Back in May 2011 I reviewed Kodak T-Max 400 and praised its qualities with barely a bad word to say. I thought it would be interesting now to do a retrospective review and compare it to some other black and white film I've since had the chance to use.
When I first reviewed T-Max 400 while it blew me away, I didn’t really have anything to compare it to, primarily because at the time I’d used no other black and white film. That didn’t put me off emphasising its plus points and I still stand by the review but in the last year, I’ve used other films that could be compared side-by-side with the T-Max.
A brief look through my albums show the competitors to be Fujifilm Neopan 1600, Ilford Pan F Plus 50 and Kodak Tri-X 400 (a.k.a 400TX). By sheer coincidence I’ve used a range of film speeds and different manufacturers throughout the year which should compare and contrast quite well to the T-Max.
First up we’ll look at T-Max 400 versus Neopan 1600. Obviously different emulsions would expect to produce different results not least because of the different speed ratings and manufacturers. In normal lighting conditions the two films compared quite well though with a fair amount of contrast and deep shadows. Being rated faster, the Neopan would be easier to blow out the highlights in bright light but then it also has the advantage of being able to be used when the lights go down. Grain is also more apparent in the Neopan photos which is expected and can be used to effect.
Ultimately though unless you plan on taking photos in low light (then there is no contest) the sharper and less grainy T-Max has to win out. It offers good results in a variety of conditions whilst retaining sharpness and controlling grain.
Moving on to Ilford Pan F Plus 50 you could argue that this and T-Max are chalk and cheese. The qualities of the Ilford film are in fine detail and lack of grain through utilising a slow film speed. It needs to be exposed and processed more carefully to obtain the best results and could have limited applications where light (or enough of it) isn’t available. Compare this to the all-round abilities of T-Max and you have two very different films, although both have a pleasing sharpness.
Using the Ilford film on a bright day in Italy played to its strengths with enough light to let the fine grain and sharpness shine through. Certainly in this situation the Ilford was the right film for the job and in other tasks, for example portraiture, the Ilford films tonal range and imgae quality makes the choice a no brainer. I still wouldn’t claim Pan F Plus to be a better film outright though as the T-Max has range of uses the Pan Plus F cannot match and there is still that superb contrast .
The final – and also most difficult – comparison comes in the form of Kodak Tri-X 400. Coming from the same company as T-Max and carrying the same film speed there are plenty of similarities making the choice between the two difficult for some. It is said that T-Max has finer grain (T-grain emulsion) and is sharper but Tri-X also features fine grain and high sharpness.
In real world use (and taking into account the different cameras used) I found Tri-X to produce a more pleasing grain and a greater tonal range with much better midtones. Of course the different light might have been the difference here but to my eye the Tri-X photos seem to have a greater resolution and ability to pick up details. In comparison the T-Max photos whilst equally sharp and detailed are more punchy than the subtlety of Tri-X.
And the winner is…..
In truth there can never be an outright winner. You could argue the best film is the one you have with you at the time. On the other hand if you prefer to plan ahead then you wouldn’t take Pan F Plus into a coal cellar to photograph black cats likewise you wouldn’t take Neopan 1600 onto the beach on your holidays.
I still haven’t changed my mind about T-Max 400 though and think it is an amazing film and as the saying goes you always remember your first. I’d also like to think in any given situation I’d have a choice of films to suit so I could use the super smooth Ilford or the grainy Neopan when required. Ultimately though if it came down to it and my fridge could be full of only one black and white film then T-Max and Tri-X are going to have to fight for the top shelf!