this article here, which I think is worth sharing again here, as it really resonates with my current approach to choosing what photographic film to use, and what aspects of my photography are worth writing about moving forward.
Thanks for taking the time to read this! If you want to see more of my work please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.
I think a lot of this depends upon your workflow. Tri-x has a bit more contrast baked into the negative than HP5+ if developed as is typically done. If you really like that look and/or print in a wet darkroom then that may influence your choice. However, I use a hybrid workflow where I shoot and develop my own BW film and then scan it into the digital world (now I use a camera based setup) and then work on it and print it from my computer. For my workflow I find it desirable to capture and develop as many of the available tones in the negative as possible —so a “flatter” looking negative, because I can always increase contrast to my taste in post-processing which really is a process of eliminating some tones by applying tone curves. However, it really isn’t possible to create tones that aren’t already in the original negative in post. So, HP5+ which is somewhat “overexposed” and “underdeveloped” produces the kind of negative which is the starting point I need. If I loved and always wanted the Tri-x look then it would make sense for me to shoot it as it would save time in post processing. I’d rather retain the flexibility.
I think you’d enjoy this quote from Elliott Erwitt. It’s from his book “Personal Exposures.”
“I like to work with only one kind of film at a time because I get confused easily. When I mix films, I often make a mistake and shoot with the wrong one. Tri-X is the most useful to me. I don’t like to make tests. I like for other photographers to make the tests and give me the results. I believe them.”
My personal choice is HP-5.