Kodak Tri-X 400 Review

What can be said about Kodak’s venerable workhorse film? This film is the one that most of us, from the US anyways, learn on when we start learning black and white film. It is forgiving. It looks stunning. If you have ever seen a black and white photo then chances are you have seen Tri-X. Most of the pictures on my site are Tri-X at this point.  It can be pushed, pulled, stand developed... you name it and Tri-X can probably take it in stride.

 

This will not get into technical details. There are countless sources for that info just a Google search away. This is more of a review about the heart of the film. Tri-X has a heart of gold... if somewhat tarnished gold. It is gritty. It is sharp. It is contrasty. It produces different results in different developers. Sometimes it is smoother and softer (D76) and sometimes it is grainy and hard and sharp as glass (Rodinal). My favorite image was taken in a private garden on an autumn day in the late afternoon and developed in Rodinal. The details captivate me. 

 

For beginners this is the film to learn on. It can handle your misteps. It can take the beating you give it and still give you back images that make you smile. Like a lot of beginners, I went out and bought a roll or two of whatever I could get my hands on. Ilford, Foma, Rollei, Kodak... anything I could find. Once I started to dial in the use of my Hasselblad, to understand how those gorgeous Ziess lenses rendered light, I was able to start seeing how different films handled that light information. And for a long long time Tri-X handled it in a way that I enjoyed more than any other films with the exception of Ilford’s PanF + but that is a whole nother low speed beast for another day. Once I was happy with how I could shoot Tri-X and started to learn film development for myself, I couldn’t have asked for a better film to learn on. I didn’t know anything about developing so I went to a shop and bought what I had heard of. I got Ilford’s Perceptol and Tri-X still gave me nice results. I decided Perceptol was too expensive here in Tokyo so I got some D76.... and again Tri-X gave me great results. I think it is the only film I have ever used where every roll has developed well and I haven’t wasted a roll (I’m looking at you PanF and your moody temperment). I learned over time and research that many of the images I loved from my heroes were made on Tri-X and souped in Rodinal. After searching and searching and searching and calling and mailing and many months of fruitless effort zi was finally able to get Rodinal (R09 One Shot but for all intents and purposes it is Rodinal) here.... shipped from Silver Salt in Nagoya. The first time I pulled a roll of Tri-X from the tank and held it up to the light I started laughing. There it was. There was the look... the elusive thing we all chase. We all have our version but mine was Tri-X in Rodinal. The grain, thick but smooth and more of a texture than a distraction, the shadows, detailed and clear and deep, and the highlight, open and warm and practically glowing from the paper. 

 

There have been times when Tri-X has driven me mad. Too much grain, too much contrast, too much.... everything but that all boils down to how you shot it and how you developed it. Grab a roll, or better yet a box or two or three, and prepare yourself for a new addiction. Try to push it, try to pull it, try to develope it under normal conditions, vary temperatures and dilutions and developers, and do stand and semi-stand developing. See what it gives you from what you have given it. 

Why Film?

With all of the blindingly brilliant digital offerings why would anyone choose to solely shoot film? Film is old hat. It is expensive and time consuming. Don’t want to work with chemicals at home? Having your negatives developed at a shop or lab gets crazy expensive. Yet film has a massive following still. THIS IS NOT A FILM VERSUS DIGITAL ARGUMENT. This is about why I, as a photographer, choose film instead of digital... and, yes, I am just as interested in the latest gear as anyone else. It has been a real challenge for me not to run out and get the new Hasselblad X1D field kit. Luckily, I am poor so that solves that problem. 

When I got back into photography I dove right in and shot shot shot on my iPhone. I shot hundreds of images a day. I got VSCO, Lightroom, tons of camera apps, and Instagram. Then I got a digital camera. It was fun and the images were good but it was the same: shoot shoot shoot shoot. I spent more time online. I looked at pictures on Instagram, Flickr, and other sites and I noticed something. My pictures looked nothing like the pictures from other photographers that I loved. So I spent months learning all about editing software and composition and technique. My images were still missing something. Something I couldn’t easily define. The next step was to research what my favorite photographers were using. I learned that I love black and white. It captivates me and forces my attention. I still love color too. There are some astounding color photographers. 

The main thing I discovered was that for color I think digital is absolutely brilliant. Fuji and Hasselblad are making some incredible cameras that render color in gorgeous breathtaking ways. However, I found that for black and white I am enamoured with film. Digital images always seem to be either cold or hard looking. Film has a warmth and softness to it that makes me fall a well made image.  So I started shooting film. 

I tried lots of different film stocks. And I sucked. My images were absolutely shit. So I worked harder, studied more, contemplated my process more, and shot more. Then I slowly got better. Film photography forces you to improve. There is no screen to check to see if your composition was good or if your focus was on. That contemplative aspect is tantamount for me. Instead of shooting hundreds of images a day, I now shoot two or three rolls of medium format film a day, almost always Kodak Tri-X 400. That is 24-36 pictures a day. I also take multiple shots of the same scene. What looks good in the moment often turns out to be.... almost right. It is usally another shot from a slightly different perspective that makes the cut. Maybe I moved a few feet in another direction or used a different f-stop. 

The next thing is the process of developing your film. I love being able to experiment with developers and exposure times. Developing is simple once you practice and understand what is happening. If you can cook a simple meal then you can mix the chemicals and develop film at home. 

If you are worried about the cost... don’t be. I buy my film in bulk and get my chemicals at a local shop. The cost is less per month than I could finance a similar quality digital camera for per month. 

Film is forever. Digital files disappear and are lost. When was the last time you looked at a digital photo you took from last year? Or from your first digital camera? Your first smartphone? Film negatives are permanent. Prints are permanent... provided that you don’t destroy them.  

If you are on the fence get on ebay or go to a thrift shop and pick up a little camera for a few bucks and give it a try for a month. You will be surprised. It may just bring the joy back into photography for you. 

A Little About Me

My name is T. Ben Bryant. I am a photographer and writer living in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo. I am from a small town in Tennessee and grew up on a farm about an hour and a half south of Nashville. I first moved to Japan about ten years ago. Initially, I lived in the gorgeous city of Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture. Matsumoto is known as the mountain climbing/ winter sports hub of Japan. It is a small city nestled high in a valley in the northern Alps. A few years ago I moved to Tokyo for work. During my time in Tokyo, I began to miss the outdoors and needed an outlet. I rediscovered photography. At first, I shot digitally and mainly focused on street photography. After about a year of this, I became bored. I was shooting so many photos and only a few really spoke to me. On a whim, I began researching film cameras after remembering wonderful times with my father and grandfather. My father had some brilliant little Nikons and I remembered the beautiful black and white images he made. My grandfather had an old Leica M3 and a Hasselblad. After a lot of searching, I finally located and bought an old Hasselblad 500c, a Zeiss 80mm Planar, and a Zeiss 150mm Sonnar. I then began to experiment with different film stocks before settling on the classic Kodak Tri-x 400 as a good balance between look and cost. In the beginning, I had the film processed by Yodobashi Camera, Japan's largest photography chain, but the negatives often came back damaged or poorly processed. So I decided to teach myself how to develop my own film. After a few rolls, I was able to consistently produce results that were far and above much higher quality than what the lab could do and at a fraction of the cost. In the coming posts I will review my gear and detail processes for taking photographs and developing film as well as review films, recommend sites and resources for those wanting learn, and provided tutorials based upon what I have learned. I hope by visiting my site you become insipired to pick up an old camera and shoot some film.