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Photography

Building a Film Style Look in Lightroom

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This post is part of a series called Adobe Lightroom Workflow: Import, Edit and Beyond.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Features: The Spot Removal Tool

If there's has been a noticeable trend in post-production in the past few years, it's the enthusiasm for old school, film-style looks. Multiple preset packs and actions exist to take your images back in time. However, in this tutorial, we'll learn how to build and customize our look in three easy steps in Adobe Lightroom.


Defining the Film Look

To build the film look, we will want to understand what characteristics film photography has. I've taken the time to round up some film photographs and want to highlight the details that make film so memorable and unique. Although each type of film is unique, there are some common styles that define the film feel. Check out famous films like Velvia, Provia, Kodak Gold, and Ilford Delta to sample the many styles of film that exist.

When I began studying film, the most prominent thing that I noticed is that it usually lacks exact black and white points. This means that areas that are black are actually very dark gray, and even the lightest parts of the photo are very light gray.

When I began studying film, the most prominent thing that I noticed is that it usually lacks exact black and white points. This means that areas that are black are actually very dark gray, and even the lightest parts of the photo are very light gray.

This photo showcases the modified black and white points that I think characterize film. The left side of the frame is the darkest portion, but it's not quite black, instead, it's a very dark gray. Even the highlight area in the lights is not a pure white, but rather a very light gray.

Film captures a tremendous amount of dynamic range, the amount of detail captured between absolute black and absolute white. A unifying trait of film is that these black points and white points aren't completely contrasted. Instead, film shines in the mid-tones, and replicating this look is key to building a film style.


Color Adjustments

It's impossible to generalize the color characteristics of film. This is because color differs from one type of film to the next, and can't be summarized so easily. In fact, my favorite thing about film is that we have so many options and ways to capture the color spectrum by changing film.

This photo is indicative of some of the color styles that I find unique to film photography. With heavy shades of blue, the image has a color cast that isn't indicative of technical perfection, but instead offers a unique visual style.

This photo is indicative of some of the color styles that I find unique to film photography. With heavy shades of blue, the image has a color cast that isn't indicative of technical perfection, but instead offers a unique visual style.

Luckily, the digital darkroom allows us to adjust color on a per image basis, no need for changing film types! In this tutorial, I'll show you how to build several types of color settings for unique looks.


Grain for Character

No matter how good digital sensors become, the grain visible in many types of film is a look that is difficult to replicate. When you strive for technical perfection, you eliminate grain and noise. As I've grown to study film photography, I've developed an appreciation and regard for what grain brings to the table.

The grain in the shadow areas of this portrait showcases the unique film grain that I appreciate. In this tutorial, I'll show you how to replicate it in Lightroom with easy slider adjustments.

The grain in the shadow areas of this portrait showcases the unique film grain that I appreciate. In this tutorial, I'll show you how to replicate it in Lightroom with easy slider adjustments.

We've pinpointed black and white points, color, and grain as defining points of the film. With these characteristics in mind, we can begin building our own film look in Lightroom.


Modifying Curves

Mimicking the black and white point adjustments of film is best handled using curves. With an easy tweak, we'll mimic the black and white point adjustments that we studied above.

To get started with the Tone Curve panel, you'll want to enter Lightroom's Develop module and scroll down to find the panel on the right side.

To modify curves, start by pressing the button in the lower right hand corner of the curves panel. This changes our view and places the points on the curve shape so that we can click and drag to modify them.

Press this button at the lower right hand corner of the tone curve panel to begin adjusting curves.
Press this button at the lower right hand corner of the Tone Curve panel to begin adjusting curves.

Turn on the option to modify curves by pressing the icon in the lower right hand corner of the Tone Curve panel. You'll notice that the view changes and points appear on the tone curve line.

After turning on the tone curve points, you'll notice small dots at the lower left and upper right corners.
After turning on the tone curve points, you'll notice small dots at the lower left and upper right corners.

To get started with modifying the tone curve, we need to understand what the curve represents visually. I consider the point on the left to modify the black point of the photo, and the point on the right side to control the white point. With these two points, we can adjust the black and white points that we studied earlier.

To turn the black point into a dark gray point, grab the point on the lower left hand corner and drag it up. You'll notice in the example below that the darkest point of the photo are transformed from black to a dark gray.

This photo represents our starting point, with no curves adjustments.
This photo represents our starting point, with no curves adjustments.
Dragging up the point at left adjusts the black point for the curves. You'll notice that the image basically begins to lose contrast and blacks become pushed to a dark gray range.
Dragging up the point at left adjusts the black point for the curves. You'll notice that the image basically begins to lose contrast and blacks become pushed to a dark gray range.

On the other end of the tone curve, drag the point down to move the white point into a very light gray. You'll see in the image example that the highlights at the top of the fair ride turn into very light gray highlights.

Dragging the right point downward adjusts the white point to the light gray range.
Dragging the right point downward adjusts the white point to the light gray range.

With this curve panel, we've made one huge move toward mimicking the film style. The black and white points are what most people consider indicative of the classic film style. However, we have plenty of adjustments left to continue building our film style.


Modifying Color

Another major point of building the film look is modifying the sliders that control the color of photos. In this step, you will have literally an unlimited number of choices of how to apply color adjustments. This step is great to experiment with and build multiple looks and color styles.

To do this, we use the Hue, Saturation and Luminance panel (HSL) in the Develop module. I click the Color tab to allow the greatest selection of adjustments. When we do this, we can control the saturation, luminance, and hue of each of the colors of the color spectrum.

Use the color panel to adjust color and build custom, film-style looks.
Use the color panel to adjust color and build custom, film-style looks.

By doing this, you are able to tweak colors over the whole photo. Try out adjustments like turning blues significantly down and greens significantly up. Turn up yellows and purples for a complementary type vintage look, or greens to age your photos even further.

Getting Grainy

For our last tweak, we can easily add grain for a more organic look. In the Develop module, continue scrolling until you find the Effects panel, complete with sliders for adding grain.

To properly add grain, zoom into your photo. Only by zooming in will you have an accurate perception of how much grain is being added to the image.

Working at 100% and adding grain slowly ensures that you don't apply too much. Use the sliders to fine tune the character of the grain in your photos.
Working at 100% and adding grain slowly ensures that you don't apply too much. Use the sliders to fine tune the character of the grain in your photos.

After zooming in, I drag up the amount slider to a midpoint. The "size" and "roughness" sliders are ideal for adjusting the presence of grain in your images. Larger, rougher grain is going to feel like high ISO film, while the smaller grain sizes are similar to standard, medium ISO films. This is an easy tweak to further enhance the film look and mimic the grain detail that characterizes film.


Saving the Look

Once you've built your film look, you'll want to save yourself the trouble of modifying the sliders each time you want to apply the style. The best way to do this is to save a preset of the settings that you've just adjusted. To do this, find the Presets panel at left and press the plus button.

Press the plus button at the upper right corner of the preset panel to save a new preset.
Press the plus button at the upper right corner of the preset panel to save a new preset.

When the next box pops up, you'll want to uncheck all boxes except for the ones that you've applied. If you followed this tutorial exactly, I would leave only the Tone Curve, Treatment (Color), Grain, and Process Version boxes checked. Being selective with the boxes that are checked will allow you to apply the film style selectively and adjust other settings like exposure individually.

Being selective with the preset options ensures that we apply only the settings that influence the film look when building our preset.
Being selective with the preset options ensures that we apply only the settings that influence the film look when building our preset.

In the future, simply click the preset that you saved in the Presets panel to apply it to your images with just one click. Also consider building multiple presets with varying color, grain, and curve adjustments, saving each as your own custom preset style.


Wrapping Up

In a few simple steps, you can build a film style look in Lightroom with ease. With curves, color, and grain adjustments, the look can be replicated easily. Experiment with color, grain, and curve combinations to build multiple film style looks.

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