Kodak TRI-X 400 is the film you want if you’re looking for a consistently flexible film that’s reliable in all kinds of conditions and to be fair, if you’re reading this, you’re probably already shooting it. TRI-X forgives all and is a lot of fun in the process.
I originally wanted to start this article off with a divisive answer to the question, “What’s the best black and white film in the world?” Unfortunately explaining my way out of it meant that I started rambling, so I decided to lead with this:
Kodak TRI-X 400 is the best black and white film in the world
dig myself out of a hole explain. It might not have superfine grain and it doesn’t always hold highlights and shadow detail as well as I’d want but what it does do in spades is give me is an unmistakable look that’s been going for over 60 years. This TRI-X review is accompanied by an experimentation guide, where I take TRI-X from EI 400 all the way up to EI 12800. Have a read! In addition, you might be interested to see TRI-X pitted against T-MAX, HP5 PLUS and Delta 400 at both EI 12800 and EI 25600 (a 6-stop push).
Let’s take a quick look at what Kodak have to say about both TRI-X 320 and 400:
TRI-X 320 Films (320TXP) feature excellent tone gradation and brilliant highlights. They are especially well suited to low-flare interior lighting or flash illumination. They are also useful for portraiture with low-contrast backlighting outdoors.
One TRI-X 320 Film (320TXP) is available in 120 and 220 sizes on a 3.9-mil acetate base, the other is available in sheets on a 7-mil ESTAR Thick Base. You can retouch these films on the emulsion or base side.”
|Type||Black and white|
|Exposure latitude||±4 stops|
|Push processing||6 stops
What is Kodak Tri-X like really like?
It’s very easy to use hyperbole when speaking about film photography. It’s an evocative medium and everyone has their own opinion. That said, there’s one thing that most film photographers I’ve met all agree on; Kodak’s TRI-X is essentially legendary.
TRI-X captures images in a way that could be described as utilitarian, dirty and sometimes other-worldly. It has a feeling that’s altogether unique and being somewhat of a chameleon, it’s a film stock that can be hard to capture with words. Sometimes, the best way is just to see for yourself.
Sharp, super contrasty and shot at EI 6400, a four-stop push and one stop more than Kodak tell us it can do but that’s not the end of it.
A step apart
There are many, many wonderful black and white films in existence today, ILFORD’s HP5 and FP4 PLUS, Fuji’s Across 100 and Rollei’s Superpan 200. For me, TRI-X brings something extra to the game; it’s not fuzzy but it’s not super, super sharp. It’s a film that can go from showing amazing shadow detail in one shot, to giving nothing but sweeping, almost obsidian blacks in another (see below).
You can shoot TRI-X 400 with spot-on metering and get an amazingly balanced shot, you can abuse it and still get highly useable images. If that’s not enough and you want something more, then you can push the film and cook it in processing to get super high contrasty images that make you feel like you should look at them with eyes the size of dinner plates to catch every little detail.
That said, you don’t always need to push the film in order to get “pushed” results. The shot below was metered at EI 400 but when processing the film, I decided to use much warmer water, as well as using a more reactive concentration for my developer (ILFORD ILFOTEC LC29). The results make the shot look as it was pushed quite a bit:
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TRI-X is almost universally loved and has been with us in its 35mm and medium formats for over 60 years. The first TRI-X films actually appeared all the way back in 1940 in sheet film form. That nearly 80 years at the time of updating this article. Think about that for a while.
In practice, the film provides a wide and forgiving latitude. It pushes incredibly well, pulls incredibly well and has a grain structure that can vary from fine and sharp, to very soft depending on the processing techniques used.
The bottom line is that it’s very flexible and is easily manipulated during shooting and/or processing to produce the results you want. No wonder it remained the reporter’s film of choice throughout the life of film photography for the mainstream press.
I highly recommend saving this Intelligent Life article for some further reading.
It’s hard to hate this film. If I was to try really hard to find a fault, I’d say that it’s almost too easy to use. Slap a roll in your camera, set it to whatever EI you feel like and just shoot. It’ll do all the heavy lifting for you.
For this reason, TRI-X is often overlooked by photographers wanting a “special look” to their film. Sure, there’s Kodak’s Double-X (5222), Polypan F50 and even ILFORD’s lovely FP4 for that but we shouldn’t forget that the “look” we’re sometimes overlooking TRI-X in search of, is actually the look created by that very same film in the first place. To sum up:
Legendary. Flexible. Versatile. Forgiving. Dirty. Obsidian. Contrasty.
For me, these words and the pictures above sum up Kodak TRI-X 400 completely. There’s nothing more to say than go shoot some.
If you’re looking for more, you can jump over to my Kodak Tri-X 400 experimentation guide, my Tri-X field notes here.
UPDATE: See what happens when you take Kodak Tri-X 400 to EI 12800 and EI 25600.
Speaking of ridiculously high EI’s, you’ll probably want to try and develop those rolls yourself. You can find development times for Kodak Tri-X 400 from EI 200 to EI 25600 here.
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And if the weathers looking grim it’s Tri-X you need within, it’s definitely my winter 35mm stock.
TriX to me is definitely one of the bench marks all other films should be compared to!
@StephenVanasco check the pushed images at 12800! Forget the Delta 3200..
That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote it 😉
That’s a great review thanks. Neopan 400 was my standard back in the day. Still testing to find a my new go to film.
Tri-X will always be the best. It’s the standard bearer, really. That’s why everyone calls Ilford HP5 the Tri-X of Ilford films.
There’s a certain clarity to HP5+ – especially when pushed – that Tri-X doesn’t provide. Well, to my eye at least. In 120 I’d most likely choose HP5+ 8/10 times but in 135 there would be no contest, Tri-X all the way. Thanks for your comment, John!
If your dev was warmer and stronger than usual, and you didn’t reduce the time, then you have given extra development – which is what push processing is.
I tried to do a ‘blind test’ with a friend, with a gallery of our BW images viewed on iPad/smartphones/laptop, trying to pick which one is the TX400 image. Thinking that it has character that can be easily recognizable. We were wrong. We mistaken APX100, HP5, and one or two more, as TX400. Granted we only viewed them to fit the screen, not zooming in or anything, but I guess you are right in saying it can be a chameleon.
Yes, it can be rather hard, Jonathan. If you look to the “classic” Tri-X images, many were taken in very low light and pushed to 1600, 3200 or 6400 ISO. The result was extreme contrast, (mostly) blocked shadows and blown highlights with fat grain and a “grimy” quality. These kinds of images are pretty easy to identify but take a shot of a street scene in daylight with a spread of relatively old emulsions and they’ll all look quite similar.
The great thing about Tri-X (as I said and as you pointed out), is it’s chameleonic nature. I’d happily shoot the same roll during the day or night and be confident enough to know that I’d have the latitude to handle any scenario I encountered. In addition, I could mess around in development in such a way as to get sharp-ish images from the daylight half and muddier ones on the night time half. I love that! Ilford Delta 400 Pro has similar capabilities but I find it a little too clinical sometimes.
I guess it boils down to finding a film that gives you a look you like and then sticking with it. If (as you rightly say), those films above give you a feeling of having a similar look, then I’d suggest shooting the hell out of them and find out where exactly they differ and play to their strengths!
Personally, my current feeling is to stick to Tri-X during the winter and HP5+ for the rest of the year.
Thanks for your comment!