B&W Film Stock Comparisons: Kodak Tri-X vs Ilford HP5 vs Kodak T-Max by Amy Elizabeth

Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film
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Written by Amy Elizabeth

It’s no secret I love black and white photography. When I was in high school photography class, it’s all we shot, developed, and enlarged.

There’s something so pure about it; all distraction is stripped away and you’re left with light and shadows. Namely, you’re left with the fundamentals of photography.

So whether you’re on your first roll of film or your one-thousandth, I am going to encourage you to pop a roll of black and white in your camera, and get out there and shoot.

Black and White Film Stock Comparisons - Kodak Tri-X Ilford HP5 Kodak TMax
Black and White Film Stock Comparisons - Kodak Tri-X Ilford HP5 Kodak TMax

Comparing Black and White Film Stocks

Whether you’re a novice to shooting black and white or a pro, you might not understand the differences between film stocks.

I always heard Ilford HP5 had less contrast than Kodak Tri-X 400, and that Ilford 3200 was meant to be shot at 1600, but I had no data to back these statements up.

I wanted to test some of these differences for myself, so I am kicking off a series of film comparisons.

I hope these comparisons not only help me but also help you before picking up your next roll of film.

In this first set, I decided to compare the most popular 400 speed films side-by-side. I took Kodak Tri-X 400 (find on Amazon), Kodak T-Max 400 (find on Amazon), and Ilford HP5+ 400 (find on Amazon).

You can also check out this head-to-head comparison of Kodak Tri-X and Kodak T-MAX.

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Shooting, Developing, and Scanning Parameters

I shot them in my Nikon F100, Nikon FE, and Nikon N80, all at ISO 400 and metered for shadows (except for the harsh light and backlit examples, which were metered for highlights).

I developed them using HC-100b at 6 minutes, 5:30, and 5:00, respectively (all according to development times in Massive Dev Chart).

Then, I scanned them on my Noritsu LS-600 (find on eBay). I scanned once without any adjustments and a second time tweaking as I normally would.

I found that scanning without any adjustments didn’t significantly change my opinions on the results of these stocks and how they handle light, contrast, and dynamic range. The images below include my normal minimal Lightroom tweaks unless otherwise noted.

I wanted to compare these stocks in a range of scenarios, so I shot them inside, outside, and in my portable studio with a strobe. I also shot both portraits and some cityscapes.

All my findings are based on a very small sample size of 36 shots, so take them with a grain of salt.

Please read through and let me know your own findings in the comments below or on Instagram (tag me @itsamyberge). I’d love for this to just be a jumping off point in this conversation!

In-Studio Comparisons, Metered for Shadows

In Studio - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film
Click to enlarge

I keep a backdrop and strobe set up in our basement for emergency studio sessions, because I surprisingly have many of them (I just had one today, in fact ?). Sometimes you just need it all set up so it’s there if you have to finish a roll of film or shoot a quick set of comparisons.

I was surprised at how similarly HP5 and T-Max 400 handled the tonality of the backdrop (Studio Gray Savage Seamless paper) and the contrast in the overall scene.

Tri-X rendered the grey backdrop a little darker and seemed to have a wider tonal range for these shots. I felt Tri-X really shined in these shots.

In Studio - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film
Click to enlarge

Outside In Diffused Light Comparisons, Metered for Shadows

Outside - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film
Click to enlarge

These photos were taken on a snowy, Minnesota day in the middle of the day with cloud cover. This yielded nice, clean light, which I felt was comparable to clean studio lighting.

Not surprisingly, I found similar results with the films in this lighting.

T-Max and HP5 performed fairly similarly (they were both a little flatter than I like), while Tri-X seemed to have more contrast and greater tonal range.

Skyline At Sunset Comparisons, Metered for Shadows

Outside - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film

Lest you think things will continue as is, let me throw a curve ball with this one.

I didn’t want to spend the whole roll shooting people/portraits, so I forced my family to take an outing to Minneapolis’s Stone Arch Bridge right around golden hour.

It was a cold but beautiful evening, and my kids actually enjoy taking excursions to this bridge, so we’ll call it a win-win.

The very first thing I did when we got on the bridge was shoot the cityscape with the dramatic clouds as a backdrop, and I’m glad I did! I was shocked when T-Max 400 was the only film that rendered the clouds on film.

I normally shoot sunsets in color by metering for highlights, but since I was shooting black and white and wanting more detail in the buildings, I metered for shadows.

T-Max 400 definitely didn’t have a great tonal range in the buildings, but I was surprised at what it did with the highlights in the sky.

I was also surprised with what a good job HP5 did by getting all the details in the buildings, so I was least impressed with Tri-X for the cityscape.

This is the only shot where I feel like it might be helpful to have the straight scan (for the straight scan I let the scanner decide how to scan it and didn’t touch it in Lightroom.)

You can see even in the straight scan what a difference T-Max has in the sky; it doesn’t even look like I shot them at the same time!

I wonder what difference would have been made if I metered for highlights…maybe next round ?‍♀️

Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film

Outside at Sunset Comparisons, Metered for Shadows

Outside - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film

I also shot some at the bridge with people in the foreground (namely, my kids on the bridge).

For this set, the photos aren’t similar enough for fantastic comparison, but I do think the contrast of Tri-X handles the subject and background beautifully.

T-Max is a little more dull, but also more nostalgic because of it.

Backlit Comparisons

Backlit - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film
Click to enlarge

As I poured my morning coffee, I was inspired by the steam so I grabbed my cameras and shot away.

In all honesty I can’t remember how I metered, but I did them all the same way. (I probably metered for highlights, but, since I can’t remember, maybe I shouldn’t guess.)

Similarly to the skyline backlit at sunset, T-Max 400 really caught the tonal range in the highlights.

This is a quality I never associated with T-Max 400, but am going to start now! But once again its tonal range in the shadows leaves something to be desired.

I would say HP5 was the winner again for the details in the shadows, and I am loving how it caught the intricacies in the lighting in all the shadowy areas.

It also has such a smooth quality (which sometimes I want in my black and white, but sometimes I want more grit, but this smoothness at box speed is also what makes HP5 perfect for pushing….which I’m sure I’ll get to in a future article!)

Inside Lighting-Metered for Shadows

Indoors - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film
Click to enlarge

Next up is a comparison of indoor lighting in our living room.

I wish I caught my son in the exact same pose for each shot, but he’s a small child and having the patience to pose for a few photos in a row is more than I can say for my older children.

You can see the windows are behind him, but, since it was an add-on four season porch, there are A LOT of windows in the room, so there is light coming in from my left and right in this shot.

I think you see some of the same characteristics regarding highlights and shadows from earlier results in these shots, but I guess I was expecting greater discrepancies than I found here.

Maybe the most surprising thing about this image is that T-Max and Tri-X seemed to be so similar in this example.

Harsh Light-Metered for Highlights

Harsh Light - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film
Click to enlarge

The last lighting scenario I tested was harsh light, metering for highlights.

I thought for sure T-Max would rock it because of the way it handled the highlights in the skyline example, but, here, I would say I’m most impressed with HP5.

(I recognize the one example of T-Max is a bit inaccurate since it was the first of the roll and has the giant light leak, which always makes scanning it that much more difficult.)

I think HP5 did a fantastic job giving richness to the entire range of tones. From the inky blacks to the bright whites, nothing appears clipped, so detail still remains in the shadows as well as the highlights.

This low-contrast film really shines in this harsh lighting, and, now, I want to go shoot allll the HP5 in it!

Indoors - Comparing Kodak Tri-X, Kodak TMax, and Ilford HP5 Black and White Film Stocks on Shoot It With Film

Did this experiment help me choose a favorite film? Nope. But it did help me fall in love with each of them just a little more and reminded me that each of them is a beautiful film in its own right.

And next time I’m shooting in-studio, I just might grab a roll of Tri-X, or if I know there will be harsh light, I might be sure to have HP5 in my camera, or T-Max if I know I’m going to want to have more of a nostalgic feel, while retaining details in the highlights.

So what about you? Do you have a favorite 400 speed black and white film? And are there film comparisons you’d like to see in the future? I can’t wait to keep exploring this topic!

Thank you so much, Amy! Amy is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out her other articles here, including tutorials on how to transition to film for client sessions and how to create light leaks!

To see more of Amy’s work, be sure to visit her on her website and Instagram! Amy also shares tips and tutorials for shooting film over on her IGTV channel. Go check it out!

Leave your questions about comparing Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5, and Kodak T-Max black and white film stocks below in the comments! And pick some up for yourself on Amazon here: Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5, Kodak T-Max

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Amy Elizabeth

Amy Elizabeth is a family and experimental film photographer and a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find her other articles here, such as How To Develop Black and White Film at Home and Scanning Film Negatives with a DSLR.

Blog Comments

Really appreciate you taking the time to do this. I’ve ben looking for this type of content everywhere and have been shocked by how difficult it’s been to find it. I hope you keep this up and explore color film too!

Wow! Thank you so much for this affirmation! I am most definitely excited to keep diving into this topic and hope to do some color in the future! Thanks for taking time out to comment.

Great comparison! I shoot HP5 since 30 years ? , here are some samples https://aperture24.tumblr.com/tagged/hp5

Hy Amy!
First og all I’d like to thank you for your efforts to perform this test. I think in general your findings are largely consistent with my own observations. However, I think that some of your T-Max shots (eg the one from the bridge) are about 1-1.5 Stops underexposed compared to the other two shots, explaining a lot of the differences. Furthermore, comparing real enlargements would be interesting since the blacks are pretty differnt in these film stocks. Since T-Max tends to have washed-out blacks in hand-enlargements I stopped using it.

Hope this inputs are of help to you,

Martin (from Germany, sorry for the bad English)

Hi Martin! Thanks for taking the time to respond! I’m glad to hear that these findings are consistent with your own as it helps validate the experiment. I realize there are MANY variables at play here so I agree that it would be interesting to test other variations (like enlargements, different lenses, different chemicals and the like.). It’s been yearrrrrs since I’ve played around in a darkroom and the thought of taking my negatives back to one is tempting! I should look into the local co-op and challenge myself to take on enlarging!
As for the TMax I agree that it LOOKS underexposed. But while trying to eliminate as many variables as possible, I metered once at 400 and shot every type of film at the same setting and at the same *relative* time so that lighting would be consistent. So all of these comparisons have the same f stop and shutter speed as the others in a given set (with an ISO of 400). I wonder if the nature of the film could account for the differences or possibly a camera flaw (although I had it in my trusty Nikon FE, which seems to be a reliable workhorse!).
I’m glad you took time to join in on the conversation!

Hi Amy-I have to agree with Martin’s comments about the bridge sequences. I appreciate the time you took to explore this film comparison and write up your findings, however the final prints have to be apples to apples in order for the discussion to be on solid footing.
You metered and used the same exposures for all three which was the right way to do it, but then it has to go through development, scanning, and printing-ripe for introducing discrepancies.
The T-Max prints look at least 2 stops darker in the sequences on the bridge, so of course there is detail in the sky that is missing from the other two.
Would rather have seen a set where some area matched-buildings, snow, the tone of the pavement, something. That way you could have a better basis to compare. Reading the snow along the right using a spot meter-on the final print-would have been one way to insure parity.

Thanks for taking time out to read this article! Feel free to do your more accurate comparisons and report back with your findings!

What do you recommend rating/exposing tri-x 400 for cityscapes. Plan to shoot with a wide angle on 35mm at 19mm.

Thanks Amy

I like to rate my TriX at 400 and meter in the shadows for cityscapes! That often means finding something with the same tone as middle grey in the shade (I use grass under tree shade all the time!) The only time I break this rule is if my scene is in full, direct sunlight in the middle of the day, then I meter for highlights. For this, I find a middle grey in the sun, which could be a sunny patch of grass or even the deepest blue of the sky! And all of this is done in-camera. I love using my internal meter and only carry a handheld if I have to! I hope this helps!

Thanks so much. Plan on shooting late in the day or perhaps on a rainy day.

Thanks for the very nice article! With respect to the rendering of the sky with Tmax 400 – this film has reduced sensitivity to blue light compared to most other b+w films. This is the reason you can see the separation between the blue sky and white clouds. With the other films you could get a similar effect with a yellow (k2) filter.

Hi Tom! Oh this is interesting! I didn’t realize it had a lower sensitivity to blue, but I suppose that skyline shot makes it clear that it does! Thanks for reading and for chiming in!

This is an excellent review thank you for your time in doing a real world comparison. There are countless/endless scenarios with b&w film but, this review has really narrowed the “field” for my landscapes. Stay safe.

Hi Robert! I’m so glad you found it helpful! Thanks for your kind words!

Was the same lens used for each photo? The TMax 400 shots don’t look as sharp. And, that film is advertised as being the sharpest of the three?

Great question!I did not use the exact same lens for all three, BUT I used the same two lenses between the cameras, so there are times the TMax would have had the same lens as one of the other films. BUT, I think the real issue could be that the TMax was in my FE and I am sure I missed focus, so lack of sharpness, could most definitely be user error. LOL

Hi Amy, loved the article. What lenses specifically were you shooting with?

Just seeing this now, but fantastic real world comparisons. I’ve used them all and 30 years ago, loved the HP5 but now I’m back on Tri-x. They’re all lovely in their own right. Great site- thank you so much.

Hi Amy, very helpful, useful, interesting & enjoyable (to read early in the morning over breakfast). I have a whole bag of expired 120 & 35mm rolls in the fridge. A roll of 120 Kodak TriX pan expired 03/1985. I’m going to shoot it in my ultra reliable Yashica-C or my Rollieflex 3.5 (1954 model). Because I don’t own a Mamiya, yet…lol. I really enjoyed your article.

This is well done. Personally I prefer Ilford. I like TriX but I find it a little to contrasty for my taste. For me Ilford can be printed for more contrast if you want it. Also the grain is smoother but still there. Personal choice.

Great comparison! Thanks for putting in so much work!

Shooting tri X with a 35mm camera and using a single developer for testing, is like shooting rabbits with a bee bee gun.
35mm tri-X usually shows grain when used in small cameras but there is more to tri -X than grain.

120 tri X professional 320 iso is another animal.
And 5×7 triX used in a cold light enlarger, developed in at low contrast developer, will blow your socks off with its beauty and tonal range.

But for many modern photographers this is too much work and too low tech to be Learned about.

“Street photogrphy” is best done with a small camera but tri-X is king of the black and white films not only because of that but because it can so much more, that most never learn about.

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