One Year with Tri-X: An Experiment
Short version: After around 7 years of shooting seriously, I'm planning to sell most of my far-too-large camera kit and shoot 100% of my personal work (about 95% of my total work) on Kodak's Tri-X black and white film exclusively, in 35mm and 120 formats, for around 1 year. I'd like to use this thread to share my experiences and images, and seek opinions and feedback on my work and ideas.
Long version: read on.
I've been taking pictures, seriously, for about 7 years now. I hit my first creative block after 4 years of wildlife photography, so I abandoned animals completely and focused my attention on humans - portrait, documentary, etc. For the last 3 years I have been shooting these things entirely on film - I prefer the look and process (I especially love printing both colour and black and white in the darkroom). It's been fun, and I'm satisfied with quite a lot of my work individually from my output of around 220 rolls/year, but I feel I lack a sense of coherence in my work. The reasons of this are many: I'm overly fond of eBay and have acquired far too many cameras over the years, I'm quite indecisive about exactly how to shoot something/someone - sometimes right up to seconds before exposing the first frame, and I mix colour and black and white too often between sessions (although I made the good move this year of standardising on one black and white, and one colour emulsion).
I was equally taken aback and delighted, then, to emerge from a 4-hour BW darkroom session some weeks ago with 50 small work prints. Not for the productivity of my session, nor the quality of the printing, but for what I saw with the prints laid out together - they looked like they came from the same photographer - which indeed they did - and I sensed the first seedlings of a visual style germinating before me. From what I've read online, and discussions I've had with other photographers offline, this problem of hitting a brick wall where you can photograph well, but not in a way that is definitively yours, is common after around this length of time in the game. I felt like I'd glimpsed the way through the wall.
So that brings me to the present. I've been travelling without cameras (for complicated reasons) for a couple of months, giving me a lot of time to think about my photography, and have resolved to focus my photographic efforts this year (from around September, for around 12 months) on producing a coherent body of work, in a style that is at least uniform across a few projects, and at best universally recognisable as the output of one photographer. There are a few ways that I'm hoping to achieve this; pursue opportunities more actively than last year, and maybe reshoot some things I could have done better - but I feel what would be most beneficial by far is to restrict my choices in terms of film and equipment.
Thus for this coming year I'll be shooting Tri-X only for my personal work (I will inevitably have to shoot some colour digital pictures, if only to advertise my kit and share my prints online, but this output will be minimal - I estimate around 5% of my yearly output). I will use a Leica body and a 35mm lens for most of my work, but also a Rolleiflex body with its 80mm lens for portraiture, and some Nikon autofocus SLR equipment for the small amount of wildlife work that I am planning. I think that's the right balance of kit.
So what do I want from this year? I'd like stylistic coherence for my portfolio, as I've discussed. I'd like to improve my printing technique, and learn to develop properly. I'd like the opportunity to buy more books and paper and film, and lighter bags - that should be easy through selling surplus equipment. It is also highly likely that I will have the opportunity to exhibit up to 50 prints in June, and I'd like to take this opportunity to show my year's work so far then. I'd also like a challenge, and I feel my photography's been a bit too easy thus far.
Some questions that I've debated in my head recently:
- Why not stick with colour film if you enjoy it so much? I'm very lucky to be allowed 24/7 access to a private BW darkroom that is equipped fairly well. The nearest colour darkroom to me is at least 3 hours' travel, and it is neither private nor free. So I'd like to make the most of the BW darkroom (which I only have access too for the next year).
- Why Tri-X? What's wrong with HP5+, Kentmere, etc? Nothing's wrong with the others - I like HP5+ a lot. But Tri-X is a bit cheaper, and though it may not dry flat the canister has more space to write notes on, and I've never shot 120 HP5+. They're all good, I just wanted to pick one and move on.
- Why not one camera, one lens - a "Leica year"? I'd like to do this very much (maybe next year?) but I have several formal portraits and wildlife sessions already scheduled for the coming year. For portraits, I find the bigger negative and shooting style of a TLR very helpful (and I would feel restricted shooting with just my 35mm lens) - plus, I greatly admire the work of Penn and Avedon made with just this camera. Autofocus SLRs are indispensable for wildlife, and I have a considerable amount of experience with the Nikon control layout.
- Why not 4x5? 8x10? I have a basic 4x5 camera, and will be selling it, because I don't find the amount of extra effort over MF worthwhile for the results. I don't use much that LF offers - I'm not really into the Zone System, and I rarely use movements . I'd consider 8x10 (again, maybe next year) but the film is very hard to find and prohibitively expensive, and I don't have an enlarger that goes bigger than 6x7.
- Why didn't you stick with one camera/film from the start? For better or for worse, I'm quite an impulsive person, and I've experimented with many different styles, cameras, and filmstocks over the years. Now I know what I like, and I'd like to work with it. I have infinite respect for the people that can work with one camera, lens, and filmstock for years at a time, but up to now I have been nowhere near that kind of focused, sadly.
- Why are you telling us this? I've searched for a long time to find someone doing something like this, but I couldn't find much, apart from a few documented "Leica Years". I wanted to document my thoughts - maybe inspire some other people to try something similar, maybe get some useful feedback from others that I'll never get to meet in person, maybe encourage myself to stick at this more by the obligation of sharing it with you.
Lastly - as it says in the title - this is an experiment. I may go crazy trying to figure out European HC-110 times and dilutions, or be unable to resist the temptation to expose the 5 rolls of Aerochrome sitting in my freezer, or never figure out how to properly use Potassium Ferricyanide. I'm sure something will go wrong. But I want to try it, because I know it will be good for me, and now seems like the time.
There's a few weeks to go till I'm reunited with my cameras, but fingers crossed this project will begin in early September (I've got two short but exciting trips already planned). I'll share what happens along the way here. I'd be grateful for any ideas anyone has, or any advice, or any helpful criticism. Hopefully this will be of some interest to someone - if not, I'm sorry for wasting your time.
If you want a consistent and coherent look in your photographs, it's best to eliminate as many variables as possible. In my humble opinion, this is the right thing to do, to just shoot the same film and treat it the same throughout your projects.
You will possibly also learn how to eke more quality out of a single film / developer combination if you use it consistently. You know, see what happens when you start to push the envelope by intentionally underexposing and overexposing, and then in both cases overdevelop and underdevelop intentionally. See what you get, see what you like. Optimize your work flow. When you've used a single film long enough it starts to become obvious what to do when you shoot, exposure wise, and so on, to get what you want.
The other huge bonus is that when you go into the darkroom to print, you will have a lot less waste, because you know what to expect from your film, and that is huge as far as removing darkroom frustrations with variations negative to negative.
"Often moments come looking for us". - Robert Frank
"Make good art!" - Neil Gaiman
"...the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera". - Yousuf Karsh
Tri-X and HC-110 ... a very good choice. I did the same thing for many years but with a pentax instead of the Leica. I don't use HC-110 anymore but I still choose to limit myself to just one or two film and developer combinations and just one paper and paper dev. I think you will have no regrets.
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Last edited by BradS; 08-13-2014 at 12:41 PM. Click to view previous post history.
Paper is relatively more expensive and it is a pain to see them going to trash can. :-(
Please do not forget about D-76(absolute bare bones) which may bring wonders on your prints, if done right.
OM-1n: Do I need to own a Leica?
Rolleicord Va: Humble.
Holga 120GFN: Amazingly simple yet it produces outstanding negatives to print.
Well, since that's all I shoot and it's all I've ever shot (except for very brief forays into other B&W films), I'd say you can't go wrong. You're going to see quite a difference in tonality w/ the 120 negs. This is not your father's Tri-X, although there are times I wish it were. The grain is remarkably tight for an old school emulsion. I generally shoot it at ISO 200 to 250, and since I nearly always shoot w/ a yellow filter, it's metered at around 120, which is very convenient for a "400" speed film.
My best results with developers are with D76, but as it doesn't last very long in a stable condition in my hot Florida home, I switched to TD-16 from Photographers' Formulary. It gives results that are almost exactly like D76, but I have to give it 8:15 minutes at 68 degrees instead of the 7 w/ D76. With either developer, I always use it undiluted, not 1:1. Occasionally I'll use Rodinol (make sure you get your exposures right, and don't over agitate the tank) or Acufine (very sharp developer that makes for a very different look). But really, just go w/ the TD-16 and you can have your exposures all over the place and still get beautiful negs. It's advertised as lasting 6 months once you mix it up, but mine gave me underdeveloped negs at 4 months, so probably 3 months is the max if your place gets hot.
The Arista Premium 400 film at Freestyle is supposed to be rebadged Tri-X, but I once had some minor consistency issues w/ it and now only use the yellow box. If you want to save a considerable amount of money, the Arista is about half the price of the Kodak film. Their new catalog says that the batch of Arista that they have now is the absolute last of it, but they've said that before :]
Last edited by momus; 08-13-2014 at 02:12 PM. Click to view previous post history.
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This really sounds like a superior idea and one which I find myself considering more and more. But, perhaps with the following caveats:
!. Have a backup film developer. May I suggest D23? D23 is so easily made from chemicals that I am tempted to say will always be available. When in fact we all know those sorts of statements often don't work out in film photography.... so take them for what they may be worth in a few years.
2. Have a back up film. Here, I don't have a good recommendation Tri X Is my favorite film but I doubt it will be avaiallable that much longer. What for a backup ? I think we must watch and see what comes along and see is there. But we don't want to be caught with nothing when TriX is gone!
3. Same for paper developer developer
Buy a freezer-load. You never know when Kodak or KA will pull the plug...
An awful lot of electrons were terribly inconvenienced in the making of this post.
f/64 and be there.
I think your approach to this is sound, and good things will come of it. I've had a similar path, with some differences. When I rediscovered photography about 10 plus years ago, I was aware of the advice to settle on "one film and developer," but scoffed at it, and experimented with several films (initially having everything lab-developed in HC110). I was intrigued with the different film stocks, and enjoyed experimenting with all variety of films for 3-4 years. At that point, I dropped the lab and began home developing my film (in D-76). I noticed an immediate improvement; I hadn't realized until then that the lab had been over-developing my film, giving me harsh negatives with excessive grain. Shortly after that, I stopped trying every film and settled on Tri-X for portraits and street scenes, and Delta 100 for landscapes. Once again, I noticed an improvement in the tonality of my prints ("gentler" tonality, with nice midtones). At that point, a new family and career demands meant that I couldn't keep up with developing my film, and I wanted to spend my limited time printing, rather than developing. So I tried a different lab that used Xtol, and was very pleased with the consistency of my negs and tonality of my prints. And that's where I still am today... we all have our paths, and hopefully make judicious adjustments along the way. I still imagine that I'm committing cardinal sin by not developing my own film, but it's working for now. When I second-guess this, I remember an interview with Michael Kenna in which he commented that it had been several years since he had developed his own film. His results show that it's not a sin to have your film developed by a lab, if you can find one that develops in a way that meets your needs and aesthetic desires.
I wish you success in your efforts over the coming months...
I concucted a very similar plan,but for me it's one camera one lensand only B&W;I wish you all the best
Originally Posted by bjmc
I remember the first photography class I took - I was maybe twelve or thirteen. We used Tri-X, D76, Kodak Poly Contrast RC and Dektol exclusively. I continued to use exactly those materials exclusively for several years simply because they worked extrememly well and I knew how to get what I wanted from them. I had only one camera and one lens too....for many years.