If you’re like me, you may gravitate to a certain film stock for a host of reasons that you no longer remember.
When I got back into film, I shot Kodak T-MAX 100 as my black and white film – most likely because that’s what my local camera store suggested. It was my go-to for a while until I added Ilford HP5+ into the mix when I started shooting medium format.
Not long after, I became obsessed with trying as many film stocks as possible, but I didn’t even try Kodak Tri-X until I bought it in 320 for my large format 4×5 camera. I loved it.
That led me to think about the difference between Kodak Tri-X 400 and Kodak T-MAX 400, doing some research, and then devising a scheme to compare the two film stocks.
Tri-X has a long history at Kodak; it was first introduced in 1940 in 200 speed for daylight and 160 for tungsten, which was quite fast for the time.
Originally only available in large format, Kodak Tri-X was introduced in 35mm and 120 formats in 1954. Six years later, the film speed was doubled to 400 for daylight and 320 for tungsten, and it became a favorite of photojournalists because of its speed. Over the years, Kodak has reformulated Tri-X.
T-MAX is a more recent addition to the Kodak film family. Introduced in 1986, Kodak T-MAX was reformulated in 2007 to be a finer grain film. In 2007, Kodak said that T-MAX 400 is “the world’s sharpest, offering photographers a level of clarity normally only available from a 100-speed film.”
Head-to-Head Comparison: Testing Kodak Tri-X vs Kodak T-MAX
I wanted to compare Kodak Tri-X and Kodak T-MAX in the same conditions and pull and push the films to determine how they performed. I also was curious if I would prefer one over the other, or if I could even tell the difference?
I shot the film in my Rolleiflex MX-EVS back-to-back in the same lighting conditions. I scouted locations where I could find something interesting to photograph in a small area, making copious notes of the subject and my exposure, which was much easier with 12 shots than with 36.
My goal was to shoot both rolls within 15-30 minutes.
After shooting a roll, I would retrace my steps, shooting the same scene with the same f-stop and shutter speed.
I alternated which roll I shot first. I also wrote my exposure on a piece of paper and photographed that, so I would always know which roll was which when looking at the negatives.
This is how I shot and developed both film stocks:
Rated at 800 (-1) and developed normally (both T-MAX and Tri-X datasheets said you can underexpose by 1 stop and develop normally)
Rated at 100 (+2) and pulled 2 stops in development (-2)
Rated at 3200 (-3) and pushed 3 stops in development (+3)
With the experiment completed, it was time to compare the films. I evaluated the two films by examining shadow detail, highlights, contrast, grain, and overall look.
One note: I tried to capture the exact same framing for each shot, yet I was only moderately successful. I realize that even a bit of different framing makes it difficult to compare exactly; however, I think I was close enough for this test.
First, both Kodak Tri-X 400 and T-MAX 400 live up to the hype when it comes to flexibility: both pulled and pushed well. Honestly, I didn’t see discernible grain differences between the two. You might notice more grain differences when shooting 35mm.
Initially, the results looked almost identical. On closer comparison, the differences between Kodak Tri-X and Kodak T-MAX are subtle, yet not insignificant.
T-MAX retains more shadow detail and showcases a wider tonal range, which would give T-MAX an edge for darkroom printing or digital editing.
Tri-X exhibits more contrast and provides a very nice-looking and balanced image without edits.
My Final Ranking
While I will continue to shoot both, I gave T-MAX a slight edge.
Generally, I would choose Kodak T-MAX to retain more detail in the shadows and highlights and I would pick Kodak Tri-X if I wanted more contrast or a “punchier” look with little editing.
Kodak Tri-X 400
Kodak T-MAX 400
No editing required
Do you have a favorite between Kodak Tri-X 400 and T-MAX 400? Let me know in the comments.