David Hume | Jul 10, 2018 | 6
Repulsion to attraction: my Kodak T-MAX 400 story so far
Kodak T-MAX 100 is undoubtedly the film I prefer after Tri-X 400 but despite this T-Grain appreciation, I have never been able to fully appreciate T-MAX 400. Although on paper it could replace Tri-X for my 35mm photography, I still find the old queen unbeatable amongst ISO 400 black and white emulsions.
Tri-X 400 has been my favourite film stock since the beginning of the 1980s, despite the fact that at that time I was constantly in search of no-grain/low-grain films. Nowadays, with the dominance of unnaturally sharp digital images, I have learned to appreciate the grain of classical films even though I am still fascinated by the sharpness delivered by new technology films such as T-MAX 100.
Living two these two passions at the same time is not easy but I have found a place of balance by taking both traditional grain and T-grain emulsion photographs during my portrait sessions.
Wanting to give T-MAX 400 another chance at my leaderboard, I purchased a few rolls and began testing…
Returning to T-MAX 400…
My first rolls were shot at box speed and processed in Microphen for 9 minutes at 20°C with my usual agitation scheme of two inversions every three minutes. I choose Microphen not for any particular reason other than it is the developer I normally use for high sensitivity films and above all for push processing.
The results were really below my expectations. In truth, I expected negatives similar to T-MAX 100 even if with more grain. I should state that I have always exposed T-MAX 100 at box speed.
After Microphen, I made a second attempt with Rodinal, the developer I have been using for low sensitivity films over the past four years. Again, I stuck with my usual agitation scheme (above) and dilution – 1+25 for 9 minutes at 20°C.
Rodinal delivered more “personality” in my negatives, however, it did not produce the desired effect: making me scream like a teenage girl.
Still having some rolls to use, I paused my shooting and began to browse the net trying to understand how others develop T-MAX 400 and found some nice images with good shades of gray and acceptable details in the blacks.
Some I particularly enjoyed were developed using Kodak HC-110, others with D76, a few with T-MAX developer. It was then I remembered good old D76, a developer I used intensively from the late 1970s up to the 1990s.
…and finally, it was with the help of D76 that I got some nice negatives from T-MAX 400. Although I must say that they were slightly underdeveloped: I will increase the time slightly with the next roll.
Here are a few shots from that roll, exposed at EI 400 and developed in D76 stock for 10 minutes at 20°C with two inversions every three minutes. They were all taken with my old Canon EOS 500N and an EF 50mm f/1.8 STM except the last, which was taken with my EF 40mm f/2.8 STM wide open.
Up to this point, T-MAX 400 was giving me what I felt were conflicting results. I felt puzzled because it wasn’t always giving me the range of grays I had come to expect through my research.
Perhaps this was because of having Tri-X as my reference for ISO 400 film stocks or perhaps I have not yet found the correct development scheme to squeeze the best from the emulsion.
An unexpected twist
A change in my attitude towards the film came following my daughter’s dance recital, held at a local theatre. I had been informed that I would not be allowed to photograph during the event; so only I took along the gear necessary to capture a couple of outdoor shots: a Canon EOS 33 with EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens. I loaded a roll of ILFORD FP4 PLUS and took along an extra roll of T-MAX 400 because you never know, sometimes a high sensitivity film can sometimes save the day!
That’s exactly what happened…
Entering the venue I saw many people with cameras and big lenses. An announcement made it clear that the photography prohibition was limited to the use of flash and not to taking photographs. Well, I pulled out the Canon and quickly took a light reading of the stage.
I would need to expose the film at EI 3200 to obtain a shutter speed high enough to freeze “my ballerina” and remembered having seen several examples of T-MAX 400 pushed 3 stops, so I did! I took only a few frames that I, of course, processed later in Microphen – 15 minutes at 20°C.
I was very pleasantly surprised with the results of which I share two frames below.
The scene was very contrasty and my exposure was based on a spot reading on the pink ballerina outfits. In addition, I was a quite far from the stage and was only able to use my 85mm lens, so the pictures are cropped but I am really happy with the images and feel that they speak for themselves.
Developing my relationship with T-MAX 400
All this goes to say that at box speed, Kodak T-MAX 400 isn’t really my cup of tea – yet.
I prefer much more “grainy” ISO 400 films such as Tri-X 400, ILFORD HP5 PLUS (especially pushed a bit) and Foma Retropan 320 and my initial dissatisfaction with T-MAX 400 was based on a deception of my own making, I was mistakenly expecting to be able to compare it with Tri-X and expect similar outcome – obviously not the case.
Based on the results you see here – my T-MAX 400 journey, if you will – I will definitely be pushing T-MAX 400 again and very probably, I will try it for some ambient light portraits… maybe even at box speed as well!
As ever, there is a long road ahead, filled with many more experiments, surprises and maybe one day, a place on my favourite film stock leaderboard.
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