One of the elements of film-based photography lost with the transition to digital photography is the presence of film grain. If you want to recapture the effect with your modern digital rig, read on as we show you how.

Why Do I Want to Do This and What Exactly Is Film Grain?

Shooting digital is fast, it’s enjoyable, and you get to check on your photos immediately and tweak your workflow. That said, many people lament the loss of certain elements of the film experience, including the disappearance of film grain. If you want to recapture the appearance of film grain in your digital photograph, you’ll need to perform a little post-processing magic to bring it back.

Before we get into the details of actually adding simulated film grain to your photos, let’s talk a little about what film grain actually is. Although people frequently compare the digital image noise seen in modern digital cameras to the film grain of traditional analog film, they are two fundamentally different things. The noise that appears in digital photographs is the result of physical limitations of the sensor, transmission errors, and other elements unique to the electronic processes that underlie the digital photography experience.

Film grain, on the other hand, is a random optical texture that appears in film during the development process. The grain seen in the photo is actually an artifact of the development process caused by silver halide (in the case of black and white development) and suspended dye particles (in the case of color photography). Although the same film developed with the same process will have very similar grain patterns, the grain pattern for each individual negative and resulting photo is very snowflake-like in its uniqueness.

Now, we’ll be the first to say it: if you don’t like artifacts of any sort in your photos be they digital noise, analog film grain, or simulated grain, this isn’t the tutorial for you. However, if throwing a little grain in your photos is exactly what the photo doctor ordered, you have come to the right place.

What Do I Need?

For this tutorial you’ll need a few things, including:

We’re using Adobe Photoshop CS6, but the techniques outlined in the tutorial should work just fine on older editions of Photoshop. Although you can use any photo you want for the tutorial, we suggest using a black and white photo. While both black and white film and color film have film grain, most people find film grain in black and white photos very appealing but are off put by grain in color photos. Feel free to use whatever suits your purpose, but be aware that there is a distinct preference for black and white photos.

If you’d like some pointers on converting your color digital photos to fantastic black and white ones, definitely check out our previous tutorials on the topic: How to Convert Your Color Photos to Stunning Black and White Prints and How to Enhance Your Black and White Photos with Adjustment Curves

Adding Grain to Your Photos

Load up your base image in Photoshop. For this tutorial, we’ll be using the above photo, the author photographed by his wife, as our base image. You’ll note that the image is quite clean with almost zero digital noise or artifacts of any kind. While it certainly isn’t important that you start with a noiseless image, we point it out simply to draw your attention to how the photo looks now versus what it will look like later after we edit it.

Creating the Grain Overlay layer: The first step is to create our grain layer. Select Layer -> New Layer -> Layer (or CTRL + SHIFT + N) to create a new layer, name it “Grain Overlay”, set the mode to “Overlay”, and check the box at the bottom labeled “Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray), like so:

Your image will look identical despite the addition of the layer, as we haven’t added anything to the layer yet.

Filling the Grain Overlay layer: Select the grain overlay layer you created in the previous step. We’re going to perform a step opposite to what most people want to achieve with their digital photos, we’re going to add noise to the image. Don’t worry though, what will start off as pretty ugly digital noise will take on a really nice film grain-like quality by the end.

Select the “Grain Overlay” layer and then select Filter -> Noise -> Add Noise.

There are several key settings here. First, if you’re working with a black and white image (and we hope you are!) make sure to check “Monochromatic” at the bottom of the dialog box. If you leave this unchecked with a black and white image, you’ll have noise with color introduced which will look pretty odd. For the distribution, select “Gaussian”; we want to avoid the orderly appearance of the uniform noise is it looks far too digital and very little like real film grain.

Finally, adjust the amount of noise introduced into the layer (skip using the slider as adjustments on it are too broad, use the up/down arrows on the keyboard to make very small adjustments). Like with most photo adjustments, less is more. We find that we like a Grain Overlay layer with 3-8% noise. You may like it a little noisier/more dramatic, but as you climb the scale things get messy pretty quickly. For most images, anything above 20% is going to overpower the image.

Blending the grain: Although setting the noise to Gaussian does help with creating the illusion of natural film grain, it’s still lacking that sort of organic look we’d expect from the chemical development process. We’re going to need to soften/blend it just a bit.

Select the Grain Overlay layer if it isn’t already selected. From the filter menu select Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blue. The default blur radius is 1.0 which is far too much blur. Drop it down to 0.1 and use the up/down arrow keys on your keyboard to slowly move it up. Depending on the image, somewhere between 0.2 and 0.8 is usually good. Once you get above 1.0, you’re blurring the noise to the point that you start lose the grain-effect and just end up with an image that looks too soft.

Advanced Simulated Grain Techniques

If you’re happy with the image after you finished adding the simulated grain and blending it, then pat yourself on the back and upload, print, or otherwise share and enjoy your photo. If you’d like to tweak it a little further, there are few extra tricks we can use.

Creating a Micro Grain layer:  We can further enhance the appearance of the simulated film grain (and make the image appear more authentic in the process) by repeating our original grain-layer creation process with a few small tweaks.

As we discussed in the introduction of the tutorial, film grain is non-uniform and is created as a result of the chemical interactions in the film development process. Although the Gaussian distribution of both our noise creation and blurring did a pretty solid job creating the illusion of randomness, we can further mimic the appearance of film grain by creating a new layer, adding noise to it, and blurring it, just like we did before.

The only difference is that we’re going to use a smaller value for the Noise % and then blur it using the same value we used for the original noise layer. Create a new layer called “Micro Grain” and repeat the noise/blur process.

Tweak the grain distribution: In addition to creating a more organic looking grain with the addition of the Micro Grain layer, you can further mimic the appearance of real film grain by mimicking the way the grain is visible in light and dark areas of the photo. Bright objects will have less visible grain than shadows and dark objects.

With that in mind, we can select the Grain Overlay layer (leave the Micro Grain layer alone) and then use the Eraser tool adjusted to 50% hardness and around 50% opacity to very lightly and sparingly fade the grain in the brightest points of the photo. Our goal is not to remove the grain but to make it less pronounced.

In the screenshot above you can see how we’ve adjusted the eraser tool and zoomed in. Using a very gentle hand and only one pass for each section, we faded the grain on the white shirt, the light umbrella in the background, and the lighter sign posts on the left hand side of the image.

Use this technique very sparingly, only pass over any given light area of the photo once, and when in doubt less is always more.

Play around: Our final tip is to simply play around with your photos. If ever there was a tool that begged to be played with, it’s Photoshop. Add another Micro Grain layer. Duplicate your original Grain Overlay layer. Change the noise and blur size. Change the layer setting from Overlay to Vivid or Pin Light, for example, to add a whole flair to the photo.

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Profile Photo for Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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