Guitarists have the Fender Stratocaster, soldiers the AK-47, and handymen the world over have WD-40. These products have become the standard bearers in their fields; tools of the trade that are so accomplished they need no introduction. They’ve become so ubiquitous that even the inexperienced layman is familiar with their capabilities.
The craft of photography has such a tool as well. It’s done tours in Vietnam, prowled alleys and side streets in every city in the world, and documented some of history’s most important moments. It’s our familiar friend in the green and yellow get-up, Kodak Tri-X.
It’s hard to exaggerate the influence and importance of Tri-X. The best selling black-and-white film in the history of photography, it’s the constant companion of casuals and professionals alike. It’s been used for landscapes, portraits, war reportage, street photography, even family snapshots. It’s a staple of film photography and holds a popular reputation rivaled only by the sadly deceased Kodachrome. No other black-and-white film is as famous or as widely used as this long-cherished film, and with good reason.
But what is it that makes Tri-X so loved? Let’s find out.
Introduced in 1940 as sheet film and adapted to 35mm and 120 formats in 1954, Tri-X was one of the first true high-speed black-and-white films. When initially released, it was rated at a blazingly fast ISO 200, and later upgraded to ISO 400. Pedestrian as that number may seem today, the speed of Tri-X was revolutionary back in the day. With such sensitive film, photojournalists could finally shoot with their new-fangled, compact 35mm cameras in almost any light condition and still get usable negatives.
But these photojournalists quickly found out that their negatives were not only usable, they were beautiful as well. With Tri-X, Kodak had accomplished something previously unheard of in high-speed films. Their new black-and-white film combined blistering speed with a beautiful tonality, a tight grain structure, and high resolution. This meant that negatives could be blown up to monolithic proportions and still look stunning. In short order, Tri-X came to be known as the film that could do it all, and photographers have been putting their trust in the stuff ever since.
Though its formula has gone through many changes over the subsequent decades, Tri-X still manages to retain the same visual signature it’s always proudly boasted. The modern formula may be a little sharper and the grain a bit finer, but the visual signature is still classic Tri-X.
And we say “classic” for a reason. Informal focus groups (shoving prints under the noses of our friends and fellow photo geeks) show us that when presented with a set of black-and-white images, the images shot on Tri-X invariably get more love than the others. Why? Simply put, the Tri-X look is what everybody thinks of when they think of black-and-white photography. Since so many black-and-white film photographers in the history of the craft have so regularly shot Tri-X, its signature has burned itself into the retina of our collective consciousness.
For one, there’s the grain structure, which is potent yet restrained. This is a traditional grained film, straight from the old-school. With it we get a gritty image that’s not overbearing in its coarseness. It’s fine, but not smooth. It’s textured, but not rough. Shots made with Tri-X present a profile that rests in the happy medium between edgy and clean. For shooters who prefer crisp, grainless images, this probably isn’t the film to use (and we’d probably ask why you’re shooting film in the first place). But for shooters seeking the “Goldilocks” amount of grain, Tri-X is hard to beat. The grain is front and center, but never distracting.
This grittiness provided by Tri-X’s signature grain structure is further enhanced by its characteristic tonality. Because Tri-X has a slightly narrower tonal range than many black and white films, every image is imbued with a stark and severe look. Subjects seem to acquire a certain gravity owing to Tri-X’s intense tonality, and it’s an effect prized by photojournalists who seek the kind of stark realism required of their photographs. Make no mistake, this film’s tonality is what gave black and white photography its “serious” reputation.
But just because Tri-X makes serious photographs doesn’t mean it’s going to be difficult. In spite of its reputation as a serious film, we don’t necessarily need to be serious photographers to shoot it. In fact, it’s quite an excellent black-and-white film for those just starting out owing to its exposure latitude, which is the extent to which a film can be overexposed or underexposed and still yield acceptable images.
Tri-X’s exposure latitude is, in a word, legendary. It’ll handle five stops of overexposure and up to two stops of underexposure without breaking a sweat, effectively forgiving photographers of any exposure-related sin. This latitude lends itself well to shooters who prefer to cast their fates to the wind with fixed-exposure box cameras and toy cameras, as well as shooters who are taking their first steps into the world of manual exposure.
Which brings us to our favorite characteristic of this film, its pushability. And yes, that’s a technical term.
For the uninitiated, pushing film simply means underexposing the film in-camera and compensating for that underexposure later during development. In other words, pushing is a sneaky way to increase film speed without actually using a more sensitive film. And more than any other film, Tri-X can be pushed to simply stunning effect.
Kodak officially recommends pushing Tri-X up to two stops, which comes out to ISO 1600. We decided to up the ante and push it all the way to the limit- ISO 6400. That’s a four stop push, something considered impossible for any other film on the market.
Surprisingly (or not, for those in-the-know), Tri-X handles that four-stop push with ease. Grain isn’t as obtrusive as one would expect from a film pushed so far. Tonality, while made more severe, is remarkably well-preserved. Highlights retain an acceptable amount of detail owing to Tri-X’s excellent latitude, and though shadows lose detail in the push, it only intensifies the already stark look of the film. Though the image doesn’t have the same tonal range as Tri-X shot at box speed, it does remarkably well considering that we pushed the film past its supposed functional limit. We’d even venture to say that images shot at ISO 6400 are quite beautiful in their own way.
All this factored together, it’s tough to call Tri-X anything but perfect. The only real disadvantage that we can think of may actually lie in its incredible versatility or outright popularity. It’s the perfect all-rounder but it doesn’t excel in any one department. Many other films offer more striking contrast, finer grain, and even higher speeds, making Tri-X seem bog standard in comparison. And it’s this same versatility that leads to its popularity. Many shooters tend to pick Tri-X as their only black-and-white film. The resultant over-abundance of shots can at times cause its legendary look to lose its luster after repeated viewings. Even the deepest, richest wells run dry eventually, and Tri-X may be one such well.
Another potential downfall for some amateur and enthusiast shooters could also be found in its very makeup. Being a true black-and-white film means you’re not going to be getting this processed at your local Wal-Mart. Since its development process uses chemicals that aren’t the same as your traditional color negative film (C-41), you’ll need to send this out to a traditional photo lab or develop at home. While both of these options are simple, we acknowledge that even this minuscule inconvenience can be too much for some sluggish photo geeks. If this sounds like you, don’t fret, you can still shoot black-and-white using Kodak’s C-41 film.
But if we’re being honest, we’re reaching quite far when we try to find fault in this legendary emulsion. The past sixty-four years has tested Tri-X time and again, and it’s passed every single one of those tests with flying colors (metaphorically speaking, of course). After all, it’s still the most popular black-and-white film around
Yes, there are black-and-white films that manage to best Tri-X in certain categories. We don’t pretend that Tri-X hasn’t been technically surpassed within the last 60-odd years, but what Tri-X manages to do so successfully is remind us of why we shoot film in the first place. It’s not technically perfect, but if we wanted soulless, clinical perfection we’d be shooting digital. We shoot film because of the feeling that only film can give us, and for the romance of that timeless aesthetic. In this sense, Tri-X might just be the most romantic film ever made.
It offers a look that many other films and post-processing programs have tried, and failed dismally, to imitate. No amount of digital post-processing done to any film or RAW file could ever truly replicate it. The look can only be achieved by going straight to the source and shooting the real deal, our old familiar friend Tri-X. So what are you waiting for?