Kodak Tri-X 400 is one of the most popular films for street and reportage photography, and deservedly so. It’s an incredible emulsion that has stood the test of time. It offers excellent sharpness, reasonable grain, nice dynamic range, and the ability to push and pull with only minimal effects on image quality.
Of course, Tri-X is film, and film costs money. There are a lot of folks out there who love the look of Tri-X, but not necessarily the cost of film and developing (not to mention scanning or darkroom printing). To that end, several software packages offer emulation of various film stocks, including TriX. Today, I’m reviewing three such packages:
1. VSCO Film for Lightroom 4
2. Alien Skin Exposure 4
3. NIK Silver Efex Pro 2
I thought the best way to evaluate each package was to just see how each package rendered the same image using a built-in Tri-X preset. This is not intended to be a thorough review of what each package is capable of in terms of final image quality, but merely an evaluation of what each package offers in terms of a Tri-X look.
Here’s the original image, which I took while on holiday in Nova Scotia last month. This is straight from my Fuji X100, with a 1.0 EV exposure bump in Lightroom 4. All other settings are at default.
The image is reasonably well exposed, with a good range of colours that will tell us a lot about how each package renders the final B&W image.
First up, it’s VSCO Film. This has quickly become my default preset package for Lightroom 4. It’s just so easy to get a great film-like image with the presets, and to then tweak to get the final look I want (FWIW, this is how I think presets should be used…as a jumping off point. They’re very rarely 100% spot on, right out of the box). The other benefit of VSCO Film, as I’ve discussed previously, is that because it works from within Lightroom on the actual Raw image, it is entirely non-destructive. There’s no initial rendering to TIFF or JPEG required.
Anyway, here’s what VSCO Film offers in the way of a Tri-X emulation for this image:
As with many VSCO presets, the first thing I notice about this image is that the blacks are shifted ever so slightly toward grey; the histogram for this image bears that out. There’s also a touch too much grain in the shadows for my liking, but that’s very easy to remove using the VSCO Toolkit (and again, it’s all non-destructive). The highlights in the grass have been boosted, but are not clipping. This is to do with the overall contrast curve that VSCO applies, rather than a modulation of the greens, per se (in fact, the VSCO Tri-X preset actually darkens the greens a little bit). Anyway, I like this conversion, though I’m a big fan of the boosted shadow look that has become prominent in the last few years, led by photographers like Sergio Mottola and Hugh Forte. Not surprisingly, VSCO is a winner for me.
Next up is Alien Skin Exposure 4. This has been a favoured film emulation package for a number of years, and I’ve had reasonable success with it, especially for Kodachrome and other reversal films.
Overall, this is a very similar look to VSCO. However, while the blacks are certainly blacker in the ASE4 version (look at the foliage in the distance on the right), I find the overall contrast to be a bit lower than VSCO, with the skin highlights pushed slightly (look at the skin tones in each; the ASE4 version is brighter, but overall contrast is lower). This seems to be due to a slight push in the red-brown levels in ASE4 (check out Amy’s red-brown sweater on the right). It’s hard to tell at 720px, but I actually find the skin tones to be a bit less appealing here than with VSCO, especially in how bright the lips become. It’s a bit unnatural to me.
So while I think this is a decent B&W conversion, I’m not liking the ASE4 Tri-X preset as much as VSCO. Certainly, this could be fixed in a few minutes of tinkering with the specific settings within ASE4, but this is about presets. So far, it’s VSCO in the lead.
Finally, it’s Silver Efex Pro 2. This has rapidly become THE go-to software for B&W conversions for many, many users. It offers a huge array of controls and customizations, which allow you to tailor the final image however you’d like, without ever having to resort to Photoshop layers.
The most obvious difference in this conversion is that the highlights in the grass are blowing out, as are the details in the side of Sheri’s face (on the left). Overall contrast is the highest of the three conversions. If I were going to use this preset, I’d simply dial back the 1.0 EV exposure bump I gave to the image in LR4. Tonally, I really like what is going on here; it’s very, very similar to the VSCO conversion, with the exception of the overall contrast boost that’s blowing the highlights.
I can really see why SEP2 is such a popular B&W tool. This really looks like film. And I haven’t even touched the controls yet.
So what is the overall conclusion?
Based solely on subjective image quality, I’d rank the VSCO conversion as my first choice, with the SEP2 a very, very close second. I’d be thrilled to work with either of these images as a first pass towards a great print. As noted, I’d back off the exposure bump for SEP2, since it’s giving a larger bump in overall contrast than VSCO is. I prefer slightly grey shadows, but that’s a personal preference. SEP2 is producing a very nice B&W.
On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of the ASE4 conversion. It’s just too bright in the red-browns, which is killing my skin tones. Not to say I couldn’t get a good image out of it, but it would be a bit more work to do so.
Now, based on workflow, VSCO is a huge winner for me. It’s non-destructive, which is always nice. It’s major downside vs SEP2 is that the number of B&W emulsions available is limited, but to be honest, I could live with Tri-X as my only digital B&W.
So overall for out-of-the-box TriX, it’s (1) VSCO, (2) SEP2, (3) ASE4, with 1 & 2 being very close.
As to how these all compare with TriX film, based on my experience, I’d say the conclusion is about the same. VSCO and SEP2 are very close, and ASE4 is nearly there, except for the red-browns.
For what it’s worth, I also like this image in colour. Here it is again, processed through VSCO, using Kodak Portra 800 as a jumping-off point.
Do you have any thoughts about digital B&W? Leave your comments below.
We’re enjoying some phenomenal summer weather at the moment here in Toronto. I was headed to an appointment this morning down in the financial district, and the walk back to my office gave me a great opportunity to do some street shooting.
While I try to get out of my office a few times a week to just roam the street and take photos (usually with my X100 or X-Pro1), the light during office hours isn’t always the best. I’d love to be able to get out when the light is a bit more ‘golden’ and the shadows a little longer, but you do what you can.
The more street photography I do, the more I recognize the truth of Robert Capa’s famous maxim, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” It’s just not enough to get ‘sorta’ close; you’ve got to get right in there and not be afraid to stick your camera into the scene and get the shot.
This shot is a good example of what I’m talking about. As I passed this conversation, I noticed the look that the woman was giving – she was clearly perplexed by what was being said to her. So I raised the X100 (with it’s semi-wide 23mm lens pre-focused to about 1.5m) to my eye, got nice and close, and snapped**. In fact, I wish I had gotten closer still (though I like how the empty space to the left gives some context to the image). But this image would not have had nearly the same effect had I shot it with a telephoto lens from, say, 15 metres away.
** – I should note that I originally overexposed this shot by about 3 stops. It’s quite a testament to the RAW files that come out of the X100 that I could recover any amount of detail here. Yes, the sidewalk is blown out, as is part of the man’s shirt, but I can live with the image, considering how badly I futzed up the exposure.
These are all taken with the X100 and processed in Lightroom with the amazing VSCO Film. It always shocks me how straightforward it is with VSCO to get the style I’m after. And the ability to make non-destructive changes at any time (since you’re working on a RAW file with a LR preset, not on an exported TIFF) is terrific.