The New Tri-X

Back in the day, I was a Tri-X 400 addict. Tri-X 400 is a black-and-white (B&W) film from Kodak that was once (and to a small extent, still is) popular among photojournalists. It was well loved for being very forgiving in terms of exposure latitude, as well as being fast (base speed of 400, but pushable to 800 or even 1600 in a pinch). Photos taken on Tri-X have a very particular look about them; a special kind of punchy contrast that is very satisfying but isn’t fake looking or over-done. It has a nice salt & pepper grain that most photographers of yore thought of as providing a distinct texture to the images. Think of any well known B&W photos from the Korean or Vietnam wars, and there’s about a 90% chance they were shot on Tri-X.

I used to buy it in 100-foot rolls and hand-load it into 35mm cartridges which I developed and printed myself. Those were the days. Frankly, I don’t miss the smells and chemistry, nor the enormous black hole of time that a darkroom is, or at least was. In the early 90s it wasn’t unusual for me to spend 10 or 12 hours of a Saturday in there.

But I do miss my Tri-X.

Fortunately, my new digital camera – a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which is physically similar to my old Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 – is providing me with a bit of a nostalgia trip. Normally I detest the various silly modes and pre-canned settings that come built into most digital cameras, but this one has a mode called “Dynamic B&W” that produces images that remind me of Tri-X film.

For example, below is a photo I grabbed this evening at about 5:30. It was dark and rainy, and my old LX2 would not have been able to do anything under those circumstances. (That model is notorious for its noise when set above ISO 200, a problem that has been dealt with beautifully with the LX3.) I put my LX3 in “Dynamic B&W mode and cranked the ISO up to 1600 and grabbed a few one-handed shots from under my umbrella. My intention was to just test the camera, to see what the technical quality of the images would be.

Tri-X in Digital

A test shot, but I kind of like it. I particularly like the texture and feel, which reminds me of Tri-X. The only post-processing I did was to bring down the highlights a bit to emphasize the stormy sky. Best seen large (1200×801 pixels).

At ISO 1600, there are some pretty wonky noise artifacts when viewed at 100% magnification. But if I reduce the image to Flickr size (which for me is usually 1200 pixels wide), the noise becomes a pleasant grain. More importantly, the images have that magical “Tri-Xy” quality that you can’t quite put your finger on but you know it’s there. At ISO 400 it seems to be even better; same punchy quality without the noise problems.

Not bad for a camera you can fit in your shirt pocket (assuming you have fairly big shirt pockets). Those who watch my Flickr stream and my Monday Morning Photo Blog might be seeing more B&W photos there in the next little while.

By the way, you may be wondering why I choose to shoot in B&W instead of simply converting to B&W in Photoshop. The answer is simple (yet not); when I’m photographing, I tend to pre-visualize. When I’m shooting B&W, I think slightly differently than when I’m shooting color. So when the camera is in B&W mode, so too am I.

Update: I have started a photo blog focused on street photography, in which I use the LX3 almost exclusively (there are a few older LX2 images in there). Many of the images there were shot in Dynamic B&W mode.

7 thoughts on “The New Tri-X

  1. Love the look of that photo. The sidewalk looks like it’s slick with oil. Definitely captures the rainy-ness of the day.

  2. Great picture – moody. Know the corner well – Do you stop in at the Benix there to ogle the kitchen accessories?

  3. Thanks! Yes, Milliner, I love how it captures the true look of the scene, which is even more remarkable when you realize how dark it actually was. If I had shot this at ISO 1600 on my older camera (the LX2), the scene would have been a mess of blurry electronic noise, and not appealing at all.

    Yes, Harry, I have been known to darken the doors of that Benix store. It’s huge! It’s also the factory outlet, so the prices are low.

  4. Very interesting to me since I learned to shoot with Plus X and considered myself a “real pro” when I started shooting all Tri X. Also bought 100 ft. rolls etcetcetc. You are totally right that shooting B&W requires a different “eye” than shooting color. A good color pix isn’t necessarily a good B&W pix and vice versa.

  5. My dad was an avid amateur photographer, and I remember his loading Tri-X film under a safe light, the scent of the developer, and his sheets of contact prints. Your photo really does capture the “feel” of that technology. The new Lumix looks like it has a lot of potential.

  6. too bad you cant make a fiber print from it

    nothing like tri-x

  7. Yama, you got that right. Although it begs the question of why couldn’t you project the image onto the paper the same way you do with a film enlarger? You’d have to reverse the image (make it a negative), but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work. You could even make a small, high-res projector that automatically reverses the image. Basically a digital/analog hybrid enlarger!

    Holy crap, if that hasn’t been invented yet, somebody should get on that!

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