Emulating photographic film – Making Digital images look like Film

 Andrew Goodman

Photographic film is a wonderful medium. It is, magical, inspirational, unique, unreliable and largely unrepeatable. All of the attributes which make analogue photography undesirable to journalists looking for good enough quality and repeatable and reliable results, do not necessarily appeal to the photographic artist.Furthermore, as digital photography has become more accessible to the masses, and more people are able to produce decent enough images again and again, the photographer who wants to differentiate himself from the pack looks to the digital darkroom wizards for inspiration, or heads back into the dark ages of film photography for the alchemy it promises.

Film has reached the zenith of its technology curve, invented nearly 150 years ago it has matured and developed over the years and now represents a very high quality analogue medium of image capture; digital image capture by comparison is just a baby at around 40 years young. Film manufacturing, processing (and more recently scanning) has been widely used by motion picture industry since movies were made, and today still represents the cheapest and easiest way to make a high quality image. Christopher Nolan is a big advocate for shooting film, and his latest movie Interstellar was shot on 70mm IMAX film.

The fact is that photographic film looks great. It handles light beautifully (It’s not so good in the dark patches), it reproduces colours effectively, and it has an ethereal ‘movie like’ quality which lifts the scene above the ordinary. It’s the difference between watching a cine film projection  or a video recorder on your tv. One just looks so much better than the other.

But the gap is closing (some would say it has closed entirely), and shooting digital cameras in RAW format; effectively taking the darkroom out of the camera and putting it in your computer, means digital can approach the dynamic range, and post processing quality  of film with all of the convenience and repeatability of digital (yes, I do tweak my film scans in Lightroom).

Like digital cameras, you will pay upfront in camera and processing software costs, rather than spending your money on film, but you achieve some very pleasing results. At the end of the day it’s the reason we are drawn to programs like VSCO film

VSCo

and TotallyRad’s Replichrome

They make our images look film-beautiful. But do they look the same as film? Not exactly. They’re not the same, but they’re pretty damn close, and in this day and age, you can produce something pleasing with more consistent accuracy.

Most importantly, you can try a number of film effects on a single photo to select the one that you like best, visualising after the shot rather than before it. You can’t do that in film land. If you shoot a roll of film and decide to cross process, and the colours come out all wrong, you’re stuck with limited tweak-ability in the digital world? You will have something unique, but will you like it? When a roll goes back, and it does happen, it can be a serious letdown. This unpredictable nature of film gives it a certain special appeal.

I say, if these preset film emulators produce pleasing results, then who cares whether they look the same as film? I see the presets more as labels to indicate what the film emulations should look like, rather than an indication of an identical film clone. A lot of the films emulated aren’t even available to buy anymore.

The quality we are looking for in a film-esque digital photograph is a gentle softness, a good handling of light (a reciprocity if you will, which film naturally has and digital doesn’t as much, though this can be processed digitally quite effectively from RAW) which retains highlights, and the colours, contrast and tonal gradation which transport the viewer into a different place than reality.

Digital cameras were invented out of convenience, for photojournalists. They wanted repeatable consistent images with quick processing times (and good enough quality). They have of course come on significantly, and are better quality than film, but just as more and more people are flocking to the imperfections of vinyl records, so analogue photography has a strong following. You don’t need to look any further than the world of Lomography.

If you shoot film, you are going to need to know what you’re doing.

1. Film is expensive, and wasting film is a sacrilegious.

2. A digital camera will give an inexperienced photographer a better result than a film camera – you need to understand the limitations of film and how to shoot it

3. Film needs light, light light. If it is dark, bring out the digital camera, or use your own lighting (flash or LED).

4. If you’re gonna shoot film, know how your camera works before you shoot an important / paid gig. If you’re taking an old camera to your brother’s wedding for example, you might want to know first if it has any light leaks, or whether the lens hood shows up with that wide angle lens you’re planning on using (ask me how I know).

For something to be appealing to view, it must have some endearing characteristics, either beauty, interest or a poignant composition; ideally all three. A good photograph communicates effectively to people who partake in it. The camera is a box with a sensitive media in the back. It is the person holding the camera who has the intention, and the ability to capture a moment which represents his worldview. If you are not inquisitive, you won’t make a good photographer.

Here’s a comparison between a Film photo and one processed with a digital film emulator, shot with two Leicas one using Superia Xtra400 negative film. See if you can spot the difference. It’s harder than you think. (Hint: look for detail in the shadows and look for overall colour balance, reds vs greens).

Anna Wu has also done a comparison of film vs digital which is well worth a look too.

see also Film vs Digital

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