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Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Nobody likes a grainy photo, right? The majority of the time we want less graininess. In the digital world, we see grain as the enemy. But is it really? I’ll tell you now that grain isn’t always bad. I’ll go even further than that and say that grain can actually be something that adds to the strength of your photographs.

Film grain gets a bad rap because it’s often confused with digital noise. The two are, in fact, entirely different. In this article, I’ll talk about the difference between noise and grain. Then I am going to show you how to use Lightroom to purposefully ADD grain to a photo. Get ready. Be bold. Embrace the grain.

It’s grain…not noise

The difference between digital noise (sensor noise) and grain comes down to the light sensing properties of each. Digital sensors convert light into an electronic signal using an array of photosensitive diodes. These are the “pixels” or “picture elements” of the sensor. Digital sensors carry “noise” based on a number of things such as the size of the sensor, its temperature, and the ISO setting.

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Digital noise at ISO 5000

Film, on the other hand, uses light sensitive silver crystals which are embedded in the emulsion of the film. The physical manifestation of these crystals is what we perceive as film grain. The higher the film’s ISO, the more crystals are present, hence more grain.

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Agfa Vista Plus 200 ISO 800. A cropped section of an image by Akio Takemoto

Grain is an organic characteristic of the analog film process. It’s almost like a fingerprint exclusive to the type of film you’re using. Perhaps that’s why film grain is gaining a growing acceptance among new photographers in this digital age of imaging.

This notion hasn’t been lost on the developers at Adobe and they have given us a way to simulate the grain patterns present in film with our digital images. Depending on your photo, adding some creative film grain can impart a vintage feel of earthiness to your digital image. And you’re about to learn how to do it in Lightroom in…3…2…1….

I hope you enjoyed the dramatic countdown.

Adding Grain in the Effects Panel of Lightroom CC

You can find Grain in the Effects panel of the Develop module in Lightroom CC. It’s where you can do a number of things but for this occasion, we are going to focus on the grain section. You’ll notice there are three adjustment sliders; amount, size, and roughness.

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

This is how you will essentially replicate those light sensitive crystals found in film emulsion I mentioned earlier.

**Note, it’s wise to apply grain (like most effects) as the last part of your final steps in post-processing.

Amount of grain

The amount of grain is controlled by, you guessed it, the “Amount” slider. Think of this as the number of crystals you are adding to your image. The higher the amount, generally the higher ISO look the effect. Here’s a +40 grain amount on an image shot at ISO 640.

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

It is a good idea to use a large increase in the amount of grain while adjusting the next two sliders and then back it off from there until you reach the desired amount.

Size of grain

The size of the grain plays a big part in how apparent it will be in your final image. Larger crystals will be more noticeable even at low amounts. It’s virtually the same concept as high and low “grit” sandpaper. Now here’s a +40 boost in grain size from the last image.

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Keep in mind that the further to the right you move the slider the larger each grain will become. This can diminish small details in your photo so use with caution.

Roughness

Grain roughness is closely related to grain size. The difference is that the roughness slider controls how raised the grains appear to be from the image. Essentially how rough or smooth their surface appears. The next image shows the same +40 amount of grain with the size set back to the +25 default. This time I increased the roughness to +70.

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Think back to the sandpaper analogy. The more raised the grain the rougher the overall texture and thus the texture of the final grain effect.

Here are a few more examples of using simulated grain in Lightroom. Black and white images have always loved grain.

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Black and white image with Grain set to +50 Amount, +71 Size, +50 Roughness

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Grain set to +30 Amount, +66 Size, 0 Roughness

Tips for the Creative Use of Grain in Lightroom

Grain set to +60 Amount, +18 Size, 80 Roughness

Final thoughts on grain

Never forget that grain is completely different than noise. Grain is, in some ways, the signature of film. Adding it to your digital images can sometimes, not always, give your photos a non-mechanized flavor that hints back to the organic appeal of analog film.

You can control this effect easily in Lightroom by adjusting the amount, size, and roughness of the grain. The combinations are virtually limitless. Just remember, as with all processing effects, use them up to, but never past the point they were intended. That being said, never be afraid to experiment and “go against the grain”…sorry, I had to say it.

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Adam Welch

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!