UPDATE: THIS BLOG WAS PREVIOUSLY WRITTEN AND WAS SET TO AUTO PUBLISH IN OCTOBER OF THIS YEAR. HOWEVER, KODAK HAS OFFICIALLY ANNOUNCED TODAY THAT THEY ARE BRINGING BACK KODAK TMAX P3200!!!! I HOPE YOU’LL FIND MY WRITE-UP INTERESTING IN LIGHT OF RECENT EVENTS!
Exactly 6 years ago, on October 3rd, 2012, international photography news outlets began reporting that Kodak had announced that one of their most innovative, game-changing films, TMAX P3200 was discontinued.
To me, the two films synonymous with “photojournalism” are Kodak Tri-X and Kodak TMAX P3200. And now one was gone.
Kodak TMAX P3200 was the first widely available high-speed film. It allowed photojournalists to take to the streets at night; to shoot in the dark smokey bars where youthful drama and dreams go to thrive or die, in the dim local clubs and cramped concert venues where music finds its first audience then catches fire in the world’s hearts and minds. Kodak TMAX P3200 took us to places we’d all experienced but couldn’t previously record in their natural state. The release of Kodak TMAX P3200 was a watershed moment in available light photography. Surely it’s discontinuation would be a pitfall.
It’s hard to believe that prior to 1988, there was no 3200 ISO film. Built-in light meters have long measured up to 3200 or 6400 but if you were shooting at night without a flash, you were push processing. If you were handing 400 ISO film to a lab, they were charging you for a three stop push to get to 3200. This probably doubled your processing cost. and if you were processing at home, well, you’d better get your times and temps right!
3200 ISO films require more than double the amount of silver of slower films yet they are considerably less used and purchased. These basic physics have always kept 3200 films costly to produce with a slim profit, even at their relatively high cost to the consumer. By 2012, as digital photography took over, Kodak just couldn’t bear any more labors of love.
I had been learning to shoot in the dark with P3200 since about 2007. I never liked the concept of flash photography. I didn’t like drawing attention to myself while shooting. I didn’t like interrupting people and scenes. I wanted to be invisible. I wanted my photographs to be honest and unforced. I wanted to photograph the essence of people. While I admire those hyper sharp close-up portraits of highly textured faces, I don’t believe that a person’s soul resides in highly defined lines on the surface of their skin. I believe that randomly dispersed film grain fills shapes and movements so that we can look beyond the obvious and deeper into the person where something intangible hangs out. With P3200, I felt like I’d hit my artistic stride. Finally, a film that allowed me to shoot the way I wanted to shoot.
By 2011, film labs across the United States were placing “Permanently Closed” signs in their windows. I had to completely revamp my personal and business photography practices to keep shooting film in this new ecosystem.
Then in January, 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy. The rapid and relentless climb of consumer digital photography turned the size and weight of the megalithic film titan in on itself like a collapsing star, fighting its own gravity. Something had to break.
So on October 3rd of 2012, when they took TMAX P3200 away, I felt like photography was over for me. Friends online kept tagging me in posts about P3200 and one of my photos was featured in a Czech article about the discontinuation. It seemed I had painted myself into a corner. Yes, we still had Ilford Delta 3200 but I was a Kodak guy and surely if P3200 was gone, Ilford might choose to make the same decision.
So what could I do? I bought 60 rolls of TMAX P3200 from B&H that morning at the then customary $7.19 per roll, before the price began to hike.
Within maybe 6 or 8 months, I think most places were charging over $12 per roll for P3200. I resolved not to buy any of this “scalped” film though and to reluctantly switch to Ilford Delta 3200. I didn’t want to invest in a film that no longer existed. I didn’t want to line the pockets of scalpers with money that could be used to support the production of fresh film. I wanted to throw all my money at Ilford to essentially beg them not to stop the press.
It felt like a desperate move. I preferred the tonality of P3200 and used HC110 to process my 100 and 400 ISO films. There did not seem to be agreed upon times for processing Delta 3200 with HC110. Delta was sharper and more contrasty than P3200. Switching made me find different light than I’d found with the Kodak and I came to prefer lenses with softer performance at full aperture to combat the sharpness of the Ilford. With some experimenting, I worked out 18 to 20 minutes at 68 degrees Fahrenheit to process Delta 3200 at 6400 in HC110b.
It’s been 6 years now. Eastman Kodak has morphed into Kodak Alaris and I burned my last rolls of P3200 over three years ago. I’ve become a Delta 3200 guy, and happily so. Between just being older and more experienced, maybe it’s not really the film itself but I am liking the work I’ve done on Delta, in many ways, more than I’d done with P3200. While I wish I had more choice, I feel stable right now. And I don’t miss P3200 as much as I thought I would. But I do look back on it with some very pleasant memories.
Ilford hasn’t had all the drama in the news like Kodak and Fuji. They haven’t discontinued anything amidst Kodak’s slowdown of film innovation and Fuji’s seemingly nonsensical random hopscotch of film discontinuations. Ilford has just continued, seemingly unshaken.
So I’m happy to say that in the 6 years since Kodak TMAX P3200 disappeared, my personal view is that things are looking just fine for film photography and available light photojournalism. I hope things are good with your work too! Thanks for reading!
Thanks so much for reading. Happy low-light shooting and if you have any Kodak TMAX P3200 images that you’d like to share to celebrate this wonderful film, please link them in the comments below!