B&W Film Stock Comparisons: Kodak Tri-X vs Ilford HP5 vs Kodak TMax by Amy Berge

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 Berge

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.

Then tag it with #SIWFBW to share your black and white work with others in the Shoot It With Film Instagram community. I can’t wait to see what you create!

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 TMax 400 (find on Amazon), and Ilford HP5+ 400 (find on Amazon).

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. 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 TMax 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. TMax 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 TMax 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.

TMax 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 TMax 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. TMax 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, TMax 400 really caught the tonal range in the highlights. This is a quality I never associated with TMax 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 TMax 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 TMax 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 TMax 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 TMax 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 TMax black and white film stocks below in the comments! And pick some up for yourself on Amazon here: Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5, Kodak TMax

And if you’d like to share you’re own b&w film images, use the hashtag #SIWFBW over on Instagram!

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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.

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,
Ross

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

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