Of TriX and HP5, 120 and 135, finding your style and grumpy old photographers
A bit more than a year has elapsed since I took back to band photography, and it’s probably the right moment to sort out what I’ve learnt in what proved to be a rather dense year.
I set out with no clear idea in mind, except that I wanted to try new things and step out of my comfort zone. I was a bit too much at ease with my digital wedding technique, and I felt like I was doing circles instead of moving forward.
My first move was to go back to analog photography, which I hadn’t done in decades, and get the feel of the available film stocks.
Black and white: Ilford or Kodak?
I’m not completely sure why I hadn’t try Kodak’s TriX before, though I can suspect at least two reasons to that.
The first one is that I’ve used HP5 since I was a teenager and started to dabble in the photographic art (with less than convincing results at the time, if truth must be told).
The long summers months were stretching, with nothing much to do in the small village in which I used to live, so I used to go and pay a visit to the local photographer every now and then, just for a chat and a look at his new work.
While his work was always outstanding, he never made it big. I guess being a black and white photography artist in a remote village in the early 90s didn’t really help, as everyone thought colour was progress and B&W was “so last decade”.
Possibly, his lacking the most basic social skills played a role there too. When I went to see him last time, eager for some advices on middle-format cameras, his welcoming words were “Damn, did you get fat!”. As I explained that while that might be very true indeed, most people would think classical greetings to be more in order, he answered that “Sure, but still, you weren’t as fat as that last time I saw you, were you?”
Which goes to prove that even if you might have a keen eye for photography and women’s weight, it won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to wrap it niceley in a sales pitch.
(Which most probably won’t include any reference to anyone’s weight.
Anyway, to make a long story short, back in 1990, the man laid the fundamentals of photography for me while ranting about photographers who blew details in wedding dresses. 14-yo me would gape at framed photographs while religiously listening, among other pieces of wisdom, that you should never ever burn highlights, that under no condition whatsoever shadows should be blocked, and that verticals were to be vertical.
Early conditionning made me stick to a few of those rules, including the habit of using exclusivey HP5 when it comes to black and white film, as my mentor deemed it to be the only worthwhile film in the world (and fulminated against C41 B&W films).
The second (and foremost) reason for not trying TriX earlier is a lot more pragmatic. When I took back band photography about a year ago, I read extensively about TriX and HP5 and found out that TriX 400 was reputedly less forgiving regarding exposure errors than its Ilford counterpart, particularly when it came to highlights.
Though The Road Crew is all about trying new things, I thought that if I asked some bands to stay in front of my camera, I might as well tackle just one unknown parameter at a time.
Say, testing the analog camera first, and then pushing or pulling film, and then funky light.
While I had a lot of fun and some of the results are decent, it was lacking a certain something, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Finding your own style
While some photographers might find that very easy, the possibilities offered when editing a photo are almsot infinite, which makes it rather difficult for me to make a choice.
I never found it difficult to find my style as a wedding photographer. In my mind, this kind of joyous events have always been associated with bright and aerie pics.
Also, I find the “fine art” style a lot more complimentary to any bride’s complexion than the “moody” style.
As a photographer in the metal industry, I formerly wallowed in the “bad taste” style. I think (I’m sure) I’m not the only one who’s been trying to compensate a rather uninteresting image with filters in funky colours, as if that would transform a bland image in a work of art.
(Hint: it’s still a bad image, albeit with a crappy filter on the top. But it’s OK, most people won’t realise anyway).
Going back to digital for two mini-shoots (one with New Model Army again, and one with Venefixion’s death metalers) and trying to push HP5 with Seven Sisters was a step in the right direction, though all three shoots suffer from the same issue, namely, a lack of details in the highlights.
While I’ll discussed the pushed HP5 later, I recently understood why I didn’t get exactly what I wanted in the digital shoots.
Shooting my 4th wedding of the year, I only then realised what had happened. In those 10 minutes shoots, I don’t really stop to think. People are soundchecking, or have to vacate their backstage room, so time is of the essence.
Each time I rapidly checked on the back of the camera, and validated the images as perfectly exposed.
Indeed, for fine art wedding images, they’re perfectly exposed. I tend to overexpose by 2/3 of a stop when shooting weddings because it raises less editing work afterward in LR. Also, you get those soft shadows without noise in them, and that’s sweet.
While that ingrained reflex is hence perfectly useful in those cases, it pretty much sucks when it comes to more moody pics.
Which goes to prove that when you’re trying to find your own style, you probably should forget everything that you know — or what you think you know.
Like exposing an image properly.
At least at that point I knew what I wanted: deep shadows with details in the midtones and still a bit of contrast without burnt highlights.
I still didn’t know exactly how to get there, but I was ready to let go of old habits and give a shot to the unknown.
I went to Stockholm and planned a pair of shoots there. Most photo shops in Stockholm only stock TriX, and it seemed as good an opportunity to try it as any.
As I’d experienced a light leak on the Pentax 645N during my previous session with Skelethal, and that neither my lab nor I could assess for sure where it came from, I decided to shoot both 645 and 24×36 (EOS 3), to be on the safe side in case my 645 back was having a real issue.
I also tried various lighting scenarios, and all in all did 6 rolls with two bands in 3.5 hours.
Influence of the lab
This is not a very scientific work, as I don’t own my own scanner (yet). It means that the scans I got vary in terms of contrast, scan exposure and the like, depending on the operator when it was scanned by Carmencita Film Lab, and on whatever when it was scan by Concept Store Photo, which is my local lab and who does run its Noritsu on “All auto but we can lower the contrast a bit if you want”.
But while there is an influence of the operator, whether scanned by someone who knows their job or on all auto, TriX pushed +1, for instance, yields some serious contrast.
TriX 400 pushed vs TriX at box speed vs HP5 pushed vs HP5 at box speed
For the sake of comparison, I’m sticking to portraits done in open shade, either with 120 or 135 film.
I unfortunately haven’t shot 120 HP5 at box speed (and neither do I plan to do it), nor did I try 135 TriX at box speed (but I might do it in the future).
The little arrow at the bottom of the pic allows to display the unedited image.
TriX at box speed on Pentax 645N + 105mm 2.4
TriX +1 on Pentax 645N + 105mm 2.4
HP5 +1 on Pentax 645N + 105mm 2.4
This one has been scanned by my local Concept Store Photo, and it seems the concept is mainly to overexpose the scan…
That’s from then on that I decided I should move to a proper lab.
HP5 at box speed on EOS 3 + 85mm 1.8
TriX +1 on EOS 3 + 100mm 2.8
All in all, this completely confirm the know fact that HP5 has a wider tonal range than TriX. It might be a film of choice for photographers searching for a very detailed and soft rendering of a scene.
I have to say that for me, HP5 lacks the “snap” factor TriX has, and I never really managed to edit it completely to my liking.
Was I right to shy away from TriX when I began shooting analog?
I always meter with a handheld meter, which means I’m rarely off when it comes to exposure. Pushing it in contrasty situations might not do any good to highlights though, and I also had a few occurrences of rather blocked shadows, though only on 135.
On an open shadow configuration, pushing saves me editing time and add a bit of grain (which I love in that context).
Trix 400 pushed +1 — 135 vs 120
The title might be a bit misleading, as the 120 film was exposed solely in a 645 camera, though I’m (very eagerly) waiting for a roll of pushed TriX shot on 6×7 to reach Carmencita Film Lab.
This time, the shots were taken minutes apart, so the light conditions are similar, and the films were all processed and scanned at Carmencita, by the same operator.
(displays 135, slide for 120)
Open shade with backlight
(displays 135, slide for 120)
(displays 135, slide for 120)
For those who had doubts (I know I had when I started), there’s no denying the superior quality of 120 vs 135. The grain is smoother yet present, and while 135 at box speed or pushed +1 can handle properly a scene with rather low constrast, like in open shade or on a cloudy day, the same 135 film used on a scene with a strong backlight produces an image which I deem unusable in most cases. The grain is so present it looks like pointillism, and you can forget about details in the hilglights (and sometimes in the shadow, too).
In the exact same light conditions, the 120 film on a 645 camera produces an image with a lot more details and subtler tonal transitions.
So, will I use my 24×36 cameras in 2019?
To be honest, the only reason which makes me revert to them from time to time these days is their autofocus and electronic settings. When in a rush, it’s a bit hard to find the time to wield cameras of the manual focus persuasion at people.
But to be honest, until mid-2018, I thought it was impossible to work analog in a rush, so there are strong hopes that I might change my mind in the upcoming months.
Because, following the advices of my erstwhile mentor, I acquired a 6×7 camera.
And let me tell you that considering the resulting images, I’m not about to give that up…