Video: How to Do the Film Grain Look Right and Embrace the Noise

Film grain: are you doing it right, or does it just look like noise?

For photographers, the idea of film grain is pretty new if you’ve only been shooting for a couple of years. Digital noise is one thing, but film grain can look pretty beautiful. It’s an organic look and with the right exposure, can add character to your scene. In today’s video tutorial, we’re taking a look at the different types of film grain and how to use it to your image’s advantage. Certain camera systems have it built in such as with Olympus, Leica, and Fujifilm. But other camera systems don’t. In fact, camera makers have been working for years on trying to beat it. In fact, we’re that many of you didn’t even know that there are different types of grain.

The Different Types of Grain

Many of you probably didn’t know that there were different types of film grain, to begin with. But indeed there are. And they all look different. When developing an image, the developers and the emulsions all have different chemistry. That helps result in different grain–though it starts with the emulsion. It also depends on how far you’re pushing the film, how you exposed it, etc. Then when printing it in the darkroom, different papers give different effects. We see the same thing even in digital. For example, the Leica SL2 exhibits grain at higher ISO settings yet retains incredibly high details. In fact, the details are better than most despite the fine-grain look.

Fujifilm has its own belief of what film grain should look like with their profiles. Olympus’s Grainy Black and White simulation also has its own take. Again, to each their own–but some grain structures don’t work with some images. If you’re going for a more cinematic look, then you want a bigger grain structure. Want that IMAX look? Then stray away from fine grain. Go for a more medium look that’s softer. The bigger grain is great for something that’s more vintage looking. Old movies have lots of this.

Color or Black and White

This is a complicated question to answer. For grain structure to work in a color image, I’ve always found that colors need to be more muted. That’s my opinion though. But with black and white, almost any kind of grain can work. The reason for that probably has to do with contrast, but even then I’m not totally sure. A few things that I’ve noticed otherwise:

  • Overexposure by around one stop helps make grain look great in color
  • Bigger, and dirty looking grain looks fantastic in black and white
  • Fine-grain dominates in color
  • Early high ISO noise is why so many people converted to black and white images to begin with

Other Effects?

Of course, there are a ton of other effects that you can use to embrace the look of film grain: vignetting is just one option. There are lots of preset packages out there that let you simulate bleach bypass options, chrome options, etc. They’re fun. Believe it or not, the best thing to do is to spend some time shooting film. Further, shoot film yourself and take notice of what you like and don’t like. This is the best way to learn about grain structure.