Embrace the Grain! [What I Learned from Shooting with Film: Part 3]

Embrace the Grain! [What I Learned from Shooting with Film: Part 3]

In this post Rachel Devine (author of our new kids photography eBook Click) continues to share her five reasons learning photography on film cameras made her the digital photographer that she is today. Also Read Part 1 on Shooting with Burst Mode and Part 2 on Natural vs Artificial Light


In the days when film was the only option for photographers, even 200 ISO gave your images some grain. Grain gave the image texture and now it seems that grain has become a naughty word in the world of kid portrait photography.


I have mentored many photographers who have told me that they try never to shoot over 320 ISO and really 400 is a number that makes them twitch. When I have asked “Why?” each and every time the answer has been “noise.” So many images of children are then polished into this weird digital plastic sheen that they end up looking more like dolls than real live children. Kids are naturally pretty smooth and childhood can get gritty (and sandy and chocolate covered etc…) but that is wonderfully real.


And just think of the benefits! You will have a lot more wiggle room with your exposure settings when you try working in the higher ISO ranges allowing you to shoot with faster shutter speed equation formulas and capture the motion of high energy kids in lower light. Or even their moments of stillness in extremely low light.


I know that the grain of the old silver particles is not the exact same thing as the noise of your DSLR, but there are a few things that you can do to get the best results possible.

The essential key to working with digital noise as grain is to get the image exposure right in the camera. The more under exposed the image is, the muddier it will look and the more the noise will be working against you. This is really how one should be striving to shoot children’s portraits anyway, but it is worth repeating here.

The second thing to help is a beautiful black and white conversion process for your editing routine. Turning the grainy image into black and white tends to unify the look of the noise as it removes any distracting colored pixels. It is also really reminiscent of the old old films.

black and white grain.jpg

Now sometimes this is an element of style and no one can tell another photographer what their style choices should be, but if the fear of digital noise making your images look bad is holding you back, I encourage you to celebrate the freckles, embrace the grain and shoot over 400 ISO once and a while.

For more on the topic of Kids Photogrpahy – Check out Rachel’s new eBook Click! How to Take Gorgeous Photos of Your Kids.

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Some Older Comments

  • Anindya Sengupta October 5, 2011 05:42 pm

    Thanks Rachel for the fantastic post. I fully agree to your views and infact it resembles mine too. Photos without grain appear flat and blank. Adding little grain to the image actually gives a nostalgic feel of an old film shot. I always tend to shoot with one ISO higher than reqd to give that extra grain. Surely it needs a camera which supports. You can check this photo shot with 6400 ISO at night. Thanks all for the wonderful post.


  • Jay October 4, 2011 02:21 pm

    Or you could just buy Nikon and use high ISO still with low noise!

  • Frank October 3, 2011 07:58 pm

    It's so strange that when I did a photography course, the (lecturer) also tried to put us off using anything higher than 400 in the day and 800 at night and I still queried this as I would rather have a sharp picture with grain/noise than a blurred picture. Sharp B&W pics with grain look great compared to blurred colour photo's any day. With this article, I will embrace high ISO with out ever feeling guilty again, thank you so much Rachel and thanks to everyone else for their informative comments.

  • Jan Randles October 3, 2011 07:35 pm

    Thank God, words of wisdom at last. I'm sick and tied of digital photographers who don't move beyond 100 ISO.
    Not only are they in a rut, they are missing out in developing their skill and producing some beautiful images.
    Grain is good....

  • Marco October 3, 2011 09:31 am

    I was seriously amazed at the difference between my Canon XSi and my 7D. With the XSi you could not let the ISO go above 400 if you wanted a useful image, but with the 7D I can run up to 1600 ISO anytime. I have not tried much higher. The point is that it really depends on the camera a lot.

  • Duke October 3, 2011 02:29 am

    I've adopted a very useful technique with my D300, utilizing Auto ISO, in P mode. I set the camera to expose at a speed no less than 1/60, then turn on Auto ISO. The camera then gives me great exposures at the fastest possible shutter speed, but never below 1/60; then, as conditions warrant, it boosts the ISO automatically to maintain the 1/60 minimum shutter speed. You can limit the upper end of the ISO, but I let it go to 3200 if it wants to. Sure, some are a little noisy, but I got the capture. LR3 or Nik Define 2.0 minimizes the noise in PP.

  • Brian October 3, 2011 01:56 am

    Great advice! Up until recently I also feared high ISO until a photographer friend gave me the same advice. Now I shoot my kids sports at 1,600 or higher when overcast or at night on my Nikon D300s with crisp and clear pictures. I can still use a lower ISO when it's nice and sunny but these days that seems to be rare. Thanks!

  • Brian October 3, 2011 01:55 am

    Great advice! Up until recently I also feared high ISO until a photographer friend gave me the same advice. Now I shoot my kids sports at 1,600 or higher on my Nikon D300s with crisp and clear pictures. Thanks!

  • Zach H October 3, 2011 01:51 am

    well, not to be a negative nancy, but shooting at high ISO's not only gives you noise, you loose detail and dynamic range as well. Of course, exposing correctly and avoiding deeply shadowed areas will reduce noise, but the detail still will be missing.

  • Spyros Heniadis September 29, 2011 11:03 pm

    This has been a wonderful series.

    @Javan, I'm with you. There are many times I've added noise post processing to my images. Not only does grain give it's own feel to the image, but it can enhance sharpness as well.

    I teach photography classes locally and when I cover ISO and grain/noise I always warn them that it exists, but I tell them that it's not a bad thing. I explain that it's something they need to be aware of so they can use it to their advantage when they want to, or avoid it when they want to.

  • Yngve Thoresen September 29, 2011 04:50 pm

    Grain is fine. Noise is... Not so fine. But unless I'm going to really blow up the image, even my old Nikon D80 works at ISO400-640. But beyond that is not pretty. Thankfully, newer camera er pretty good at handling higher ISO.

  • kati September 29, 2011 01:55 pm

    THANK YOU! i battle this out in my mind every day (as i edit tonight, in fact). at least in my own personal photos, i'm with the grain!

  • ccting September 29, 2011 09:51 am

    The 2nd image above was taken with excellent color harmony for me, the face pop up in obvious 3D looks, wow! is it because of the grain effect or just color?

  • ccting September 29, 2011 09:48 am

    D5100, nighttime shooting with ISO125000, give a beautiful B&W grain shooting, making the image artistic. However, i dislike to do it in-camera as it could not be reverse back for sharpness.

  • Scottc September 29, 2011 08:45 am

    Great article and makes me wish I learned from film. David DuChemin's books convinced me to use higher ISOs and it really opened up photography for me in a big.

    I do use lightroom and try to reduce the noise as much as possible, but often the effect is quite nice.


  • Verena Fischer September 29, 2011 07:27 am

    As long as you're not shooting in a real dark setting the high ISO actually gets you the good old grain and not just noise. I actually love grain! Here is my favourite example where the grain actually adds to the picture:

  • Trevor Sowers September 29, 2011 04:21 am

    Very good advice!

    There are many skills involved with getting the most pleasing look from your high iso pics. I have noticed that I prefer shooting in RAW and use aperture 3 for my conversion and this gives me beautiful high ISO results from both my 40D and my 5D MKII. I'm happy with ISO 1600 on my 40D and 6400 on my 5D. There is a time and place for going very high but I have no issue with using 400 routinely and even 800.

  • tim gray September 29, 2011 04:04 am

    The best shots I ever got were at ISO 6400 on a T2i at a wedding reception without flash using available light only and an IS lens.

    The "pro photographer" was using his flashes and annoying everone. while I shot photos of my best friends with my "toy".

    My shots were 800X better than his. Not by my assessment, but by the assessment of the couple, the family and others.

    I caught the feeling and emotion of the event as well as the colors of the lights, the reflections of the mirror ball, and I shot the shots the "pro" ignored like the flower girl curled up and sleeping under the gift table.

  • javan September 29, 2011 02:53 am

    Rachel, as an old film veteran I am really enjoying these articles. I have often been amazed at how scared everyone is of anything over ISO 200...I remember the days when you had to carry multiple cameras if you wanted fine grain AND high speed or learn how to rewind your film so you could put it back in and finish the roll when you needed to change film speeds or...PUSH PROCESSING... With all these wonderful ISO's available to me in my camera all the time now, I take advantage of each one when I need them. I even add noise in post processing to give it the old Tti-X look. Thanks again for a good series.

  • Jean-Pierre September 29, 2011 02:39 am

    Loving this series of articles. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • Major Bokeh September 29, 2011 02:19 am

    I agree with most everything said here. I shoot high ISO all the time. But there is a difference in the quality of grain on film and digital noise on current DSLRs. Film grain has a much more pleasing quality than the pixelated digital "grain" of today.

  • Brandon September 29, 2011 02:02 am

    I use high ISOs all the time at night and when shooting sports. I'd rather get a noisy, sharp photo than a "clean" blurry picture. I find that most of the time real people (non forum people) don't mind slightly noisy pictures.

  • Rick September 29, 2011 01:23 am

    Within reason, noise only matters to pixel peepers. I would say that unless I'm intending motion blur, I would would rather get the extra stop in shutter speed, in exchange for the extra stop in ISO. For example, if I'm shooting wide open, ISO 400, and the available light means my shutter is 1/30, then I'll usually go to ISO 800 to get 1/60 and a better chance of a picture free of camera shake and motion blur. But then again, I'm happy with my camera's results at 800 (even up to 1600). Your mileage may vary.