Film Grain – Is It Cool?

Film Grain?

I’ve seen plenty of high-end photos with film grain visible in them. If you get right up to them and look, you can see it. I saw it in a Peter Lik photo when I was in on of his galleries in Waikiki and I thought “how could the great Peter Lik allow film grain in his photos?” But I realized shortly after, that great photographers do have film grain in their photos — usually because they shot on film!

So is it cool to have film grain in your photos? The answer is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”. But, generally yes.

The arguments for film grain in photos:

  1. Film grain shows off the finer textures that only film can capture, where digital noise reduction smooths out the textures. Addition of random noise like film grain, actually makes a photo sharper looking.
  2. True film grain is pleasant and even, where digital noise is blotchy with poor colors and contains ugly patterns.
  3. Adding film grain to a digital photo can mask some of the digital noise so that less noise reduction has to be done on a photo. Less noise reduction means fewer artifacts and a sharper photo.
  4. Adding film grain to a digital image makes it appear as though it were taken on film. Film photos are perceived to be more prestigious than straight digital ones.
  5. Film grain has an aesthetic value that just makes the photo look better.

The arguments against film grain in photos:

  1. Stock photo sites seem to hate it, so to sell on those sites it seems like there has to be no grain. It may be that they are mistaking it for digital noise, and this is the reason. Whatever the reason, take the grain out for working with stock photos.
  2. Adding noise to a photo is kind of against what digital is all about. I don’t add it to photos that are inherently crisp and clean. For example, the photos that come out of my Sigma DP2 Merrill camera are the sharpest and cleanest I have ever seen, and it seems to me to be sacrilegious to taint them with grain. I leave them super clean as they are, mainly because they don’t benefit from additional sharpening that film grain provides.

I think my conclusion here is that film grain is cool in a way. It would have to not be overdone, and some settings would have to be adopted for the individual photo based on where it is going to be used, and what equipment it came from.

The printing process can wipe out the film grain if there is not enough added. But personally, I would err on the conservative side and add too little grain rather than too much.

Truly realistic film grain can be achieved by using DxO Optics Pro and the Film Pack add-in. This is what I have found to be the best at achieving great grain. Other programs such as Lightroom and Alien Skin products work also, but DxO Optics Pro achieves the best film grain you will get anywhere.

Using DxO Optics Pro and the Film Pack add-in to Add Film Grain

DxO Optics Pro has sliders in its Film Pack add-in section where you can choose the type of film and the film grain. Here is what I would suggest:

  1. In the color rendering section, choose a film you like.
  2. In the DxO FilmPack Grain section, select “Current Color Rendering” and “Auto-Large Format.”
Settings for the absolute best, most realistic film grain achievable in a photo.

Settings for the absolute best, most realistic film grain achievable in a photo.

Using Lightroom to Add Film Grain

Adobe Lightroom has sliders for adding film grain, but how much to add? What settings work best? Here’s what I’ve tried and found to work best for me:

  • Amount = 5 to 10, 5 is what I often use, but sometimes 10 looks better.
  • Size = 15 to 30, 30 works best for me.
  • Roughness = 50 is best.

Lightroom Grain Settings in the Effects Panel

Using Alien Skin to Add Film Grain

For even better-looking film grain, try Alien Skin Exposure software. This software, that works with Lightroom, produces even more realistic film grain than Lightroom can.

  • I use settings as in the picture below, and it seems to work well for me, but all of the presets that Alien Skin has in there really work and create some realistic film grain.
Alien Skin Exposure settings for realistic film grain.

Alien Skin Exposure settings for realistic film grain.

Summary

So to conclude, it seems kind of crazy to me to add grain (effectively noise) to a photo, when as a photographer I always strive to have the sharpest, clearest, noise-free images possible.

But, I’ve learned that film grain is a pleasing effect when added to photos that bring out a natural “feel” to an image.

It’s a finishing touch that I’m using on my photos that makes them look more appealing!

One caveat: Don’t use film grain in dark or night photos – there is usually enough noise in these that the film grain will only make worse.

Photo of Snow – With Grain (100% View) – Notice the subtle texturing most apparent in the shadows; the shadows also look slightly darker because of it.

Photo of Snow – No Grain (100% View) – Hard to see a difference? I told you it was subtle!

Thank you for reading what I wrote – I hope you enjoyed it!


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