The Filmic Look

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The filmic look

Trends come and go in photography like in all aspects of life, but a current fad that puzzles me is the one for using film and film cameras. There’s an odd debate about which gives better quality – film or digital. Odd, because it’s kind of missing the point. Film (whether slide film, colour negative or black and white) is, like a digital sensor, simply a medium for creating photos. The real worth of a photo is down to the content: composition, use of light and eye for subject. These things are all down to the skill and the vision of the photographer.

As photographers we are all different, and some choose to use digital, and others film, just like some photographers use one camera brand and others another. Variety of approach is a good thing, as long as people do it for the right reasons. It’s up to the photographer to select the medium that best suits their approach. For me (and many others) that’s digital, and for some, that’s film. Which is fine. But don’t confuse the medium with the message.

Or in other words: it’s just as easy to take a crap photo on film as it is on a digital camera, and just as hard to create a great one.

I’m sure part of the trend for the filmic look is down to the popularity of apps like Instagram. Not that Instagram photos look much like film, but somehow colour casts, vignetting and lack of definition have become associated in the public mind with the film look. That’s not how I remember film looking – back before I bought a digital camera my only question was, when it came to film, is how can I get the best quality image, and what is the best film to buy for that? It never occurred to me that a colour cast or lack of definition could be a good thing (and I’m not saying it is now either).

For digital photographers who want to imitate the look of film there are plenty of software options to help you out. DxO Film Pack 4 and Silver Efex Pro 2 are two that come to mind. Another is Analog Efex Pro, recently released by Google as an addition to the Nik Collection (I’ll write about that in a future article). RadLab have also recently released an app that does a similar jobs, and there are also plenty of websites (such as VSCO) that sell Lightroom presets that imitate specific film types.

The idea of emulating film seems a bit nonsensical to me. You can alter the look of black and white film completely by the way you expose and develop it, and the brand of developer you use. Colour negative film can be influenced in a similar way, but to a lesser extent. The look of slide film is more fixed, although you can always push or pull E6 film. Kodachrome was probably the only slide film that you couldn’t change the look of, as the photographer got no say in how it was processed.

So what is the film look? Recent experiments with software that emulates film has prompted some thinking about this question. It’s definitely not applying an unusual colour cast or somehow softening the image. Nor is it about adding grain. Here are my thoughts:

The ‘look’ of a photo depends as much upon the format of the camera used as it does on the medium:

Photos taken on large format cameras have a distinct look. The photographer can alter the perspective using tilt and shift movements. The large negatives also capture an incredible amount of detail (anyone who has seen a Gregory Crewdson print will know what I mean). The larger format means that longer focal length lenses are required. A focal length of around 75mm lens is required on a 5×4” camera to give the same field-of-view as a 24mm lens on a full-frame digital camera. 75mm lenses have different characteristics to 24mm lenses, and that makes a difference. There is no grain on large format photos (though I suppose there could be if you use a fast film).

Photos taken with medium format cameras also have a unique look, and I think it’s down to a combination of the look produced by using longer focal length lenses (than 35mm cameras), shallower depth-of-field and lack of grain.

The exercise becomes a lot more interesting when you start thinking about the filmic look in 35mm photography. The photographer I think of when I think of 35mm film is Steve McCurry. Partly because I have seen so many of his beautiful images in National Geographic over the years, partly because he’s a brilliant photographer with an unrivalled eye for composition, and partly because he publishes so many of his photos on his blog, many of which are clearly taken on film and scanned in.

Now, I have no way of knowing whether Steve does anything to his scanned photos, but I do know that slide film is a great way of looking at the filmic look. That’s because a slide is a finished product. While nowadays you can scan a slide and work on the image in Photoshop, before scanners and computers came along you couldn’t do that. The slide was the finished product, and it was the photographer’s job to do the work in-camera to produce the desired result. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that most of the photos scanned from slide film on Steve McCurry’s blog haven’t been manipulated in Photoshop. That makes them an excellent way of judging the true filmic look.

So, what are the characteristics of slide film that distinguish it from digital images?

There is no dodging or burning with slide film. The only control the photographer has over the brightness range of the image is the use of graduated neutral density filters. Other than that, the photographer has to use composition and an understanding of light to convey his message.

Let’s say you take a digital photo of someone standing in a doorway, and their face is too dark. With a digital photo you can lighten it in post-processing. With slide film, you’re stuck – there’s nothing you can do once the photo has been taken. It’s up to the photographer to understand how bright the subject’s face is in relation to their surroundings. If the face is going to come out dark, they need to solve the problem there and then – perhaps by using a reflector, fill flash or cropping in closer.

Same problem, different solutions, and each solution has its own look. We’ve all seen over-processed digital images that are the result of the photographer not fully understanding the implications of the light, tonal contrast and brightness range when he took the photo.

Vignetting. All lenses suffer from optical vignetting at their widest apertures. You can correct (or increase the emphasis) of this with a digital camera, but not if you use film. Hence vignetting is part of the look of images taken on slide film.

Lens corrections. The same goes for other optical aberrations such as colour fringing and barrel distortion. These can’t be corrected if you use slide film – the only solution is to use a better quality lens (or a different focal length less susceptible to distortion or fringing).

Depth-of-field. Images taken on 35mm slide film are taken with a 35mm camera. If you take photos with a digital camera that has a smaller sensor (such as APS-C or micro four-thirds) they are not going to look the same.

Contrast and clarity. With slide film, the contrast of the image depends upon the contrast of the scene being photographed. With digital images you can increase the contrast in post-processing, and do it locally as well as globally. Many photographers do, and the moment you do your image doesn’t look as if it could have been taken on film. The clarity slider takes that even further – it increases contrast in mid-tones, something that is impossible with slide film.

No white point. With slide film exposure is set when you take the photo. Unlike negative film, you can’t change the brightness afterwards. There’s no histogram to indicate whether your chosen exposure settings were accurate either. Slide film is very sensitive to light – 1/3 stop in exposure settings is enough to make a big difference. Hence you will often see photos taken with slide film that are somewhat underexposed in comparison with digital photos. That’s because with digital you can adjust the white point, increase brightness or adjust the brightness of the light tones and dark tones separately. None of those options exist with slide film. Just like contrast is determined by the brightness range of the light (plus the inherent characteristics of the chosen film) brightness (and consequently the white point) is determined by the exposure settings. This is another reason why photos taken with film have a different look.

Highlight roll-off. This is a genuinely good reason to use film in some cases. The linear nature of a digital sensor means that bright or overexposed highlights are recorded differently than they are with film. This may come into play if you regularly shoot a subject with lots of light tones, such as backlit portraits.

Maybe the desire for the filmic look that some people have is simply eschewing the over-processed look that is common with digital photography. With film there is no HDR, no clarity slider, and no dodgy dodging and burning.

Perhaps it would help if we had a more extensive vocabulary for describing the more abstract elements of image quality. Bokeh is a good example. We don’t have a word for this in English, but the Japanese do, so we end up using their word (Ctein writes about this here and Bruce Percy offers another perspective here).

Final thought: maybe photographers using film are not really interested in film per se, but are chasing a look that is more natural than what you often see in digital photographs.

Digitall processed portrait

With all this in mind, I’ve processed the same photo two different ways. The first (above) is as a digital photo in Lightroom 5, including adjustments such as lens corrections, brightness, clarity and contrast. I also carried out some retouching on the model’s face and darkened the left-hand side to encourage the viewer’s eye towards the model.

Portrait processed with filmic look

The second (above) has very little processing – I just warmed up the colour temperature as if it were taken on slide film with a warm-up filter, and lifted the contrast (slide film is inherently more contrasty than a digital image). There are no lens corrections, no portrait retouching and no local adjustments.

Which version looks more natural, or genuine, to you? There’s no right answer, but I think it’s interesting how you can get two different looks from the same image, just by thinking about what’s important to you and adjusting your processing accordingly. Concepts like style are difficult to pin down, but looking over my favourite images I can see that a natural look is important to me – I’ve never really been one to create images that could only have been produced digitally. Now that I’ve realised that I’ve started to play around more with using clarity and dodging and burning to see what happens. But I still like the natural look in my images. Out of the two portraits above, my ideal falls somewhere between the two looks.

An interesting aside: Bruce Percy (one of my favourite photographers) writes about the creative process on his blog. He uses film cameras, and writes about the way that the delay between taking the image and having the films processed has become part of his creative process. It’s an interesting insight into how the mechanics of photography can influence the creative process of the photographer. You can read it here.



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One Response to “The Filmic Look”

  1. I don’t understand what you mean by “natural” or “genuine” but I like the first one more.

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