As a hobbyist, amateur, or professional photographer, you may be interested in achieving the look and feel of black and white film without the hassle and investment in equipment and gear. You can edit a digital image using Lightroom with this goal without having your hands smell like rotten eggs (developing chemicals). If you shoot black and white film often, as I do, then you might actually love that smell. If not, then you might want to read on.
The feel of black and white film – research first
The objective here is to provide you with a few basic steps to get you started on the path to edit your digital images to look like they were shot on black and white film, without the mess. If you are not familiar with the qualities of film images or have not examined them closely, it would be a good idea to do so. Try to pick up and look closely at some actual prints on photographic paper. You might find these in your grandmother’s attic or your local museum. Photography books or online searches will yield many reprinted or scanned examples as well.
First, consider the subject of style as it relates to film photography. Film photographs generally have a certain nostalgic or vintage look and quality to them that distinguish them from the clarity and realistic look of a well-composed digital image. Film tends to render subjects and scenes in a more abstract manner. Although you can make tack sharp and very realistic looking images using today’s film and gear, that’s not really the role of film photography.
If you want clean, shoot digital. Film should look old, slightly out of focus, and definitely grainy. All film has some or a lot of grain and it is basically the equivalent of digital noise. While you may prefer some of your images to look super sharp and smooth, you may also find it pleasing to add a little (or a lot) of grain from time to time.
Film adds an air of mystery
You might want to experiment with this more abstract style or look of film that comes with a distinctive aesthetic. One advantage of presenting this style of image is that the viewer is given the task of filling in the blanks, so to speak. Subjects in your image that are not entirely in focus or even blurry can be representative of anything or anyone. Your image can be more open to interpretation by the viewer as compared to an image that was sharply composed with a subject that is obvious. In other words, you might want to leave some room for mystery in your images. Film photography, or working towards the look and feel of film, can do that for your images.
Like digital, film is really just another medium in which we can express ourselves as artists and photographers. I love many things about both film and digital and each has a place in my professional and personal photography life.
5 steps to getting the look and feel of film using Lightroom
If you shoot digital and are looking to achieve the look and feel of film, below are five easy steps using Lightroom.
1. Set your ISO high
ISO should be set to somewhere between 1600 and 6400. Digital noise is the modern day equivalent of the grain in film. The grain or digital noise creates atmosphere and the look or aesthetic that you are trying to emulate.
2. Make an image of something interesting
Choose a subject. Framing and composition should be pleasing, and be careful to avoid too many distractions. Emotion is usually a good idea to include if there are people or animals in your photo. Any additional compositional techniques can be applied to the image. The subject could be in focus or blurry. This is completely up to you and your vision.
3. Convert the image to black and white
To convert your image to black and white, press V or use another method for black and white conversion in Lightroom. You can stay in color, but the look and feel of color film is more difficult to achieve and will require some additional steps.
4. Open the Develop module in Lightroom
In the bottom panel of the Develop module called Effects, make the following adjustments:
- Using the sliders, set the Post-Crop Vignetting to -10. Older camera lenses tended to impart some vignetting onto the image. This will give the image an authentic older film quality to it. Ansel Adams famously burned (darkened) the edges to all of his prints.
- Set the Grain Amount slider to 50.
- Adjust the Grain Size to 50.
- Set the Grain Roughness to 25.
5. Review your image and make the finishing touches
Adjust the sliders to increase or decrease the three Grain options to achieve your vision for the given image. You can also dial in or out the vignette as well. All images are different and all digital image files will respond differently to these adjustments based on the sharpness and ISO settings.
You may want to consider the following questions to evaluate your adjustments at this point. Do these edits help the image? Does it assist in the presentation of the image as more abstract so that it might connect better with the viewer? Did the adjustments achieve the look at feel of film that you were gong for? You can decide on the answers to these questions and make editing decisions as you see fit or recruit a friend to provide a critique.
If you like your results and would like to explore this topic further, there are free online software programs such as Analog Efex Pro that are part of Google’s Nik Collection. Presets are also available that will aid you in this process and even help you to achieve the look and feel of color film. You might want to consider making your own presets and applying them en masse to a given photo shoot or batch of images as well.
Below are a few images representing multiple genres that I made with a digital camera then edited to achieve the look I was going for using the settings in the Effects panel above.
Do you enjoy shooting film or reproducing the look of it using digital methods? Do you have a favorite way to achieve it? Please share in the comments below.