Why Adding “Film Grain” to Digital Photos Is More Complicated Than You Think

For months, I’ve been obsessed with imitating the look of film with my digital photos. It all started when I explored the 65×24 widescreen aspect ratio and other wide aspect ratios, trying to figure out what makes a photo cinematic.

As part of this trip, I also started researching grain, how it forms, and what it looks like on different films. Truth be told, I wasn’t ready for the depth of this rabbit hole.

Film grain and digital megapixels

In order to properly recreate grain in our digital photos, we must first understand what grain is. When it comes to photographic film, images are made up of grain. Whether they are silver halides or dye granules, they are organic forms that are unevenly distributed in an emulsion and when exposed to light they create the image you see finally.

Now let’s try to understand what this means for digital photographers.

The fact that images are composed of grain means that the grain should be the smallest detail in the image. So all those megapixels you paid a lot of money for are kind of working against you right now. The higher the ISO of the movie you want to emulate, the bigger the crystals will be. Large crystals mean a lower level of detail.

So, when reverse engineering for digital, you will either have to reduce the resolution or the sharpness of your images. The easiest way is a Gaussian blur all over the photo, but if your goal is film emulation, you’re already looking for haze/haze filters and other ways to do it in camera.

Whichever method you choose to reduce sharpness, you aim to have small image details (like hair) as fine as grain particles. Basically, the goal is for the pixels to match the grain size.

The biggest difference between grain and noise

Another very important element is the fact that the grain of the film is composed of organic particles. This means that not all grain particles are the same size and are found unevenly in the emulsion. This is the most significant distinction between grain and noise.

Noise, by nature, is digital, so it’s square in shape, like a pixel, and it’s uniform in nature because pixels are just a grid of tiny little squares. So when you look very closely you can easily tell that noise and grain are two very different things, with grain achieving actual randomness in size and positioning, while noise is just an array of black, white and gray squares.

This is why you should never use a noise overlay layer on a photo in order to mimic grain.

Visual comparison of generated noise and grain with actual scanned film.

Another aspect that we must bear in mind is that the grain of the color film is also made up of particles of dye. Thus, simply overlaying black and white grain on a digital photo will not suffice for good grain emulation. Also, if you add the grain after your color grading, you need to make sure your grain has a similar color treatment to your shots.

Graininess in shadows and highlights

A final note deriving from the fact that a film image is made up of particles: due to the way we perceive images, there seems to be a lot less grain in the highlights and deep shadows, but since the particles are what the image is made up of, there can never be any grain in any part of the image.

This is important because if you just take a gray overlay and blend it with Soft Light or Overlay blending mode on top of your photo, you’ll end up with perfectly clean areas near the ends of the spectrum.

Below you can see what a scanned grain overlay looks like over a black-to-white gradient with different blending modes. For me, the Hard Light blending mode seems to be the closest for shadows and highlights, but at the same time, it’s a bit too hard for my taste in the midtones, so further tweaks will be needed.

Keep in mind that what you see here will be affected by white and black levels on an uncalibrated screen.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution

Now, to be perfectly honest, I was expecting the answer to be something like not adding noise, and if you want to generate grain, make sure you have multiple layers so that all the particles aren’t of the same size. Or even better, use grain scanned from real film. But as I read more on this topic, I realized that to get a believable result, it’s not enough to discuss the best overlay to apply to a photo once you’re done editing everything else.

There are endless ways to add grain, and with the current resurgence of the movie look, I’m sure many more will pop up as well. And right now some of the most believable results seem to come from phone apps or plugins, but that poses two problems for me and my workflow.

First of all, I hate slingshot files back and forth on my phones – that means saving jpegs over and over and the quality will drop (probably not enough to be noticeable). And more importantly, I like my workflow to be non-destructive so I can just go in and adjust things on the fly days later, and that can only be achieved with layers in Photoshop at the moment .

After all the research I’ve done, I can’t give you an easy one-click solution to this problem if your goal is to have a believable movie emulation. But I have a list of pointers that will help you develop your own method and incorporate it into your own professional workflow.

  • Use digitized overlays instead of generated noise.
  • Reduce the quality of your photo so that you don’t have details smaller than particles.
  • Color grade after adding grain.
  • Have grainy shadows and highlights.
  • Take a step back and look at your images as a whole, don’t just add grain to everything.

Ultimately I think it depends on how you are going to display your work and how much time you need to invest in making your digital files as close to analog as possible.

You can use Lightroom sliders or a phone app and call it a day for quick social media posting, because the compression will ruin the look anyway. But when you’re going for a large art print or using the image for an advertising campaign, quality matters and the devil is always in the details.


About the Author: Vlad Moldovean is a photographer and visual artist from Brasov, Romania. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. You can find more of his work at his website, Facebook, 500pxand instagram. This article was also published here.

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