Intelligent Life has an article in its March/April edition on Tri-X, the iconic Kodak b&w negative film. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Tri-X. The article is well worth reading and explains things from a photographers perspective, but of course we photographers must remember that the viewer knows none of what goes on behind the scenes and in the photographers mind, and can only judge what he/she sees in front of them. The viewer sees only the final product and doesn't know or care what camera was used, whether it was digital or film or if it was a modern Japanese 'plastic' camera or a German luxury metal one...
So in a moment of inspiration and homage I thought I would convert some of my very recent 'street' images from the also iconic Longstreet in Cape Town using the Tri-X filter from my Silver Efex 2, Photoshop plugin.
Btw, the e book version of 'Intelligent Life' can be downloaded to I Pad, available for free from the I Store.
I stopped using film with the purchase of my first digital camera, a Canon 20D, in 2004. Before then I used B&W exclusively for my personal work, which was largely done using a large format 4x5 view camera. I also had and liked a Contax G1 camera that used 35mm film. My film of choice was the forgiving Ilford XP1 for 35mm and slowspeed film like Ilford FP4 for 4x5 work. I never really got on the Tri X bandwagon, because I preferred slower, fine grained film, processed in high accutance one shot developers like Kodak HC110. I really didn't enjoy the chemical darkroom and embraced digital photography when it became more popular and affordable.
The Intelligent Life article featuring work by famous Tri X photographers like Don Mccullin, Sebastiao Salgado, Anton Corbijn etc all still using film in this digital age.
Interesting, and something I have read before is that Salgado uses digital cameras because of his distrust of airport X-ray scanners and the negative effect he believes it has on his film. More interesting though is that he is confident that he can still achieve the Tri X look through the digital medium. Although in this article he professes not to know how his assistants manage to get the Tri X look, I have read elsewhere that he uses DXO Film packs to achieve the Tri X look. He then copies the digital file onto 4x5 b&w negative film and prints in a conventional darkroom. It is a known fact that only recently has digital print medium being able to achieve the deep blacks that fibre based chemical darkroom printing was known for. This is achieved by using the same 'baryta' chemicals used in the fibre based material of old. I suppose Salgado uses this chemical print process to achieve solid blacks and also for continuity in his work.
But even more interesting is that one of the photographers mentioned in the article, Sheila Rock, says that when she went to Salgado's latest exhibition, Genesis, she had a very close look at the prints and thought that it was made with Tri X film, but was told in fact that it was shot on digital. I do believe that fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which side of the fence one sits, one can do anything with digital. Even make a digital file look like Tri X....
For these photographs made in Longstreet and the surrounding area, I used Nik Silver Efex2. Salgado says that he finds that DXO Film Packs gives him digital files that look like Tri-X, I also have the DXO Film Pack 3, but I find Nik Silver Efex easier to use...so that's what I used to process the images below.
Whilst processing these images I was struck by how much more contrasty and grainy the Tri-X look is. I have generally found that adding grain makes digital image appear more sharp, especially when they were not that sharp to begin with. Adding grain also helps make very big enlargements look better, and helps hide the pixels that becomes visible with very big enlargements.
Some of my images here were shot at 25000 ISO and processing them with the Tri X filters definitely helped, turning digital noise into grain. Reading this article and looking at the very grainy Salgado photograph of the cattle I have come to realize that we are probably over obsessing about digital 'noise' in this digital age and that when noise becomes grain its more than acceptable and part of the Tri X 'look' that so many film photographers revere. If Salgado is happy with grain who are we lessor mortals to demand less grain?
The photographs below were all made in and around Longstreet in Cape Town over December 2013 and January of 2014 with my Eos 6D and EF 40mm f2.8 and Ef 85mm f1.8.
In a way I suppose digital is well suited to convert images so that they look like Tri-X film, because inherently the digital files have such a wide contrast range to begin with and thats also the reason why many photographers that still use film like it..digital is just too flat for them.
I do change my processing slightly for the TRi-X conversion. When converting the files in Nik Silver Efex 2 I have notice that the highlights have a tendency to blow easily. I therefore reduce the contrast of the image to be converted to TRi-X. I am more concerned about losing the highlights than losing the shadows. Somehow black shadows are more acceptable than blown highlights...
The image below is a good example. The photograph is not part of the 'Longstreet' series above but was photographed in Carnavon in the Northern Cape on my way down to Cape town. The light was already soft and indirect because the grandmother was sitting in her shady the 'stoep' with her granddaughter on her lap.
I used the less contrasty colour image on the left to process the image above. The image on the right is closer to how most would process it, slightly more contrast, but generally I find that when converting images like the one on the right here there is such an increase in contrast with the Tri-X filter that the highlights can easily blow...
Here, above, is a 100% crop just to show how good the quality is. This image was shot at 8000 iso with no noise reduction in post.
Below is the image as I would normally process it in colour.I include a 100% crop to show once again how little noise there is at 8000 iso. In fact the noise looks similar to grain and i.m.o is quite acceptable and contributes to the gritty feel of the scene
There is less noise in this colour image below than in the Tri-X image above because the Nik Silver Efex 2 Tri -X filter adds quite a bit of grain.
Lastly the image below is a 100% crop from one of the images in the Longstreet series. No noise reduction was applied and with no sharpening. The image was taken directly from the LR4 default raw conversion with only chroma correction and sharpening turned off. For the Tri-x conversion I also just used the default setting. I used my 85mm at f5.6 and 1/350sec with ISO set to 20 000!
The Eos 6d with its quiet shutter did a good job here. I usually set my aperture to 5.6 -f11 with a minimum shutterspeed of 1/250sec. The high shutterspeed is because I ahve found that at speeds below that I cannot hold the 85mm lens steady enough. The iso is set on auto and the nice thing is that for these types of street images I don't mind if it goes all the way up to 12000 iso or even higher. Somehow the noise can be made to look like grain, and then all is fine...
The question though is which one depicts the scene better and gives more information? Colour or B&W ?