Kodak's New Tri-X
A New Version Of An Old Classic

Dateline 1940: "The fastest film in the world is the new Tri-X, with twice the speed of Super-XX." If you want the numbers, the British Journal of Photography Almanac for 1940 (actually written in 1939) reckoned it was 7000 H&D.

That's right. Tri-X was introduced before ASA film speeds. It's no longer the fastest film in the world, but many people reckon it is still the best. Are they right?

Misty morning, Southern France. This is my favorite yet from Tri-X: 5 minutes in Ilford's DD-X 1+4 at 21.5ÞC, 71ÞF. Why 71Þ? It was a warm day. Always adjust development times until you get the results you like most--and don't be too frightened about making small adjustments to compensate for temperatures other than the sacred 20ÞC, 68ÞF. (Voigtländer's Bessa-T, 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar, yellow filter (B+W 2x).)
Photos © 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

Well, "the best" is a big claim. But the latest incarnation may be the best Tri-X yet--and that means that yes, it is one of the best films in the world.

I've used Tri-X before. It was good. But I never thought it was anything special. When I heard that it was being updated, I wanted to try it again. I've changed my mind. Now, it is something special. It's competing in a crowded market. There are over 20 ISO 400 films available. "First class" doesn't begin to describe the best of them: they are better than that. The new Tri-X joins that select club.

Versatile Emulsion
It's still an "old technology" film: cubic crystal, not T-grain or epitaxial. This is not a disadvantage. It has enormous exposure latitude, including "pushability," and it can be developed in virtually anything. It is true that it is grainier and less sharp than its "new technology" rival, TMY (T-Max 400). But it has a very different tonality--and that is what keeps this 63-year-old film alive.

The latest Tri-X is quite different from the Tri-X of 1939, of course. Tri-X 320 Professional can trace more of a direct lineage, but even that is a very different film. Besides, since 1954, Tri-X has been available in 35mm and 120: in 1941, according to my Kodak Reference Handbook, it was available in "All regularly listed sheet film sizes from 21/4x31/4" to 50x60" and from 4.5x6cm to 50x60cm." I'd like to try 50x60" Tri-X. All I'd need is a very big camera with a 2000mm standard lens...

Pay phone in Slovakia. Tri-X still excels in the "mean streets" look. This wasn't actually a mean street at all: it was a residential area where someone had taken exception to the phone. But it looks mean! (Ilford's DD-X, 8 minutes at 20ÞC, 68ÞF--it was a dull day. Voigtländer's Bessa-T, 50mm f/2.5
Color-Skopar, yellow filter (B+W 2x).) .

Is It Better Than The "Old" Tri-X?
Whenever Kodak updates or improves any of its films, there is an immediate outcry. Lots say, "They have ruined it." What people mean when they say this is, "I am used to the old version, and I know all the work-arounds to get the best out of it, so I don't want anything different, even if it is better."

Well, if you feel like that, bad luck. But from the point of view of an Ilford HP5 Plus user, who used to think Tri-X wasn't anything special, the new film is pure improvement, without any drawbacks. Before, Tri-X couldn't have tempted me away from HP5. Now, it could. If you are an existing Tri-X user, you now have an even better film. If you're not a Tri-X user, you have a good reason to consider becoming one. Yes, you may have to re-jig your development times. So?

New Developing Times
At first sight, this change in development times is the biggest difference between the old Tri-X and the new. They are shorter for some, maybe most, developers; longer for a few; and unchanged for others. Do not assume that Kodak just makes these numbers up--why would they bother to change them if there were no need to do so?--but equally, remember that all development times should be modified to suit your particular subjects, equipment, techniques, and preferences.

I get the best results with quite a bit more development than Kodak recommends, anything from 10-20 percent. But then, I always find that I need more development with most manufacturers' films, if I want to print on Grades 2 and 3 instead of 3, 4, and 5.

I don't know, but I suspect that these changes in development times are the result of changes in the way that the film is hardened. You might not expect this to change the tonality, but it does. And tonality, to me, is the real difference.

Phone at 17.5 times magnification. The grain is very apparent, but you can still read the numbers on the buttons.

Tonality Tells The Tale
Tonality, after all, is what films are about. Who cares if you have super fine grain and ultimate sharpness if the tonality is ugly? The problem is that fine grain is easy to sell to photographers who are not very knowledgeable. Tonality is a lot harder to sell, but it matters a lot more to most photographers who really understand and care about black and white.

Kodak makes a great fuss about its state of the art coating line, but this is a bit of a smokescreen. The change in where the film was coated (Rochester, but on another line) was almost certainly commercially driven, not by a decision to make the film better. But the change presented the opportunity to get rid of a well-known fault--the old Tri-X had rather a tender emulsion, and was prone to reticulation when sloppily processed--and to add other real improvements as well.

I have already explained why I fell in love with the new Tri-X: the tonality. But what are the other advantages?

Crisper Grain
Crisp, clean grain. Tri-X has always been famous for this, but I felt that the previous generation was rather too gritty. It was fine for in-your-face New York City pictures, but not so good for rural scenes. The latest generation handles rural landscapes every bit as well as "mean streets."

A lot, of course, depends on how you develop it. As I have already suggested, you can develop this film in almost anything. I haven't had a failure yet, but when I came to check the technical data for the pictures I selected for this article, I found they were all developed in Ilford's Ilfotec DD-X for the equivalent of 6-8 minutes at 20ÞC, 68ÞF. I've no doubt that Kodak developers will work just as well (they couldn't work better--these were stunning) but I don't normally use Kodak film developers and I couldn't see any particular reason to try them, seeing how good the other developers all were.

Bridge and river, Southern France. This picture shows the excellent resolution of detail which Tri-X gives. The picture has an enormous tonal range: it was taken against the afternoon sun, the building on the left being used to prevent excessive flare. (Ilford's DD-X, 8 minutes at 20ÞC, 68ÞF--it was a dull day. Voigtländer's Bessa-T, 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar, yellow filter (B+W 2x).)

Some developers give big grain and high speed--some give big grain and low speed--while others lose half a stop or a stop and give significantly finer grain. It seems to me that there is more variation than before. This suits me fine. When I develop a film, I want to be able to choose the effects I get. This is the third big advantage: what the experts call a good developer repertoire.

Then there is speed, latitude, and flexibility. ISO 400 is perfectly realistic, but you can overexpose by a stop or two with only a small penalty in grain and sharpness. Underexposure by half a stop or even a whole stop does not bring too many penalties either, though there is a loss of tonality. You can also push it, though I wouldn't bother: a faster film is always a better idea. If I were wedded to yellow boxes, I'd go straight to TMZ P3200. As it is, I use Ilford's Delta 3200: tonality, again.

You want more reasons to try it than this? Why? Be realistic. This is a great film: one of the greatest that the Great Yellow Father has ever made. What more do you want? Go out and buy some--now. "Tri-X: try it."

For more information about the new Tri-X, visit Kodak's website at www.kodak.com/go/professional.