I love my clean, crisp digital image files, don’t get me wrong. But, sometimes, whether it be for nostalgia’s sake or just for a creative change of pace, I want to make an image that looks a little more like film. So, I do a few simple things in Lightroom and Photoshop to make my digital images approximate film.
When it comes to film photos, many of them had distinctive color characteristics. Fuji Velvia, for instance, was a transparency film prized by landscape photographers for its saturated color, especially pronounced in green foliage and blue skies. Other films were known for their cool blue and magenta shadows, or a warm cast in the highlights. Whatever film look you’re going for, it helps to start with one of these films—or at least a color cast—in mind. A simple solution for color adjustments like these is to use the Profiles available in Lightroom CC. Ensuring the Develop module is active, click on the Basic heading and look for the Profile option just below the Color or Black & White Treatment option. Click where it says “Color” next to the Profile heading, and choose Browse from the dropdown menu to open up the Profile Browser. From here, you can quickly switch to black and white (certainly a viable option when mimicking a film look) or click to expand the Vintage profiles at the bottom of the list.
While they’re not named for films, they certainly produce a variety of filmesque color options—including cool shadows, warm highlights and even the type of compressed shadows discussed above. Start with a Vintage profile that approximates the look you’re going for, then fine-tune those colors using other Lightroom adjustments. If shifts specific to highlights and shadows are what you’re going for, I find the Split Toning option to be one of the simplest ways to add tone to these image areas. Just click the color icon to choose a tone for highlights, then do the same for shadows and adjust the intensity with the Saturation sliders and the overall balance between the two using the Balance slider. In the end, the combination of these tools works wonders to add a film-like color shift to even the most pristine digital images.
2. Shadows And Highlights
The next thing I do to a digital image file when I want it to look more film-like is adjust the dynamic range. Part of the trouble with digital image files—well, the word “trouble” is a bit deceiving, as it’s usually a big benefit—is their higher dynamic range. Digital images have greater detail in highlights and shadows. Comparatively, film looks fundamentally different with lower dynamic range—darker shadows, in particular, with highlights that are more likely to block up too. To compress the tonal range, use the Tone Curve adjustment in Lightroom’s Develop module. The left side of the Tone Curve represents the shadows, while the right side represents the highlights. Changing the curve from a straight line to more of an S shape will increase the contrast and block up shadows and highlights. Better still, click the circular target in the top left of the Tone Curve palette and you can click and drag on specific tones in the image—making it exceptionally easy to create deeper shadows and brighter highlights even if you’re not especially fluent in curves.
Last but certainly not least is the addition of grain. Film has grain—little specs visible in an image that are more evident in high-speed films, less pronounced at low ISOs. And while it can be easily added in Lightroom with the Effects panel, my preferred approach to grain is accomplished in Photoshop. With the image open in Photoshop, I create a new layer, set its Mode to Overlay and click the checkbox to fill the layer with an overlay-neutral 50 percent gray. Then, in the Filter menu, under the heading for Noise, click Add Noise to impart faux grain to the layer. (Pro Tip: If you convert this layer to a Smart Object first, you can always go back and change the grain size later.)
Choose a relatively low density for the grain, typically just 5 percent or 10 percent, as well as monochrome grain with a Gaussian distribution so it isn’t uniformly patterned. A lot of photographers may stop here because the noise does tend to look similar to grain. But I go one step farther to make it appear more realistic. Grain isn’t sharp and well defined the way digital noise is, so I add a touch of Gaussian Blur to the grain layer just to take the edge off. (This is why the grain is added to its own layer rather than to a layer with image detail.) Somewhere between .5 and 1.5 pixels is usually enough to soften the sharp grain and make it look that much more like film.