Confessions Of A Film Zealot VII

Let's talk about grain for a moment. Specifically let's talk about grain and digital capture. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago I own and have tested extensively every single film simulation product known to man kind. I do promise to write an objective review of VSCO soon before I do that I wanted to give a couple of you a reality check, some guidelines, and some concrete examples of real film grain when you shoot digital and then want to simulate film.

Grain emulation for digital captures has come a very long way since the days of merely adding some noise to an image. The best by far is the grain emulation in Nik Silver EFEX Pro. I definitely does the best job simulating the way real film grain looks with a couple of caveats. I hate to admit it but the ACR/Lightroom grain simulation also does a credible job - not quite in the same league as Silver EFEX Pro but definitely something that even a grain snob like me would use without a mountain of concern.

Here's the rub. You have to know what you are trying to simulate specifically to get anywhere near what real film grain looks like. You also have to take into consideration the size of your input file when targeting a specific emulation. I could go on and on in terms of other considerations about a particular look of grain in film and prints but let's keep it simple by focusing on the two biggies - what exactly are you trying to emulate and what size is your input file. One size definitely does not fit all in terms of some preset that you can use to make any camera you shoot look like a particular film in any other camera with respect to grain.

Let's use a very concrete example of what I am on about. The film emulation presets w/o modification in Silver EFEX Pro 2 generally look about the same as 35mm film of the same type if and only if you happen to be shooting with a camera of 15 or 16 megapixels. Shooting a camera with fewer megapixels or sending a cropped image into Silver EFEX? If so then you will get output that is way way way too grainy compared to 35mm film of the same type.

Here is what Kodak 35mm Plus-X looks like in a normal developer, namely Kodak D-76 1+1. This developer and similar developers tend to knock the edges off the grain and make them a bit softer:

To exaggerate and really bring home what I mean here is the same Kodak Plus-X film in 120 at the same pixel density but using a pyro type developer which renders insanely sharp grain making it harder meaning I am putting the 120 at a huge disadvantage.

You need to look at both of these at "100%" in a new window to view them correctly. I chose Plus-X because it's gone - you cannot get it from Kodak anymore and it happened to be a film that I thought had particularly beautiful grain and a tonal curve in the highlight regions that was purpose built for people in natural light. Too bad it got a bad rap from that A-hole AA that couldn't shoot a people picture to save is life and wanted something more along the lines of TMAX.

Taking a look at this from the reverse - what if you want to emulate the way 120/medium format film looks with your 15-16 megapixel camera vs 35mm film. Again the presets would be far more grainy than the 120 film at the same number of pixels. Note that last part of the sentence "at the same number of pixels". In other words the grain of 35mm TRI-X and 120 TRI-X are exactly the same if you scan both at 4000dpi and then look at both at 100% but they are way way different if you you scan 35mm at 4000dpi and the 120 at a 2000dpi. With your digital camera you have a fixed number of pixels available. If that happens to be around 15 megapixels and you want it to look like 35mm film the presets will be about right. If you want it to look like medium format film you need to make the grain much much smaller and finer.

Here is the bottom line on the pixel density vs what you are trying to emulate thing… If you have less pixels than 15-16 mpix going into Silver EFEX Pro and you want it to look like 35mm nudge the "Grain per pixel" slider up. Want it to look like 120? Nudge it up even more.

Now that I brought up the size of the grain vs the input file size and what size film you are trying to emulate let's talk about the edge appearance. I gave you a hint in the above illustrations. In terms of Nik's sliders we are talking about the "soft - hard" slider. The Silver EFEX Pro defaults seem to be all over the map on this. I would imagine that it's either a caricature like most digital effects or some sort of random assessment of what random developer might look like. Having presented Plus-X I'll discuss Nik's default on that film. Nik seems to think that we all used Rodinal, Pyro, Neofin Red, or some other crazy sharp developer. In my opinion the Plus-X default is way way too hard, maybe even too hard for Pyro. You can see what it looks like above and definitely way too hard for something normal like D-76 which is probably the most used developer for Plus-X by orders of magnitude. For a pyro type develper I would back the hard-soft slider off quite a bit to about 70-75%. For something like D-76 I would back it off to the less 50% neighborhood.

Here is a crop from a digital 16 megapixel input file with the plus-x preset an soft-hard adjusted to about 40%. Much more in the same ballpark as real 35mm Plus-X than the default. Try to ignore the tone and contrast differences - I know that's hard for non-grain-weenies.

So where does this leave us? I'll make a list of some things to think about when using Silver EFEX Pro specifically and other film simulators generally.

  • The presets are about right grains-per-pixel wise if and only if you are sending a full 15-16 megapixel file into Silver EFEX Pro and you want to emulate 35mm film.
  • The soft-hard on the presets are all over the map you will probably want to adjust them based on what developer and look you are going for.
  • If you use Photoshop smart objects for everything like I do beware of changing image size or crops as the filter will refresh with the new image dimensions and give you WAY WAY WAY grainer looking images than you were looking for. Crop first. When downsizing flatten the image then resize for web…
  • Speaking of resizing… Hmmmm digital resizing works almost opposite of the way optical "re-sizing" works. A negative optically printed at small size actually has physically smaller "grain" to the point of being invisible. Digital resizing retains high contrast pixel relationships including grain and generally shows grain more than it should as you down-sample it. Not a giant deal when printing at 300dpi in real pixels however it can be a GIANT issue when downsizing images for web display. Generally if your web sized images are too grainy try "bi-cubic smoother" and then sharpen specifically for 100dpi. There is no one-size fits all sharpening in any case but more on that and why too much resolution in film scanning is deadly some other day.
  • Last but not least you have to know what the hell you are looking for in the first place. I know that not a lot of photographers have any extensive experience with film and not many really want to. I have the luxury of shooting the real thing for most of the things I shoot. When I shoot digital and want it to sorta kinda look like film I know what I am looking at. Here are a few images of what grain should look like or really does look like when normalized to a 15 megapixel camera magnification. Obviously open them in a new window and view at full size to use as a model to start from when attempting to emulate the real deal…

The gold standard 35mm Kodak TRI-X developed in D-76 1+1

Strange combo but attractive 35mm Kodak TRI-X in PMK Pyro 1+1+100

A perennial favorite 35mm Neopan 400 in D-76

A modern classic 35mm Kodak TMAX 3200P (RIP) in TMAX-RS

An absolutely wonderful film/dev combo 120 Ilford PanF+ developed in PMK Pyro normalized to a "100%" view if it happened to be a 16 megapixel camera.

A combination that just sings. For the true connoisseur 120 Agfa APX in real Agfa Rodinal 1+50. I't don't get much better than this

I can provide other grain samples scanned/normalized to whatever pixel density you would like. If anyone besides me actually is crazy enough to care that their simulated grain is anything close to what they are trying to simulate I have a ton of film/dev combos from 35 and 120 that I could post. Just let me know… You can become a fully certified grain geek™ as well.

For now these should give you an idea of how you may want to make your grain look or even a model to replicate. Assuming you are looking at the simulation at 100% on a 16 megapixel camera. Hopefully you can extrapolate - if not I will try to help you out.


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