The Basics of Photography: G for Grain

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus OMD EM5 New York Burlesque Festival photos (9 of 13)ISO 6400

We continue to run down the alphabet of photography terms in our series with G for grain. Grain is something that many film photographers and those with a hankering for the old school love. Many digital folk though tend to hate it, but don’t realize that it is an essential part of photography. Grain is also characterized and switched out interchangeably with noise. Noise is what one sees at higher ISOs on cameras–but there are different types of noise. In fact, what grain would closely refer to would be luminescent noise.

At it’s most basic, Wikipedia states that film grain is, “Film grain or granularity is the random optical texture of processed photographic film due to the presence of small particles of a metallic silver, or dye clouds, developed from silver halide that have received enough photons. While film grain is a function of such particles (or dye clouds) it is not the same thing as such. It is an optical effect, the magnitude of which (amount of grain) depends on both the film stock and the definition at which it is observed. It can be objectionably noticeable in an over-enlarged photographic film photograph.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Fujifilm x pro 1 atlantic ave test (5 of 13)ISO 1600

Grain was the original name for the little circles that one would see in an image. In fact, grain also comes in various sizes, roughness, amounts, and looks depending on various factors. These factors are often involving the ISO intensity and who made the film. For example, 400 ISO film was often seen as the best balance between grain and quality. With the development of the latest batch of Kodak Portra, the grain was nearly eliminated at this ISO. As a result, ISO 800 and beyond often has grain.

Additionally, when it comes to film grain, there are two types to consider: Cubic and Tabular. Cubic grain is found in traditional films (an example currently available would be Kodak Tri-X) and is favored by many photographers for the more randomized structure of the grain as it has more of a “natural” feel to it. Tabular grain (or T-Grain) is a more modern type of grain-structure that utilizes more efficient methods of gathering light which allow for increased contrast and resolution. 

When digital photography came around, grain was also present in many images at ISO 400 and above. But it also introduced a number of other noise problems besides just digital grain: we also got color banding, color noise, and other issues. With the arrival of Nikon’s D300, D700, and D3 many photographers had no issues pushing their ISOs to 1600 and beyond. As camera sensors became better, grain would only really be visible at ISO 3200 and past this point.

Digital Grain (Noise) also falls into two categories as well: Color and Luminance with color being the unnatural looking dots that show up in your images when you have to increase your ISO to very high levels, or you try to recover an underexposed image. The general rule is that the brighter your exposure, the less overall noise you will have in your image (which is why many photographers recommend “ETTR” or Expose To The Right). Provided that your exposure doesn’t become completely white in the highlights, you can actually recover quite a bit of information and ultimately more detail in your image. Luminance Grain (Noise) has a tendency to look an awful lot like film grain, and is not affected by color. Typically when doing noise reduction, we recommend reducing the color noise before pulling out the luminance noise as it actually looks fairly natural without that ugly color noise ruining your image.

Trends in the photography world would change things a bit though as many photographers and customers started to develop an affinity for all things vintage. With that said, many creatives started to put grain back into their images with plug-ins or using Lightroom Grain tool.

Grain wasn’t only evident and seen in photos/still film though. It was also in movie film and is part of the basis/look behind many of Quentin Tarantino’s films for example.

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