Kodak Tri-X: Why I Love It & Why You Should Too by Neil Milton

Black and white film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
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Written by Neil Milton

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?

Black and white film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
Your writer’s fridge, full of Tri-X

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.

Find Kodak Tri-X 400 on Amazon.

Black and white street photography film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
Warsaw, Poland. 2022
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Tri-X as a Street Photography Staple

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.

They will – with raised, excited voice – evangelize of its wide latitude that makes it usable in almost any situation. For all of the aforementioned, Tri-X has become a favorite of photojournalists and street photographers alike.

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.

Black and white street photography film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
Glasgow, Scotland. 2021

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.

Black and white street photography film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
Warsaw, Poland. 2022

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.

Black and white street photography film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
Edinburgh, Scotland. 2021

Developing Kodak Tri-X

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.

You can learn more about developing your own b&w film here.

Black and white street photography film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
Warsaw, Poland. 2022
Black and white street photography film image on Kodak Tri-X - Kodak Tri-X 400 Review by Neil Milton on Shoot It With Film
Trujące Kwiaty. Warsaw, Poland. 2022

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.

Thank you so much, Neil! Neil is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, such as 5 Tips to Improve Your Street Photography Part I.

You can find more of Neil’s work on his website, and sign up for his street photography newsletter here.

Leave your questions about Kodak Tri-X 400 below in the comments, and you can pick up some for yourself on Amazon here!

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Neil Milton

Neil Milton is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film, and he specializes in street photography. Find his other articles here, such as 5 Tips to Improve Your Street Photography and Kodak Tri-X: Why I Love It & Why You Should Too.

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All hail Tri-X!

I’ve been shooting Tri-X continuously (and developing in D-76 continuously) since the mid-1960s. My parents were pros with their own little commercial studio, and Tri-X was an everyday staple for us, along with Plus-X and Ektapan (a 100-speed 4×5 sheet film that handled the fluorescent lighting we used for our product shots especially well).

We used Tri-X regularly in 35mm, 120, and 2-1/4 x 3-1/4-inch and 4×5-inch sheets. In the late 60s, I even shot dozens of rolls of Tri-X in a Minox subminiature! (That tiny 8x11mm negative… You wanna see some REALLY big grain?!?)

So Tri-X has always been my go-to film, and I still shoot a few rolls a year… But I gotta tell you, today’s “incrementally reformulated and improved” Tri-X isn’t quite the same as the Tri-X of my youth.

While still featuring its legendary versatility and latitude in both exposure and developing, it has notably finer grain and smoother transitional tones. And of course, that’s great: today’s Tri-X is better than ever, it dependably produces brilliant b/w images.

But if you REALLY want the legit old-school look, I recommend trying Eastman 5222 motion picture stock (available loaded into standard 35mm cassettes as Film Photography Project X2 and Cinestill BwXX, usually rated around ISO 200). Its crunchy grain and deep blacks look more like 60s Tri-X than today’s Tri-X does.

Just sayin’…

Thanks for the comment Michael! Much appreciated. I have a roll of Cinestill BwXX ordered after reading Drew’s piece on SIWF from a wee while ago (that was the inspiration for me to write this one). So I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares. Cheers!

Great article, and very timely for me. Heading to West Africa in January and thinking of taking my little Canonet as well as the X-Pro2.
Does it survive airport hand-baggage scanners OK?
By the way that woman at the top of the escalator looks like my Mum.

Thanks Mark. West Africa, eh? I wish you a great trip! As for baggage scanners… I’ve travelled a lot these last 2 years and I’ve not had a problem. Normally I don’t even bother to ask for a hand-search now as they just tell me 400iso is “fine”. In June, I was in Heathrow, “tired and emotional”, and went through the scanners without realising they were the new high radiation ones. My film went through. I presumed my film was a goner. On one roll, I had some portraits I had taken of Bruce Gilden, so while I expected the film to be dead, I developed that roll anyways just to be certain. To my surprise, the photos came out perfectly well. Now, I’m sure that’s nothing to do with the Tri-X itself, and I presume it just went through the new scanner at a low radiation, but that long anecdote is simply to say, yeah, it handles the scanners well.
Have a great trip.

“ISO” has a defined meaning—not surprisingly, perhaps, defined in the relevant standards (ISO 6:1993 for black and white pictorial films). You can rate Tri-X at any number of Exposure Indices, but you cannot “…push the film to 800 ISO…”. It is *not* an ISO 800 film.

By all means shoot it however you like at whatever speed you want (my personal fave is EI 3200 in ID-11). But it’s an ISO 400 film. Regardless of how much you push or pull it—it will always an ISO 400 film no matter what EI is used…

This level of pedantry is why one balks at writing an article like this. Yes, of course you are right. I should have used the term “rated” the film “at” 800, 1600, 3200 rather than “pushed” (as pushing is all in the development). However, readers will know what I mean, and in every article I read to research and throw notes together, it was termed colloquially in the same way. Thanks for taking the time.

Wich Trix ?
It changes a lot during the time of is life and not for good.
I have 35mm negatives exposed in 1969 that I have enlarged to 50 x 60 cm , others in 1989 with the same results. To day it is impossible, same developer D 76 , Leica and Nikon lenses.

That’s a fair point Luis. I could have delved a little deeper into the changes in Tri-X over time, however, I felt the article was running loooong as it was so I took some stuff out. As with many things though, with the changes, ymmv.

Kodak Tri-X: Why I HATE It & Why You Should Too

35mm Tri-X was my film of last resort – just enough grain to be distracting; not enough to have any real character. I only used it (and HP5) when I had to – in low light or when conditions were highly variable. Tri-X is the lazy photographer’s friend – someone who’s become familiar and comfortable with it and can’t be bothered dealing with more than one film. I prefered the opposite approach – I used the slowest film possible given the circumstances. Why would I put a grainy, mushy mess in a high end 35mm camera and lens like a Leica optimized for high resolution unless I absolutely had to when there are better (sharper, less grainy) alternatives? Spare me the, “you don’t know how to develop it” BS. I developed film for 40+ yrs., used D76 1:2, D23 Divided, Rodinal, HC 110 among others. When I wanted grain I used Kodak 3200 @EI 1600 in Dektol! Grain you can eat with a spoon!

Any magical properties attributed to Tri-X are in the mind of the photographer. A lot of photographers are victims of “magical thinking”. “I need a Leica or Hassleblad because Bla Bla used it and that will make me a great photographer. I will only use Tri-X because Bla Bla used it.”

“Spare me the, ‘you don’t know how to develop it’ BS.”. Mate, you’re having a heated debate with yourself here, and I’m all for it.

You hate Tri-X, I love it. Like the Christmas truce of 1914 – can’t we all just get along? 🙂

Geos – I don’t get you bro. You say that photographers who shoot Tri-X are just lazy? Wow. If that’s true then I must assume that those multitudes of Pulitzer winners simply got lucky. And shouldn’t getting “familiar and comfortable” with the tools of your art be something to embrace rather than eschew? It is when photographers are familiar with their camera and film that the real magic happens; it is then that they adjust the settings on their camera by instinct and predict the effect it will have on their choice of emulsion while remaining in the moment with their subject. To be able to intimately know your equipment and your emulsions requires hundreds or thousands of frames. Hardly the actions of a lazy one.

I used Tri-X for many years as a newspaper photographer and love it’s character… just the right amount of grit. All of us on the staff regularly pushed the crap out of that film for indoor sports … the only way to get 1/500 @ 2.8 was to push it to 3200 and we had that down to a science; it held up beautifully. Know why? Because we knew our film. We knew what it was capable of and where it would fail.

And your contemptuous rant… you spew your disdain for photogs who “prefer” Tri-X and then begin your very next sentence with, “I prefer.” Unbelievable. You seem to hold yourself in high esteem for not taking the path of the pedestrian, yet, in my opinion, you sound no different than any of the other artificially-inflated photo snobs that have polluted the art of photography. You should learn how to be ok when someone prefers something that you don’t.

Hi Neil,

Great article. I have a bit of an odd question for you:

Have you found yourself appreciating black and white film more after printing your shots?

I ask because that’s what happened to me. I am fairly new in the analog film game, really only getting into it about 2 years back after shooting digital professionally for 12 years.

I recall getting scans back from the lab off a variety of rolls: HP5, Superia 400, Portra 400 etc. And looking at the scans I really only liked the color shots that is until I ordered prints. Looking at the prints, the black and white images seem so magical to me. So sharp, so much character. Almost timeless.

It my mind playing tricks on me or have you (or anyone else) found this to be true?

Looking forward to your next article.

Cheers,

Derek

Hi Derek, it’s a great question. I don’t know if I found myself appreciating black and white more, necessarily, after printing, but I definitely began appreciating my photos more.

I’m not a dark room printer. I’d like to be, but I don’t have the time or patience to be honest. I want spend my time taking the photos. So I develop them, and I scan the negatives, then print on photo printer. One day I might pay to get some negatives printed in the dark room but I don’t see myself doing it on my own in the mid-term.

When I did a few courses to learn how to really print strong black and white images and then started printing, the photos took on a different life. I definitely think photos should be an object rather than a file.

In fact, taking inspiration from Cartier-Bresson’s famous scrapbook, I’ve recently started my own. I’ve been printing 5 by 3 size prints of my best/favourite photos and keeping them in the scrapbook both to show people, and to have prints to look at.

I use hanhemuhle Fine Art Baryta Satin paper and it’s just beautiful.

I don’t think it’s your mind playing tricks on you. There’s just something tactile, tangible, and inherently aesthetically enjoyable about a film photography print.

Printing digital doesn’t quite have the same pleasure.

Anyways, the next article coming is related. I haven’t written it yet but I planned to write about my journey to printing my photos. This comment may have convinced me to do that.

Cheers!

How come i don’t see any grain in the pictures? Were the photos developed in, I think it’s called Microdol X? This developer lowers the grain. I have a book called The World History of Photography, and two of the photos have extreamly a large amount of grain. It gives those pictures a certain look. Sometimes you want grain, and sometimes you want no grain at all. Do you agree? Oh, and with Tri-X if I’m correct or not, you can overexpose more then underexpose.

Hi Barry – you really don’t see grain in the pictures? It’s funny how a creator’s own perception works. I can see only the grain. Sometimes I worry it’s a little too much. Of course, how much grain you see is governed by how close you are to the photo. If you were standing 30cm away from an A2 print of the photo, you’d see grain, grain, and grain. If you’re 1/2 a meter away from your laptop screen looking at a 72dpi 1500px photo on a browser, you see more the forest than the trees.

The photos were all developed in D-76 1:1 solution, with the exception of the music one which was developed in XTOL at 1600. Since the article, I’ve started shooting my music photos at 3200 on tri-x and pushing them in Ilford Microphen.

In my experience, grain tends to be much to the preference of the photographer. Some want as fine, unnoticeable grain as possible. Others want as much grain for a gritty look.

Overexposing on any film is more preferable to underexposing. (Different films, of course, have different tolerances). Due to the way the image is captured on the film (in negative) it’s the opposite to how digital cameras work. As I understand it, on film, more detail can be saved from the highlights than can be saved from the shadows.

Cheers for your comment, man.

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