Can Film Keep Up With Digital? The Results of Push-Developing Kodak Tri-X Four Stops

Digital sensors have come a long way in the past 15 years or so, but even so, pushing a shot four stops is getting close to the limit of file latitude in most situations. So, how well can film hold up when you do the same? The answer is very well.

If you don't know Kodak Tri-X, it's by far one of the most ubiquitous stocks out there, and if you're interested in trying out film, I highly recommend grabbing a few rolls, especially because it's remarkably forgiving of any exposure miscues, making it perfect for beginners looking to get their feet wet. In this video, Vincent Moschetti push-develops a roll of Tri-X four stops, increasing its effective rating from ISO 400 to ISO 6,400. Pushing Tri-X (and other stocks) a couple stops was actually a very common practice back in the day, particularly among sports photographers and photojournalists, but it's especially interesting to see how the results stack up in an age when we're used to digital sensors and the near-remarkable results we can get out of them. Personally, I think the Tri-X did quite well, and I find the grain much more pleasing than digital noise.

[via PetaPixel]

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I've shot Kodak TMAX 3200 pushed two stops to ISO 12,800. I used a professional B&W lab since I don't have a home developing setup. The grain exploded, but it was what I needed to do to shoot in the low light of a rock concert.

Alex Cooke's picture

I would love to see those shots!

Here's the link to Trans Siberian Orchestra's Beethoven's Last Night

"Personally, I think the Tri-X did quite well, and I find the grain much more pleasing than digital noise."

Assuming no noise reduction was used (except minor color for color images, such as the default in LR/ACR), the images are RAW, no luminance noise reduction, very minimal sharpening and a high enough ISO, the noise of digital camera images and the noise of film images are actually remarkably similar. That's why I have always said that if one wants to make digital camera images look like film that all they need to do is shoot at a high enough ISO to make the noise visible, or to try and match the amount to a particular film and speed, if desired, shoot RAW, don't use any luminance noise correction and use very minimal sharpening.

You can then take it further and have unconcorrected traditional C-Prints made from such files. I guarantee you that for even relatively large size prints even old film veterans would have trouble telling the difference. Want to make it look like a typical lab print of the past, then also develop your RAWs with no shadow or highlight recovery. Done.

Michael Holst's picture

Digital noise behaves much different than it does on film and dynamic range deteriorates on digital the higher the ISO so you might get a noisy (including color noise not just grain) image but I've yet to see a comparison where your claim holds any weight. There are programs that will simulate noise to any configuration. Wouldn't that be easier? Plus it would leave you with more highlight/shadow Information in the file.

With 100% success I have tricked people into thinking prints came from film. I doubt you would be any different.

The point of doing it in camera is obviously so one doesn't have to deal with filters and to show that noise is remarkably similar between both.

Michael Holst's picture

Could you show some examples of high ISO looking like film grain?

I could have sworn I did that for you before and you dismissed them.

It's easy to do yourself. Just compare RAW images developed as I said elsewhere and compare them to film scans. If you don't have your own film scans then you can easily find some online.

Michael Holst's picture

Just asking...

I see color noise in all of my high ISO images while my film scans show neutral grain texture.

If you can't tell the difference I'll be amazed.

You're not following the instructions I gave.

Below is a quick and dirty comparison. Click to see full size version.

Michael Holst's picture

My point is that if you need to use some sort of adjustment to take away any color noise then why not just add a film grain in post.

Wouldn't it be better to shoot with lower ISO (better dynamic range as I mentioned earlier) so that you don't have images that limit what you can do with it later? Or if you shot too high of an ISO you've then added more noise than intended without the ability to lower your ISO later. With ISO performance being different from camera to camera replicating a particular film grain by shooting in higher ISO's becomes a guessing game too. While shooting in low ISO to add grain later allows more control. If later you one decides they only wanted a very little amount of grain they can just put a little in but with high ISO you cant really take it out without IQ loss.

I guess were debating which way is better to get to the same result but I'm coming from a mindset that you'd want more options and control in post.

I hate to break it to you but scanning film adds in the same color noise. Your scanning software may or may not remove it for you.

Why not add a film grain in post? Because clearly it isn't necessary.

"Wouldn't it be better to shoot with lower ISO (better dynamic range as I mentioned earlier) so that you don't have images that limit what you can do with it later?"

Maybe for extreme images, but my point has always and simply been that digital noise is remarkably similar to film noise. That quick comparison above would fool most people, including most photographers.

I'm talking about noise and now all of a sudden a neighbor has to disturb the peaceful silence with hammering.

Michael Holst's picture

It's not news that scanning adds color noise but clearly the color noise is something to be avoided.

You're point has also been to suggest people simply shoot higher ISO (to get the look of film) and thats where I've jumped in. It really doesn't matter anyways because if people really enjoy the look of certain film... I say they should just shoot that film. It's what I've been doing. Now if the cost of film is whats scaring people away I don't see any issue with them trying to re-create the same result. Different strokes for different folks.

Color noise is irrelevant for the reason that I stated. And if you use LR/ACR it is by default automatically eliminated. That's how it is removed from my film scans and my digital camera RAWs.

"You're point has also been to suggest people simply shoot higher ISO (to get the look of film)"

Yes, as I have proven in regards to noise.

"It really doesn't matter anyways because if people really enjoy the look of certain film... I say they should just shoot that film."

The "look" I have been addressing has to do with the noise of each. That's it.

Color biases, for example, of particular films is not a characteristic of film; they are characteristics of particular films.

As I have said elsewhere to you, I'm not trying to prevent people from using film.

Michael Holst's picture

"As I have said elsewhere to you, I'm not trying to prevent people from using film."

HAHA just enjoying it

Well, if the truth prevents someone from enjoying something then that's not my fault.

I wish he had either used a different developer to reduce contrast, or shot in different conditions. You can't compare film and digital photography like that. There's more to push developing than increasing film speed. You do it on purpose to increase contrast. If not, you need to find yourself a developer that keeps the contrast under control. These negatives are way too contrasty.
Even if you do like lots of contrast, you would go for less because you can always add it in the darkroom/post.

We never got to see the negatives besides a quick glance of one frame. All we really got to see were the positives after scanning. The scanning software could have added the contrast and/or he could have added it while editing.

There's no real comparison here with film anyway. If your goal is to get the best results at high ISO you would simply shoot with a digital camera, which absolutely crushes film in that regard. I doubt most film users would disagree on that.

He should also invest in some inexpensive fine weave cotton gloves if he cares about his film.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Really too many factors to directly compare. Format? Grain will be much less apparent on larger format, etc. Developer? Scanned or darkroom? Technique in the darkroom?

Sure noise will be less apparent in larger formats than smaller formats. That goes for both film and digital. It then makes sense to compare like for like, or close to, and that means like for like in terms of capture area. All the other factors you mentioned will not help film to overcome the huge difference with digital when it comes to low noise. Heck Hans I get less noise with the relatively small 1" sensor in my little Sony RX100V than I do from 35mm, darkroom or scanned, which I still find amazing.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Haha. That’s because 35mm is crap. But that’s my bias. But there’s no direct comparison between large format and medium format bigger than 645 for that matter. And yes, the other factors absolutely will. Developer choice and technique can dramatically change apparent grain in a print.

35mm crap? Well, I'm often critical of film in general only because there is now something better in most cases. Sorry Hans, large format film is not something most photographers are going to bother with. That said, I'm watching a Blu-Ray now of a movie produced on 35mm film and it looks great. In fact, most of my Blu-Ray movies were produced on 35mm film. My main gripes with film is the tediousness, expense and delicate nature of it.

"But there’s no direct comparison between large format and medium format bigger than 645 for that matter."

If you mean comparing such film formats to digital, of course there is. The best 35mm digital cameras can match and better all medium formats with the only exception likely being 6x17.

But again, the video posted uses 35mm film so it only makes sense to compare it to 35mm digital, or in other words like for like. In such a case developer choice and technique can never overcome the drastic superiority that 35mm digital has over 35mm film.

It is what it is. It shouldn't be surprising that new technology brings such improvements. The only thing I don't get with digital is why we don't have compact 35mm digital cameras when we had compact 35mm film cameras.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Sorry, me hating 35mm film is just a long running gag with me. As for movies looking great on 35mm, that’s because they’re moving at 24 FPS.

As for 35mm digital formats bettering medium formats, absolutely. I’m the first to say digital beats film in almost every regard. However, I’m not sure if grain to noise is one of them.

Of course, large format is a very small segment of the film world, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t curiosity about its grain structure compared to digital, if not purely for academic purposes. Hell, I’m curious!

In the end, I think anyone shooting film with a notion that it’s “better” is just wrongheaded. I do it because I enjoy it and the craft.

Well, moving at 24 FPS doesn't magically create resolution, except for perhaps something that is perfectly still, at least apparently.
The truth is 35mm film is a big enough piece of film to deliver an impressive image, within reason of course.

I still wish most movies were made on 70mm film. A shame they weren't. My Blu-Rays from 70mm movies are so beautifully detailed. It would be great to see them on a 4K display from a UHD Blu-Ray.

I haven't done the measurements but I do know the area difference between a 1" sensor to 35mm film is similar, and looks to be a bit less, compared to the difference between 35mm digital and 6x9 film.

I mention a 1" sensor because you can get considerably less noise with a 1" sensor than you do with 35mm film, so the same should apply with 35mm digital compared to 6x9.

I read somewhere that Alex is waiting on a new Sony a7R III and he also owns a Texas Leica. Perhaps he can post an article showing what I'm pretty sure he will experience with that excellent camera, not only better detail but significantly less noise.

For a single image I have no problem saying the largest of the large film formats beats digital for a final image. It's a huge area discrepancy. I would never discourage anyone trying to make such impressive images.

2018... we're still talking about this..

It'll be talked about as long as film keeps being used, especially by newer generations.

Glenn Riegel's picture

Exactly - any of the "old" stuff that being "rediscovered" by another generation flares the discussion. Likewise, since the "old hands" were rather forced to move on commercially in order to maintain clients that were sucked into the digital vortex, the old ways were not passed along. Up until 2004 I taught darkroom process as a daily rigor. As we moved into the glitz and technophile mindset, darkroom and film as not "cool" and in demand, even though at the time, film held a distinct edge. So now, lessons are learned all over again as a new gen plays at "retro-cool" Can you still buy control test strips? Densitometer readings, anyone? Grain and noise are not an equal concept. Film has moved into the "alt" or fine art process.

"Grain and noise are not an equal concept."

Visible film grain is properly classified as noise. The noisy results of both film and digital, while coming from very different things, is still remarkably similar.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Yeah. Because in 2018 film sales are up.

The bottoming out of the market was years ago. Now it's recovering as a small niche market.

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