How To Make Photos Look Like Film? An Ultimate Guide
Film is a medium that has captivated the modern photography industry and influenced the portraiture of countless professionals. In a digital world marked by instant gratification, there is something sentimental, tangible, and raw about film that strikes a chord in our hearts. Beautiful color palettes, creamy skin tones, and luminosity are hallmarks of the film aesthetic as well as film’s propensity for creating better photographers. When you only have a limited amount of photos on a roll, you quickly learn how to be more intentional about pressing the shutter.
With that being said, film is not the end all be all. Most film-loving photographers shoot hybrid (a mixture of film and digital) so they can draw upon the strengths of both mediums. The question then remains: How do you shoot digital then make the photos look like film?
Image by KT Merry shot with Sony a1 - Edit with REFINED x KT Merry Presets
Before we dive into expert tips on how to make photos look like film, it’s important to define our terms. “Looks like film” is very subjective as it can be shot in very diverse ways. Many people look to the work of KT Merry, Jose Villa, Tec Petaja, Caroline Tran, Jon Canalas, Erich McVey, and other industry leaders as the pinnacle of what it means to make photos look like film so our tips will be centered on the film look represented in their portfolios.
Lastly, REFINED Co. offers Lightroom preset collections that emulate film, elevate your look, and streamline your editing process. Film Lightroom presets have many advantages, and they’re a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting that film look, but they work best when you’ve followed the rest of the tips prior to post processing.
If you’re going for that soft, dreamy look it’s time to get comfortable with shooting wide open. Your aperture should always be between 1.4-2.8 (max) to achieve the same depth of field that most film photographers are achieving. Want to really know how to make photos look like film? A digital image shot on a 50mm lens at aperture 2.0 is not the same as an image shot on a Contax 645 (medium format film camera) 80mm lens shot at 2.0. A digital camera needs to be at 1.4-1.8 to match the depth of the Zeiss glass.
Image by Lainey Muren shot with Nikon z6ii and Carl Zeiss 50mm 1.4 lens
Edit with REFINED II preset
Film entices us for many reasons, but there is something particularly beautiful about the light film photographers are capturing. Soft, ethereal, buttery- if you want to make photos look like film f by achieving the same luminosity, you need to find the right light. Look for the following:
Golden Hour: The hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset provides dreamy, even light with a soft golden glow. If possible, shoot during the golden windows.
Open Shade: Of course, it’s not always possible to shoot during golden hour. When you’re dealing with harsher light (like the high noon sun), look for areas with open shade. Open shade is simply an area that is outside of direct sunlight yet is still brightened by the surrounding light. Be sure to place your subject within the open shade but a good distance from the background to ensure your background is soft.
Backlighting: Backlighting can add a nice ethereal feel to an image to help make photos look like film, but to keep the image professional and maintain great color, avoid direct backlighting (i.e. when the sun is right behind the subject). Instead position your subject so the sun is at their back shoulders or even to the side if it is low enough to not cause harsh shadows.
Image by Marta Locklear shot with Fuji GFX 50s - 80mm 1.7
Edit with REFINED II preset
When you’re shooting digital, always remember: Expose for the highlights so they are not blown out. You cannot overexpose digital the same way you overexpose film. Instead, shoot the digital so the highlights are not blown out and lift the remainder of the image in post-processing with a film emulation preset. REFINED Co’s film presets for Lightroom have a signature tone curve that helps maintain highlights, lift the shadows and create depth in the image all at the same time.
One of our best tips for shooting digital to make photos look like film is to shoot your digital LIKE film. The rawness (and softness) of film is incredibly beautiful and can be attributed to slower shutter speeds. When shooting film you are forced to shoot at particular box speeds which also forces you to shoot at slower shutter speeds most of the time. This lends to a softer color palette, soft light, buttery images, and sometimes those soft focus images that stop you in your tracks.
So, shoot your digital like film! For example: If you shoot Fuji 400H film and rate it at 200, then you would shoot your digital at 200 as well to force a similar ISO to shutter speed ratio. Our digital cameras can do much more than our film when it comes to ISO and shutter speed, so we naturally allow them to do that- however that means we are speeding up our camera and creating more technically sharp, crisp, and “digital looking” images. Slow your camera down and be amazed at the softness it lends to your imagery.
Image by Tec Petaja Sony a1
Edit with REFINED x Tec Petaja Presets
If you’re not a film shooter but you want your digital to look like film, pay close attention to the location and compositions that film photographers are using. You’ll quickly notice that they are using a lot of open areas, negative space, and placing their subjects a good distance from the background to create a softness and distance between the subject and the environment. When shooting digital and considering how to make photos look like film, think light, soft, open, ethereal- and mostly, allow the environment around your subject to be the frame not the focus.
Image by Caroline Tran
Edit with REFINED x Caroline Tran preset
Now that you’ve gotten your images right in camera, it’s time for post-processing. Below are top ways to edit photos to look like film that complement your efforts from shooting:
Choose Your Film Muse: Before you edit photos to look like film, you need to choose which film aesthetic to emulate. Different film stocks each carry a unique color palette, tone, and mood. From the rich warmth of Kodak Gold 200, the bold contrasts of Ilford HP5 Plus, to the vibrant hues of Fujifilm Superia X-TRA400 or the serene tones of Kodak Professional Portra. Your choice of film stock should resonate with the thematic essence and lighting conditions of your photography project.
Clarity, Sharpness, and Grain: Digital photography often shines in its crispness and clarity, but film narrates a story through its soft focus and the organic grain of the image. Modulating the clarity and sharpness of digital images is a step towards mimicking this aspect of film photography. You can slightly reduce the clarity and sharpness of your digital images to simulate the gentle focus that’s characteristic of film lenses. Also, utilize the grain simulation features as you edit, ensuring the grain size and intensity align with the chosen film stock's characteristics.
Tonal Curves: Film’s distinctive rendering of light and shadow is significantly influenced by its tonal curve. Manipulating the tonal curves in digital images as you edit photos to look like film is crucial to achieving similar light dynamics. Use the Tone Curve function in editing software to emulate the softer shadow rendering and subdued highlight response characteristic of film.
Color Grading: Film stocks are revered for their unique color palettes. Emulating these color renditions is central to achieving a filmic look. That’s where the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) panel and Color Grading tools come in. Adjust these carefully to emulate the color palette of your chosen film stock. And don’t be afraid to play with primary colors to create a film-like color narrative.
Premium Film Presets: Premium film Lightroom presets designed to mimic film can help a lot as you consider how to edit photos to look like film because they bring in the film tones, grain, texture, softness and depth you love. Shooting more like film and then editing with film presets for Lightroom designed to mimic your stock of choice can get you really close to the signature look you are trying to achieve.
Matching Film: As an editor to many hybrid photographers, I often hear the frustration of, “My digital doesn’t match my film!” More times than not, these photographers have shot their film with Fuji 400H at aperture 2.0 in the late afternoon and overexposed it 1-3 stops. Then, they shot their digital at 400 ISO, 1/250 shutter speed, and 4.0 aperture.
The truth is, these two images won’t match. They can get close, but they won’t match. The digital needed to be shot at 200 ISO, 1.4-1.8 aperture, and 1/125-1/250 shutter speed to get close to the film shot which simply illustrates the importance of doing as much as possible in the camera before applying film presets.
Image by Lainey Muren - Edit with REFINED II Presets
With these tips in mind for how to make photos look like film, you’re well on your way to creating the film-inspired portfolio you’ve been dreaming of - whether it’s a series of portraits, interior still-lifes, or another vintage-inspired subject. As always, REFINED Co. is here with film presets for Lightroom and editing tools designed to amplify what makes your creativity unique to consistently produce the elevated look you want.
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