No, Your Digital Photos Do Not Look Like Film (On Paper) Here’s Why

There is something (and call this a rant as much as you want) that’s been bothering me for a while now. Photographers on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc. use all these various filters and genuinely believe that their photos look like actual film. For example, there’s a Facebook group that lets its users upload digital photos that are designed to look like film. The problem here: a lack of education.

Shot with Kodak Portra 120. Outdoors during daylight

Most photographers in the world today started out in digital and may not have even ever touched analog film. Ever. But they look at the digital images and the images have enough of a look to fool most people. It’s the Instagram effect. It’s the VSCO effect. It’s the Mastin effect. It’s the Really Nice Images effect.

That’s not to bash these companies, but it’s instead to make people understand why your images don’t look like film.

Before you go on, I’m going to say that I’m not an expert. I’m 30 years old, but I’ve done enough work to have enough knowledge to balance both film and digital accordingly.

You see, I want to begin with one of the absolutely most basic of starters here: white balance. Film photographers didn’t work with shade, incandescent (no, it isn’t the same as tungsten when it comes to actual numbers) underwater, cloudy, etc. white balances. There were two. In fact, there STILL ARE two. Those white balances are either daylight or tungsten. Most film is balanced to daylight and fixer can only do so much in the darkroom. Manual white balance wasn’t really a thing: you could use color filters, but then you’d lose light, and you could gel your flashes, but then you’d lose flash output. Nor was Auto white balance.

So for the absolute starters: please set your white balance to either daylight or tungsten. Stay in those modes. No exceptions here. Want a different color? Use a color filter over your lens.

Then there is ISO output. For starters, no film was ever set to ISO 50,000. I’m not even sure many films have even been pushed to that latitude. ISO 6,400 though? Yes. That’s feasible. Shooting at specific ISO settings help to make your images at least feel more film-like because the exposures are similar to what would be possible with film and the image structure at least starts to begin to mimic it. Want to make something look like Portra? Set it to ISO 160, 400, or 800. Velvia? You’ll need to get really, really down there.

But then there’s an even bigger factor here: grain. Have you ever seen Fujifilm 400 film? It’s got grain. Same with 800. But digital ISOs don’t necessarily have those grain structures. Raise the ISO setting on a digital camera and you’ll see images that look like film on your digital screen or your computer monitor. The grain will look nice there because of the way that pixels are designed to work with one another. But the bigger problem is when paper–a fully organic and real structure, comes into play. Print a digital photo shot at a high ISO, and the image noise looks very digital. But print a photo shot from film, and the grain structure looks a whole lot different. Just look at Tri-X for example. Or if you’ve ever had the opportunity, try Kodak 400BW CN.

You often will need to add some sort of film grain effect to your digital photos to make them look more and more like film. Take one image shot from a digital full frame camera, then a film scan, and then a film print made in the darkroom–they’ll all look different.

But then in that case, why not just shoot film?