5 frames with...

5 Frames With Tri-X Pushed to 1600 – by Simon King

January 19, 2020

It can feel difficult to write about photography standards, as it can feel like a rehash of commentary greater artists than me have already provided. I don’t want to waste my creative potential in either shooting or writing simply rehashing old concepts – I want to offer something new, and to educate newcomers so that their journey in film photography can be more streamlined, with a better understanding of the different processes and approaches to different techniques, as well as the results that those produce.

With that in mind I want to talk about some recent images I made on Tri-X 400, which is one of the all time iconic emulsions. Versions of this film have been used historically for some of the most important pieces of historical record, and it carries a certain weight to it, a mythos that is well respected. I think that as much as this keeps the film relevant it can also mean that some people will actively avoid it, preferring to shoot with an “underdog” film instead. This was my feeling, and I made the decision early on to try as many emulsions as possible before getting around to Tri-X; something I’ve written about in a bit more detail on the Emulsive website.

The current version of Tri-X is the result of the refinement of a formula which offers incredible latitude and absolutely timeless aesthetic. Sharpness, grain, and the overall look of images made with it are very satisfying, and this combination makes it an excellent option to use for my winter photography. During the winter pushing my black and white film makes more sense than shooting at box, opens the potential to keep going long after sunset and into the rain and cold of winter nights. I’m always looking for new films, or new ways to experience films I’m familiar with, and although I’ve shot a fair amount of Tri-X I haven’t really felt the urge to push it too often – I prefer Delta 3200, or even T-Max 3200 to get me closer to those high ISO’s.

After a bit of trial and error I decided that my favourite way to push Tri-X is to set my EI at 1600 and meter for the shadows as often as possible (unless looking for a specific effect). Pushed film develops best (in my experience) when stand developed, which means a low dilution and longer times, but much cleaner results, and richer negatives. Going five to ten minutes over with a stand develop offers me a little more room to work when scanning or printing, and offers a touch more detail, which can be just as easily lost in a contrast tweak during the scan.

1600 isn’t a difficult push for Tri-X; it can easily handle up to silly speeds, like 12,800 if exposed and handled correctly. I think it’s a fairly standard winter ISO, and a great option for someone looking to use Tri-X as an all purpose film , to maintain their aesthetic through all seasons and conditions.

The grain characteristics of Tri-X at 1600 are wonderfully classic; not too harsh, but definitely visible. At 1600 I much prefer the contrast compared with shooting at box speed – by pushing the overall tones become more extreme, so whites render as less of the grey you get on a well exposed shot at 400.

Tri-X offers fantastic shadow detail in most situations, so I’m never too worried, but when pushing you can choose to expose for the brighter areas of the frame rather than the shadows as I normally do – this offers a very high contrast feel, with little to no detail except what you have chosen to expose for.

Technical points aside, there’s just something really special about shooting Tri-X at 1600. The blacks are much blockier than using something like T-Max 3200 even when pulled to 1600. The grain is less pronounced than a higher ISO film as well. Pushing holds a real value in offering something so distinct and almost refined – true of many films, but the classic Tri-X feel in these circumstances is hard to replicate!

Thanks for taking the time to read this! I’d be interested in hearing your favourite films/development methods for pushing, especially if there are any weird processes I could try over the winter! If you’ve enjoyed my images here then consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

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  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    January 19, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    A fine article with good photos. You have followed the classic formula for 35mm film: expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.
    My take on this old saw is: expose for the shadows you want to retain detail in, and develop for the highlights. I usually open up 1 stop to get some detail in the shadows, and extend development by about 20% (ID-11, 1:1 w/normal agitation). This is for low/light/no light shooting (EI 1600.) People working in these conditions must remember that results are more unpredictable than consistent. Results show be viewed as sometimes showing the spirit or emotion of the scene rather than a detailed-filled record. Your final photo of the people at the outdoor food vendor is a perfect example.

  • Reply
    Ross A
    January 19, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    Hi Simon,

    After reading this, the technique portions are somewhat confusing and I think incorrect. I respect the fact that you have given your time to write and post this, and I don’t want to be discourteous in any way.

    What struck me was this text:

    “I decided that my favourite way to push Tri-X is to set my EI at 1600 and meter for the shadows as often as possible (unless looking for a specific effect).”

    To say you are rating a 400 speed film at 1600, and then say you are exposing for the shadows is a non sequitur. 1600 is two stops less exposure than the rated speed. If you are exposing for the shadow areas, in other words over exposing by a stop or two, you have probably just given up that two stop push.

    The film doesn’t know or care what you have set as an ISO. It only knows how much light it gets during the exposure.

    In negative film terms, shadows are controlled by exposure, highlights by development.

    If you were to take a cross section of a negative, the shadows are the thinnest and the highlights are the thickest. So if you do not have enough exposure in the shadows during capture, meaning that density is too thin, no amount of development is going to help you. Whereas the highlights, being the thickest part to start with, will be the areas which respond to either more or less time in developer.

    That is why you must decide at the time of exposure what look you want, and specifically if you want detail in the shadows.

    This is a much bigger discussion than what there is room for here, so I am intentionally being brief. I just think the results you are getting are more from extending the development time to increase the contrast, and open up those grays to more white, but I think you have effectively used a box speed.


    • Reply
      January 19, 2020 at 3:09 pm

      Thank you for your comment, but I don’t think I’m mistaken in my description of the way I have been shooting Tri-X. Both my metering and development times are correct for a +2 push of this film – so whether I’m working for highlights or shadow at no point is my push negated in any way. If I were to simply meter at 400 and increase the development time then the exposure would be much lighter; only by adjusting both my metering and the development process will the two work in compliment.

      It may be that I haven’t understood what you’ve said, in which case I’d appreciate some clarification!

      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        January 19, 2020 at 6:27 pm

        The salient point here is that if you are metering for the shadows then you are effectivly overexposing. If you set the meter to IE 1600 you are underexposing. So in theory you are potentially canceling yourself out.

        • Reply
          January 19, 2020 at 6:55 pm

          That depends on the exposure difference between the highlights or the shadows – when I expose an image I’m not looking to achieve some perfect exposure, I’ll be looking to render a subject in a particular way. None of the images used in this article are “badly” exposed, instead they work to communicate a subject either accurately or artistically. I may lose the highlights, and I may lose the shadows but as long as I nail (or close enough) my subject then that’s a success for my needs.
          The development times are measured for what I meter at, so at no point is anything cancelled out. If I meter a shot while rating my film at 1600, and then did two stops of light it will be two stops brighter than my meter recommended.

      • Reply
        Ross A
        January 20, 2020 at 1:27 pm

        My criticism isn’t about your doing anything wrong. This is a creative activity and you are getting results you want, so bravo.
        But this is where I think the difference lies:
        “ If I were to simply meter at 400 and increase the development time then the exposure would be much lighter; ..”
        That is incorrect. By setting the meter at 1600 you are under exposing by 2 stops. Then if you meter for the shadows, you are opening back up those two stops. So what has been gained by the 1600 setting?
        Using the 400 and NOT metering for the shadows would give about the same exposure, then you can still extend the development time as you like to get those middle grays to brighten up as you like.

        Hamish’s comment above summed it up well.

        • Reply
          January 20, 2020 at 3:36 pm

          Loading, metering, and then developing at 1600 allows me to feel comfortable shooting high dynamic range scenes, where the difference between shadows and highlights is quite severe. This means that when technically a stop or two over on the shadows the highlights will be out. When metering dead on for the highlights the shadows are often lost, so this only works for me when I want to isolate something in the highlights. When everything is an even exposure then I just go as close to dead on as I feel reasonable.
          If I am shooting at night, or low light then most of my subjects will be in shadow. If I were to read a shadowy scene at 1/15ths EI400 then at EI1600 I would be able to make that same image at 1/60ths – definitely preferable for me to treat my film like this to achieve higher speeds in almost all instances.

  • Reply
    January 19, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Simon, these are great! Very interesting. I, too, like the food vendor. After a haitus, I recently used Tri-X in 120 size on a long road trip to the U.S. Southwest. I exposed at EI=320, so nothing exotic. The results were super satisfactory, and I re-appreciated how flexible and ” right” Tri-X looks under so many conditions. Hmm, maybe an article on my experience with Tri-X over the decades might be of interest.

    • Reply
      January 19, 2020 at 4:27 pm

      Thank you! Such prolonged use would definitely result in some valuable opinions! Definitely think about putting them into writing! 🙂

  • Reply
    Kurt Ingham
    January 19, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    Tri-X in Acufine (1200) was my standard for club photography in the early 70’s. In Diafine 3200 lost most shadow detail but still got an image of the performer. 2475 recording film at 3200-6400 gave much better shadow detail and looked super on proofs. Lots of grain when enlarged and the Estar base was a pain.

  • Reply
    James Evidon
    January 19, 2020 at 10:31 pm

    Please define “stand develop”. While I know the developing process, I am unfamiliar with the term ‘stand’ as used here.

  • Reply
    January 19, 2020 at 11:21 pm

    Simon, When you say you set EI at 1600 and “meter for the shadows” do you mean that you expose *at* the shadow meter reading, or that you open up 2 (or 3?) stops from the shadow meter reading to restore midtone exposure?

    • Reply
      January 20, 2020 at 8:11 am

      It really depends – I’m really not as precise as that; for me metering is more a starting point than something absolute. If I’m in a hurry then sure I’ll wait until my meter reads correct for the shadows and then make the image if I feel that will give me the clearest rendering of my subject.

  • Reply
    Roger B.
    January 19, 2020 at 11:47 pm

    What a flashback article! In the late 1960s / early 1970s I shot hundreds of rolls of Tri-X and developed them in Acufine. That version of Acufine – the original – rated Tri-X at ASA 1200. Negatives were indeed “high acutance”, a term still used by the current makers of Acufine/Diafine developers. They were also very grainy and over-the-top contrasty. I found this combo well-suited to “available dark” photography of gritty, dimly-lit street scenes.

  • Reply
    January 20, 2020 at 3:45 am

    James—Stand development means to let the film ‘stand’ with no agitation for a long time in a dilute (1:100) solution. The dilute solution runs to exhaustion in the highlights, which prevents it from blowing out the highlights, but continues slow development in shadows (where there is little exposed grains for the developer to act on). This helps gain shadow detail while retaining highlight detail. It’s also an easy process—put it in the tank, go mow the lawn, come back in an hour :).

  • Reply
    January 20, 2020 at 7:20 am

    Hey Simon!
    I do love TriX push +2 or even +3, no doubt 🙂 And not especially at night, but anytime anywhere 🙂
    I actually wrote a quick 5 frames with… on this blog a couple of years ago to feature what I believe is an underrated camera, the Canon Av-1 :
    and all 5 pics on it are shot withTriX pushed +2.
    I just love the look of it, even so some may think blacks gets, how to say that…, “Pasted”.
    Love it, love it, love it 🙂

  • Reply
    January 20, 2020 at 12:19 pm

    What was the developer you used for these ?

    • Reply
      January 20, 2020 at 12:44 pm

      Ilford DDX.

  • Reply
    January 22, 2020 at 1:02 pm

    Hi Simon, great article. How do you scan the negatives do you do this yourself or have a lab do it? The images on your ig feed are superb.

    • Reply
      January 22, 2020 at 2:27 pm

      Thanks Neil! Really glad you like my work! I scan my negs on a Plustek 8100. For contacts and individual frames with the edges I use a light table and my RX100.

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