Review: Kodak T-Max 400 (120 and 35mm)

Kodak T-Max 400 doesn’t get all the love, love letters, and overall adoration that Kodak Tri-X 400 does simply because of the fact that a ton of the most iconic photos in the world were shot on Tri-X 400 vs T-Max 400. However, part of that has to do with the fact that Tri-X has been around for a longer period of time and T-Max 400 is designed to do something much different. While Tri-X 400 is known for its characteristic midtones and grain, T-Max 400 is instead known for its fairly high contrast (in the highlights and shadows), its incredibly fine grain and its overall sharpness. It’s touted to be the sharpest black and white 400 speed film in the world. Indeed, there has been a movement in the black and white photography world towards the high contrast, crispy, sharp look. And that’s essentially what Kodak T-Max 400 can do while still retaining a fair amount of details in the midtones. It does it in a much different way from a film like Japan Camera Hunter Street Pan 400–which is a near infrared film. Yet it also differs from many of the Ilford emulsions.Before you go on, more of the specific technical details of using Kodak T-Max 400 can be found in this Kodak PDF file.

These reviews of film here on La Noir Image have always been targeted more towards the digital photographer out there. So as you’re reading this and are wondering what digital simulation best compares to Kodak T-Max 400, know that you can get it from Olympus. Specifically, the Olympus Pen F has a black and white simulation that is contrasty and also very beautiful. If anything, this looks the most like Kodak T-Max 400. In fact, we were told that the film was an inspiration for that specific color profile.

Now back to the film.

These days, a very good argument can be made that the types of photographers that tend to use Kodak T-Max 400 are those who tend to create scenes vs capturing them–and those include portrait photographers and landscape photographers amongst others. However, it can surely be used for whatever you’d like. For example, shooting a wedding with Kodak T-Max 400 and using a flash to ensure that you absolutely maximize the sharpness potential is a great idea as long as film isn’t your primary option. Then when you want to shoot with more ambient light in the scene, switch to Tri-X 400 and feel free to push it. Of course, this isn’t always followed and sometimes photographers just like the Kodak T-Max 400 approach to tonality more than the Tri-X 400 approach to tonality.

To get the best from Kodak T-Max 400, you should keep it refrigerated or frozen when not in use. When you’re ready to use it, you should let it thaw for up to three hours. Though to be safe, I personally go for an entire 24 hours before I’m going to shoot it. Only after that will I even consider loading it into a camera. Freezing and proper care of your film allows you to still get good results even when the film is expired. I’ve worked with film up to 10 years expired and still got results that I’m very proud of.

In terms of typical use, Kodak T-Max 400 can be pushed (to 1600 with pleasing results) or pulled while still getting good results–which is a lot unlike Japan Camera Hunter Street Pan 400 which needs a lot of light. However, this will also affect the way that the grain looks on the film. As you move in either direction though, Kodak T-Max 400 takes on varying degrees of increased contrast while also increasing grain in the pushing process. Kodak Tri-X on the other hand will only take on more grain while more or less maintaining the same levels of contrast accordingly. When you stack this up against other films, it’s unlike Ilford HP5 and Ilford XP2 which tends to really want you to nail the exposure (in my eyes and tests) though can be a very beautiful film in its own right.

To get the most from Kodak T-Max 400 in terms of the fine grain and sharpness the process really starts in-camera with some of the most basic rules of exposure including the reciprocal rule of shutter speeds and even using a flash to get even more details from a photo. Additionally, good glass is critical. For example a Fujifilm GW690 III with a 90mm f3.5 has significantly higher sharpness than a Pentacon 6 TL does with a Zeiss 80mm f2.8. To be fair, one is 6×6 format and the other is 6×9 format. However, this is all just a testament to the requirements of having good glass.

If you load it up into older cameras and lenses, the images you shoot will naturally still come out more contrasty and sharper than shooting with Kodak Tri-X if you’re shooting in the same type of metering and developing in similar fashions. Again though, Kodak Tri-X gets more from the midtones and TMax goes for either end of the spectrum. So go right ahead and load up your Yashica GSN Electro 35 with it.

It should also go without saying that you shouldn’t really cheap out on filters either. Older lenses really need a UV filter to get the best sharpness–for example the old Leica Rokkor 40mm f2. So getting a quality filter from a brand like Tiffen, B+W, Hoya, etc will truly help. The alternative is getting a plastic filter from a brand like Neewer–and in that case why would you even bother shooting the world’s sharpest 400 black and white film?

If you’re working with Kodak T-Max 400 and really want to get the most out of it, consider your metering carefully. If the highlights are very white in the scene that you’re shooting, don’t be afraid to underexpose a bit. Not only will you get a darker image but also one that can fool the eye and make a person think that it is sharper.

These images were developed standard black and white style. But if you want even more contrast, I recommend reaching for rodinal. However, if you do get that, know that you’re going to get more grain the scene. This film’s whole point is to have fine grain and ridiculous amounts of sharpness.

Overall, I have to state that my favorite thing to shoot Kodak TMax 400 with is portraits. I personally am not the biggest fan of using it with landscape photography though I’ll absolutely acknowledge how it can appeal to some folks. If I were shooting landscapes, I’d much rather reach for Delta 400 or even JCH Street Pan 400.

Alexander Gavrilov: Moscow’s Architecture in Kodak T-Max

All images by Alexander Gavrilov. Used with creative commons permission.

Admittedly, when you think about big, sprawling buildings and architecture you don’t often think about Moscow in the way that you would a place like Chicago, Toronto or NYC. But Photographer Alexander Gavrilov has work that is bound to make you think different. To create these low contrast images, Alex used Kodak T-Max and a Kiev 88 SLR camera. The sharpness that you see comes from what Kodak T-Max was designed to do: give a lot of attention to details though with not a whole lot from the midtones.

Alex’s images use many of the fundamentals of urban geometry involving the use of lines, shapes, etc. His images give an almost Twilight Zone look to the city while adding a bit of modern flair. This is all accented by Alex’s use of shadows and light to sometimes make it look like some parts of the scenes are blending into one another. Combined with the fairly contrasty light of an afternoon, what you tend to get are these scenes with buildings against an almost stagnant and plain background that is the sky.

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.