Life without Tri-X

It’s the news that, even in these digital times, hordes of photographers across the world are dreading: the announcement that production of Kodak Tri-X, one of the most iconic films of all time, and the material that so many landmark pictures have been created on, could come to an end. Rumours about its demise circulate from time to time, but up to now Kodak has insisted that it has no plans to stop production. However, the digital revolution has taken its toll. Film sales are a fraction of what they once were and now Kodak itself is struggling to shake off industry fears that it’s in trouble.

The latest scare was that Kodak, on the back of not having made a profit since 2007, was planning to file for bankruptcy protection in the US, something it vehemently denies. But even so, this news was enough to send the company’s share price plunging. Photographers of a certain generation, who have perhaps spent the bulk of their careers considering Tri-X to be their valued partner, are horrified by the prospect of life without their favourite film.

One of those forever linked to Kodak Tri-X is Don McCullin, whose images have gone on to become burned into the consciousness of an entire generation. With a massive exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London due to run until April next year, McCullin is centre of attention once more. His amazingly powerful body of work, considered by many to be the most telling record of war and conflict ever produced, is testament to what a superb film Kodak Tri-X, in the hands of one of the truly great photographers, can really be.

It’s fair to say that McCullin, although resigned to the fact that Tri-X will one day inevitably face the axe, is dreading the time when he will no longer be able to use the film that he loves and trusts implicitly. “I think in many ways it’s the news we’re all expecting at some point,” he says, “and having heard the rumours about Kodak I’ll be going out in the morning to buy 100 rolls to make sure I’ve got some stashed away!

“I would simply say that Tri-X is probably the greatest film ever to come into existence. I used it throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, and I’m still using it in its medium-format form today for my landscape work. It’s still my favourite material.”

Shaped by War, the show running at the Imperial War Museum, is packed full of images produced by McCullin in some of the most dangerous places on earth. He has risked his neck on the front line in places such as Cyprus, Northern Ireland, the Lebanon, East and West Berlin and, most famously, in Vietnam and Cambodia. The last thing he wanted to do in any of these situations was worry about whether his film would be up to the job or would let him down when shooting conditions became challenging.

“In terms of what film to use, there was no decision to make,” he says. “Tri-X was by far and away the best material around for the job I needed to do. There were other films that were also very good, such as Plus-X, but they were much slower and were best used when you weren’t likely to have the need to shoot in difficult conditions.

“I loved Tri-X because it was so versatile. You could always push it a stop to 800 ASA and give it longer in the developer to get you out of trouble if you had to. It meant that if the weather was bad or you were shooting indoors, you could carry on working.”

Stories abound about photographers heading for their hotel rooms after a mission and processing their film in the sink or the bath so that they could send pictures home for publication. McCullin saw this practice as risky, though. Having stuck his neck out on the front line he didn’t want to take the chance that something would go wrong. Likewise he was never comfortable with sending unprocessed film back to the UK with another photographer, just in case it got lost en route.

“I know that some great photographers, such as W Eugene Smith, would process their film on assignment, but that was never for me,” he says. “I was never happy about sending it back either, and I would hang on to my exposed and unprocessed films sometimes for weeks on end so that I could make sure it got back safely.

“The one and only time I did send my film back was just after I’d covered the fall of Phnom Penh in Vietnam in 1975, and I had spent six weeks under fire there. All of my unprocessed film was due to go back on a plane from Bangkok, but I ended up getting back to the UK before the film arrived. I had several days of biting my nails to the quick, worrying about whether I was ever going to see the film again before it eventually turned up. I decided then that I would never do that again.”

Tri-X alternatives

Over the next few pages we’re looking at digital alternatives to Kodak Tri-X including the DXO FilmPack and Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro. Both of these are designed to mimic the grain and texture of films including Tri-X. This might sound a little far-fetched until you realise that even Sebastião Salgado, a digital convert since 2008, is using DXO FilmPack to ensure continuity in the look of his pictures. Given that other photojournalists have bowed to the dominance of digital photography, does McCullin think that there could be a time when he might give up Tri-X and join Salgado and so many others behind a DSLR?

“I have to say that I don’t even know how to switch a computer on,” he says. “Having said that, I did take a job on this summer which was a huge campaign for a software company in Taiwan, and for that I used a Canon DSLR. I thought it was amazing: the quality of the results was fantastic, way beyond my expectations.”

Does this mark a change of heart perhaps? Maybe not: “I still think that there’s nothing quite like pulling a wet film off a spiral and looking for the first time at your negatives. When I was working overseas I processed films myself, or take them to a lab. That’s a great discipline. Now you take pictures and immediately check them out on the back of a camera. To my mind, it’s not the same photography.”

Simulating Kodak Tri-X

The punchy, high-grain results characteristic of Kodak Tri-X black & white film are not just available to ‘analogue’ photographers. Digital darkroom experts can simulate the effect too

For those who don’t shoot film any more – or indeed for those that never have – it’s possible to recreate the classic look of Kodak Tri-X using digital imaging software like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. There are also plug-ins (extra software that operates from within an application like Photoshop or Lightroom) that aim to recreate the look of various film types; Tri-X is inevitably always included.

Harking back to the look and feel of yesteryear is not just an exercise in nostalgia, though. Your clients might thank you for it too. Underlying effects like this are a part of developing a photographic style, which others may not quite be able to put their finger on, but will appreciate nonetheless. Bringing some film-inspired post-processing into your photography will help move away from that oh-so-common, plastic look and feel of digital photography. In fact, combine this with other retro effects, like film rebates and vignetting, and you have the basis of a great look for fly-on-the-wall style reportage .

At the heart of Kodak Tri-X is grain. Lots of grain! Over the years other ISO 400 monochrome films have been released that take advantage of new chemical technologies and are much smoother (Kodak TMAX 400, Ilford Delta 400, and Fuji Acros 400 to name but three). But the rough and gritty feel of Kodak Tri-X continues to be popular, especially with those after a more traditional look.

Grain is different to noise, being more regular in structure. It’s also tighter and less blotchy. In fact, applying some artificial film grain to an already noisy digital image can hide a multitude of sins. Tri-X is also fairly high contrast, and has a tonal response that renders blues as lighter than reds or greens in black & white.

These are all qualities we can reproduce quite easily on the average Mac or PC during post-production. In fact we can even store such adjustments as a preset for instant application to a whole library of files. A word of warning though: the general effect may not suit all images, so don’t be afraid to tweak brightness and contrast to get the right result. You aren’t cheating here either: in the days of film, Tri-X shooting photographers would change the properties of their film by using different developers (high acutance developers give more sharpness but more grain too) and by push-processing the film to higher ISO sensitivities.

Let’s see how two commercially available plug-ins simulate Kodak Tri-X. DXO Lab’s FilmPack 3 and Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 are two of the most popular packages on the market and also amongst the most straightforward to use. We’ll also look at how the Tri-X look can be recreated in Adobe Lightoom with some basic adjustments, and also in Adobe Photoshop with the Black & White adjustment and Add Noise filter.

DXO FilmPack 3 // from £69 //

DXO FilmPack3 should fit into every workflow as it’s available as a standalone app as well as a plug-in for Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. It’s easy to use and lots of film effects are available.

If we could offer any area for improvement it would be the tonal reproduction of the Tri-X preset, which isn’t quite as punchy as we’d like. Not a great problem as this can be altered using the custom controls. It would be nice to see some more control over grain though, as offered by Lightroom 3.4 and Silver Efex Pro. That said, DXO Film Pack 3 is great value for money and an easy way of producing great b&w conversions.

01We’re using DXO FilmLabs 3 in its Photoshop plug-in form, so the first step is to open up the image in Photoshop, where we’ll create a duplicate layer to work on.

02 The DXO plug-in is applied by choosing Filters>DXO Labs >FilmPack 3… After a moment you should see the DXO interface with your image in the middle of the screen.

03 Choose the ‘Black and White’ Film tab at the bottom of the screen and scroll across to find the ‘Kodak Tri-X 400’ option. Click it once to apply the effect.

04 Don’t be disappointed at the initial quality: the image looks better viewed at 100 per cent. Click Save to return to Photoshop, or tweak the effect with the controls on the right.

Silver Efex Pro //$149.99 //

Nik Software impressed a lot of people when its innovative approach to black & white first graced our desktops. Fast forward to 2011 and Silver Efex Pro 2 has more features than ever.

Exposure, contrast and structure (a local contrast adjustment) are accompanied by the ability to tone and tint images, add grain and vignetting, and carefully control colour response. As expected, plenty of film simulation options are available, including Kodak Tri-X 400.

Once again the application is available as Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture plug-ins, though no standalone version is supplied.

01 We don’t have to duplicate the image layer since Silver Efex Pro returns the mono conversion to Photoshop as a new layer anyway. Just choose Filter>Nik Software>Silver Efex Pro 2.

02 Choose the Kodak Tri-X preset from the Film Types drop-down menu. This simulates film grain and tonal response to different colours. You can also adjust the size and shape of the grain.

03 What differentiates Silver Efex Pro from other software packages are the extra effects you can apply. Here we’ve added vignetting and image borders for a film-like feel.

04 Clicking OK returns us to Photoshop. The result is a separate layer; the original remains untouched. You can apply the plug-in as many times as you like, playing with different effects.

Adobe Lightroom // £237 //

With version 3 of Adobe Lightroom came the ability to simulate film grain. You’ll find the control under the Develop Module, in the Effects pallet.

There’s lots you can do here: as well as the amount of grain, you can define how big each grain particle is and how rough it is.

Lightroom also allows fine-tuning of colour response in black & white mode, so we can reproduce how Tri-X interprets colours.

Let’s put all this together to simulate how Kodak Tri-X sees the world, and then save this as a preset you can apply quickly to other shots.

01 In the Develop module select the Black & White treatment option at the top of the Basic panel. The image should be converted to mono, though it may look a bit flat at this stage.

02 Find the HSL/Color/B&W controls. Alter the colour response by keying in the values: Red +14, Orange +26, Yellow +26, Green +11, Aqua +58, Blue +30, Purple +58, and Magenta +59.

03 Move to the Effects controls and add some grain. You can add quite a bit, but go easy on the Size slider, which can affect sharpness. View these changes at 100 per cent magnification.

04 Save this as a preset to apply the effect to other shots. Click the + symbol in the Presets pallet and tick only those options we have changed: treatment, black & white and grain.

BIO Don McCullin started as a photographic assistant in the Royal Navy in 1959. By 1966 he was on his way to becoming one the foremost photojournalists of our time. In the seventies and eighties he covered conflicts in Vietnam and Northern Ireland. He now shoots landscapes and still life and lives in Somerset.

Taken from the January 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine