Happy Birthday, Kodak Tri-X

Kodak Tri-X, as a concept, has been around since the 1940’s when it was a 200 ISO b&w sheet film. Because it was their first fast film, when Kodak released the 400 ISO roll film version, the Tri-X name was maintained. Just like Kodak TMAX P3200 revolutionized low light photography in 1989, Tri-X was an early step in the liberation of photography out of formal studios and away from posed subjects. With its compelling grain structure, rich blacks and ease of use, Kodak Tri-X became an icon of photojournalism and available light photography of all genres. Stephen Dowling, creator of Kosmo Foto, even proposed that Tri-X might be the best black and white film ever made!

Today, on November 1st, this mid-century American classic celebrates it’s 67th birthday. Getting to this age hasn’t been without its struggles though. Through the 60’s and 70’s, with the rise in popularity of color film, legacy b&w film sales declined and caused other stocks to go extinct. Tri-X soldiered on though and out-lived color films like Kodachrome that it once seemed to be losing against. In 1989, Ilford released what is still a strong Tri-X competitor; HP5 Plus, a reformulation of HP5. And in 2007, as digital began to compete seriously with film, Kodak struck back with a reformulated Tri-X that has finer grain and uses less silver but still retains much of its character. Today, amidst a global supply chain crisis, Tri-X has received different packaging and an ever-climbing price point that is turning thrifty film photographers to cheaper alternatives. Whatever the future has in store for Kodak Tri-X, its legacy and impact on photography can never be denied, particularly when viewing expansive bodies of work such as that of Andrew Morang who has been shooting Tri-X seemingly non-stop since the 1960’s.

I shoot more Tri-X than any other film. I rate Tri-X at either 400 or 1600 and process it in Kodak HC110b. It looks great behind every type of lens I use thanks to is vast dynamic range that picks up every bit of character from the glass. I can shoot it in broad daylight without too harsh a look or very dim indoor light without a muddy a look. So it’s a great film to just leave in your daily carry camera for stream-of-consciousness shooting. In fact, I have gotten to a point of keeping my 1930 Leica loaded with Tri-X exclusively at pretty much all times. The rich contrast compensates for the lack of UV coating on my vintage Leitz lenses. And because it’s associated with the birth of photojournalism as an art, Tri-X also just feels like the best film for my old Leica that also helped define the genre of photography about which I am most passionate. Behind more modern, multi-coated lenses, the contrast is show-stopping and the film doesn’t look its age in the slightest.

Below are some recent photos I’ve taken on Kodak Tri-X that I think are strong examples of what I appreciate about its character.

This photo was taken about an hour before sunset through my Leitz 90mm Summicron. This lens, built in 1989, amazingly is only single coated but Tri-X helps deepen the shadows. And the texture of out of focus areas with this combo are quite dreamy.
I shot this mid-day in fairly harsh sun with my 1932 Leitz Elmar. This lens doesn’t have any UV coating but between the harsh light and contrast of Tri-X, the sky took on a haunting quality.
Here’s another Tri-X shot with my 5cm 3.5 Leitz Elmar during Golden Hour. The image has a lot of textures going on with the soft swirly bokeh, flaring and details of the plants and subjects. If I’d shot this on TMAX, I think it would be too clear and harsh. But with Tri-X grain, things kind of smooth out and equalize without looking mushy.
Put Tri-X behind a modern, multi-coated lens like the Voigtlander 40/1.4, find some nice light and watch it sing! The quality of light and lens make the grain in the highlights and shadows nearly disappear but you still have it in the mid tones. This is exactly what people don’t understand when they fake film with digital filters. Film can react completely differently in different lighting conditions or with different lenses. I think that an image like this might also challenge Josh Solomon’s comment that “Shooting Tri-X exclusively does tend to get boring after a while.”
I thought this image demonstrated how well Tri-X performs in challenging, mixed lighting. We have window and artificial light from multiple rooms competing here with some under and correctly exposed areas. Yet there is still plenty of detail retained in the mid tones before they fall off into deep shadow.
I took this wedding photo through a Nikkor 85mm 1.8 and the film was rated and processed for 1600. Looks completely different than the previous shot or the upcoming one. Very little grey here courtesy of the push process and an example of how diverse the Tri-X look can be.
This was a late afternoon family portrait session with my 1930 Leica and ’32 Elmar. The speckled leaf light is well-controlled.
When I was in school, I read a textbook that mentioned something about how grainy film can be used to enhance very textured subjects such as rocks and sand. I think that’s what’s going on with the rough patina of this old Pontiac whose finish looks like sandpaper.
I know it’s corny to share selfies but hey, I love my little 1930 Leica and how crisp it looks on Tri-X!
The painterly bokeh and modern resolution of my 90mm Summicron are pulled together and given nuanced detail with Tri-X
Tri-X is known for its rich blacks but in this evenly lit, late afternoon image of a wedding guest, the mid tones are soft and delicate.
Tri-X has a way of being sharp without harsh. I think this is perfect for portraits.
I didn’t have to do any dodging or burning on this little gentleman’s eyes. The wide latitude of Tri-X renders a full compliment of detail from shadow to highlight.

After 67 years, only the newest photographers don’t have an opinion on this ubiquitous film but they are probably going to find out about it soon and begin connecting the dots. The rest of us either cut our teeth on it or continue to use Tri-X regularly and have our own personal stories with this film.

Kodak Tri-X is perhaps so common and widely used that it would not only be impossible to imagine a world without it but we may even forget just how special a product that it is.

As we continue to use Tri-X to document the latest cultural events, using modern shooting methods, and the latest processing and digitizing techniques, we not only make the many looks of Tri-X that much more timeless but we starkly highlight what has changed since 1954 and what remains the same. In 2020, I photographed a Black Lives Matter protest on Tri-X and one of the takeaways seemed to be how reminiscent recent events were to the 1960’s civil rights movement. But even the simple, isolated family photos and snapshots of dilapidated Americana shared here seem to carry with them a perspective that’s nearly geologic in scale.

The adults above were photographed on Tri-X as children by their parents who were also, themselves photographed on Tri-X and the photos that they experienced the news with were on Tri-X. And now I’ve photographed their children on it. The car. The sign. They were built when Tri-X was still new. Take these photos on a digital camera, or even another film stock. They’ll look great. But on Tri-X, these photos, these people, these objects, these events take their place on longer, more connected strings of history. Rather that matters to some people or not is another question of course. Many may be happy to simulate what they think Tri-X looks like using digital filters. But for me, I’ll keep the real, the original Kodak Tri-X 400 loaded in my cameras as long as I can get it, and hopefully keep making a little history as I go.

Thanks for reading, happy shooting!

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2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Kodak Tri-X

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