What Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your Photos

28 February 2021

Digital cameras are undeniably convenient, but there’s something so charming about film photography. Lately, countless photographers have been dusting off their film cameras and adding a vintage flavour to their portfolios. The film aesthetic is unique, and characterised by vivid colours, the occasional flare and a whole lot of grain. Film grain adds to the mood and impact of some of our favourite photos in history, so it’s no surprise that modern-day photographers are trying to replicate grainy photos.

While we recommend experimenting with film photography at some stage, you can add film grain to your digital photos in the meantime. Here’s how to make your photos look vintage!

What is grain in photography?

Have you ever flicked through film photos or seen them framed? You would have come across grain. It’s the granulated, textured look that’s one of film photography’s biggest trademarks. If you closely inspect the photo, you’ll notice it has a sandy, gritty appearance — which is where the term “grain” comes from.

When you’re working with film, you’ll capture grainy photos if you’re shooting in dark, low-light conditions or using a faster speed film. In other words, film with a higher ISO.

What Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your PhotosWhat Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your Photos

Can I add film grain to my digital photos?

What Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your PhotosWhat Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your Photos

The answer is yes! As amazing as digital cameras are at producing clean, crisp, high-quality images, the vibrant colours and grainy texture of film are nostalgic. Now that the film aesthetic is becoming more mainstream, modern photographers are experimenting with adding film grain to photos taken with their DLSRs, mirrorless cameras and even smartphones, and with great success.

If you want to try this technique for yourself, here are a few ways to mimic the effect of film photography — without picking up a film camera.

Use readymade filters. Are you uploading your images to a social media site? Chances are, the platform you’re using to share your smartphone photos has built-in filters that can give them a vintage feel. For example, Instagram has a range of retro-inspired filters that can add a grainy, gritty texture to your images. As for some of the most popular filters, Milk*Two adds a subtle grainy overlay to your photos and Grainy III adds specks or dust flecks for an on-trend yet old-school finish.

Download an editing app. Another option is to edit your photos on an app before sharing them. There are so many to choose from, but Mextures, Tezza, Film, Moldiv and Colourtone are great options, and many of them can add grit and grain to videos, too. If you’re using a camera app that allows you to choose different film stock, go for something with a high ISO, like 800.

Rely on photo editing software. Editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom will give you the greatest control over your grainy photos. You can add as much as little grain as you like, and tweak the specs until you achieve your desired result. We recommend doing this as the final step off post-processing. If you’re using Photoshop, there’s a dedicated “add noise” function, which is a good starting point.

What Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your PhotosWhat Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your Photos

To dial it up, you can experiment with the strength of the grain effect or choose the “Gaussian” box for a more natural, vintage look. If you have Lightroom, navigate to the Effects panel and click Grain. You’ll see three sliders: amount, size and roughness. Imagine you’re adding sand or crystals to your photo, and that will give you an idea of what those adjustments mean. Our advice? Play around with those sliders until you’ve replicated the grain effect you are envisioning.

As for how to make a photo less grainy, use those same sliders and options but for the opposite effect.

Grain vs. noise: What’s the difference?

What Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your PhotosWhat Is Film Grain — And How To Add It to Your Photos

These terms are often used interchangeably, but professional photographers will tell you they’re very different. 

When you take photos on a digital camera or smartphone, you might end up with “noise.” Image noise looks similar to grain, and it usually crops up on images shot in dark conditions or with a high ISO. That’s because digital sensors convert light into pixels, and those factors and settings can interfere with that process.

On the other hand, film cameras embed light-sensitive crystals into the film emulsion, and grain is the result. It happens organically, and on purpose. The higher the ISO, the more crystals there are and the grainer your photo will be.

The key difference between these two terms is that film grain is a desirable look, whereas noise isn’t. Luckily, advanced DLSRs and mirrorless cameras are capable of drastically reducing noise. If you typically shoot in low-light, it’s worth investing in a full-frame camera to save yourself time during editing.

Otherwise, you can edit noise in post-production for cleaner images. If you shot in RAW (which we always encourage you to do), software like Lightroom or Camera Raw has noise reduction options. Photoshop has a few filters that can fix noise, as well as a number of plugins you can add to the program.

Experiment with film photography today

Film photography may remind us of a bygone era, but it’s charming, vintage-inspired look is booming in popularity. If you’re interested in playing around with film grain, shop film cameras online and score free shipping on all Australian orders over $100. Or, head to your local Ted’s Cameras store to see our selection of models for yourself.

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