Simulating Film Effects with Curves
Simulating Film Effects with Curves
I know I'm not exactly inventing the wheel here, but I have been treading one moderately
well-trodden path recently: attempting to recreate the look of a few types of film I know
and like. The method I chose was the simplest possible: attempting to create a set of
Photoshop curves I could use to give photos these looks with a minimum of fuss. I don't even
pretend to aim for accuracy. It wouldn't really help much in any case, since the photos on
which I want to use them come from a variety of cameras and converters, and therefore no
single method would be applicable to all of them. I haven't done any side-by-side comparison
shots of film versus digital, although I have compared my results against some scans I've
made previously -- and nope, they're not exact matches, nor, I think, will they ever be. But
they do go at least a part of the way towards recreating the feel I used to create by my
choice of film stock.
Emma Vaaen. Canon EF 50/1.8 on EOS-5D. Straight conversion with Raw Shooter Premium. To me,
this has the "Provia feel" straight out of the box. Sometimes it goes like that...
One of the more important creative choices a photographer had the pleasure of making back in
film days was choosing what kind of film to shoot. Slow, saturated, contrasty slide film gives
a completely different feel to a picture than fast, grainy, high-latitude color negative film.
Different brands and makes of slide give their own flavor to pictures: Provia rendering scenes
in a cool, low-key, translucent way, Kodachrome in a rich, deep, colorful way, and Velvia in a
completely over-the-top almost cartoonish way. When the choice was well made, the result just
looked so wonderfully right that it would almost make a grown man weep... and when the
choice was wrong, it could mean not getting the picture at all, or jumping through any number
of hoops to getting something remotely acceptable out of the exposed frame.
Tyre Cat. Canon FD 50/1.4 SSC on Fujichrome Provia 100F.
Those of us who transitioned to digital no longer have much choice in capture medium. We're
pretty much stuck with whatever happens to sit inside our cameras, and our choice of camera is
to a great degree dictated by its picture-taking characteristics than its imaging
characteristics. Some of us have slow, big, high-resolution cameras for big prints and fast,
smaller, lower-resolution cameras for situational shooting, with perhaps a few tiny cameras
for take-anywhere shooting, but very few have dedicated portrait cameras, landscape cameras,
sports cameras, nighttime cameras, architecture cameras, black-and-white cameras, street
cameras, photojournalism cameras, like they used to have dedicated films for each of these
missions, and more. Instead, the creative choice of film stock has moved to the digital
darkroom. Digital capture can give us a starting point that's more or less neutral and lends
itself to being massaged into any of the looks and feels associated with these types of
photography. The only trouble is getting there, especially in a repeatable or consistent way.
Autumn reflections. Rollei AF-M 35 on Kodak Portra 400NC.
Films respond to light rather the same way as eyes. The more light you hit them with, the
bigger the reaction. However, the response is not linear: they're more sensitive to light
differences near the middle of their sensitivity range than at the edges. This response can
be plotted as a curve. Contrastier films have steeper curves than films with more latitude:
Fujichrome Velvia is contrasty, while Kodak Portra is low-contrast. Color films react slightly
differently to the component colors that give us full color, which gives them their
characteristic color response. For example, Fujichrome Velvia is known for its deep, rich,
emerald greens (but pretty funky skin tones), while Fujichrome Provia is known for emphasizing
blues in an otherwise pretty neutral rendition.
First Snow. Rollei AF-M 35 on Kodak Portra 400NC.
Photoshop's curves work the same way: it is possible to adjust tonal and color response by
modifying tone curves, for example in an adjustment layer. Theoretically, if you know what
your starting point is, and the latitude of your starting point is at least equal to the
latitude of your desired endpoint, it should be possible to replicate the tone curves of any
type of film simply by applying the right curves to an image. It wouldn't even be too
difficult to do this; all you'd need to do is shoot a color chart under controlled lighting
with your different types of film and your digital camera at its neutral settings, and then
use the eyedroppers in the curve tool to nail down the curves so they exactly recreate the
color and tonal response of the films. Indeed, this is the approach a few quite high-quality
commercial packages appear to have taken: I gave Alien Skin Exposure a try, for
example, and it appears to work quite well. It just wasn't exactly what I was looking for.
Chauri herders in Helambu region, Nepal. Vivitar 35-105/3.5 on Kodachrome 64.
The only real trouble with this approach is that it makes some pretty big assumptions --
that your digital originals are always shot at the same settings, and that your film reference
shot accurately represents the experience you get from viewing real-life film images. At least
in my case, neither holds true: I use and have used a variety of digital cameras with
different imaging characteristics, and my experiences of the film images have been affected by
a great many things, from the slide projector and screen I used to look at slides, the choices
made at the lab (or by myself) to create prints, or, lately, the processing I've done on film
scans in the digital darkroom. Most of these are entirely subjective. Therefore, this is more
a matter of emotion than science . That's why I set out to create the film curves with little
more than a smattering of ideas on how films are supposed to behave -- and a vague idea in my
head about what kind of look I was after.
Doug with an ember in his mouth. Canon EF 35/2.0 on EOS-10D, straight conversion from RAW
with Raw Shooter Premium and Color Engine. You will see variants of this picture later in
Gross effects are usually simpler to fake than subtle ones, simply because there's more
margin for error. Therefore, my first excursion into simulating film effects with curves was
into everybody's favorite 1980's trope, cross-processing E-6 slide film in a C-41 neg process.
I also started with it because there was most help to be found on the Net -- complete recipes,
Pirate and children. Sigma EX 12-24/4.5-5.6 on EOS-10D. Straight conversion from Raw
Shooter Premium, followed by applying "cross-process" curve and a touch of yellow photo
Cross-processing basically dramatically increases contrast and makes the colors go all wonky,
generally a mix of yellowish and bluish tones. So, what I did was flatten out contrast in the
blue channel, cheerfully blow out the red channel, and apply a pretty steep S-curve to the
green channel. I tweaked it for a few hours, watching the colors respond to the changes, and
got a lot further in getting a feel for how the technique works.
Doug hit with the cross-process curve.
Next, I tried something else -- a film stock I've never actually liked that much, because for
most things both the color and the contrast are too over-the-top for my taste: Velviaesque.
Velvia is known for its incredibly rich emerald greens and overall high saturation and
contrast. I wanted to recreate this without giving the picture an overall green tint, and
keeping skin tones at least marginally believable (even though they never were a forte of
Velvia). After a quite a bit of experimentation and some feedback from people on DPReview, I
ended up with a pretty steep S-curve in all channels, steepest in the blue and shallowest in
the red, with blue leading especially in the shadow range. The apparent strength of the effect
depends a lot on your source picture -- if it's a low-contrast, drab-looking picture, the
effect is almost subtle, whereas if it starts out colorful or saturated, it's pretty wildly
over the top. I find I get quite good control over the effect simply by using it in an
adjustment layer and adjusting opacity; if I want even more of it, I duplicate the adjustment
layer and adjust opacity on that.
Joanna with cat. Minolta Dimage 7i, with Velviaesque curve applied.
Doug afflicted with a case of Velvia.
Once I had got Velviaesque down, I went for something more subtle, and therefore more
difficult: I tried to recreate the look of my favorite slide film, Fujichrome Provia. I
associate the Provia look with a hard-to-describe cool and translucent quality, rich high
mid-tones, and rich yet not overcooked blues.
Yet Somebody Loves Me. Canon EF 35/2.0 with EOS-5D. Straight conversion (more or less) from
Raw Shooter Premium, with Proviaesque curve applied.
After some experimentation, I ended up with something I quite liked and that appeared to work
nicely on a variety of photos I hit it with. It involved a very mild S curve in the red
channel, a slightly stronger and slightly pulled-up one in green, and a moderate one with
fairly contrasty midtones in the blue channel. The overall effect could be described as
"clarifying" -- a slightly cooler, visibly contrastier look with emphasized blues. You
probably won't notice anything strange if you see a photo with it applied -- but the
difference is actually quite pronounced if you see the original next to it.
Doug enhanced with the Proviaesque curve.
My final attempt was to recreate the look of color negative film. I named this one
Portraesque, after my favorite type of film for this sort of thing, Kodak Portra NC400. I
wanted a gentler roll-off in the highlights, a bit more contrast in the shadows, and an
overall slightly warmer tone: something to make skin tones just a little bit nicer than
Posterestaurant 10. Rollei AF-M 35 on Kodak Portra 400NC.
I ended up with a red channel pulled up just a hair in the highlights, a green channel with a
very mild S-curve in it, a blue channel with a mild inverted S-curve, and the RGB curve pulled
down a bit in the toe and pulled up in the high midtones. The overall effect is an increase in
contrast, a brightening of the high midtones, and a slightly warmer look. It looks best on
Doug looking all negative.
Black and white films
To recreate the look and feel of black and white films on digital, you have to consider two
separate questions: spectral response and tone curve. Fortunately, wiser heads than mine have
pondered the former, and come up with a quite a few simple recipes that do the former. For
example, set the R, G, and B channels to the following values with the Monochrome box checked
to emulate these films:
|Ilford Delta 100
|Ilford Delta 400
|Ilford Delta 400 Pro & 3200
|Ilford Pan F
|Ilford XP2 Super
|Kodak Tmax 100
|Kodak Tmax 400
Carousel. Canon EF 50/1.8 on EOS-5D. I did a quite a lot of work to get to this rendition.
Simulating a film may have had some role in the process, but very little really. It's like
that with most of my B/W photos.
At this point, I would love to tell you that I've discovered the RGB curve that accurately
represents the tonal response of each of these films. I could do that, but I'd be lying. In
actual fact, I still use more or less the techniques I describe in my Digital Black
and White article to handle tonality -- or, not infrequently, apply the channel mixer on
top of one of the above-described color film effects. Printing from black and white always was
all about darkroom magic anyway; there really is no single "right" tone curve out there to
Film grain and its uses
I describe a simple technique for applying film grain in my article on Digital Black and White.
All you have to do is apply a layer of scanned film grain onto your image in Overlay mode. I
still haven't discovered a better way to simulate film grain in digital processing; however, I
have tweaked the technique slightly. The film grain layers I use nowadays have been adjusted
to average out at 50% gray, which means they will not affect the tonality of the underlying
image. I also use a few different versions for different uses; coarser for a grainy high-ISO
look, and superfine for on-screen display only.
See below for samples of the grain fields I use nowadays. Feel free to download and do
whatever you like with them.
Pastoral in Black and White. Minolta Dimage 7i, with Tri-X recipe applied in the channel
mixer, and hit with a coarse grain field. I thought it made the distance look more
Adding grain to an image may seem like an affectation more than a serious photo processing
tool. It can be that, although it is an affectation that can work quite well with the right
kind of picture. However, grain also has some "legitimate" uses -- that is, situations in
which adding grain will improve the overall look of the picture whether you actually like a
grainy look or not.
The first such situation is using grain as a dither. When you do tone curve
manipulations, smooth gradients such as the sky tend to develop posterization -- visible
banding in the gradient from light to dark. An effective way to combat posterization is to add
noise to the gradient you're manipulating. Grain is just a special kind of noise -- it's just
somewhat more attractive than random or Gaussian noise you can add with Photoshop filters. So,
if you have a banding problem, you might want to drop in a grain field in Overlay mode, and
see if it makes things any better.
Faces. Sony DSC-V3 at ISO800, pushed a stop in post-processing and hit with the Portraesque
curve, grain used to mask digital noise.
The second such situation is masking digital noise. Grain may be noise, but it's a
nicer kind of noise than the chromatic stuff you get off a digital sensor. Simply overlaying a
grain field on a high-ISO digital photo will usually make it look better. If you do the
following procedure to reduce chromatic (color) noise on the picture first, the results are
even better -- I get quite usable ISO800-1600 photos from my point-and-shoots this way, and
have experimentally gone up to ISO12800 with my digital SLR:
- Duplicate background layer.
- Apply Smart Blur to the top layer, radius 25, threshold 25 (adjust these so that noise
gets completely smoothed out, but outlines are preserved, more or less).
- Set blend mode to Color on the top layer.
Grain fields, normalized to average out at 50% gray, at four different degrees of
coarseness. To make your own, just clone enough of the grain field to cover your photo. I've
saved the big grain fields in their own files to save time.
As I've been messing with these techniques, I've also had to deal with some nagging thoughts
about the point of the whole exercise. I find myself liking the results of these experiments a
quite a lot, yet it goes against a principle I've sometimes even stated -- that is, that every
picture should be considered on its own merits, irrespective of the way it was taken, and
processing should respect the integrity of the photographic process. What I've been doing here
gets rather close to fakery -- trying to make something (a digital capture) appear to be
something it isn't (a film frame). I don't feel entirely comfortable doing this kind of thing,
even if does not violate even the very strict ethical rules that apply to journalistic
Long way from the Volga. Canon EF 50/1.8 on EOS-5D. The neg-like look of the Portraesque
curve whispers "documentary photography." At least it does that to me.
In the end, our appreciations and perceptions have been formed by the pictures we have seen.
Certain types of visual cues have become associated with certain types of pictures. Perhaps
there is nothing genuinely nicer about film-like curves or film grain and it's all a matter of
what we're used to seeing. Yet these cues, and our reactions to them, remain. These cues are a
part of photographic language as well. We may use this language honestly or dishonestly. It
all depends on the image.
Saturday Morning. Canon EF 50/1.8 on EOS-5D, straight conversion from RSP, with
"Portraesque" curve applied.
Download the curves
If you're interested to try out the curves, here they are.
To use, unzip the archive to wherever you like, apply a Curves adjustment layer to your
photo, and use the Load button to load the curve you want from the appropriate file. I
strongly encourage you to tweak them to make them your own -- and explore whole new ways of
manipulating color and tone with curves. It's much more fun that way.
Update: A reader was kind enough to convert these curves to Gimp Curves format, for use with
Gimp and Digikam on Linux. If you've joined the FOSS world and want to take these curves
with you, here they are. Thanks, Mario Maggi!
Update: Another reader went through the trouble of converting the black and white adjustments to an Apple Aperture preset. Macheads, find them
here. Thank you, Alexander van den Bosch!
Update: Another reader went to the trouble of converting these curves to Lightroom 4 format. They're here.
Thanks, Oscar Ciutat!
Nuit d'êté en Provence. Minolta Dimage 7i with the Velviaesque curve.