Turning to street photography in 2006, my first photos of any merit were taken on Leica’s first digital rangefinder, the M8.
Despite the camera, the photos that would appear off the SD card were too clean, too sharp, too sterile, something, almost imperceptible, was missing – the characteristic grain found in many of my favorite street photography books.
Later, discovering emulations, Alien Skin’s Kodak Tri-X overlay got me close to the look I wanted, and, over time, this software became key to my workflow for many years.
Then, returning to photography after a decade of hiatus, I had a decision to make: Continue to fake it, or switch to film. It wasn’t much of a choice, was it?
A Short History of Kodak Tri-X
Arguably the king of black and white film stocks, Kodak Tri-X began life as a sheet film in the early years of World War 2.
Lightning quick for its time, its original speed was ASA 200. Later, when reformatted to 35mm and 120 rolls, it was reclassified as the now standard 400 ISO.
At the time, the 400 speed was revolutionary and offered photojournalists the freedom to work in more challenging conditions without aesthetic compromise. As such, photographers flocked to the film, and it experienced unrivalled popularity in the 60s and 70s, though it began to fall out of favor in the 80s with many amateurs and some professionals switching to color films.
Throughout it’s 80-odd years on the planet, Tri-X has found sustained demand from professionals, and, despite the advent and prevalence of digital photography (and, I suspect, lent a hand by the recent popularity of all things retro), it has gained a second life with amateurs.
Ask any frequent user of Kodak Tri-X why they reach for this film, and they may wax lyrical about the film’s distinctive, gritty, almost tactile grain. They may proclaim to anyone who will listen of its narrowing of tonal range, of its deep blacks, and of its high contrast.
Open a book of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Gilden, Richard Kalvar, and many others, and you will find photographs sporting that characteristic Tri-X grain and, in many, its distinctive increased contrast.
The photos appear lived-in and illustrate what feels demonstrably like real life. In comparison, some digital photographs, to my eyes at least, often seem clean, removed, and lacking in character. A television show made that reflects real life, but not real life itself.
Unlike some others, Tri-X is often considered the Swiss army knife of black and white film. As useful on the summer streets of Rome as it is under the dark, steel-grey skies of Glasgow.
This wide latitude is a blessing for street photographers who, in the space of a few minutes may find themselves moving from the open, midday sun to the shade of a busy cityscape, or later in the evening, changing rolls and rating as they descend the steps to the non-existent lighting of the basement music venue of a dive bar.
Nowadays, a film with its 400 speed is considered very much in the mid-range, but the versatility of Tri-X is arguably unrivalled.
In development, it can be pulled to 100 or 200 when necessary, and can be pushed out to 1600 quite comfortably, with some pushing it to its extremes of 3200 and 6400 with often experimental results.
Once a speed is chosen, this wide latitude has the added benefit of requiring less precise exposures, which – in the entropic, beat-of-the-heart, cut and thrust of the streets – is a must. If you miss by a stop, Kodak Tri-X will forgive you. “F8 and be there,” indeed.
Using Kodak Tri-X
For 2 years now, I have, on average, shot around 10 to 15 rolls of Kodak Tri-X per month. My photography is largely split 80/20 between street photography and a more recent return to photographing live music shows.
For street photography, I shoot the film at box speed in late spring, summer, and early autumn, and, as the light in Central Europe starts to disappear from October until it begins to emerge in late April, I may rate the film 800 ISO on the more dull days and push in development.
The extra stop of light this can give is crucial, particularly if zone-focusing, as it allows a smaller aperture and thus a deeper depth-of-field, which helps when catching a moment that doesn’t offer time for perfect focusing.
It is, however, during the live music photography that I push Tri-X even further and shoot at 1600 as standard, with occasional forays to 3200 if the venue forgot to pay their ‘leccy bills. It’s yet to let me down.
Much like Ollie had Stan, Scooby had Shaggy, and Sherlock had Watson; Kodak Tri-X has it’s own classic partner, the ever-reliable centenarian, the Kodak D-76 developer.
Used at stock or with a 1:1 dilution, D-76 is a perfect partner for our much-loved black and white film, even when pulled or pushed by a stop. Many classic street photographers swore and swear by this combination.
Pushing further to 1600 or above needs more careful consideration to control the grain while keeping the image sharp and pulling as much shadow detail as possible. For this, Kodak’s XTOL is a regularly recommended choice.
Of course, whether pushed, pulled, or box, if you want to let the grain run free, then Rodinal may be something to play with.
While I didn’t know it, I began my infatuation with Tri-X, with the photos of Erwitt, Cartier-Bresson and Kalvar, before I had ever considered picking up a camera. It has been more recently that I have let my love for the film bloom.
If you’re considering getting out there for some analogue street action, shoot it with Kodak Tri-X.