The Basics of Simulating Vintage Film in Lightroom

The Basics of Simulating Vintage Film in Lightroom

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Like all forms of art, photography can be a complex and contradictory medium. It’s straightforward yet complicated; personal but at the same time wholly based in exhibitionism. In recent years perhaps the weirdest and paradoxical event to happen in the world of photography is the idea of simulating film photographs with our digital photography. Think about it for a second or two. We’ve moved (for the majority) from using physical photographic film to digital sensors, and still, we are searching for the feel and aesthetic quality of the very process we left behind.

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A digital photo split toned for yellow in the shadows and blue in the highlights. Faded and then finally grain added to approximately simulate ISO 800 film.

We’ll leave the discussion of the currently popular “analog renaissance” for another day. For now, let’s talk about how you can go about simulating the look of a photographic film. More specifically, creating vintage or expired film looks using Adobe Lightroom. Adobe has made a couple of big updates to Lightroom lately that make working towards that “vintage film look” more effective and easier than ever before! Simulating the look of any film consists of four core dimensions: color, contrast, and grain. Before we get into the “how” of simulating film in Lightroom, let’s first briefly talk about some of the confusion surrounding film photography in general.

Film photography is full of variables

There’s a misconception that the look of film is set in stone; meaning that “XXX type of film always looks like this and XXXX type of film always looks like this.” Nothing could be further from the truth! There are all kinds of factors which play a roll (film humor) in how the final negative or print appears to the viewer.

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A Nikon F3 35mm film camera. Shot with a digital camera…made to look like a vintage film. Ironic.

The age of the film, how it was stored, type and temperature of chemicals used in development, the duration of development, even how we agitate the chemicals around the film all play a major part in how the finished film appears. Also, when it comes to the final print, there are even more variables that can affect the look of the picture. The reason I’m saying all of this is to make sure you understand that simulating the look of vintage films has just as much to do with your creativity as it does with understanding the basics of how film works. There is no explicit right or wrong! So relax and let’s get to work learning how to simulate the look of vintage film in Lightroom.

Color

Color is the most effective part of the simulation process and there are many routes we can take to manipulate the colors of our vintage film simulations. The “vintage look” comes about literally by the progression of time. As the light-sensitive emulsion of the film degrades, it produces all sorts of funky color tones and nuances. To simulate this effect of color aging, we will use the tried and true Split Toning Panel and also one of the biggest and newest features to come along for Lightroom: Creative Profiles.

Split Toning

Don’t worry, split toning can look a little intimidating but it’s really not! Split toning is just a way for us to add in specific color tones to the shadows and highlights within our photo.

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To change the color tone of the highlights move the highlights color slider to the color tone you like or select it from the color palette.

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You can also change the saturation of the highlight colors by using the saturation slider. The same goes for the color toning of the shadows as well.

The balance slider is just a way for us to control the bias of the split toning to favor either the highlights or the shadows. Moving the balance slider towards the left makes the shadow toning more prominent while sliding it to the right makes the highlight color stand out. There are limitless combinations of colors and saturation balances so feel free to experiment. Just remember that using complementary colors for the shadows and highlights (blue and orange, yellow and violet) are always a good choice when it comes to split toning. Also, color changes in an expired film are usually quite subtle so keep that in mind as well as your tone.

Creative Profiles

One of the coolest and most versatile new features to come along for Lightroom recently is the introduction of “Creative Profiles.” Profiles have long been a part of Lightroom, but now we have the option to apply our own custom profiles that we’ve either bought or made ourselves. To learn more about the full power of Adobe’s Creative Profiles check out another one of my articles here. For our purposes, Creative Profiles allow us to introduce color grading to our vintage film simulations.

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The great things about creative profiles are that they apply themselves without disrupting any of your development settings. What’s more, you can dial in the strength of the profile using the density slider. Being able to use controllable color grading with creative profiles not only opens up a whole new world when it comes to simulating vintage film but in all areas of your post-processing workflow.

Contrast

Unlike color, simulating the contrast of vintage film in Lightroom is more or less a straightforward idea. Generally, as the emulsion of a photographic film ages its contrast usually decreases. This is due to the breakdown of the light sensitivity of the film.

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A 4×5 large format negative

The amount of contrast lost depends on a number of things such as the age of the film, the way it was stored, and the actual type of the film itself. The take away from this is that a good guideline for vintage film simulations is to essentially “fade” the image by decreasing its contrast. You can achieve this in a few ways. The most simple being to use the contrast slider to lessen the contrast. However, there’s a more precise and arguably more appealing way to fade the photo; by using the tone curve.

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To decrease the contrast and ultimately simulate the fading of an image all we need to do is take the control point at the bottom left of the tone curve and move it directly upwards. This controls the luminance values of the darks in the photo and makes those areas appear lighter which in turn makes them less contrasted. In most cases, you’ll want to add at least one more control point to the right of the one you’re adjusting and pull the rest of the tone curve back down. Of course, this is completely subjective. Feel free to add other control points and play around with the tone curve to really control the way your fades appear within your photo. Remember, there is no correct amount of fading so experiment as much as you like!

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Grain

The final facet of our vintage film simulation routine is to add in and control simulated grain to our photos. Not to be confused with digital noise, film grain is a direct result of the visibility of the individual silver crystals present in the films light-sensitive emulsion. The more/larger the crystals which present in the emulsion, the more sensitive the film to light and the higher it’s ISO rating. While the overall appearance of grain depends on a vast array of variables, a general rule is that the higher the ISO of the film the more pronounced the film grain becomes. So if you are attempting to make your simulations appear as a highly light-sensitive film such as ISO 1200 or ISO 3200, the more grain needs to be added to your simulations. If you are shooting for a lower ISO film for your vintage film simulation, say an ISO 80 or ISO 100 speed, you add less grain or even none at all. Here’s an image from a medium speed expired 35mm film, Kodak Tri-X 400. It was developed at a higher temperature and agitated quite a bit to bring out more of the grain.

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To control the presence of the grain we add in Lightroom we are presented with three sliders: amount, roughness and size.

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When you think about each of these sliders, it’s easy to visualize how they affect your image if you imagine them as physically controlling characteristics of the light-sensitive silver crystals of the film’s emulsion. The Amount slider would add in more or less crystals. Roughness is how raised or bumpy those crystals appear. Lastly, the Size slider controls how large or small those crystals seem. I know…that might still be a little confusing. So I’ve made up a quick guide for adding in your grain and given a couple of common real-world 35mm film stocks as reference points:

  • ISO 50-100(Kodak Ektar 100, Ilford FP4 Plus, Fujichrome Velvia 50)
    Amount: 15
    Size: 10
    Roughness: 10
  • ISO 200-400(Kodak Tri-X 400, Ilford HP5 Plus)
    Amount: 30
    Size: 10
    Roughness: 10
  • ISO 800-1600(Fujifilm Superia X-Tra 800, Fujifilm Superia 1600, Kodak Portra 800)
    Amount: 45
    Size: 40
    Roughness: 15
  • ISO 3200 and above(Kodak T-Max P3200, Ilford Delta 3200)
    Amount: 60
    Size: 40
    Roughness: 45

Lightroom automatically sets the “size” and “roughness” sliders to 25 and 50 respectively. If you add ANY amount of grain to your photo remember that those defaults are set out of the gate. Also, something to keep in mind, the amount of grain added largely depends on the original digital ISO of your photo. The values listed above are merely baseline approximations.

Vintage film simulations: Why?

Even as we steep in the digital waters of today’s modern photography world, I still have a love and lust for shooting film. Film, especially expired and vintage film, carries an aesthetic that goes beyond digitized image files of “1’s” and “0’s”. Speaking just for myself, the majority of my professional work consists of digital photography – not film. To that end, I’m sure that some of you are still thinking, “If you want the look of film, just shoot film.” Yes, I understand that even at its most basic applications, film photography isn’t for everyone. That’s why being able to approximate the looks of so many different types of film in Lightroom is such a wonderfully paradoxical thing. We can still enjoy the accessibility and convenience of digital photography without wholly sacrificing the “feel” of film. What’s more is that thanks to the recent advances of color profiles in Lightroom, we can now blend and mix our settings until we reach that perfect imperfectness which captures the organic unpredictability of vintage film. Which, when you think about it, should grant each of us the realization of how extremely fortunate we are to be living in such a cool time to be photographers.

Test out the ideas in this article and try some vintage film simulations of your own. Be sure to post your results in the comments. We’d love to see them!

 

You may also find these articles on vintage techniques helpful:

How to Add a Toy Camera Effect to Your Digital Images Using Photoshop

How to Mimic a Digital Cyanotype Using Photoshop with Ease

How to Create a Lithography Effect Using Photoshop

How To Mimic a Cross-Processing Effect in Photoshop

How to Mimic Lomography in Photoshop with Ease

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!