If you’re a seasoned black and white film shooter, you will of course know how these popular films differs from each other. Kodak T-max and Kodak Tri-X are both B/W films with somewhat similar names and for someone who’s just coming into film photography, it may not be as obvious what sets them apart.
This is not a technical review. If you’re into technical specs, you can look up the data sheets from the manufacturers website, that’ll have exposure latitudes and other facts quantified and documented. I’ve been shooting both films a lot and I’d like to share my empirical views based on my own personal field experience. I shoot mostly 35mm and I’ll be writing from that perspective.
Both products are extremely high quality professional, panchromatic, black and white films, with very little flaws to mention. The key difference is that Tri-X is a very old, traditional film stock where as T-Max is a relatively modern product introduced in 1986. Tri-X dates back to 1940’s when it was first introduced as sheet film. Initially it wasn’t available in other formats, but eventually in 1954 it was also made available in 35mm (and 120) format too. Both films come in 400 ISO which this article mainly concentrates on. T-Max 100 and 3200 are also readily available. Tri-X comes more commonly only in ISO 400 speed, even though 320 ISO version also exists.
Even though Tri-X has gone some iterations and improvements during it’s existence, it still features emulsion that is based on a very old school and traditional technology. It provides very authentic and classic film look. The grain structure is generally more distinctive and rougher, even though very pleasing. T-max is based on a much newer tabular (T-grain) technology, which will result in very sharp images and generally much lesser grain. The results depend much on different factors, which means you can get gritty and grainy images out of T-max (which I usually somewhat aim for) — and vice versa, you can get really smooth results from Tri-X with very little grain, depending on your shooting style and how you develop the negatives.
Both films are really good for pushing and pulling, because they have a lot of exposure latitude. In practise that means, the films can handle surprisingly large amount of over and under exposure without suffering too much from it. They’ll hold highlight and shadow detail like nobody’s business. I especially enjoy Tri-x’s ability to retain a huge amount of tonality in highlights, without practically any of that over blown look of solid white areas. I regularly shoot both films at ISO 800, which they can handle easily. Shooting at 1600 is also child’s play for both films. In terms of contrast, both films lie somewhere between medium and high contrast, somewhere in the goldilocks zone of contrast.
Here are few sample images shot on Tri-x and T-max to give you an idea what kind of results are to be expected. All the images are developed in Kodak D-76 (1:1 dilution) but it’s worth to notice that various cameras, lenses and ISO-settings were used. I gathered the sample shots from multiple different projects. I mainly shoot, or have shot with Leica M4-2, Leica M6 with Summaron 35mm f2.8 and Carl Zeiss 50mm f2 ZM T*. I also shoot with Olympus OM-4 and OM-1, typically with Zuiko 50mm f1.8 or Zuiko 50mm f1.4.