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|| News Item: Posted 2014-10-03

“There were many other black and white films to choose from, but it was Tri-X that seemed to be right for everything.”

By Joey Terrill

Photo by Joey Terrill

Photo by Joey Terrill
For more than 50 years, when someone decided they wanted to be a photographer they usually asked three questions: What’s the best camera to use, what the best lens to use, and what’s the best film to use. The first two questions always depended on the situation and the subject. But more often than not, the answer to the last question was Kodak Tri-X Pan.

Tri-X was always the go-to film. There were many other black and white films to choose from, but it was Tri-X that seemed to be right for everything. Whether it was a rock concert, a baseball game, a news event, or even a portrait, Tri-X always seemed to be the best choice for the assignment. It always delivered the perfect blend of smooth tones, a flexible 400 ISO for different lighting conditions, and a grain pattern that never seemed objectionable.

I started shooting Tri-X in junior high school while working on the 8th grade yearbook staff. In order to save money, I bought a Watson bulk loader and a 100-foot roll of Tri-X and then filled empty cartridges with as many frames as I could—38 if I was lucky. Factory loads were a luxury back then, so I continued to bulk load right through high school and photojournalism school. Bulk loading meant I never had to worry about how much film I was shooting on an assignment. I spent the money I saved on long glass, police scanners, and other photography vices.

Tri-X could successfully be “pushed” to higher and higher ISO settings for night sports, concerts, or documentary work and ISO settings of 1600 or higher were common. But under better lighting conditions, the film could also be “pulled” down to ISO 200—effectively overexposing it—and then underdeveloped to deliver smoother contrast and much better shadow detail. It was this versatility that made the film such a valuable gem to photojournalists.

The standard processing for Tri-X film was to head to the darkroom and load it on to metal film reels before immersing it into the developer. Sometimes if I’d shot 3 or 4 rolls on an assignment the film tank would contain up to 144 pictures, require 32-ounces of chemistry and 45 minutes in the “soup” and wash before the images were ready to print. These days, after 144 frames, my D810 hasn’t even begun to break a sweat.

Processing Tri-X was almost like serene meditation. Once the film was on the reels and the chemistry was working it’s magic, there was little else to do but watch the Gralab timer go ‘round and ‘round. Each minute, I would gently agitate the film to be sure that fresh chemistry was reaching every speck of the light-sensitive silver that would ultimately develop into a photograph. The wait to see the pictures was often a time of deep reflection about whether I’d been in the right spot, chosen the right lens, or if I’d even gotten the focus right. And once the film came off the reels, sometimes I couldn’t even wait for it to dry before I’d loupe it to see what I had.

Even though all of my processing is now performed on a computer, I still prefer to keep the room illumination at about the same level as a darkroom. The red light has long since been retired, but the peaceful serenity that began while developing Tri-X still remains.

(Joey Terrill is a commercial, editorial and advertising photographer based in Los Angeles. You can see his work at his Sports Shooter member page: and his personal website. You can read more of Joey’s writings at: .)

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