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The tones and organic nature of analog film are things many of us have began to long for in our digital age. Don’t worry, though, this will not be an article about the merits or disadvantages of digital photography or whether film is better or worse than digital. The purpose of this tutorial is to deliver what might be called the best of both photographic worlds. And if not the best, a very liveable compromise between the charm of analog film and the convenience of digital imaging – how to simulate the look of analog film using Lightroom.
Photography, like most everything else, is invariably on a forward march of advancement. Always looking for the next best thing; better cars, better computers, and for us photographers…newer digital cameras. Intriguingly enough, often times we end up missing the “old school” feel of the very things we sought to replace with successive newer versions.
Imparting our digital photos with the great look of film is not only but possible, but simpler than it has ever been before. Furthermore, we can conduct all this retrograde post-processing alchemy in Adobe Lightroom. Yes, I promise it’s easy.
Now is a good time to pause and make a small disclosure. There are many other variables that exist which determine the final look of a print made from analog film. These variables range from the type and temperature of the chemistry used to develop the film, to the way it was printed and scanned. Even the age of the film when it was shot can change the look of the final results. So remember that while exact accuracy might not be possible the fun of the process itself certainly is!
The first step in the process is to find the film you want to replicate. There are a number of ways to go about this. If you happen to be one of those glorious hybrids who shoot both digital and film then you likely have some examples readily available. But the easiest way I’ve found to discover a multitude of images made with analog film is to have a look at Flickr.
There are quite a few groups there that specialize in “film only”, so each image posted is shot on analog film and then scanned into the computer. Some of these groups, such as Film Database require participants to post their images with the film type indicated. Once you find an image with a grain and tone you like, it’s very simple to learn which film was used to create that image. The more images you can find that were shot with that film, the better you can understand the general feel of it.
Once you’ve found the film-look that you’d like to replicate, it’s time to move into Lightroom and let the fun begin. First, we’ll look at the three key things to pay attention to when it comes to simulating the characteristics of film color tone, contrast, and grain. Then, we’ll walk through creating the look of film with a sample image, so you can see just how easy the process really is!
Color tone is a broad term that, for our purpose, describes the overall color temperature of a film and the saturation of those colors. Analog films come in virtually every color tone under the rainbow (pun intended). Some films are very warm toned with rich, vibrant colors. While others are more subdued, with cooler tones and less color saturation. Even black and white films have certain color tone variations.
When looking for the chromatic characteristics of a film, be sure to take note whether the overall tone is warmer or cooler in temperature. Then, look to see if there is any color cast to the image such as blue, red, green, etc. If the film you’re replicating is black and white, still pay close attention to any coloring that might be present. Black and white film is always more than just black and white!
This is perhaps the most straightforward aspect of the entire replication process. Contrast is simply the difference between lights and darks within an image. Films carry different contrast latitudes (again, development is key) which you can observe. Are the blacks dark and dense or are they lighter and more faded? Are the highlights bright and contrasted or is the photo flatter and less punchy? Later in Lightroom, the contrast slider will do a lot of the work for you.
Perhaps the most fickle property of analog film is the presence of grain. Grain is brought about by the size and number of the tiny light-sensitive silver crystals found in the film’s emulsion. Higher ISO film has more grain and lower ISO films generally have less grain. Depending on the film these grains can be larger or smaller, rough or fine, and literally everything in between. It’s a good idea to view the image at the largest size available when examining the grain of the film. Pay special attention to the amount, size, and coarseness of the grain when taking your notes. You are taking notes…aren’t you? Of course, you are!
Now here comes the good part. We will take a digital image and give it the look of a particular analog film. In this case, I’ve chosen a mid-range ISO film, Fujifilm Provia 400X. It’s a moderately saturated film in terms of color, with nice contrast. At ISO 400 the grain is apparent, but not as coarse as some other mid-range ISO films. In most of the images that I viewed from this film, there exists a slight blue color cast present.
So, before I do anything in Lightroom, I make a road map to help me along the way during my processing. It will list the core attributes of the film I’m hoping to replicate. Do this for your film now:
We begin with a photo that has been corrected for exposure but no adjustments for color or contrast. This is the best place to start for replicating analog film.
I crop the photo slightly and then move back to the Basic Panel.
Going back to the road map list I made earlier, contrast is the first adjustment. I increase the contrast slider to +81 but this still doesn’t give me the depth in the shadows I’m after, so I go further and darken the blacks by -40. While I’m here, I reduce the saturation to better match the moderate qualities of the Provia 400x. Since the image needs to be slightly cooler, I decrease the temperature a very small amount as well.
To add a little more blue to the shadows we will next use one of the great unsung hero of Lightroom, the tone curve. Click on the tone curve panel and be sure it’s set to “channels” view. Since I want to add a blue color cast, I select the blue channel (see below).
Since I want to apply the blue toning mostly in the shadow areas of the image, I raise the leftmost end of the curve upwards slightly. This will introduce a blue hue to the blacks. Be careful not to overdo it here. A little goes an incredibly long way.
All that’s left now is to focus in on our grain situation. My original digital image was shot at ISO 500 which is close to the ISO 400 of the Provia. Here’s a 1:1 zoom of the original image.
But film grain bears many more nuances. So let’s adjust the grain in the effects panel based on our notes from earlier. We observed that Fujifilm Provia 400x sported grain that was moderate, but rather fine. So I experiment with the Amount, Size, and Roughness sliders until I reach a grain effect that approximates the appearance I’m after. Don’t be afraid to manipulate these sliders into submission! The correct combination only comes from visually comparing the adjustments.
Here is the grain we’ve added compared to the original image. At a 1:1 view the difference because readily apparent.
And now, you’re all done!
Don’t hesitate to go back and tweak the exposure or other adjustments to get the look you want. But remember if you change the contrast or color edits your photo might distance itself from the analog film you’ve attempted to simulate.
*Bonus* Try increasing the color noise reduction slider to remove any traces of color noise. Color noise is a trait exclusive to digital imaging and is not found in analog films.
Here’s the finished simulation of Fujifilm Provia 400x film compared to our original digital photo.
While we can’t exactly replicate the look of film due to variances in the development and printing processes, we can achieve very similar looks. In a way, we have more versatility since we can strive to achieve the look of a multitude of films in our digital darkrooms. Show us your own analog film simulations in the comments section below!
Want to get a jump start at creating your very own analog film simulations? Take a look at these presets developed by myself, which replicate the looks of numerous classic analog films. All with just a click of the mouse!