The Digital Photographer’s Introduction to Kodak T-Max Film (Premium)

When most people think about Kodak film, they’re most likely going to mention Kodak Tri-X 400 when it comes to black and white. But for some of us, Kodak T-Max is the way to go. Kodak T-Max has long been touted as the world’s sharpest and finest grain ISO 400 film. Where Kodak Tri-X 400 tends to get more from the midtones, Kodak T-Max tends to do more with the other ends of the spectrum to create an image that those of us who call ourselves creators will lean more towards. Where Kodak Tri-X 400 found itself in the hands of photojournalists, Kodak T-Max enjoys a healthy life in the studio and out in landscapes.

Quick Facts on Kodak T-Max

  • Originally launched in 1986 time frame. One of the photographers who consulted Kodak on it was John Sexton.
  • When Kodak created silver halide crystals for the T-Grain Emulsion, crystal shape became an important factor in determining a film’s characteristics. The greater surface area of the T-Grain Emulsion crystals allows them to greatly improve the graininess of films without sacrificing speed.
  • In 2007, an improved version of T-Max 400 was introduced, which delivered even finer grain and higher sharpness

Image by Richard P J Lambert

  • T-MAX 400 now stands alone as the world’s sharpest and finest-grained 400-speed black-and-white film, offering photographers a level of clarity normally only available from a 100-speed film
  • When lighting or scene content dictates a high-speed film, T-Max 400 is an excellent choice. You can use it to photograph subjects that require good depth of field and fast shutter speeds with maximum image quality for the film speed.
  • Because of its wide exposure latitude, you can rate it at EI 800 and still get excellent results with no increase in development time
  • You can mix exposures based on EI 400 and EI 800 on a single roll
  • You can push it by as much as 3 stops (EI 3200) and still obtain a useable print

Who is Kodak T-Max for?

“T-Max 100 was ideal for subjects requiring fine rendering of detail.” says T.J. Mooney, product business manager for “film capture” over at Kodak Alaris. “It offered finer grain than Kodak Panatomic-X film.” Of course this is a totally different mentality than Kodak Tri-X 400, which, again, was designed to be used in the streets or out in the real world. However, a film like T-Max 400 could easily be better for portraiture, landscapes, big prints, architecture, etc.

Essentially, you’re probably going to do a great injustice to yourself if you’re not going to print this film directly from the negative in a darkroom.

Image by Ігор Устинський

According to T.J., what made Kodak T-Max so great is the development of T-Grain emulsions. “Prior to T-Grain Emulsions, the faster the film, the grainier it was.” he tells us. “To get more speed, a film maker used larger and larger cubic grains to increase the surface area. But that relationship only holds up to a certain grain size, and you eventually reach a point of diminishing returns.” The same thing can be applied to megapixels in the digital photography world.

Consider the fact that a camera like the Sony a7s and Sony a7s II has significantly better high ISO output but less detail than many others. That will put things a bit more into perspective here. But T.J. has his own take on things:

“To understand a little about how T-Grains work, consider “flattening” a cube into a tabular grain while maintaining its volume. As it gets thinner, the tabular grain adds more and more surface area. All things being equal, that thinner grain will now be significantly faster than the cube. The thinner T-Grains also produce less internal light scattering, for higher sharpness. T-Grain emulsions were incorporated into the T-MAX family B&W films. The thinking at the time was that with just these two films, you could handle virtually of your B&W photographic assignments.”

Of course, some photographers like Kodak Tri-X’s grain over T-Max’s instead. But to each their own. So with that said, just think about it like the clarity slider in Lightroom and Capture One isn’t going to be tweaked. Instead, you’re working with real sharpness. By messing with the midtones you can clearly see how they can affect what’s called perceived sharpness. This is affected directly by something like the black levels. The deeper the blacks are, the higher the perceived sharpness is. With that said, you could possibly pull the film a bit in post or rate it at 320 and develop at 400.

We’ll tackle this more in depth a bit later on.

Tidbits on Development

Image by Leon F. Cabeiro.

T-Max 400 was the choice when an assignment required a fast film. T-Max 400 had finer grain than Plus-X Pan film. For Zone System adjustments, both films required shorter deviations from normal development than other films.

But typically, you’re not here for that. Processing details can be found here. However, considering how a developer like Rodinal works, you’re probably not going to want to develop with it lest you get a ton of extra grain.

In Use

Image by Ігор Устинський

Kodak T-Max 400 and Kodak T-Max 100 were developed for really fine retention to details. Arguably, the higher up in sizes you go, the better the quality will get unless you’re drum scanning 35mm film shot with some of the latest lenses from the likes of Zeiss and Sigma. And to get even more detail, it makes a whole lot of sense for photographers to use a flash if you’re working in a studio in order to get details like specular highlights and therefore bring even more details into the photo that weren’t possible.

On the same thought process, silver interior softboxes, reflectors, umbrellas, octabanks, etc will deliver the ultimate in detail retention. Most of us reading this post will most likely shoot the film in medium format. So with that in mind, You’re most likely going to get some of the sharpest medium format images that you’ve ever taken providing there are no issues with your camera. Additionally, try to create as much contrast in the scene as you can via the use of colors, lighting, etc. It will only add to the perceived sharpness of the images.

So with that said, why would you even bother with 35mm T-Max? Honestly, I’m not sure about that one. It’s surely a creator’s style of film but if you want to shoot it in the same fashion that you would shoot Tri-X, just know that you’re going to have more detailed photos but not necessarily the tonality that you may like. For that reason, it could be nice to use during concerts or where lighting is already very contrast. Well, that, and 35mm cameras are typically just lighter and easier to carry around. Plus you may already have an investment in Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Leica or Sony glass.