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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!
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.
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
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.
Outside In Diffused Light Comparisons, Metered for Shadows
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
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 🤷♀️
Outside at Sunset Comparisons, Metered for Shadows
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.
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
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
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!
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!
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!