This year I’ve been shooting a lot of film, with a Rollei, a bunch of Polaroid cameras and then with my Contax 645. Much as I love my digital cameras, I’ve come to appreciate the peculiar qualities of images shot on film: the fact that you have to make every shot count and the almost visceral sense of texture. But sometimes I don’t have a film camera with me (the Contax is huge). Sometimes I shoot images with my Nikon and wish I’d shot them on film. And shooting film all the time is very expensive!

Fortunately, through the magic of digital post-processing, you can achieve the feel of film without the fuss. By comparing scanned film images with digital images shot at the same time, I’ve been able to fine-tune how I do this, and in this post I’ll show how various digital processing techniques can approximate the look of film. There are no right answers here; I often try lots of different settings until I find one I like. But do this for a while and you’ll soon be able to tell which Action or Preset (or which combination of them) will give you the look you want.

Let’s start with my original shot, taken with the Contax using Kodak Portra 400 film in the south of France. To me, this image conjures up the heat of the day, mixed with the heady smell of the lavender.

I also took the same picture using my Nikon D800. Here’s the straight digital image. It looks rather colder and sharper.

Now let’s see what we can do to try to emulate the feel of film, using various Actions for Adobe Photoshop (I use CS5). Here’s Nelly Nero’s “I Fake Film”. She has her free Actions listed with a link on her Flickr page.

This is De VetPan’s Ektar 100. He has a whole host of actions and presets which he sells here. This is from his filmpan series.

K Miller, a wedding and portrait photographer, has four sets of Actions inspired by film photography. Each set is designed to recreate a different style of film photography, such as Lomography or instant photography. I used SX70 from her Chunfen set here, which isn’t directly comparable to the Portra version, but made me smile nevertheless.

Totally Rad make Actions for Photoshop and Presets for Lightroom, some of which have the feel of film. They encourage you to mix their Actions and publish recipes of the results.
Florabella make many packs of Actions, some of which include some film-inspired ones. Their black-and-white actions are some of my all-time favourites (although they can be a little dark at times) and you can control the degree of vignetting and haze. Here I’ve used the classic film look from their Classic Workflow.

Our very own Cara has several sets of presets which give that lovely film-like look. They work in Lightroom 3. Here’s the picture done in Scroggins film by Cara’s presets. You can buy them here.
The Visual Supply Company make Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom Presets to emulate specific types of film made by Kodak, Fuji and others. You can tailor each image further by using the toolkit. I’ve found it’s also a good way to learn about the properties of the different types of film, and how they will make particular kinds of image look when shooting with my film camera. I’ve used the Portra 400 preset here.

Kellie Hatcher started by doing some Presets inspired by black-and-white film and then released her colour presets by popular demand! I used Odette here.

The beauty of Lightroom 4, for all you video fans, is that you can also grade (in other words, tone) your video using whichever film-like preset you prefer. I’ve had a lot of fun playing with grain and other effects on small video clips and am looking forward to more adventures in the future.

Even if you don’t have Photoshop or Lightroom, or if you do but you don’t want to buy Actions or Presets, you can still get that film look using Instagram on an Apple or Android smartphone, or using Poladroid, which does a similar fake-Polaroid thing on Mac or Windows desktop machines. I still have a display of my fake Polaroids on the wall that I made when the kids were younger, and before I had an actual Polaroid camera. This is how my French photo looks as a Poladroid:

I wish you luck with your film fakery. You can use it as a substitute for shooting film. And you may find, like I do, that it makes you appreciate film even more.

kirstin of fleeting moments