I find the film photography world to be a very curious place. It’s fascinating how some film stocks have managed to garner virtually universal appeal, while others are as divisive as they are beloved.
Take Kodak TMAX 100, or any of it’s TMAX cousins. I know of photographers who swear by the film, and are very eager to sing its praises, going so far to shoot these films almost exclusively. Other photographers despise TMAX so much so that they’ll dedicate entire odes to their hatred, filling forum pages with their words of disdain.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to either side of the TMAX argument. I wouldn’t call them my favourite film stocks, there are many other films that I prefer over TMAX. However, in the same thread, I don’t think that the abject hatred that these films sometimes receive is entirely fair either.
Were I feeling bold I would argue anyone who hates TMAX does’t. Rather, that they misunderstand the films. I might even point out that they are using the films incorrectly.
What is Kodak TMAX 100?
At first glance things seem pretty unassuming. TMAX films are black and white panchromatic negative films.
When Kodak first introduced the TMAX line of films they positioned it as a high-fidelity black and white line of films intended to sit alongside their Tri-X films, albeit geared towards different applications.
Originally the TMAX line launched with two variations, a 100 speed and a 400 speed emulsion. Later a 3200 speed variant was added; all available in 35mm, 120, 4×5 and 8×10 formats.
Since their original launch all three films have received various updates to their emulsion from Kodak. P3200 even got taken off the market in 2012 before being reintroduced in 2018.
All three films are still readily available today, and are actually among Kodak’s less expensive professional films. For example, I just recently picked up a roll of TMAX 100 for $10.99 from B&H photo.
The deciding feature of TMAX films that sets them apart from other films in Kodak’s lineup, are their fine characteristics resulting from the fact that they are t-grain films.
A Quick Word on Tabular Grain
For the uninitiated allow me a moment to try and put into words as straightforwardly as I can what t-grain is. I’m no scientist, so please do excuse some of the over simplifications.
Up until the 1970’s black and white films featured cubic grain, that is, grain where the silver crystals within the emulsion had a round/cubic shape once developed. T-grain films, or more accurately tabular grain films (since t-grain was a marketing term coined by Kodak) are different in that the silver crystals within the emulsion are flatter.
Tabular grain crystals lay flat against the film surface, and have a larger, flatter surface area with a smaller volume relative to classic cubic grain.
Tabular grain technology represented a win for film manufacturing as it reduced the amount of silver necessary to produce the emulsions. For photographers tabular grain brought with it certain characteristics that were difficult to achieve otherwise.
Tabular grain films tend to have wider dynamic ranges, smoother tonalities, and far finer grain structures than their classic grain counter parts.
In addition to the TMAX line of film, all of Kodak’s currently available colour film stocks feature tabular grain.
Developing TMAX 100
It think at this point it’s important to point out that Kodak recommends that you use their TMAX developer, which was specially designed for use with TMAX films, to get the best out or your rolls of film. However, as this is for all intents and purposes just a black and white negative film, you’re by no means limited to this one developer.
In fact, you can treat this film like you would any other regular black and white negative film. I didn’t take any special care when developing my Kodak TMAX 100 over the course of the past two years,
I developed, as I usually do, using Ilford ID-11, which is my preferred developer. Paired with a standard inversion technique, a water stop-bath and a 5 minute fix-bath in Ilford Rapid-fix the film turned out very nicely. I was very pleased with the level of contrast and sharpness in the negatives that I was able to pull out of the film using this chemistry.
Scanning the negatives is where TMAX requires a little bit of extra care in my opinion compared to other black and white film stocks. More specially in the editing of the scanned images, but more on that later.
All of the samples that I’ve included with this article were scanned using my Epson v600 scanner using the Epson Scan II software. The results were very pleasing, and the scanned negatives turned out to be very easy to work with.
Image Quality and Characteristics
Kodak TMAX films have been a subject of simultaneous love and hatred since their initial launch in 1986.
I shot the images included here with my Pentax Spotmatic paired with the legendary 55mm F1.8 Super-Takumar M42 lens. I love this combination a lot, but I must point out the when shot wide open the 55mm f1.8 lens does feature somewhat softer contrast. It does however remain quite sharp. Something too bear in mind when looking at the sample gallery.
It’s in the particular characteristics of TMAX 100 that this film inspires that hatred that it does.
One description of TMAX 100 that I’ve seen is that it looks rather like a colour digital photograph that’s been turned black and white using Adobe Lightroom. This comes down to the fact that the film yields images with insanely smooth contrast and incredibly fine grain.
The film also has a very impressive dynamic range, even in situations where I deliberately exposed for the shadows the highlights retained an incredible amount of detail. Kodak does say that TMAX 100 has a wide exposure latitude, however in my experience the film turned out the best exposed as accurately as possible, and developed at 100 ISO. One or two stops of over-exposure when backlit allows for good shadow detail without causing the contrast to turn to haze.
TMAX 100 is often criticised for looking too digital, too bland and boring, for lacking character. The ultra smooth contrast and tonality are regarded as uninteresting. I would argue however that dismissing this film for those reasons would be missing the point of its existence.
When I started with photography I began by learning with a digital camera; something which I have in common with a large majority of photographers nowadays. For anyone with digital photography experience the flat and dull appearance of an unedited digital raw file is not only expected, it’s actually prised.
When working with digital we don’t think twice about how the raw image looks because we know that it gives us many options for developing the final edited file to look the way that we want it too. The flatness implies a high level of retained information for us to work with.
TMAX 100 negatives are offer much of the same for film photographers. Flat negatives with restrained contrast that retain a tonne of detail giving us an increased latitude for adjustments in the darkroom or after scanning.
Adding and tweaking contrast in a print or a scan is fairly easy. Removing something that is already a part of the negative simply isn’t.
Another critique of this film that I’ve seen come up time and time again is its lack of grain. This one is a mystery to me. Don’t get me wrong, in the right circumstances I too really like grain in my photographer. I love the atmosphere that a nice grain structure, like that found in Tri-X, can create.
The grain in TMAX 100 is so fine in fact that when properly exposed I found the grain to be almost completely unnoticeable. You could say the fine grain is that party trick of the 100 ISO variant of TMAX; Kodak even likes to remind you of this by writing it on the box, visible from every angle of the packaging.
Kodak TMAX 100
I think we tend to forget as photographers that before digital, when film was truly all there was, avoiding grain in images was something that photographers pursued in the same way that digital photographers avoid digital noise in their photographs.
Final Thoughts & Conclusions
Kodak TMAX 100 is a superb, ultra-high performance black and white film that renders negatives with impressive quality. It also represents a fascinating technical achievement. When it first came onto the market it presented photographers a way of creating nearly grainless images with an impressive dynamic range at speeds that could easily be worked with.
I think the hate the TMAX films get is unwarranted. If you take the time to properly develop your darkroom prints and/or edit your scans, these films, especially the 100 speed version (which is my favourite), will reward you wonderfully detailed and beautiful images.
If you’ve avoided TMAX 100, or any of its siblings because you’ve run across any of the endless negative things that have been said about these films let this be your inspiration to give it a try; you might end up loving it.
It may not be my favourite film in the world, but, when I’m after the best image quality that I can get from a film image TMAX is one film stock that I can turn to while resting assured that I will not be disappointed with the fidelity of the images, regardless of the style of photography I’m using it for. †
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