How to Get “that film look” by Anand Asar

Get the film look by Anand Asar

I have a lot of respect and love for Steve’s site. I have been inspired every time with the daily inspirations – and particularly Khunya Pan’s one, which led me to but an OM10, and introduced me to the world of Tri-X. I first found love for photography when my son was born. This was when Apple released their first iPhone – 2007. As most parents, I wanted to capture all the great moments of him growing up, and have memories to cherish over time. So my son, has been my inspiration for photography ever since I picked up the camera. I moved on and changed brands and jumped ships quite a lot over the last 3-4 years, changed lenses, and basically did it all the hard way, thinking that a better camera would get me better pictures. I realised much later I was satisfying my lust for gadgets, and a change in financial circumstance led me to start over from 2nd hand equipment (GF1 to be precise).

All this time and all the pictures I had taken, I’m finally getting to think like a photographer. I got me some books to read and study, and a change of subject led me to photograph more than just my son. I’m a graphic designer by profession, working in the signage industry for over 15-20 years. And I had already invested in a lot of software. Software that one cannot sell 2nd hand.  So here I am (as of now) with a GF1 + 20mm f1.7 + OM10 + OM 50 f1.8 + Lightroom + Nik’s SilverEfx + Colour Efx + Alien Skin Exposure + Alien Skin Bokeh + LightZone + Dxo Optics + Stevehuffphotos.com’s daily inspirations.

This site has given me a lot, reviews, guidance, inspiration – so I feel it’s only fair I give something back. And I decided to embark on a project to achieve a film look, from the equipment I had. Now manipulating a film look can be considered as adapting a legacy lens via an adapter onto your camera. As manual focusing with the lens is a challenge, so is post production, especially if you want to manipulate a certain look, a look that only film can get right.

When we talk about film, the first thing that comes to mind is grain. Yes grain is beautiful, some might not like it, but it has a lot of advantages. It can cure a digital picture in ways that words cannot explain. But one has to understand how to apply it, where to apply it, and get strike the right balance. The other is contrast. Again many like to push up the contrast slider, and while it does give the picture a punch, it can also hide detail. Many film looks have added contrast as a signature, along with grain. I’ve noticed the tone cure adapt a S shape (very common in Silverefx) – this could be killing the detail in your picture, try to straighten the curve a bit – if you don’t like it – go back a step.

The software – I will list these in order of preference. (1st being the must have and so on.)

1. Lightroom – This is hands down the best organizer for your picture library. It is not a great editing software, but it builds up your picture library perfectly, and easy to maintain. Plus it is also a hub as in all other that follow in the list can be configured to launch from lightroom as plug ins… and so on.

2. Dxo Optics & Dxo Filmpack – I had only a trial version of this software, bit I intend to purchase them very soon. The Dxo Filmpack has the best grain rendering, and the closet to match and film. (Please note this is only my opinion – do not intend to start and argument over it)

3.   Alienskin – A very nice set of film presets, plus the added bonus of grain control in highlights, midtones and shadows is excellent.

4. Nik’s Silverefx – If you’re a mad about black and white (like myself) this is a must have. Even Leica pack this software in their box with the M9. A nice set of film renderings, a lot of control over image parameters, excellent U-point control. Grain rendering is nice.

5. Nik’s Colourefex – A good set of film presets – a lot of control over image parameters, excellent U-point control. Unfortunately, film grain rendering is not to my liking.

6.  LightZone – I was told this use to ship with earlier Panasonic M43 cameras, but the software is becoming extinct as the company seems to be running out of financial resources to support it. The guys at lightzombie (http://lightzombie.org/) are keeping the project alive, and doing a great job of it. This software was has a tool ‘zone mapper’ which is just great. It divides all the tones in an image into zones and gives precise control over their luminance values. If you’re into black & white photography, it is an invaluable tool.

A lot of you might be wondering why I’ve not mentioned Photoshop.  Well, personally I cannot get along with it – I’ve tried and tried, but it takes me longer to work in Photoshop, than in all 6 above combined.

The right software for manipulating the look will depend on how the raw image looks. Please shoot raw if you’re going to try to achieve this look, jpegs just don’t cut it. I start with Alienskin’s Exposure, then work onwards. Alienskin gets the job done 8 out of 10 times. (Dxo does gets it done 10 out of 10 times). Some pictures cry out for Silverefx, and some might need detail enhancing in Colourefx, then over to Silverefx for finishing off.

I’ve also noticed (with the GF1) that adapted legacy lenses will give you a good platform to work from, if your intended final look is to be film like. (the OM 50 1.8 does fine job)

I spend a bit of time on the computer processing these images, yes it does take some time, but that’s just the way it is. I always take pictures knowing I have more control over the image in post than I do when on the street, or elsewhere. It might be against the principle of getting it right in camera, but I cannot help this. We all have our strengths, and weaknesses  – and once we address them, our images will look much better.

The last thing I would like to say is: we should be grateful to software developers for giving us much more control over our images. A photograph taken captures time as it flows, an event that occurred at that time and place that is real…Real…REAL!!! Don’t take this REAL away from the image, adjust the image parameters, give it the look you intend, but don’t use that ‘Clone’ tool, it will take the REAL away from the image.

Best regards

Anand

From Steve: Thanks Anand! If anyone reading would like to submit a guest article like Anand did above, send me an e-mail and tell me about it! Thank’s!

153 Comments

  1. Wow ! So many posts on this one. First off, i want to say that i like some of the Images very much. Good work.

    Then again, it is true that it is impossible (if you look real close) to recreate film look in post. But i guess you know that and it was not your intention to blame people who actually shoot film. Of course there is a reason for that even in modern times. Maybe you should have named your article different.

    And i agree with people who say that one could get closer to the real deal than you did. A good film does not even need grain to look “film like”. Check out Images from Ansel Adams for example (and he worked with film that was nothing like modern film, where grain is not so much an issue). I agree with Dirk who pointed out that the tonality you achieve with film (especially if you use medium format film or greater) is in many cases superior still to most digital cameras today. I guess thats what made Leica build the Monochrome. Great tonality.

    Still some of the tools you mentioned are helpful if you want to add some character to your Images.
    So again thanks for sharing.

    To me i am not much after that film look at all, so i dont care 😉 I appreciate Images from days gone by because they do something with me. It is fascinating because it is a like traveling with a time machine. And that what is great about photography – that you freeze time for those that come later.

  2. I too like to develop many of my images in post but sometimes that super clean digital image just doesn’t look right. Lacks character.

    Tools like these might not give you a 100% film look but it does allow the photographer to craft the images (digitally) to achieve exactly the results they want. A way to use their creativity in a convenient way.

    While I like the look of film, other times I don’t and I usually don’t have the time or the resources to process real film. I also don’t have the money to keep a wide variety of cameras and lenses. Digital processing solves this to a certain extent. Thanks for the article.

  3. People really need to chill the heck out. If your point of view is that one should use film to achieve the film look, then don’t even read this article. In any case, enough with the talk of “cheapening the art.” Art is entirely subjective. A lot of it sucks, a very very small amount of it is great. Worry about your own art, not anyone else’s.

  4. I agree about Photoshop – I find it’s not optimised for photographers – originally having been developed for graphic artists. For a few years I have been using Corel Paintshop Pro (currently version X4) and find it to be an excellent option for photographers who do a lot of work in post. Its compatible with most Photoshop plugins including most Nik ones (although not yet with the most just released latest version of ColorEfex). It’s cheaper than PS Elements, has more tools, wizards etc than Elements and I find it just works better for post processing. The Nik tools are superb too. I have tried Lightroom and while it’s perfectly adequate for basic post processing I find that I often need and rely on having the option to use tools like layers etc in X4 when I need them. Although I have no connection whatsoever with Corel I often tell people this as its an option that I think is too often ignored by photographers who simply do not regard it seriously.

  5. Steve, Anand, thanks for the great article. To think I actually come to this site to escape the level of arrogance I find on the DPReview Forums…. While many of the more critical comments were very constructive, many were unnecessarily condescending (even if not intentionally so). Anand never claims to duplicate film to the point of surgical, microscopic precision — the article aims to give his individual interpretation of achieving “that film look.” And as others have noted, there is no single definitive look to film — I’ve seen plenty of photographs shot with film (my own and others) that Anand’s work emulates quite well.

  6. People should just appreciate this man’s photos instead of heavily criticizing his work. Sheesh!!!.

    GOOD JOB MAN! GREAT PICTURES!

  7. Its really pitiful that some seem people only want to post negative thoughts on this blog. I’ve seen it before in other posts too. The information that Anand has shared IMHO is valuable. And Anand has put him self out there, and Steve has seen it fit to post too.

    I’ve spent countless hours in the darkroom developing my own film and making fiber prints. It was a labour of love. But as a professional photographer don’t have the luxury of spending 8 hours to make the perfect print. Hello digital. I was an early adopter of the digital medium with the advent of Canon’s first pro digital body 10 years ago. I love the fact that digital can provide me with instant visual feed back and I sometimes massage it so that it looks like film. I defy 99% of people out there to be able to discern a film print form a digital print. I’ve printed from 35mm negs to 8×10’s all the way up to 30×40”s prints from film and 50″ prints from digital myself on large format Epson prints on different substrates. The thing is, even if you are shooting film, you’re still scanning it in, it then becomes digital! 🙂 Sure it retains most of the analog nuances, but once again, you can imbue those filmic nuances onto the digital image also.

    Instead of posting negative thoughts, about how his doesn’t look like film, or he should be shooting film instead, I invite you to embrace what Anand is trying to share. I’ve seen this in so many other posts too. Please grow up! If you don’t like the content of a post that’s fine, but like your mama used to say, if you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your mouth shut or in this case your typing fingers off the keyboard. Being negative, and slamming someone for sharing does nothing to support Steve’s blog or the balls it took Anand to ask Steve to post his ideas. Yes of course its a free world, but your negativity certainly contributes nothing to the photography community as a collective. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and software that I may not have heard of. Bashing someone for sharing is juvenile at best. I challenge the negative posters to put your balls on the line and share your own work and your original ideas …. if you have any?

    Anand THANK YOU for sharing your joy of photography and insights, they have not gone unnoticed.

    • Well said Marc! Traditional film and processing was nice, but now the advantages of digital outweigh, if any, the film look. 10 years ago, I thought it would never happen. I would never shoot digital. As the quality of the sensors and the price dropped it has happened. I haven’t touched one of my film cameras, what ever format, in almost 2 years. I thank Anand as well, for the great article. I do not like to make generalizations, but in my experience, those that say digital can never replace film, do not fully understand the process, the tonal values, let alone the software. They tend to be set in their ways. Which is fine, but they also speak down towards a digital workflow. I think it is partially a fear of change. Everything they knew needs to change and learning new software is not easy and it is time consuming. However, there is a lot of benefit in knowing traditional silver practices. A traditional photographer knows what an image can do through their years of working in the dark room. They might even be shocked to realize that they can take an image even further with a digital workflow.

      • So true James. And, at this point more than a decade into the digitalness of photography, there should no longer be a question about film or digital.

        I started out in the 80’s studying painting, sculpture, drawing and photography at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Digital, like film is a medium. In the visual arts that are many, many artist who imitate life and are able to manufacture/produce art that looks just like wood but is made from clay or other materials. Or produce life like human sized sculptures down to the pores of skin and the whiskers/hairs on their faces to wit: Duane Hanson, a sculptor know for his life-castings. They are a marvel to see in person. No one has ever said his sculptures are not real, or he should have used another medium. He is simply imitating a from with his art, and convincingly so.

        There will always be something magical about the latent filmic image and how that is interpreted by a master printer. For me I’m quite content with digital as an art from.

        If you want to see someone that is doing wonderful things with wet plate photography, look up Mr. Mark Tucker, the guy’s a visual genius. http://marktucker.wordpress.com/ or look up Paker J. Pfister and see an abundance of creativity and what he’s doing with both film and digital http://www.parkerjphoto.com/.

        Like you James I also believe that we can take an image even further with a digital workflow. That being said I’m still jones’n to try wet plate photography. 🙂

      • You should have a chat to Alex Webb about film vs dig from his perspective. I’m guessing you know who he is.

        He gave a great little talk to a few friends on this very issue. It’s just not tones, look etc. It is the WAY you shoot film compared to shooting digital. Just as we read a hardcopy newspaper and essentially respond to it in a different way than when we read news on an IPAD or on screen.

        You move differently, you think differently, you never remove yourself from seeing a scene via looking down to chimp the back of a screen You are always in the ZONE and do not pull yourself from it. Something Alex has issues with when shooting on the street.

        There are are myriad of reasons many art photo doc photographers still shoot film. More than just how sharp something is etc (which, if you guys have ever met any, means very little to working pros or visual artists).

    • If you don’t shoot “outside working hours” you have lost the passion and the joy of photography. Making images without deadlines and invoices. Making images not to sell but to share. Just taking in whats around you. That’s when you can take your timeless analog camera and just let go. Evolve from worker to artist.

  8. As an avid visitor of photographic exhibitions I often cannot see whether a picture was shot digitally or on film or whether the print is an inkjet or a classic darkroom print.
    Sebastiao Salgado has switched to digital as it became too difficult to get his films through the control scanners in the airports.
    It was a difficult process for him and his team because he wanted to preserve his trademark look, but now he is satisfied. He uses DxO film pack.

  9. While I think a much better fist of making a digital file look like film could have been made (sorry Anand) what worries me are the suposedly knowledgable comments along the lines of ‘if you want to make it look like film, use film’.

    I say supposedly knowledgable because anybody who does regularly and creatively use film knows there is no ‘film look’, but rather a million manipulations to get a personal look to the film of your choice. And that personal choice is in part from the eye/brain of the user, and in part a cultural preset. So dark moody and grainy will traditionally suit one type of subject, while bright grain free and detailed will suit another. Its how we see things. And that visual language should be the same if you are using film or digital, unless the critics are suggesting you are not allowed to use the same common language between film and digital. It is similarly ironic that these same critics aren’t trying to define as fake anybody who uses a particular developer to make a normally grain free film more grainy, or a low contrast film more contrasty, that sort of fakery seems to have gone over their heads. Double standards rear their ugly head if a digital user wants to ‘mess up’ the image with some digital noise, they get abuse, but a film users gets a pat on the head for the same offence.

    So I think the ‘use film or nothing’ argument is trying to impose the worst kind of censorship because it is not only aimed at personal expression and the wider cultural visual language, but it is so innocent of what the tradition of using film is all about that it just sounds plain dumb.

    Steve

    • “I say supposedly knowledgable because anybody who does regularly and creatively use film knows there is no ‘film look’, but rather a million manipulations to get a personal look to the film of your choice. And that personal choice is in part from the eye/brain of the user, and in part a cultural preset. So dark moody and grainy will traditionally suit one type of subject, while bright grain free and detailed will suit another. ”
      So true!

  10. I find it strange that many photographers seem to mystify film and the processes that belong to it. And with that I do not mean the author of this article but his critics here in the comments!

    From what I gather the pictures do indeed not look like film. They look much filmier than film itself! This is where the author of the article transcends the copy-cat dullness of mere photography and ventures into the fabulous world of art. After all, hyperrealism is an advancement of photorealism.

    Photographers everywhere: Don’t beat people for ‘cheating’ on historic photo techniques. Praise them for being actually creative!

  11. Black & White film is amazing when it’s exposed correctly and printed well optically on gelatin silver paper. If you’re taking the time to shoot film and scan it and post on the Internet then you’re just taking a digital image of an image. What’s the point?

  12. your pictures look pretty awesome and film-like to me. it’s nice that you draw some inspiration from film in processing.

  13. I have to say that this is one of the best posts I have seen here recently because it has sparked so much debate and that is good. I seem to have sparked a side debate on decorum which I didn’t really mean to do but I reacted to a comment. To clarify my feelings on the subject of decorum:

    1. I think critique and debate is healthy. I enjoyed it the last time I submitted images.
    2. If you don’t think his images look like film you should say it but think about the way you are saying it. You can deconstruct a building in several ways. You can smash it to bits and grind it up which is certainly more efficient if time is your goal or you can take it a part piece by piece to learn how it was built and perhaps figure out a way to build it better next time (though better is certainly a debate in itself). I would think the latter method is more appropriate here and more fun for the poster and readers.

    Arnand – please accept my thanks for a great post and a spark to a great debate. Btw – forgetting the film vs digital thing for a moment – I like your photos!

    Kendrick Howard

  14. I believe an inherent part of the film look is the print look. It is the combination of the grain of the film and the grain of the paper that gives you the “film look”.

    If you want the film look:
    1) shoot film
    2) print in darkroom
    3) scan print

    On the level of physics there is a significant difference between digital and film. Actual particles of light bounce off the subject, pass