Darkroom Tips For The Digital Age - 7/28/08
Use the computer to recreate film reticulation effects
Film reticulation is caused by shrinking of the gelatin emulsion during processing. It creates a blotchy, grainy, spotted-looking photograph. It's usually due to a dramatic change in temperature during developing-moving from a very hot wash to a very cold wash, for example. The first time it happened, the photographer was probably upset. But maybe he looked at the photo a little more closely and decided it looked pretty cool. Now that we're not processing much film in chemistry anymore, are the days of happy accidents behind us? I hope not. Even if actual film reticulation has gone the way of the dinosaur, the look of this happy accident can still be created in the computer.
To funk up your pictures with faux reticulation, look to Photoshop's Reticulation filter. Don't let the name fool you, though: sure you could run it straight and get a good effect, but by combining the filter with some other powerful features like layers and layer properties you can make the look as dramatic or subtle as you'd like.
Start with any old shot you'd like. You can convert it to black-and-white before you begin, since the most common reticulation effect was seen in home B&W film processing, but there's no rule that says you can't do it to color photos too. (If you do choose to reticulate a color photo, consider desaturating it a bit before you begin. Bold colors can certainly work well, but a little faded, antiqued appearance often lends itself to the added texture of the reticulation.) Regardless, if you ran the filter alone, it would convert the shot to black-and-white automatically.
Duplicate your photo onto a new layer; this will become the reticulation layer. In the Reticulation dialog box (found under Filter > Sketch > Reticulation), adjust the density slider for more or less distribution of those reticulated dots throughout the frame. For a subtle look, go for a higher density number; a lower number means a more reticulated, harder-to-read, photograph.
The foreground level and background level sliders, for all practical purposes, adjust the brightness of the scene. Foreground means the black reticulated dots, and a higher number here means larger dots, more connections, and ultimately a darker overall look. Background represents the lighter area behind the dots, so a larger figure here means less reticulation in highlights, and greater blooming of the scene highlights into other detailed parts of the shot. Strike a pleasing balance between drama and detail. Keep in mind, too, that we'll be adjusting this reticulation additionally in the next step, so a slightly heavy hand isn't a bad idea.
Back in the layers menu, turn your totally reticulated image into a shot that balances nicely between useful detail and special effect. To do this, select the reticulated layer and, in the layer properties drop-down menu, set the layer to Overlay. This makes the overall shot a bit more contrasty, but it allows the original color and detail to show through, adding the darkest reticulated parts to the scene without obliterating everything in its path.
Adjust the layer opacity to fine-tune the amount of reticulation and detail in the image. To further fine-tune the detail, work with a layer mask or simple eraser. With the mask, just paint (at a low opacity and soft brush) on the layer in areas where you want more detail to show through. Continue building the mask until you've put back all the detail where you want it. With an eraser, the same process applies-removing reticulated density to reveal the original image on the layer below.
For a last little tweak, consider adjusting the sharpness of the reticulated layer. This added definition to the reticulated edges can provide just the kick this newly softer shot may need. I like Smart Sharpen, but even functions like Find Edges and Threshold can give the reticulation a further funky feel.
Just as with the original film process, there's no textbook way to reticulate your photos. But that's the great part, too. Just as with film, some of the fun is the experimentation.