Kodak Alaris, the imaging division of the old Kodak that was spun off to satisfy the demands of the UK pension fund, has continued to produce both black-and-white and color films. Recently it re-introduced the famous T-Max P3200 in 135 size.
Which makes me feel old—I remember when the film was brand new. In fact I remember it before it was brand new—I was an official beta-tester for the T-Max films before they were released to the public.
I don't claim expertise in very many areas, but I was an expert with P3200. Dick Dickerson was the head of B&W products at Kodak when it was developed, and Sylvia Zawadski was the emulsion scientist who led the development team. Dick and Sylvia became consultants after they retired, and I enlisted them to write articles for Photo Techniques magazine. Although the magazine has gone the way of all things by now, they went on to write many articles for it, most of them after I left. Sadly no longer online.
The first thing you should know about P3200 is that it never had an ISO rating—at least in the old days it didn't. It was never submitted for the protocol. Depending on the developer, it tested as either an E.I. 800 or E.I. 1000 film. ("E.I." is short for "exposure index," the proper term for a film speed that does not have an official ISO rating, or for a speed that departs from the official ISO rating. Used in a sentence: "I shoot ISO 400 Kodak Tri-X at E.I. 200." This is not conventional with digital but it's proper with films.) I preferred to shoot it at E.I. 1000. You'll get a little more speed out of it with T-Max Developer, and that works well, but I preferred straight (undiluted) D-76 because I liked the grain better.
Another thing you'll hear is that it has "huge grain" or "golf-ball grain" or other such clichés, but that's not true. Properly used it has visible but pleasant grain structure that can be quite moderate. It can look very nice and perfectly tolerable as long as the film is exposed, processed, and printed correctly. Yes, you can make the grain look excessive and/or ugly if you try, or if you just don't know what you're doing, but then, I could make Tri-X or even 100 speed films look grainy too if I wanted to.
You might also hear that it's not sharp because no grainy film can be sharp. Also not true (or, again, simply ignorant). That's confusing micro resolution with sharpness. Actually P3200 can have a very high subjective impression of sharpness and very good contrast. In fact, grainier films look sharper than fine-grain films, depending on your definition of "sharpness." It just won't resolve as well as a slower film. But the number of pictures that actually need high resolution to either function for their purpose or look good is very low.
Another tip: there's no need to store it in the refrigerator. Makes no difference. But keep it away from stray sources of radiation—the legend was that when Kodak first developed it, they stored the stocks in a disused salt mine to minimize the effects of background radiation! Unconfirmed. But I can tell you that if you pull a little bit of film out of the cassette and set one of the old radioactive Takumars on it in the dark, it will record fog within a few days. It does fog easily, so handle accordingly. Keep it in the can in the camera bag, don't let it roll around loose.
A few recommendations for use:
• Don't shoot with it at E.I. 3200. :-)
• Develop it immediately after shooting. Silver halide crystals "migrate" in the emulsion after exposure, and many films that are allowed to sit for long periods of time after exposure lose contrast and edge sharpness and the quality of the grain can become "mealy." This is especially pronounced with P3200. As a test, I shot two rolls of P3200, developed one within the hour, and let the other sit for a year (or was it two? Ah, memory) before developing. The difference was eye-opening. Many B&W films will look their best if processed very promptly—an advantage granted to pros and testers, the only two groups who routinely processed film very soon after exposure even if they didn't know they should.
• Don't bother shooting it in good light. It doesn't do very well outdoors in daylight—at least, I never liked it. Shoot with a slower film in good light and reserve P3200 for "available darkness," where it excels.
• Be mindful that enlarger light sources can have a large effect on the appearance of a film. Roughly speaking, the range from collimated to diffuse goes: point-source, true condenser, partial condenser, dichroic-style, cold light (actinic/fluorescent). The test I did—and used to have prints for—was that I printed the same Ilford XP2 negative with a Leitz Focomat II (true condenser) and an LPL 4500 (dichroic style). The difference was not subtle at all—the two prints looked like they were made with two completely different films. I suggest light sources at the diffuse end of the range for printing P3200.
• Beware other peoples' developer recommendations—you never know what qualities other people are looking to emphasize. In particular, many people will recommend developers based solely on getting higher speed out of P3200. That's a bad strategy, in my opinion, and anyway it's completely moot now, when you can shoot a high-DR FF camera at ISO 5000 and get excellent B&W. Shoot P3200 for the joy and the beauty of it—it can be a lovely film if skillfully used—and shoot digital if you truly need high ISOs. Back to P3200, try a few developers with it and go with what looks best to you. Or at least I should say, if you try a recommended developer and don't like it, don't give up, try something else.
I'll probably think of a few other things to say as the day goes on, except that I have a full plate today. I'll edit later if anything else occurs to me. I might go out to the barn and crack open a few portfolio cases and see if I can rummage around and find some T-Max P3200 prints to show you. Don't hold your breath.
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"Open Mike" is the often off-topic, anything-goes editorial page of TOP, in which Yr. Hmbl. Ed. writes about anything he wants, and yes, this is sometimes indistinguishable from any other day. But that's the format and I'm stickin' to it, dang 'er.
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Featured Comments from:
John Camp: "Interesting. Do silver halide crystals also migrate in slower films? What would this mean for the thousands of undeveloped rolls of film supposedly held by Garry Winograd's estate? Are they slowly degenerating, or is the actual problem low enough that it won't make any difference given his style of shooting?"
Mike replies: Actually that's an excellent example. The undeveloped rolls Garry left behind (about 9,000 if memory serves, although my memory for numbers is notoriously bad) when he died in 1984 were developed and proofed under the supervision of John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art with the help of a grant from Walter Elisha of Springs Industries in the late '80s. John presented about two dozen of those pictures at the end of the book Figments from the Real World (the reprint is still available and not too expensive) and if I remember correctly (my copy is out in the barn, alas) you can see even from the reproductions the effects I'm talking about.