My first year of shooting film Part 10
Do you know how one photo taken with a specific lens can win you over, although you know that there is more to it than this one photo, and that the photographer probably has a large part in the result as well? For example ever since I saw this photo Hamish made I want the Zeiss Hologon 16mm lens (read his review here):
A similar thing can happen with film, one photo can sway your mind towards one film type or brand, even though the photographer, lens, developer and scanning all are part of the result. But the mind works in mysterious ways, and emotions have their own logic. So I thought I was going to use HP5+ as my go-to black and white film, but then I couldn’t get this photo I took in Curaçao out of my mind:
It doesn’t make sense at all, it’s not a good photo, and not only because the strap blocked part of the lens. But I love the glow. I have been going over this many times, and I keep coming back to this photo. I wanted to write a post on how I had made my mind up about using HP5+ based on how clean it is and how beautiful the details are, but when selecting the photos to accompany this I realised that I actually prefer Tri-X.
Back to the beginning: as a starting film photographer you have to figure out which film to use. Of course part of the fun of analogue photography is switching it up and experimenting, but it makes sense to keep it simple and straightforward in the beginning, as there are enough parameters to learn to deal with. So for a beginner the most obvious choices for black and white are Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5+ (I know there are more options, but these seem to get used most, and I am keeping it simple, right?). So I shot a few rolls of Tri-X and a few rolls of HP5+ and I was ready to make a decision.
There is a technical way to approach this. I recreated the characteristic curves from Tri-X 400 and HP5+ from the website from Kodak and Ilford respectively, see image below. From the characteristic curves you can see that Tri-X will display more contrast in the highlights, where HP5+ will give more contrast in the shadows. Different development times will give different results though. I also tried to make a quantitive comparison on grain, but where Kodak specifies the granularity (diffuse rms granularity is 17), I couldn’t find a number for HP5+.
But the technical approach, how interesting it may be, is not what is going to make the heart sing, at least not mine. So I am looking at results. For a Dutch girl like me Tri-X is an obvious choice for art as former Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn (he is now a director) chose Tri-X for it’s forgiving nature. A typical Anton Corbijn portrait:
For an example of HP5+ I again turn to Hamish’ flickr-stream. I always loved this next one, although it was pushed so it is not representative for ‘normal’ HP5+ use:
Both images have their own characteristics, and I really like them both. So far it is difficult to pick a favourite.
As inspiring as both photos may be, in the end it is about what I can achieve with the film. So I have been comparing some of my own results, in similar circumstances. I have to add the disclaimer that it is not a scientific research, I don’t have results with all parameters controlled, so camera’s vary, lenses vary, light circumstances vary, etc. This makes it totally unfair, but again, emotions are not fair!
Two photos I made in a forest:
I like them both, I guess the second one is sharper due to the modern lens, but the result is almost too decent, too pretty. The first one seem to connect with me more, but that could be the light instead of the film.
Another comparison with images taken in bright daylight (although one in Curaçao and one in the Netherlands):
This time the modern lens was combined with Tri-X and the vintage lens (Summilux from 1970) combined with HP5+, but again the HP5+ looks sharper, neater. In this case I clearly prefer the first one, the film seems to add to the different textures in the image.
The point I am going to make is that in the end HP5+ is too pretty for me. In the previous results you could say that the subjects played a role in that, so I include a pretty one here too. Both photos with a pretty subject, again one with Tri-X, and one with HP5+.
I think for these two photos it’s a tie, both display nice tones, both look sharp enough to me.
There is one photo that swayed me towards HP5+. It’s this next one with the flowers, where the clarity of the vase and the water is what made me really happy:
However, I realised that for pretty photos I prefer color. However much I like the HP5+ results, in the end I prefer to shoot color when I am shooting landscapes or pretty pictures. When it comes to black and white I love the edge of Tri-X, and in some photos (depending on the light of course) there seem to be a glow that seems rarer with HP5+ (at least in my own photos).
Due to some coincidence (I saw one sitting on a shelve at the repair shop) I bought a Rollei 35 S. My plan with this camera is to practise shooting portraits of people that I do or do not know. I think the charming character of this really small camera will help me to do that, as it is less intimidating, and it might be a conversation starter. With that in mind, Tri-X seems to make more sense. Inspired by Anton Corbijn and by the nature of this camera I intend to focus on the character of the photo, and not on sharpness or neatness. Tri-X seems to be the perfect match for that. For pretty and sharp photos I will use Kodak Portra 400 with my Leica M2, and for dirty, quick and impressionist kind of photos I will use Tri-X with the Rollei. At least that is the plan for now :-).
Two more examples taken with the Tri-X:
Curaçao beach, pretty but not too pretty.
A photo I like for the ‘glow’, even if the photo is not sharp. Could the glow be explained by the characteristic curve?
The biggest lesson learned here for me is that in trying to pick a favourite I have to look at how and where I want to use it. When I was just trying to find ‘the’ best film, I couldn’t make up my mind. But when I had a plan of what I wanted to photograph it became clear. Pretty straightforward for most of you probably, as it is for me in hindsight…
All Tri-X photos were developed and scanned by AG Photolab, all Ilford photos were developed and scanned by UK Film Lab.
Thanks for reading, and Hamish, thanks for having me!
Read Part 11 of journey into film here.
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47 thoughts on “Ilford HP5 vs Kodak Tri-X – Finding My Go-To Black & White Film – by Aukje”
Great post, Aukje. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clear examples of the differences between the two films. Thanks!
Thanks James! Although I think that is too much credit, I really appreciate it.
My taste is almost the polar opposite of yours when comparing the two. I generally use FP4 though so it should be no surprise.
That is why there is different film, right? And my point is that it is not just taste, but also purpose.
thanks for sharing this comparison.
tri-x exhibits what i refer to as a “vintage glow”. it puts more separation between the viewer and reality (an ethereal effect). i think a lot of people really like this aesthetic and it works wonderfully for certain subjects. combine tri-x with some vintage glass and this effect is going to become very apparent.
i’ve shot hundreds of rolls of hp5 and tri-x. every time i look at a tri-x negative, i can’t help but wonder if it would have looked better shot in hp5. so, i now shoot hp5 solely. hp5 puts me somewhere between vintage and modern and i guess that’s where i am most happy.
You’re welcome, Alex. Thanks for adding your view and experience! I wonder where I will be once I have shot hundreds of rolls, you can count the number of rolls I shot with tri-x or hp5 on one hand…
I don’t quite understand what a “pretty” phot is to you but that’s OK ! I started shooting and developing my own b&w film about six years ago. I am not a crazy shooter a pixel peeper or a chemistry maniac, not by any means ! For the first years, although my first shots were with Ilford films, I stuck to TriX and Rodinal. I was getting strong contrast and fine grain although Rodinal is notorious for his grainy results.
I have to say, that I mainly use film for the streets. And my style is pretty clean. Not ver dark and grainy images, although I’m thinking about it lately !
Anyways …. The last year or so I am stuck to HP5. Why ? Well, the first photos I took with it, pushed to 1600 were of my newborn daughter. Developed in Rodinal. The results were great ! Punch contrast but not “drowned”, fine grain and my wet prints look pretty amazing ! Same with my street shots. 1600 , bright, Greek sun, beautiful shadows and the HP5 still delivers.
My only change as of last month, is the developer. I’m using Kodak HC 110and I’m pretty happy with the results.
What is my final thoughts, you may wonder …. Well, of course it has to do with how it makes me feel and I completely agree with that point of your article. My simple advice is stick with the film that gives you what you like and if you feel like it, try something else and experiment. But firstly, stick with one type only and work on it. Another piece of advice, try to develop your own b&w. It’s really cheap, fun and easy. Trust me ! After that your image nay vey yet once again, it will surely open your eyes and mind and who knows, you may love another emulsion someday ! But that’s the fun of that, isn’t it ?
Me, for example, although “stuck” on HP5 am getting some rolls of that tomorrow and one roll of TriX cause I want to get back to it and see how it is with HC110. Nothing wrong with that !
So keep having fun, all the way. Just keep some parameters standard at least for a while till you get to know a film and from there you will surely be able to get on sth else and see how it compares.
Thanks for sharing Greg! I might try developing myself someday, at the moment I have very cold feet 😉
The plans is, like you suggest, to stick to one type of film for a while, and learn the characteristics of it. And of course I might change my mind earlier than later, but like you said, it is all about having fun!
Exactly ! I hope you get into developing soon I enough. I eps enough how much better it is that a lab and of course the big thing, which is the reason of your article is the final, personal touch. In the end the film becomes what you want it to be, it sees what you see in the way you see it and you shoot with developing in mind ! It might sound weird, I hope you get my point. For me, developing on your own is the way to go in order to get the feel and look you really want.
I get your point, and I think it is a very valid one. I am reading about changing bags right now…
Great comparisons. I’ve always found the results of Tri-X and HP5+ close enough to be nearly interchangeable. So, I shoot HP5+ in the winter to avoid the significant curl exhibited by Tri-X when it’s less humid. Scanning Tri-X in the winter is too frustrating. But the rest of the year I shoot Tri-X.
Thanks Jack! And that’s something I didn’t take into consideration… As I don’t develop and scan film myself I haven’t encountered that issue. But I am getting slightly more convinced that I should at least give it a try, so it’s good to know!
What an interesting read! And so true about being influenced by other photographers! I was prinarily shooting portra until I discovered Japanese photographer, Junku Nishimura. His B&W images have a beautiful soft glow that made me do my best (and fail) to try and emulate.
He uses primarily Kodak Tmax 400 and a vintage Summarit lens. Although I have noticed a lot of his latest work is shot on HP5.
I personally like Tmax as it comes out really well pushed to 1600 although it seems HP5 is also really good, even up to 3200.
After weeks of research I just bought most of the supplies to start home developing, as this seems to have just as much of an effect on the final image as the use of film and lens. And thanks to this site, more research on which scanner to get lol!
Thanks for the post and I look forward to your next (first experience with developing perhaps 😉
Thanks Devlin! And thanks for sharing your experience. I looked up Junku Nishimura and he is a great inspiration indeed.
I am still not sure about home development, maybe you can share your experience here, and let us now how/easy difficult it was?
Nice article, but here you’re not comparing films, but entire different workflows! Things like the developer choice, the agitatition and even the prewash before developing can affect a lot the end result. And I’m not even referring the scanning, when things get digital it’s impossible to make comparisons.. So what you are comparing here it’s the end result that works for you in your case and workflow.
I personally just use Ilford because I think they care more about the costumers, as the end result is about the same. I doubt that comparing prints in a blind test anyone would tell the difference.
Hi Bruno, thanks for sharing. You are right, there are quite a lot of parameters that are different or can’t be controlled. And I believe you if the two really can’t be distinguished. However lot’s of people have a preference for either one, merely based on emotions, and I guess that is what happened to me too.
I shouldn’t have added the word “comparing” into the title should I?
It’s funny isn’t it, despite you pointing out how unsceientific this is, and how it’s about gut response etc, as soon as something is “compared” it has to be a scientific thing – despite the fact we are talking about a largely non-scientific subject.
I completely get where you are coming from. So often have I found myself making decisions in photography that are based on gut and personal experience rather than through perfect scientific testing process.
We are at the end of the day talking about an art form, something that’s achieved with the none-logical part of our brain – if you let that part of your brain create the rationale, it can be swayed by all sorts of things.
What is the alternative to this process? Shooting two rolls at the same time of identical subject matter, with the same camera and lens. To make it fair the film would have been kept in the same conditions after being made on the same date. It would need to be developed at the same time, scanner by the same person who applies the exact same process. The variables are huge!
The alternative, as you have found is to follow your gut, your nose and the best possible judgement to a series of experiences to a point that allow you to find the next step in your path. I’ve done it 100 times, as will have everyone who has and will comment.
Haha, maybe you shouldn’t? But I don’t mind a bit of discussion, so all’s fine.
In my day-to-day job I am working on a very rational and analytical level. Photography for me is something to get away from that and practise the more creative part of me. But still, even in my beta-job there is no such thing as absolute knowledge, there is always a bit of intuition and gut feeling involved. Not only because it is just too expensive (in time and equipement) to investigate everything, but you just cannot know what everything is. In my job I always have to make the right assessment in balancing the gut feeling versus analytical data. In photography I allow myself to be way more on the gut-side, something that I really enjoy, and get better at with time.
Hamish, next time try the word “experimenting” instead 😛
I saw this post on APUG some time ago, I believe it’s quite accurate for the comparison sake. http://www.apug.org/forum/index.php?threads/tri-x-vs-hp5-a-simple-test-i-did.115773/
Aukje, of course you are free to prefer and use whatever you like! But try developing at home and printing to see the diferences properly, maybe then your opinion will change 😉
Hi Bruno, thanks for the link, that is a useful addition. I might try some developing, but first I want to learn proper and consistent shooting 😉
Haha, a good shout!
I’ve caused poor Aukje all sorts of trouble I think 😉
Incidentally HP5, every time … If you asked me why, and really pushed me for an answer, in terms of comparison it would probably be more vague.
I shoot it because I now know how it works and what I can get away with, and last time I tried tri-x I didn’t like the results
I know, and I admire your HP5 results a lot, that is why I was surprised myself that I found myself wanting to shoot Tri-X. You are a big example/inspiration to me, but apparently I have other influences as well 😉
Interesting comparison Aukje 🙂 I recognize most of what is said in your post and the discussion in the comments. For landscape work I personally prefer FP4 over tri-x. It seems to give me a gradation that I like more. Tri-x, however, is extremely forgiving, has great latitude, and is a great general purpose film when starting out. It also has this documentary feel to it for some reason. Perhaps that is just bias based on what it used to be used for.
I have to highlight though, that choice of film is not the entire story. The choice of developer is just as important. For example, Ilford DD-X gives completely different characteristics than R09.
Anyway, if you want to give home development a try, without the investment of a dark room, you know where to find me in E272 ;).
Thanks Roy! I can imagine that tonal range is more important for landscape, but for that I prefer colour ;-).
I might take you up on your offer, I was already thinking of you. Maybe tag along some time before starting myself, and see what’s involved?
Hello Aukje, Hamish and I had a few comments going back and through Facebook. He suggest I post here.
While I respect the time you took to do your “comparison,” I would have to disagree with the use of that word. What you have done is not actually a comparison at all. In one way, you portray this as a bit of a scientific test by showing tonal response curves of each film via the graph you included, but then everything else falls into nothing more than really an opinion based upon nothing factual.
When you compared the films, you used different cameras with different metering. As a cosequence, you used different lenses. Then you photographed completely dissimilar subjects in vastly different lighting. Finally, the films were processed in completely different circumstances.
While I appreciate the effort, no one can form any factual opinion based upon this test as no comparison occurred. My suggestion, is to redo this, with both films used to photograph the same scene in the same light with the same camera. Then hand process each film in the same manner. From there we can see how each is different from the other. Based upon what you posted, no one can see how they compare. And thus any comments about prefering one over the other based upon this test is nothing more than an empty opinion.
Sorry if this sounds harsh.
Hi David, thanks for taking the time to comment, and it doesn’t sound harsh, we just have different ideas about what this post is about. I am sorry that the title and the response curve gave you the wrong idea about the intention. I did not present this as a factual article, to the contrary, like I already responded on Facebook: ‘the point I make in the very beginning of the post is that often you’re preference is based on non-rational emotions (one photo can sway your mind towards one film type or brand, even though the photographer, lens, developer and scanning all are part of the result. But the mind works in mysterious ways, and emotions have their own logic). So this is an account of an emotional process. I do understand that that is not of interest to everyone though.’
Your suggestion on how to do a factual comparison sounds like the right approach for doing such a thing. At the moment I don’t feel the need to do so personally, as I am happy with my un-rational preference. If anyone else will do this, I will be interested in the results. In fact, Bruno already suggested a source with a more factual comparison.
Just to add my final 2p to this conversation – there is still a comparison happening. Comparing results to results is still comparing, regardless of how scientific the approach is.
But anyway, it matters not – the point is, you are walking a path that many others walk, and making decisions that are similar and and relatable to those on the same path… And that’s what is interesting here.
Dave, I think you took this post too literally. The way I see it, Aukje was comparing her own reactions to the various results. She didn’t say this was a definitive test of the two films.
Film photographers it seems can also be pixel peepers. Why is there a need to be so ‘anal’ about film and processing? She happens to prefer one film to another it doesn’t mean you have to criticise her reasoning.
Of the examples she posted here, I came to the opposite conclusion, I prefer the HP5+ photographs!
In real life there are differences between HP5 and kentmere 400?
I love the look and grain of hp5, much more than tri-x 400.
Hi Carlo, thanks for you comment You are in good company preferring HP5, as you can see in the comments above. A good thing there is different film available, right?
Hi Aukje and Hamish,
I totally get your point of this “unscientific comparison” based on how you feel about the two films and I apreciate it. There are many variables that differ between the shots as others already pointed out here but thats OK. But each lab obviously had a huge impact on the outcome (developer, development time, Agitation, Scanner, Operator, digital retouching …), probably even more so than the original characteristics of the film. So by sending all of your Tri-X to AG Photolab and all of your HP5+ to UK Film Lab you introduced a systematical error instead of just dealing with random variables.
But back to the emotional Level:
That means that everything that you feel about HP5+ or Tri-X might actually largely be a result of the treatment by the different labs instead of the films themselves!
Please excuse mentioning statistics but my scientific background just forced me to point this out for you and other Readers who might not be aware of this 😉
Thanks for you comment Sebastian. I understand your point, I have a scientific background too, and I hesitated a bit when I noticed it. However, I was going back and forth between the two films, and at some point I found myself favouring one over the other. And I try to approach my photography more from intuition than from science… Maybe the conclusion is that I prefer the processing of AG photo lab over UK film lab, I might try them both with Tri-X and see if it will make a difference.
Don’t worry I don’t think there is any illusion held by anyone that all of the variables add up, especially the lab.
I’ve had results back from some labs that have made Portra look awful – yet I am normally very happy with it.
I think what I took from this post was a process I recognised from own experiences of trying to find answers and following my nose. I guess not everyone has approached this in the same way as me and Aukje have.
I have been the home developer for some time and have tried many bricks of Tri-X, HP5, and Delta 400 now. I have found the biggest impact on my result was the developer. I used 1L of HC-110 (lasts a lot of rolls!) and didn’t like the look of things. Now I have moved to DDX and using many litres later I am much more happy with this for all three films. I am firm on development times, agitations and temperatures and I found this is the solution to repeating results. It is like baking the cake, if you follow instructions properly the cake comes out nice.
At the moment I am working on a brick of Delta 400 – I always try one brick before moving on to another film. For the last time I have been shooting Delta 100 and really liked the look. But of course this is always a subjective thought.
Thank you for sharing these thoughts.
Thanks for sharing your experiences. I am still thinking about trying developing myself, but it would require home-scanning too. Most labs do the developing almost for free when you order scans, so developing without scanning doesn’t make much sense. And I am hesitant to do that as it would either require a larger investment, or accept lower quality I am afraid. So, still pondering about this…
Yes, it will be more costly in the short run (E600 for a Epson V800 scanner), but probably cheaper in the long run. Home developing your film, including the expense of the film itself is roughly E8.50/roll. If you send it off to the UK for developing and scanning, I estimate you spend roughly 25 euro/roll (including the cost of the film). After 37 rolls you would start saving money.
In general, the consensus is that home scanning gives you better results than lab scans (unless you are paying good money to get every frame professionally scanned.. by someone that does not do it on auto settings).
It is more of a hassle though. You will have to dissolve the chemicals yourself, clean up afterwards, and scanning can be time consuming.. Nevertheless, it might be worth it… 🙂
I think the lighting conditions and different lenses have more to do with the glow and qualitative perception than the film themselves.
Also a slight change in developing (freshness, agitation and so on) may have more influence. Or how the camera exposes.
The images are too dissimilar and in different conditions to really appreciate the differences between the films.
For an actual comparison the shooting conditions should be more similar.
Photos are good, just wish there were a few with the same shot.
I had similar reservations with the Portra / Ektar article, but in some photos you can see that the Ektar is more contrasty.
Film cameras like old Minolta SLR are so inexpensive, that testing 2 different films in the same conditions with the same lens on 2 different bodies is quite inexpensive.
Thanks for the suggestion, but it was not my intention to do the most scientific correct experiment. I am just playing with different films. But I do appreciate your feedback!
Thank you. I just read your comparison and found it informative and for myself, timely. I recently purchased an M4 which I’ll be taking to Italy and have been trying to decide whether to take Tri-X or HP5. The thing I found interesting was at the end of your article in which you said the films had been processed by two separate labs. I have always processed my own negatives and have liked the results with HP5 more than Tri-X because those negatives seem to have higher acutance. I suspect this is because the emulsion back might be slightly thinner. With a low acutance the grain will tend to set up in small clumps giving a grainier look to the image. A higher acutance causes the grain to set up much more evenly giving the image a less grainy look. I regularly print images at 16 x 20 and the look of the grain is compatible to film speeds of 100. Plus, I over expose about 1/3 of a stop and underdevelope by about 10% which helps bring out the deep shadow detail without changing the density of the highlights. I wonder if developing the film yourself would give you more control over the final negative and, as a result, alter your opinion.
Hi Jeff, thanks for your thoughts. I have started developing myself, but for now that makes things even more complicated. I mean, process variables, degrading chemicals, different chemicals, I don’t know where to begin. The good new is that there is plenty to try and enjoy, but it can be daunting sometimes.
Hi can I ask if you’re using any filters, either in the dark room or on the camera lens? My preference would always be to shoot straight with film and use the gel filters in the darkroom enlarger, but I don’t have access to a darkroom any longer. I’ve ordered a set of orange, yellow, red and green lens filters made at the Kiev Arsenal factory so I’m hoping they won’t take too much away from the IQ of the lens.
I ask because the contrast is quite punchy in your images something I’d normally put down to coloured filters.
I didn’t use any filters, I think it has mostly to do with the quality of light. The scenes I shot where quite contrasty. But I am not sure how the lab processed the film during development or scanning, so they could have added contrast too.
Well Aukje for me this makes no sense at all sorry.
You shoot different subjects with different cameras
to compare different analoge films – just to give all
to a lab without even knowing anything about their
process which maybe works better for one film and
not for the other only to let them also scan with settings
not adjusted to the gradation = it’s just a gamble……
Hi Karl, thanks for your thoughts. I had to re-read it, as it has been more than two years since I wrote this, but I understand what you’re saying. In my defence, at least I am clear about the short-comings of this comparison. As I was saying, these photos triggered me to have a favourite, and you are right to observe that it might as well be the lab that I favour instead of the film. At that time I wasn’t aware of the impact of different film labs on the final result, but I keep learning as I go. Writing and receiving feedback on these posts are a great help for me. Recently I learned that different software for editing digital files or scans can have an impact on your result as well, there is a lot to take into account when you really want to master the process. Anyway, maybe if you approach this with a scholar in mind, who is trying to understand what it is in a photo that she likes, and how she could recreate that, you find it slightly less confusing…
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Looking at those curves HP5+ is about 0.5 stop faster than Tri-X which explains the lighter shadows and Tri-X has a more upswept- higher contrast curve for highlights which explains the greater highlight contrast. Regardless, you can probably expose and develop them to look the same if you care to spend time testing property….