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Should Digital Photos Aspire to Look Like Film?

17 February 2014

I received an email from B&H Photo yesterday, advertising some new products and sales. After years of doing my minimal photo post-processing in Apple iPhoto, the reduced price on Adobe Lightroom 5 caught my attention. Reading the details more carefully, I was intrigued by the statement:

You can add … simulated film grain to images, great for breathing analog life into digital photos.

In the music production world, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about the virtues of running tracks through analog equipment to maintain or capture “analog warmth” in the face of sterile digital perfection. There are debates as to how needful an analog signal chain actually is, and some producers seem fine with totally digital production, but there are enough adherents to analog audio gear to suggest that there’s some legitimate basis to the claim. Several manufacturers sell analog summing mixers, to do a task in the analog realm that digital computers ought to be excellent at doing (adding things together).

While I’ve heard some photographers share a preference for working with film, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a major vendor suggest that there might actually be something superior about film photography that digital photographers should consider simulating. So what exactly does this simulated film grain feature do?

I found an example from Mark at Digital Photo Buzz, showing the difference between an unaltered digital photo, the same photo processed in Adobe Photoshop to add “noise”, and the same photo processed in Adobe Lightroom (version 3) to add “film grain”. The processed photos appear at first glance to be blatantly inferior to the original, but then again, after looking at the processed photos for a bit, the original seems almost artificially perfect.

I’ve never done an explicit A/B test between my digital and film cameras, but I happen to have several similar shots taken on two separate trips to Cambridge, Massachusetts, one time with film and the other with digital:

Falafel Truck on Kodak 400 film


Falafel Truck on Canon 5D digital

Falafel Vendor Truck

Harvard University Library on Kodak 400 film


Harvard University Library on Canon 5D digital


(All photos taken with a Canon 50mm/1.4 lens. The film photos were taken with standard off-the-shelf Kodak 400 print film.)

The film photos, as presented, are higher contrast. This could be adjusted in post-processing if desired. I don’t really see anything significant that I would attribute to “film grain” in the film photos; the grain certainly isn’t as obvious as in the simulated grain photo produced in Adobe Lightroom. The digital photos, when viewed full-size, are more detailed, and generally seem like closer representations of what the scene actually looked like (as I recall).

But is one flat-out better than the other? Aesthetically, I kind of like the look of the film photos better. The digital photos may be more perfect, but the film photos seem to have some imperfections that come across well, maybe similar to the color added to sound running through a tube preamp. It’s hard to beat the convenience of digital over film, but perhaps I’ll start pulling my ancient Canon EOS-3 out more often…