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Using Tmax Successfully

By Marcus Ward - Warrensburg, MO

A lot of people have said to me, "Tmax stinks". A lot of people have said that Tmax is impossible to use, has horrible contrast, whatever. What it boils down to is a lot of people who have been shooting for a long time have this idea in their heads that Tmax is horrible film. This isn't exactly the case, and I'll explain why while at the same time giving you tips on how to successfully use Tmax films.

When Kodak first introduced Tmax films they made a few mistakes. First of which was probably putting it in a box that looked exactly like tri-x. A lot of photographers picked it up and developed it exactly like Tri-x, which is to say, not very carefully. Tri-x is very forgiving. It's like an old beater truck that you can drive through ditches without noticeably affecting it. Well Tmax is the exact opposite. It is a Ferrari, and requires a very very light touch on the steering wheel (developing). Probably a lot of people who got bad results with it that first time have never tried it again, or not bothered to find out it's wonderful qualities. If it were really bad, so many of the world's best black and white photographers wouldn't be using it. You think they know something you don't know? You betcha.

Because Tmax is so sensitive you must be very careful with developing time, temperature, and agitation. Blah blah you've heard it all before, right? Well let me tell you again. You have to be very careful with your time, temperature, and agitation. Time and temperature are rather easily controlled. But maybe you're not so careful when developing your tri-x. What is 2 degrees going to hurt? Right? Well 2 degrees equals a stop of difference in the highlights. Combine this with over-agitation and you've got a negative that you have to print on a grade 0 paper to get it to come out. Of course, you'd think with our wonderful variable contrast papers we have these days that controlling contrast that isn't important. Well, if you want to get the very best quality from your images, you try to nail your development so you can print around a grade 2, and then use those other grades for expression, not to save the neg. So again, be careful. Watch that temperature. The film canister is not a baby, you do not need to carry it around and hold onto it, transferring heat from your hot little 98.6 degree hands into the developer. Set it down in between agitations.

And agitation! This is another spot Tmax can get overdeveloped. Everyone has a different idea of how agitation works best. And that's great, but there are ways that work better for Tmax. Slowly tipping the canister back and forth is actually giving it more development because the developer runs across the film like a river. What you should do is hold the canister at arm's length and rapidly rotate it back and forth 5 times. Immediately set it down. Why rapidly? Well, without getting too technical, with rapid movement the liquid inside has a tendency to move with the canister, instead of inside it, resulting in less agitation on the film.

Your agitation schedule is different with Tmax also. Instead of agitation continuously for that first 30 seconds, you should only do the regular 5 inversions. Just do that every 30 seconds for the first 5 minutes. After 5 minutes just do the 5 inversions every minute. Why change after 5 minutes? Well because of the tabular structure of the grain of Tmax, it tends to not have as much edge sharpness as other conventional grain films, which can lead to an image feeling a bit soft. Letting the canister sit for a full minute allows the developer to really work on those edges.

Last but not least - timing! Be very accurate on your timing. How long should you develop it for? I have some numbers based on a lot of testing. They may or may not work for you. However, to really get the best results, you should test your developing times yourself! A good way to learn about this is through the zone system of photography. Until you test your film however, a good starting place though, with this developing style, is 8.5 minutes in D76 1:1 at 70 degrees. Shooting it at ISO 64 doesn't hurt either.

Good luck!



Marcus Ward is a professional photographer and formerly a photography teacher in Missouri. Marcus also had the opportunity to develop his skills under John Sexton's guidance, where he developed a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the Zone System. Thank you for reading this article. 

 

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