Tag Archives: Tri-X

Silver Efex Tri-X Emulations: Nikon D200, Sigma SD15, and M9 CCD Monochrom

Nikon D200
Sigma SD15
M9 Monochrom

Above are three digital files that have been run through the Tri-X emulation in Silver Efex. They are RAW files from 1) a 10 MP D200; 2) a 4/14 MP Sigma SD15 Foveon; and 3) an 18 MP M9 CCD Monochrom. (Click to enlarge.)

IMO, The D200 is the closest to a Tri-X film negative. ( Read more here).

The 4 MP Sigma SD15 renders the best to my eye and can pass for carefully developed Tri-X (pulled at 200 maybe) although it looks less like Tri-X than does the D200; compare it to the 10 MP D200 file and you can see the clear superiority of the 4 MP Foveon sensor in terms of tonality and sharpness. It’s a stunning B&W rendering from such a modest MP sensor. IMO, it’s also preferable to the Monochrom’s output.

The Monochrome is the least like film Tri-X; blown highlights that you’d never see on a Tri-X negative (even though the RAW file was shot at -.3 EV), tonality and an odd clarity more like Panatomic-X than Tri-X. The Monochrom just doesn’t work well with Silver Efex emulations..

Winner for “The Tri-X Look:” The Nikon D200. Winner for the best look: The Sigma SD15.

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Digital Tri-X: I’ve Reached The Holy Grail

I suspect that all of us Leica guys who learned our craft in the film era have a somewhat irrational fixation on “High Speed” Kodak Tri-X B&W film. It’s the film we grew up rolling into cartridges, shooting (oftentimes pushing to 1600 ISO), developing and printing. A complete end to end process.

Kodak first introduced Tri-X 1940 in sheets rated at ASA 200 and tungsten 160. It was one of Kodak’s first “high-speed” black and white films back when ASA 25 was the norm. Kodak released Tri-X in 35 and 120 formats in 1954, available in two speeds, ASA 320 (320TXP) and 400/27° (400TX) although I could never figure out why. Tri-X 400 was the more common of the two, available in 24- and 36-exposure rolls of 35 mm and rolls of 120 as well as 50 and 100 foot 35mm bulk rolls. Tri-X 320 was available in 4×5″, 5×7″, and 8×10″ single sheets.

Tri-X has undergone a number of minor engineering changes during its long history. An early change in ASA (ISO) speed from 200 to 400 around 1960 due to changes in the ASA standard rather than the film. In 2007 Kodak re-engineered the film for finer grain, receiving the new designation 400TX in place of TX or TX400. The amount of silver in the film stock was reduced. Lot’s of fans weren’t happy, suspecting the stock of morphing into a more tame version of the modern TMAX Kodak offerings.

Tri-X 400 and D76 go together like eggs and ham. Tri-X rated at ISO 400 when processed in D76 remains among the faster yet resolute black and white films today. In the film era, Tri-X photographers could change their results by using different developers (high acutance developers give more sharpness but more grain too) and by push-processing the film to higher ISO sensitivities. Pushing Tri-X to ASA 800 in a standard developer generally gets good results and pushing to 1600 is doable as long as you know what you’re doing i.e. using highly diluted developers with little or no agitation and extended development times. This is “stand” or “semi-stand” development, and can allow speeds up to EI 3200 or 6400. Of course, pushing past 800 and you’re going to have a lot of grain and contrast irrespective of the caution you take, especially if you agitate vigorously which some do to accentuate the grain.

My preferred method of shooting it is to rate it at ISO 800 and develop it in Diafine, a two bath speed enhancing developer that gives a true ISO for the film of 640. But then again, I develop everything in Diafine. It’s the closest thing to a miracle developer we have.

Tri-X was the film used by working photojournalists throughout the 50’s to the 70’s. It was manufactured by Eastman Kodak in the U.S., Kodak Canada, and Kodak Ltd in the UK. Kodak data-sheets once recommended different processing times depending on where the film was manufactured. Its sales declined in the 1970s and 1980s due to the falling price and increasing popularity of color film. Since the advent of digital photography, Tri-X is pretty much dead except as a vanity film for those of us trying to recapture the magic of our lost photographic youth. Given the ease of digital, and the various ways we’re now able to ’emulate’ the Tri-X look digitally, shooting 36 exposure rolls of Tri-X with all the attendant issues seems to me quixotic at best. There is hope, however.


An Actual Tri-X Photo, 800 ISO Developed in Diafine.

‘Conflict Photographer’ Don McCullin has used Tri-X to excellent effect his entire career. McCullin, as of 2014 having accepted that Tri-X will one day no longer be available, is dreading the time. “I think in many ways it’s the news we’re all expecting at some point,” he says, “and having heard the rumours about Kodak I’ll be going out in the morning to buy 100 rolls to make sure I’ve got some stashed away!

“I would simply say that Tri-X is probably the greatest film ever to come into existence. I used it throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, and I’m still using it in its medium-format form today for my landscape work. It’s still my favorite material. In terms of what film to use, there was no decision to make,” he says. “Tri-X was by far and away the best material around for the job I needed to do. There were other films that were also very good, such as Plus-X, but they were much slower and were best used when you weren’t likely to have the need to shoot in difficult conditions.

“I loved Tri-X because it was so versatile. You could always push it a stop to 800 ASA and give it longer in the developer to get you out of trouble if you had to. It meant that if the weather was bad or you were shooting indoors, you could carry on working.”

At the heart of Kodak Tri-X is grain. Over the years other ISO 400 B&W films have used new chemical technologies and are much smoother (Kodak TMAX 400, Ilford Delta 400, and Fuji Acros 400). But the rough and gritty feel of Kodak Tri-X continues to be popular, especially with those after a more traditional look. Grain is different than digital noise, regular in structure, tighter and less blotchy. Tri-X is also fairly high contrast, and has a tonal response that renders blues as lighter than reds or greens in black & white.


Digital Tri-X. Nikon D200, 90’s Era 24mm Nikkor AF, ISO 800 RAW, Run Through Tri-X Silver Efex Exposure Curve and Grain Emulation

It’s instructive to note that the clasic Tri-X film look wasn’t based solely on the film’s inherent qualities and/or the manner in which it was processed and printed. The “Tri-X Look” was a function of any number of film era variables – less resolute film ( approx 6mp equivalent), less resolute film era optics that softened the inherent grain. Duplicating this with a digital camera is an art unto itself. I’ve found that 24+ mpg sensors give files that are too dense for the grain emulation of Silver Efex, even when increasing size of the grain to match the increased density. Modern corrected lenses just don’t seem to work either; results are too sharp and ‘clinical.’ Likewise, my Leica M9 Monochrom’s files are just too clean and don’t look right once you subject them to film emulations. And Forget about the Foveons, even though they remain my favorite for digital B&W; too sharp and tonally subtle…why dumb down such beautiful output? They’re more like digital Panatomic-X.

In my experience, the perfect digital camera set up to duplicate Tri-X via Silver Efex or simply with grain emulation in Lightroom is the 10 mpix CCD Nikon D200 coupled with an early AF Nikkor or a manual focus E-Series Nikkor shot at ISO 800. The Ricoh GXR 10 MP M-mount with a classic Summicron (or a Jupiter 8 for that matter) is also a good option. The limited dynamic range of the D200 CCD sensor shot at 800 seems similar to the native dynamic range of Tri-X (it also gives just a hint of noise that the emulated grain covers seamlessly), and the softer, less clinical rendering of the 70’s – 90’s pre-computerized era Nikkors seem a good match for the types of film era lenses people like Don McCullin was using to such beautiful effect. So, after much experimentation, my Digital Tri-X setup is a Nikon D200 with a 24mm 2.8 AF Nikkor, shot at ISO 800 in RAW, developed in Lightroom and then sent to Silver Efex for judicious (light touch) use of the Tri-X emulation curves. I typically choose the default grain amount and only make marginal edits to brightness and contrast where needed. Which is all to say that you don’t need the latest and greatest to get the results you want. It’s all about putting the variables together properly.

Voila! Digital Tri-X!


Post-Script: Having said all this, If I had to choose between shooting Tri-X and shooting Ilford HP5, I’d being shooting the HP5. HP5 has a tonality that Tri-X can’t match…and it also has wonderful grain. And you can push it to ISO 1600 too. Like Tri-X, I shoot it at 800 ISO and develop in Diafine.

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The Renaissance of Film Grain in the Digital Age


I love the picture above. It’s not so much the subject ( a throwaway portrait), it’s the aesthetic of the photo, and particularly, the grain. It has a beautiful traditional black and white 35mm look, a function of the classic optical rendering (a 50’s era Nikkor H 50 f/1.4 Leica Thread Mount), the tonality of a classic emulsion (Tri-X), and the overlay of grain inherent in the film process. Grain is the random optical texture of processed film caused by small metallic silver particles developed from silver halide.  Unlike pixelation, film grain is an optical effect, the amount of which depends on both the film stock and observational distances. For me, its the grain that sets traditional black and white film photography apart from digital black and white and why many of us prefer the labor intensive film process to digital black and white.

Which is ironic, because as a general rule, back in the film era, grain used to be a thing we tried to avoid. We chased newer emulsions that gave use a cleaner, less grainy look. C-41 films like Ilford XP2 and Kodak CN400 gave an almost grainless rendering and were popular for that reason; or we handicapped ourselves by shooting slow speed films like Kodak Panatomic-X (iso 32) or Ilford Pan-F (iso 50) as much for their lack of grain as their enhanced tonality. If we needed decent speed but unobtrusive grain for 11 by 14 prints, we shot Plus-X (iso 125). Or we avoided grain altogether by shooting medium format. When we needed low light capabilities, the quick easy shot, we opted for 35mm Tri-X or HP5, maybe even pushing it a stop to 800 iso, developing in a speed-enhancing developer like Microphen and crossing our fingers.

But a curious thing happened with the advent of digital photography: we realized the power grain had as an aesthetic characteristic in itself.  When seen in contrast to the sterility of digital capture grain revealed its inherent importance to the look of film photography. After we lost the rearguard battles of resolution, dynamic range and tonality to digital capture, we were left with the grain, and we finally recognized the particularity of film, its “look,” was the result of the organic quality of the grain and how the medium itself, with its random imperfections, was a necessary part of the image itself. And now we shoot film for the grain.


So, many of us who cut our teeth on film photography have now discovered the role grain plays in what we perceive to be a proper aesthetic of a photograph. We’ve found ways of changing film grain characteristcs in the darkroom by using certain chemicals, and we often choose film with specific grain for different occasions. In many ways, what sort of grain we want for a given look – coarse, subdued, plentiful – is as important as our choice of lens.

Melissa-4Havana, 1997, Leica M5 and Tri-X

If film grain has aesthetic value, high ISO digital noise does not. Not all sensors produce ugly noise at higher sensitivities – some produce noise almost “filmlike” (The Ricoh GXR M Mount comes to mind), but it’s usually only a matter of degree, not quality.  In digital capture, the equivalent of film grains are the individual elements of the image sensor, the pixels; just as small-grain film has better resolution than large-grain film, so too an image sensor with more numerous pixels will usually result in an image with better resolution. However, unlike pixels, film grain is not the limit of a given film stock’s resolution. While film grain is randomly distributed and varies in size, image sensor cells are the same size and are arranged in a geometric grid. In general, as the pixels from a digital image sensor are set in straight lines, they are less pleasing visually – thin, as it were –  then randomly arranged film grains. Viewers will reject an enlargement that shows pixels, when a film enlargement with ample grain and lower resolution will look normal, and ‘sharper’ at a normal viewing distance.

Various software exist to mimic the generic “look” of scanned film by converting to grayscale and adding random noise to emulate film grain. However, the results are often not convincing, because:

real film grain is not random noise
real film grain looks dramatically different across different film stocks
real film grain expresses itself differently based on exposure

A discerning eye can tell it’s not film, because real film grain, and the real film look, is a function of innumerable variables that go into the choice, exposure and development of a roll of film. To add grain to a digital image so that it would completely mimic film grain you would have to match the measured dynamic range and spectral response of a specific film stock and then correctly incorporate that film’s actual film grain into the image, duplicating how that grain expresses itself relative to exposure, stock, and development process.


Melissa-5Buddha and Melissa, 2013, Leica X1, Silver Efex Tri-X emulation

For me, film images look like images should look. Digital capture has a transparency to it that’s off-putting, even when you run them through an emulation like Silver Efex (see above). There’s a certain thinness to digital capture, because it lacks the organic texture intrinsic to the film image. The organic nature of film grain adds a layer of separation from reality, and this separation, far from adulterating the image, helps feed the viewer’s imagination. It’s this separation from strict reality that gives grain it’s power and character. Real film grain gives us something more than an indexical transposition of the “real”; it feeds the imagination. That’s why, in an age of crystal clean 3200 iso digital capture, I prefer to shoot HP5. And I always push it a stop to 800 iso, just for the enhanced grain, because its a look I simply can’t duplicate even with a dedicated black and white tool like the Monochrom and Silver Efex.

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“Tri-X Can Kiss My Ass”


Unlike that of my brethren, my early forays into photography were mostly in color. I worked at a one-hour photo lab in high school, so I was able to get color neg processed at a hefty discount. I also read wildlife photographer John Shaw’s “field techniques” book, and took his advice that if I was really going to learn, I was going to have to get better through the discipline of shooting chrome, so there was a good bit of Kodachrome running through my camera then as well (when I could afford it). My goal was to get tack sharp, perfectly exposed pictures, and Kodachrome, Velvia, and (in print film), Fuji Reala, were my films of choice.

Yes, I shot Tri-X in high school during yearbook class, and we shot it for my first year or so on my college newspaper staff, and I did my share of night football with weird esoteric mixtures of developer (Acufine, sodium sulfite) when I really needed to crank the ISO.

This is where I’m going to say something blasphemous and all you Tri-X nostalgists are going to look at my like I’m crazy. As soon as T-Max came out (around my second year of college), I abandoned Tri-X and it’s contrasty, chunky-ugly grain. T-Max 100 looked better than Pan-X (which was ISO 32), and I found T-Max 400 to be superior to Tri-X at 400, 800, and 1600.

When we really needed to crank it, we went to the T-Max 3200. Some people complained about T-Max 400 not looking as good as the venerable Tri-X they were used to, but I chalk that up to people not processing it correctly. If you read the directions, and mixed the T-Max developer correctly, it kicked Tri-X’s ass. The grain was so sharp and fine on it, that I often had trouble using the grain focusing device in the darkroom. During my second semester on the student publications staff, I was put in charge of purchasing supplies… I started buying it for the staff, and I’ve never looked back since.

There, I said it. You guys are a bunch of romantics. Tri-X can kiss my ass.

Robert Seale is a freelance editorial and corporate photographer based in Houston, Texas. You can see his work at http://www.robertseale.com

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“I Was Addicted to Tri-X”

dan dry

Hello … my name is Dan and I was an addict. Yes, I was addicted to Kodak Tri-X film. My habit started out innocently enough when I was 15 years old. I had a Humanities teacher my freshman year at Athens (OH) High School, Ms. Penix. She told me that she liked my writing style and that I might make a good journalist. I wasn’t even sure what that was. She said that I should try out for a spot on the high school student newspaper, The Matrix. I checked it out and as a 15-year-old male, I quickly discovered that I didn’t want to write any more than was required of me.

As it turned out, Ms. Penix was also the faculty advisor of the paper. She encouraged me to shoot some photos and turn them in as my audition for the opening as the paper’s lone staff photographer. I borrowed my mother’s Pentax camera and then made my way to the local photo studio and camera store in our town, Lamborn’s, it was there where I purchased my first two rolls of Kodak Tri-X, 36-exposure film.

I had the film, I had the camera and I had the desire to try to take pictures. Fueled by that desire, it only took a couple of days between classes, and before and after my cross country team practices to use up every single one of those 72 available clicks. I was not quite sure what the next steps in the process were. So I gathered up my courage to ask Brad Samuels, a senior and the yearbook photographer how I could get the film developed.

Brad’s words still ring in my ears like the school bell “Ok so here is the deal, you pay me 50 cents a roll and I will develop it for you, or you give me a buck a roll and I will teach you how it’s done son!”

I went for the buck a roll, after a couple more trips to Lamborn’s and 5 bucks worth of processing lessons; I was developing a mild habit.I snagged that staffer spot on The Matrix and in no time I was working alongside with other aspiring journalists who were all juniors and seniors. Yep I was hanging out with the “cool kids”.

My habit was becoming a bit expensive and I quickly learned that if I purchased the Tri-X film in a bulk 100-foot roll and hand loaded the film cassettes myself, it drove the film cost way down, doing the math I calculated it was around a penny per frame, wow 36 cents for 36 clicks, who would not love that?

I shot photos daily and always exclusively with Kodak Tri-X. I soon learned that I could “push” the Tri-X, by increasing the developing time and using a stronger developing solution at higher temperatures, by doing this, the 400 ASA Tri-X became 1600 ASA Tri-X. This new found trick was great for covering my Athens High School Bulldogs as they played Friday night football and basketball games on the poorly lit fields and in the dimly lit gyms of schools in the neighboring villages and small towns with such names as; Logan, Nelsonville, Wellston, Pomeroy and Ironton.

As far as I knew there was no film other than Tri-X even available for purchase.

I started stringing for our local daily newspaper, The Athens Messenger. The 12,000-circulation daily had a storied history of employing students from the local college, Ohio University and molding them into veteran photojournalists. Shooters like Jon Webb, Bob Rogers, Chuck Beckley and Ken Steinhoff shot for “The Mess” during college and a year or so beyond. Then armed with an Appalachian based portfolio of images in their hands and more than a few awards in their pockets, went off to work for major photo driven newspapers in Louisville, North Carolina and Florida where they continued to make their mark and advance in the business.

With my own Nikon around my neck and my gadget bag full of hand-loaded cassettes of Tri-X, I shot thousands of images on a variety of assignments for the Messenger. In spite of my young age, I was given a staff photographer position in my senior year of high school. I started making real pictures, some of those pictures were winning awards and more over, they were pictures that people noticed and talked about. 2752_1

One of those people was Chuck Scott, who at the time was a fairly new professor at Ohio University. He was the Photo-J God. The photographers that he had produced and who had worked under him at the Milwaukee Journal and Chicago Daily News had won more Pulitzer Prizes and NPPA Pictures of the Year titles than most of the newspaper staffs in the country combined. Scott came to our home, sat down with my father and me and looked at my portfolio. Every one of the 20 -16×20 mounted prints in that case were all shot on Tri-X. Scott liked what he saw and he recruited me like a coach going after a star athlete. Scott damned sure was not going to let a hometown kid head off to his arch rival, the University of Missouri, long the nation’s PJ powerhouse and my top college choice.

Using the delivery of a country preacher he convinced us that I should go to school in my hometown, be part of his program and study under him. As he said “It’s not only the right thing to do but it’s the ticket and Danny’s first steps to become a world class photojournalist and eventually perhaps even to working for National Geographic or at least land one of the three coveted Internships at the Society”.

My father, who was avid amateur photographer, made a great comment: “To work at Geographic, would require him to shoot something other than Tri-X and none of us can see that happening.” That remark made us all chuckle. That Tri-X addiction of shooting those hand loaded cassettes lasted all four years at Ohio U., with the exception of when I served as an Intern twice for National Geographic.

At the end of my senior year, I turned down 29 firm job offers to take a three-month position at the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, where I was the “pregnancy replacement” for Pam Spaulding. There were a few folks including my father who asked: “WHY?” The answer was easy. Simply put, I wanted to be part of and learn from what many considered to be the finest newspaper photo staff in the country.

My first day on the job I was issued “bricks” of Tri-X! I could not figure out what made me more excited, was it working with the best of the very best, or was it no longer needing to hand roll my own Tri-X?

Those three months turned into a five-year stint as a CJ staffer. I could not have been happier. I loved the area. I loved the staff and truly I loved the journalism and photojournalism that we produced at an independent family owned newspaper.

The awards stacked up, I even won the NPPA Newspaper Photographer of the Year. Looking back on it, 99 percent of that portfolio was shot of Kodak Tri-X. Indeed I was addicted to that grainy film and it had helped me accomplish a goal that I had since high school. Not a month seemed go by when I would not get multiple job offers from major large market newspapers. I turned them all down with little or no interest of leaving the CJ.

But then on a hot late June day, it happened: I received the call that many photographers wait their entire careers for. It was from Bob Gilka, the sometimes gruff, long time Director of Photography at National Geographic. He asked me, if I wanted to come work at “The Society.” I didn’t think about it twice. I didn’t ask what it paid. I didn’t ask where he was sending me. I didn’t ask when the job started. I just said “YES.” When he asked if I wanted a day or two to think about it, I just said “NO… Mr. Gilka, I’m all in!”

An hour later with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I walked into the office of then Courier-Journal Director of Photography, C. Thomas Hardin and said I was leaving the paper. Bob Gilka had called, at the age of 28 I was getting my shot at Nat. Geo. Tom paused for a moment and said, “Do me a favor go back into the file room and look at your negs and see all that you have done here.” He looked over the top of his glasses and said “Oh hell Dry you must go, you have to do it, that’s a dream for us all.”

Two weeks and one day later as I stood in a West Texas pasture photographing cowboys rounding up cattle, it struck me: My addiction with Tri-X had ended and another addiction had entered my life… its name was Kodachrome 64!


Dan Dry is currently the Chief Visual Officer and Senior Vice President at Power Creative. He has won over 400 national and international photography, advertising and design awards during his career. He was a member of the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Pulitzer Prize winning photography staff from 1976 until 1982. You can see his work at: http://www.dandry.com

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A Leica M6 and Tri-X v. the Leica Monochrom

TX v MM 1

An interesting comparison of 35mm Tri-X shot with an M6 versus the digital Monochrom, identical subjects, identical lenses, by French photographer Alexandre Maller (www.alexandremaller.com) posted on summilux.net. All photographs are by Mr. Maller.

3 lenses used: -. Summicron 35 asph – Summicron 50 V – Apo-Summicron 90 asph. 

Silver images: Tri-X exposed at ISO 400 and developed in Ilford LC 29-1. The negatives were then scanned at 3200 DPI original size with an Epson V700,.

Digital images: 400 ISO DNG , then post processed in Adobe Camera RAW 6.6. 

TX v MM 2

In resolution and detail the digital files are superior, but I prefer the rendering and the particular dynamics of the film – the rendering from highlights to shadows and grain distribution over various tones looks more pleasing to the eye, fuller, warmer, less ‘plasticky’ even looking at limited web-sized pictures. After over a decade of rapid development in digital capture the best digital engineers still haven’t mastered the art of digital film emulation. The clinical digital sterility is still there with the Monochrom, especially seen on mid tones and highlights. To achieve the look of film with the Monochrom, which is what Leica purports it to do, you’d need to add digital grain to certain midtones, soften highlights (often impossible with digital files because they’re clipped), and expand the shadows.

TX 1


Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)

MM 1


TX 3

Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)

MM 3


TX 2

Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)

MM 2

TX 4

Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)



Which leads to the obvious question: why spend $7500 on a digital camera that emulates the “film look” when you can just buy a used Leica M film camera for $1000 and a 100′ roll of Tri-X and get the real thing? And another thing to think about: in 50 years that M4 you buy on Ebay for $950 will still be working just fine, no batteries needed, while your Monochrom will have been consigned to the junk heap decades ago.

The M4, all parts made by Leitz, is all mechanical, all parts capable of being replaced without much ado by a competent repairman or machinist. The MM (and all digital ‘cameras’) are consumer electronic commodities meant to be replaced by newer, “better” commodities every three years or so. Your Monochrom employs specialized chips and other parts, not made by Leica and therefore out of their control, which exist in finite supply: a proprietary shape and voltage battery manufactured by a third party, proprietary code to run itself, a proprietary imaging chip. Your Leica MM also depends on a host of other third-party technology (e.g. computers, image processing programs, web browsers) over which neither Leica nor you have any control. In 15 years, while your M4 loaded with Tri-X sits happily on your shelf next to book binders full of sleeved negatives you can touch and manipulate at your leisure, your Monochrom, all electronics and tiny motors, will be unrepairable because there won’t be parts. And good luck finding and/or retrieving all your MM DNG files.


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The Tri-X Factor


Bryan Appleyard, From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2014

Kodak’s Tri-X is the film the great photographers love. When Kodak started collapsingfinally filing for bankruptcy in January 2012some of the greatest photographers in the world panicked. Don McCullin immediately ordered 150 rolls of Kodak’s Tri-X black-and-white film. “I rang up my stockist and asked for them right away. I thought it was the end of my life. I don’t even know if they are still making it.”

Relax, Don, they are. After the company emerged from bankruptcy, a new company, Kodak Alaris, took over film production and, so far, it seems committed to producing Tri-X. But don’t relax too much. You are going to have to shoot those rolls pretty soon. Films, unlike digital sensors, have to be cared for. They need to be stored in fridges and even then, like supermarket food, they have expiry dates. This did not deter Anton Corbijn, the photographer and film-maker, from panic buying on a far larger scale than McCullin.


“I bought 2,500 rolls. My studio in Holland has three floors and there’s a fridge on each floor, all full of Tri-X. They must all be near their expiry date now. I don’t know what to do.”

McCullin shoots Tri-X alongside digital. Corbijn shoots almost nothing but film, Tri-X for black-and-white and Kodak Portra for colour. They are veteransMcCullin is 78 and Corbijn 58but they are not Luddites and they are not wallowing in nostalgia. They are intent on preserving an artefact, a practice and an art form that, they say, simply cannot be matched by the technologies of digital photography. They are also keeping alive a cultural moment defined by one brand of film.

 Self-portrait with woman and donkey, Paris, 1999

It was on Tri-X that McCullin captured some of the most powerful images of the Vietnam war: the shell-shocked American soldier with the thousand-yard stare and the fallen Vietamese soldier with bullets and family snaps scattered about him. It was on Tri-X that Corbijn took some of the greatest rock’n’roll photographs, including his documentation of the capering genius of Tom Waits, which has now run for nearly 40 years. In fact, if we include just a few other Tri-X usersHenri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Josef Koudelka and most of the finest of the photographers who worked for the Magnum agencyit becomes clear that this film may be the most aesthetically important technology in photographic history. The story of Tri-X is unique. It goes to the heart of how we see and what we see and what we may be losing as billions of casual, digital snaps are taken daily and as photographic integrity is subverted by the dead, flawless, retouched faces of actors and models that gaze blankly out at us.

As a commercial product, Tri-X is 60 this year. It first appeared in 1940, but only as a sheet film for large-format cameras. In 1954 it was released as a roll film for 35mm and medium-format cameras. In effect, it launched the golden age of black-and-white photography that was to last until the 1980s, as well as a new, urgent style of newspaper and magazine photography. It did so, first, through a simple technological innovation. Films are rated by their sensitivity, measured by what used to be called an ASA number, now known as ISO. The higher the number, the more sensitive (“faster” in photo-jargon) the filmor sensoris to light, though the cost of high sensitivity may be an increase in grain or “noise” in the image. Tri-X was rated at 400 ASA, very fast for its time (modern digital cameras can go up to 26,000 or more). But it was also flexible and forgiving. Even if your exposure was slightly wrong, you could still get a decent shot and Tri-X could easily be manipulated in the darkroomit became common chemically to push its ISO up to 800 or 1,600. Faster, more flexible film meant that professionals could now use the same film for outdoor and indoor shots and amateurs could be reasonably sure that their pictures would come out.


“I was technically awful when I started out,” says Sheila Rock, a photographer who made her name with shots of London punks in the 1970s. “I used to wonder if my images would come out, but with Tri-X they did.”

“Tri-X allowed me to make mistakes, of which there were many over the years,” Corbijn says, “and I somehow always got a print out of it.”

The more important innovation, however, was aesthetic. It is hard to describe exactly the look of a Tri-X picture. Words like “grainy” and “contrasty” capture something of the effect, but there is more, something to do with the obsidian blacks produced by the film and with a certain unique drama that made the rock photography of the Sixties and Seventies so powerful and distinctive. Steve Schofield, a British photographer, now in Los Angeles, who first encountered Tri-X in the Seventies, has a different word: “I got these incredibly contrasty negatives that still somehow managed to render detail in both the shadows and highlights. It’s got that steely look, not warm like lots of other film bases. It’s that basic look from Tri-X that I’ve tried to incorporate into my work which is now mostly shot digitally and is now colour…that monochromatic palette, but interpreting it with a simple colour base. If I do ever need to shoot black-and-white, I always prefer film and always opt for Tri-X.”

Another good word is “dirty”. In the early 1950s, monochrome photography was still dominated by the pearly perfection that came in with the black-and-white films of the Thirties. Those pictures had a wide tonal rangemany shades of greybut they tended to look flat. Tri-X, with its narrower tonal range, seldom looked flat and its harder, steelier style fitted the mood first of the realism of the Fifties, then of the casual, go anywhere, do anything mood of the Sixties. This dirtinessa product both of Tri-X’s grain and its ability to work in low lightwas the photographic correlative of three movements in other art forms: the Angry Young Men in literature, the School of London in painting, and the socially engaged work of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson in the cinema. It was an aspect of an age that rejected the cosy, the safe and the merely glamorous in favour of the dynamic, the unstable and the pungent smell of lived life. From this emerged, in the Seventies, Anton Corbijn, perhaps the supreme artist of dirty Tri-X. In his early work, the dirtiness was intensified in the processing and the result was stark, imperfect shots with very visible grain that felt more realistic than any perfectly developed and processed shot.

“Grain is life,” Corbijn says, “there’s all this striving for perfection with digital stuff. Striving is fine, but getting there is not great. I want a sense of the human and that is what breathes life into a picture. For me, imperfection is perfection.”

The urgency of its images made Tri-X the first choice of reportage photographers, from great artists like Cartier-Bresson and McCullin down to the snappers on the local paper. All you needed was a Nikon F cameraexpensive but tough and absurdly easy to use compared with today’s professional camerasand a few rolls of Tri-X and, maybe, a darkroom in your bathroom, and suddenly you could call yourself a photographer.


It should be said that there may have been some magical thinking in all this. Tri-X produced brand loyalty that produced superstitious devotion. Though it was the first fast black-and-white film, it was not on its own for long. Ilford produced a competing 400 ISO film that many regarded as interchangeable with Tri-X and, in any case, long before Photoshop came along, the great darkroom craftsmen could do almost anything with printing and processing. “We could always do what you wanted in the darkroom,” says Mike Spry, a printer at the firm Downtown Darkroom who handled the films of David Bailey, Patrick Lichfield and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Snowdon). “The great thing about black-and-white as opposed to colour was that you could change things around.”

Though it is true to say that professional digital photography of the face has converged on the dead, waxy, heavily retouched style that dominates the glossy magazines, it should also be remembered that good old-fashioned darkroom technique also involved extensive retouching. The finished product was different but no less manipulated.

Nevertheless, it was Tri-X that created the possibility and then the demand for urgency, contrast, grain and drama in photography. It revitalised photography as a whole, but black-and-white photography in particular. In doing so it drew attention to the fact that, in spite of the incursion of colour and all the billions of hues and shades of digital, there remains something natural and true about the monochrome photograph, something that springs directly from the camera itself. Sebastião Salgado refuses to consider colourhe regards it as an offensive distractionand has had his Canon digital cameras adapted so that the screen on the back shows only black-and-white.

It was also thanks to Tri-X that the wave of grainy, dirty reportage pictures changed high art photography. Art photography in the Sixties and Seventies, even in high fashion, was all about dirty grainy realismand, of course, black-and-white.


“They were great times for printers like me,” Mike Spry says. “Just as hairdressing became an art form in those days, so did black-and-white photography.”

Corbijn’s doctrine that grain is life expresses a great truth about the Sixties and Seventies way of seeing the world. The age was defined by a rebellion against safe perfection and a quest for truth in experimentation, danger and dirt. Nothing captured this moment better than Michelangelo Antonioni’s extraordinary film “Blow-Up” (1966). A Bailey-like photographer called Thomas, played by David Hemmings, makes extreme blow-ups of some monochrome shots he has taken in a park and discovers, emerging ghost-like from the grain, a corpse. But the truth of this corpsehe returns to the park to check that it is really therecontrasts with the bright, high-resolution, high-colour, hallucinated and erotic fantasies of Swinging London. In the end, Thomas is seduced by the unreal. He turns away from the truth of the grain and embraces grainless hippie unreality, a choice symbolised by his willingness to retrieve a non-existent tennis ball. It is hard to imagine a more vivid statement of the legacy of Tri-X and of its centrality not just as a film but as an idea of the age.

In the late 1990s Sebastião Salgado faced a crisis. Ever since the 1960s he had been shooting Tri-X, but he was not sure he could go oneither as a Tri-X user or even as a photographer. He specialises in long, heroic expeditions to produce his astounding pictures, most familiarly of the effects of industry on the third world. As airport security tightened, up to and after 9/11, he found it harder to persuade officials that his cases containing hundreds of rolls of film should be spared the X-ray machines. The signs say these machines do not affect film, but Salgado insists they do, especially if, like him, you pass through six or seven airports in a single trip. “The grain”, he says, “loses its structure.” The people at Kodak, meanwhile, have passed Tri-X through X-ray machines many times and they insist that it is not affected. Salgado, and many other pros, remain unconvinced.

His career and his next great work, “Genesis”, were saved by Canon. They claimed their latest digital cameras could match the quality of film and, after testing in the early 2000s, Salgado agreed. He now shoots everything on digital. Yet this is still a contentious point. Some say it is a simple matter of how many pixels can be packed on a sensor. Film photography, as an analogue form, produces pictures by allowing light to fall on chemically coated celluloid, creating an analogue of the scene in front of the lens. Digital, in contrast, collects light through a series of tiny sensors and then creates an electronic copy of the image. Film has very high resolution and early digital cameras with, say, 5 megapixels5m sensor pointscould not match this. This does not mean their photographs were less realistic, just that they could not be blown up beyond a certain native size without breaking down. For professionals, this makes cropping a digital photograph very costly in terms of available resolution, though software is available that interpolates additional pixels by working out what would be there if the resolution were much higher. Pixel counts have been rising steadily, and both Sony and Nikon now offer cameras for less than £2,000 that deliver 36 megapixels, a level of resolution that probably exceeds the capability of any 35mm film.

But, of course, it is not that simple. Squashing ever more pixels on to a sensor makes for technical problems and, in any case, it may not be the point. Film versus digital, McCullin points out, is still a debate among professionals and they are not talking about megapixels. Film is about more than just resolution, it is about authenticity. Film has other, more mysterious qualities.

“Film has more depth,” Sheila Rock says, “it’s the depth of going into a picture which I don’t find with digital. It’s much flatter. Some say it’s getting much better and I do see some things that have impressed me.”

Salgado knew this and he wasn’t quite prepared to go all the way to the digital look. He still wanted his all black-and-white pictures to look like Tri-Xand they do.

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“I went to the exhibition of ‘Genesis’ at the Natural History Museum,” Rock says. “I looked really closely at the pictures and I thought they were Tri-X, but I was told they were digital prints.”

When I asked Salgado how this was done, he shrugged. He did not know: all he did know is that his technicians could produce the Tri-X look he liked. He never touches a computer and his post-production work is done by assistants at his studio in Paris. In fact, and this is a sign of the image-making times, many widely available digital photo-editing programmes now offer “film emulation”. You can simply scroll through a list and pick which type of film you want. Click on Tri-X and your picture will instantly be transformedgrain, drama, dirt and all. It works veryto devotees, alarminglywell.

This software trickery, inserted into the digital algorithms to mimic an old manual craft, is another symptom of the now familiar phenomenon of analogue defiance, a rebellious hunger for the pre-digital world. Sales of vinyl records are now going up again, resistance to e-books can be fierce and, in New York, an art magazine called Master Cactus has emerged, which is only available on a tape cassette. In photography, the company Lomography has carved out an odd little niche market for plastic and toy film cameras whose dodgy construction produces bizarre and unpredictable effects. Polaroid cameras are on sale again and Fujifilm has produced its own version of instant snappery with the Fuji Instax film. Online, the 100m-plus users of Instagram can apply filters to give their pictures a variety of retro, filmish looks. People seem to be perversely drawn to the shortcomings of film photographythe light leaks of Lomography’s toy cameras, the strange starkness of small Polaroids and even, on Instagram, the corner-vignetting produced by vintage lenses.


Analogue defiance is a real and increasing force in the marketplace. It may be converting only a few to all the hassle and artistry of film, but, as a symbolic statement, it has had enormous impact on camera design. Film cameras, even the most expensive, were simplicity itself with only, in essence, three controlsfocus, aperture and shutter speed. Professional or “prosumer” digital cameras have so many controls, it is impossible to list them all. And they are operated by a very user-unfriendly set of buttons. These were discouraging amateurs from trading up, so over the past few years manufacturers, led by Fuji with its X range, have been making retro-looking cameras with old-fashioned wheels and switches. This was so successful that even Nikon, one of the big makers of professional digital cameras, went so far as to produce the Df, a digital camera designed to look like the old Nikon F on which so much Tri-X was shot. It is an absurd and ungainly product costing over £2,700, which, by my reckoning, means you are paying at least £1,000 for the knurled metal knobs on top.

If that all represents a 180-degree turn away from digital perfection, some have gone even further, rejecting the perfect via a kind of 360-degree turn. Google Street View famously, notoriously, set out to photograph all the streets in the world using car-borne digital cameras. Two artists, Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman, decided to use selected images from the millions thus produced to create eerie works of art. These were technically poor photographs, but evocative nonetheless. It was, in its way, an attempt to resurrect the art of street photography, an art taken to a very high level with Tri-X in the hands of photographers like Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson. In their day, street photography was welcomed and safe; now it is dangerousyou can get accused of paedophilia, suspected of being some kind of snooper or, by police, of being a potential terrorist. Even worse, some of your subjects will know all about image rights and release contracts. Street View seemed to solve the problem.

But it was nothing to do with film and most of the analoguesque software gizmos are strictly for amateurs. So the question now becomes: if it can be done digitally right up to the standards required by Salgado, is there any point to Tri-X? Is there any point to film?

There is an old slogan among reportage photographers: “F8 and be there”. F8 is usually the optimum aperture on the lens, the setting that gives the best performance and is most likely to get the shot. “Be there” is just about the absolute necessity of your physical presence at the action. It is the necessity that overrides and underpins all others, so when, in 1948, Cartier-Bresson rushed to take a picture of Nehru announcing the assassination of Gandhi, it did not matter that it was out of focus, ill-lit and streaked with lens flares; all that mattered was that Cartier-Bresson was there to pluck something, anything, from the chaos of events. And, of course, he plucked a masterpiece.

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It is this existential truth of photography that professional film-users fear is being lost in the increasingly virtual digital world. “Film is honest,” says Sheila Rock, summarising the views of them all, “Tri-X is honest.” Dishonesty, in this context, can be seen on any newsstand. The business of digital retouching is dictated by the demands of the American star system. Rock, who is obliged to use digital for commercial work, was even told by one client in response to her tastefully retouched images that “American women like to be more perfect”. The result is a universal digital convergence on a style that makes the stars of the covers look like Stepford Wives, robotic and impersonalthey might all be Jennifer Aniston or they might not, it does not matter. Anton Corbijn recently got one of his Tri-X shots into a glossy, but not until they’d asked him if it could be done in colour. He explained that, with film, the shutter click is terminal, at least in this respect.

Corbijn is regarded with envy and awe by many of his peers, but he does not call himself a professional“there is so much I don’t know”and he believes in the power of limitation to increase your creativity. This is why he sticks to film: it does not have the vast flexibility of digital, a flexibility that detracts from the power of the moment when the shutter fires. He is passionate about the material process of making a photograph from film.

“When I started, I felt that I didn’t want a normal job in photography, I wanted that sense of adventure when you meet someone and take a picture. I felt that digital is more like a job. You look at the screen to see if you have it right, then you take another picture. When I come back from a trip, I don’t know what I have exactly. I have to get it developed, so I won’t know for a couple of days. I like the tension of not knowing exactly what you have.”

“There’s nothing like going to Vietnam,” says McCullin, echoing the thought, “when I had to sit on the film for six weeks with a mental memory of the images I took. I had to be patient and carry all that film back to England. It became more precious by the week. And then you went to the lab wondering whether what you had was as good as what you thought you had. The waiting and the torment gave an edge to the whole procedure. Now, with digital cameras, you are looking at the screen on the back after every shot. It becomes an instant thing like fast food, it takes something away from the original menu.”

On top of that thrilling anguish, there is the manual craft of the darkroom where either the photographer himself or his trusted technician would use a bewildering array of methods“ducking and weaving with bits of wire and stuff,” McCullin saysto manoeuvre the image as close as possible to the one in the artist’s head.

All this is being lost as darkrooms close and companies stop producing one type of film after another. Of course, many things are gained, but the full cost of digitalization in many fields, not just photography, is yet to be accounted. Kodak say that film in general and Tri-X in particular is safe. Yet I felt a pang when I asked how they were going to celebrate the diamond jubilee of their greatest film, and they said they had “no definitive plans we can share as of today”.

Never mind, we can do it for them by remembering Tri-X’s black-and-white golden age and celebrating its continuation in the works of Salgado, Rock, Corbijn and, of course, McCullin, the old master. He was off to India when we spoke.

“An Indian dawn with Tri-X,” he said, “it’s like being in heaven.”

Happy birthday, Tri-X, and many more of them.

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