There is a lot of information related to this topic. Film look this, film look that. Tons of luts and other solutions are lurking online about it. I’m going to break everything down for you as much as possible in this article and what you can actually do to make your images look closer to authentic film. In this article I am going to be talking specifically about photography, however, that concept applies evenly for both, so if you into the film, stick around, it will be beneficial for you as well…
First of all, why do we like “film look” so much? Anywhere you go, everybody talking about the film look. I don’t know the exact answer, but I’m guessing it’s because there is something very organic about the analog picture that we just can’t get digitally. Maybe, because most of us grew up watching analog “film” movies, and we got that look forever burned in our heads, or maybe simply because its just looks better. The digital cameras came a long way. Nowadays we have cameras that can shoot millions of frames per second and have crazy 8k resolution and other nonsense. In order to answer the first question “can digital look like film” we first need to analyze what “film look” actually is. We want it, but we don’t really sure what it is. That’s the ultimate boogeyman among many photographers and filmmakers.
What Do We Know?
Let’s narrow down the boogeyman and find out why do we like it so much, but before we get there, let’s see what we know about the film so far. Very first obvious one, that film has grain, and somehow we like it. How is that grain got there at first place? Depending on the format 8mm, 16mm, 35mm or 70mm as well as the type of the actual film, the grain looks different. Commonly, the larger the format, the smaller the grain, which also depends on the film stock used. But how film grain occurs? To keep it more “universal” here is the good answer from Wikipedia
“Film grain or granularity is the random optical texture of processed photographic film due to the presence of small particles of a metallic silver, or dye clouds, developed from silver halide that have received enough photons. … It can be objectionably noticeable in an over-enlarged photographic film photograph”
Once you hit the shutter button, depending on the speed 1/30, 1/60 etc, the film negative is exposed to light for that quick fraction of time. Slower the shutter, the more light will reach the negative, projecting image from the lens to film negative. The film always needed to be in the dark, therefore “dark room” was a place for film to be developed. Exposing roll of film to the light could ruin entire roll. Most hobbyists of the past had “dark room” made in their own house or garage. A film could be processed differently, depending on the “special” recipe of each photographer. That would be equivalent of modern-day professional Film Colorist. Just like now, we use programs such as Lightroom or Capture One to process “digital negatives” aka RAW files. Traditionally, professional photographers will never give RAW files to a client, as they maintain the integrity of their work and quality.
All modern cameras instead of “film grain” have what is called noise due to high ISO settings on the camera. Commonly “noise” appear anywhere between ISO 320 and up, depending on the camera. Unfortunately, iso noise, is not the same as film grain, “even though theoretically they are the same principle”, and in most cameras can cause very unpleasant look. Some digital cameras, however, such as ARRI ALEXA, have digital noise that is very similar to film grain. Many Blackmagic Film Cameras also have relatively pleasant film grain-like noise.
Signature of Film
I photographed above image back when I was somewhere around 15 years old. A film that was in my camera was Kodak Gold either 200 or 400 iso. Immediately we can see an incredible dynamic range of this image. It almost looks like a painting. Modern DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras, despite their high dynamic range capabilities, are unable to replicate such a smooth transition or gradient if you wish to call it, between dark and white parts of the image. This is one of the signatures of analog film. But this is not all! Upon closer inspection, we can see optical imperfection of this image, and apparent vignetting all around the corners. All modern camera sensors are perfect in how they capture the image. All modern lenses are too clean and crisp in comparison to actual film. Perhaps in the way! It’s a constant battle! Back in the great days, photographers were chasing sharpness, nowadays it’s the opposite! We can also notice, how differently light projected on the negative, where modern cameras it looks very soulless. Obviously, skills of photographer and composition are the most important players in our discussion! Don’t get the idea that just by using film, all of the sudden all of your images will look perfect! This perhaps is also one important factor to mention! Back in the days, each click of the shutter used to cost money. We didn’t have 512GB Fancy SD card and 12 images per second burst mode. Only 24 exposures were in a single roll of film. In my personal opinion, I think this is where we had to think and make sure to get the best composition, lighting and angles. By having technically unlimited exposures aka digital, we became lazy as artists, and no longer truly care what we photograph. But this is just my opinion.
What Can We Do to Make Images Less Digital
Expose Correctly, When exposing the image, try to get as much information as possible. Analog images have a broad dynamic range and smooth roll off, even if the highlights clipped. You can use a variety of camera filters to get a smoother roll-off effect in camera, as most digital cameras have a very abrupt transition when the image is clipped.
Use vintage lenses, modern glass has no personality. It’s very sharp and to clean to get the vibe of the actual film. That will help you to minimize the amount of work you will have to do in post to get closer to organic look. Old Soviet Lenses are incredible, Nikkors are great, Angénieux lenses are my favorite, but it’s hard to find them with autofocus.
Cut Down on your shutter speed, don’t shoot at 1/6000 of the second. Most old photographs were taken at the relatively slow shutter speed, some of them slightly skewed and imperfect. When you shooting at the higher shutter speed, everything freezes and becomes to clean and perfect. If you going for vintage look try to avoid shooting fast.
Don’t process an image like crazy. Old photos are very authentic in their nature, don’t photoshop your work like crazy.
General Softness can be found on all film images. Don’t crank up sharpness, clarity, or whatever else your program may have to control it.
Don’t use HDR effects! I personally think HDR images look gross, but don’t try to mimic high dynamic range by cranking HDR settings.
Double RAW processing Trick
Many photographers don’t know this trick, but in certain cases, it may be very useful. Let’s take a look! In this demo example, we were testing location for an upcoming photo shoot. As you can see the lighting is very harsh, and shooting without light or bounce may be difficult. Let’s think of a workaround! The image below is “original” shot. It looks relatively filmic, but I want to add a little bit of extra light to “normalize” exposure.
To do the trick, I going to process the same image twice, but this time, I am going to increase overall exposure in my second batch. Here is how it looks.
We now left with two images that two ends of the extreme. One is underexposed, another one is overexposed. We can open images in photoshop, overlay bright image on top of the dark, and by using a paintbrush with light opacity, we can paint the details back. Essentially, you are merging both “best” versions of the image together to create a rich composition. Even though this technique may sound a little bit “amateur” from the glance of it, but believe me! Many top world photographers using the very same technique to achieve painting like effect in their portraits or landscape work.
Digital doesn’t see what we see, and because of that, the image is not being captured as for example film would, which is what makes such a big difference. By using this technique, you in control of creating your very own smooth roll of or gradient between dark and white, which will closely replicate actual film look.
There is also an alternative version to above trick! Only one requirement! When you processing your RAW file, make sure you retain all information! Your histogram should look something like this
We can see that we have all the information in the darks, and nothing is clipped in the highlights. Essentially this is what I like to call a “healthy” histogram.
Step 1 Load your image into photoshop and create Adjustment Layers Curves
Step 2 I always like to start with Shadows and then tackle the Highlights. It doesn’t really make any difference as you can always flip adjustment layers around, or just keep adjusting manually.
Step 3 Apply Image. Many people don’t know what apply image really is. Essentially its a 50% gradient mask split on the histogram of darks and whites. Select the mask of the curves, go to Image, Apply Image. The effect will be different depending on whether you INVERT it or not. When INVERT is not selected it will apply the effect to Highlights when you have it selected it will apply the effect to shadows. Upon clicking on it, you can see little mask icon on the curves will be changing. So if you want to affect shadows, whether to bring them more down or to elevate them, select the checkmark on the INVERT option.
Step 4 Repeat the same steps for highlights. Once you done, place both shadows and highlights into Group Folder, preview on and off to see the effect on the overall image.
Obviously how much you use it is up to you. In my examples, I pushed everything way more than it should be for the sake of the tutorial. With the proper amount of adjustment, it’s a pretty good technique to have it in your pocket.
Realistically there is no easy walk around. If you want your image look like film, you should be shooting on film. I am sure you probably heard this one before, and really don’t want to hear it again. However, above listed tips, can help you to achieve film look that we all like so much from the digital cameras. After all, now we also have some film emulsions and other stuff “presets” that can be great in addition to physical tools you can use to make your work to look less digital.