Digital photography is convenient. You can review your pictures immediately after they’re captured—no waiting for rolls of film to come back from the lab. You can manipulate the images as much as you’d like in software to achieve any aesthetic that you can dream of. You can get extremely clean, sharp, bright, and vibrant pictures with extraordinary dynamic range that just wasn’t possible in the film era. Perfect pictures are prevalent today—a wonder of contemporary photography, no doubt.
Sometimes I think that digital photography is too good, too flawless, too sterile. Perfect pictures can be perfectly boring. Pulitzer-Prize winning author John Updike stated, “Perfectionism is the enemy of creation.” I think that statement is true in multiple aspects. For example, if you are working hard to create perfect pictures, you will not create very many images. I think, also, that creativity is rarely born out of perfectionism. Creativity is serendipitous. It’s not calculated. Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) wrote, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
With film photography, mistakes happen fairly frequently. You don’t know what you have until you have it sometime later. There are a lot of variables that can affect the outcome, which are sometimes out of your control. Occasionally you accidentally and unknowingly discovery something extraordinary. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and when you fortuitously stumble upon something interesting, there’s a lot of joy in that. Film photography is imperfect—it has flaws—and, because of that, it is rewarding. This is one reason why there’s a resurgence of interest in analog pictures.
Film photography is inconvenient. The serendipity of it is fascinating, but I prefer the instant reward of digital. I’m not patient enough anymore for analog. Don’t get me wrong, I shot film for many years. I prefer how film looks, but digital is more consistent, convenient, cheaper (after the initial investment is made), and quicker, so I choose digital. But what if it is possible to get the best of both worlds? What if you could get the “film look” from your digital camera? What if you could do it without editing. Straight-out-of-camera. No Lightroom or Photoshop needed. Would you try it?
The Film Look — What Is It?
What exactly is the so-called film look? That’s actually a difficult question to answer, because one film can have many different aesthetics, depending on how it was shot, developed, scanned and/or printed, and viewed. There have been hundreds of different films available over the years, each with unique characteristics. Film can have so many different looks that it could take a lifetime to try and describe them all.
Most simplistically, the film look can be defined as a picture that looks like it was shot on film, but really the answer is more elusive than that. The best way to understand it would be to look at pictures captured with film. Find prints from the 1990’s or 1980’s. Photographic paper (and film, too) fades over time, so the further back you go, the more likely it will appear degraded. Maybe that’s something you prefer? There are as many different film looks as there are tastes, and there’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer to what exactly film looks like.
The biggest difference between film and digital is how highlights are handled. With film, there’s a gradation to white that’s often graceful, but with digital it is much more abrupt. Shadows can also sometimes be more gradual and graceful with film than digital, but definitely not to the same extent as highlights, and definitely not always. Another difference is that film grain is usually considered more beautiful and artful than digital noise. With film photography, there are sometimes surprises that stem from gear (or film) imperfections that don’t typically happen naturally with digital capture. Beyond that, digital images can be effectively manipulated in post-editing to resemble film photographs, especially in the era of Lightroom presets and software filters.
There are two responses that I expect to receive. First, someone will say, “Shoot film if you want the film look.” Nobody is going to argue against that, but this article is not about merely getting the film look—it’s about getting the film look from your digital camera, because digital is more convenient. Second, a person will argue, “I can easily get this look with software, so why bother doing it in-camera?” Getting the look straight-out-of-camera saves time, simplifies the photographic process, and makes capturing pictures even more enjoyable. There’s no right or wrong way to do things—I’m just discussing one method, which you may or may not appreciate. If you enjoy post-processing, that’s great! I personally don’t enjoy it, so I go about things differently, which works for me.
1. Shoot A Fujifilm Camera
Step One to achieve the film look from your digital photos without the need to edit is to buy a Fujifilm camera. Which one? It doesn’t matter. If you already own one, you can skip ahead to Step Two.
Why do you need a Fujifilm camera? Why not a Canon, Sony, or Nikon? Because Fujifilm has, in my opinion, the best JPEG engine in the industry. They’ve used their vast experience with film to give their digital cameras an analog soul. In other words, Fujifilm has made it easier than any other brand to get a film look out-of-camera. Could you do it with another brand? Sure—I created JPEG settings for film looks on Ricoh GR cameras. You can do something similar with other brands, but, in my experience, Fujifilm gives you more and better tools to do this. The best brand for achieving a film look that doesn’t require post-processing is Fujifilm, so that is why you need a Fujifilm camera.
I’ll recommend the Fujifilm X100V or Fujifilm X-E4, both of which I own and use often. I also own a Fujifilm X-T30, Fujifilm X-T1, and Fujifilm X-Pro1, and those are very capable cameras, too. Additionally, I’ve shot with a Fujifilm X100F, Fujifilm X-Pro2, Fujifilm X-T20, Fujifilm XQ1, Fujifilm XF10, Fujifilm X-T200, Fujifim X-A3, Fujifilm X-E1, and Fujifilm X-M1. It doesn’t matter which model you buy, but, if you can afford it, I would go for one the newer models (X-Pro3, X100V, X-T4, X-S10, X-E4, or X-T30 II), because they have more JPEG options, and it’s possible to get more looks out of those cameras. Don’t worry if a new camera is out of your reach, as there are many quality used options that are affordable.
2. Use Film Simulation Recipes
Film simulation recipes are JPEG camera settings that allow you to get a certain look straight-out-of-camera. They’re basically a customization of the stock film simulations that come with the camera, adjusted to achieve various aesthetics. I’ve published over 175 film simulation recipes for Fujifilm cameras, most based on (or inspired by) classic film stocks. They’re free and easy to use. I even created a film simulation recipe app for both Apple and Android! If you have a Fujifilm camera, you should have the app on your phone. Film simulation recipes go a very long ways towards achieving a film look in-camera. Programming a recipe into your camera is kind of like loading a roll of film, except that you can capture as many frames as you wish on each roll, and change the film anytime you want.
There are a lot of wonderful options to choose from, including Kodachrome 64, Kodak Portra 400, Kodak Tri-X 400, Fujicolor C200, Fujicolor Pro 400H, AgfaChrome RS 100, and so many more! There are nearly 200 of them on this website, plus some more on the Community Recipes page. No matter your Fujifilm X camera, there are some great film simulation recipe options for you to use. I even have a number of unusual recipes, like Cross Process, Expired Slide, and Faded Negative, intended to mimic some alternative analog aesthetics. The three example pictures above are unedited (aside from, perhaps, some minor cropping), just to give you a brief taste of what recipes look like.
3. Use Diffusion Filters
As I already mentioned, the biggest difference between digital images and film photographs are how highlights are handled (and, to a lesser extent, shadows). Diffusion filters help with this. They take the “digital edge” off of your pictures by bending a small percentage of the light that passes through the filter, which causes it to be defocused. The images remain sharp, but a slight haziness is added, especially in the highlights, which produces a more graceful gradation to white.
There are various types of diffusion filters by a few different brands. I recommend Black Pro Mist filters by Tiffen or CineBloom filters by Moment. You want the effect to be subtle, so I suggest a 1/8 or 1/4 Black Pro Mist—I used a 1/4 in the picture at the very top of this article—or a 5% or 10% CineBloom, which I used in the three pictures above; however, I have seen some good results with the stronger options (1/2 Black Pro Mist and 20% CineBloom). A slight effect from a diffusion filter in the right situations can subtly improve a photograph’s analog appearance.
4. Shoot With Vintage Glass
I love using vintage lenses on my Fujifilm cameras, because they often have flaws that give pictures character. Some of the charm of analog photography stems from imperfect gear—that serendipity I mentioned earlier is often from flawed glass. Modern lenses are precision engineered and meant to give you perfect pictures. But they can be too good and too sharp. They’re great if you photograph test charts, but vintage lenses often have seemingly magical qualities that make real-world pictures better, and definitely more film-like. A lot of time you can find these old lenses for pretty cheap, but you do need an adaptor to attach them to your Fujifilm camera.
If you don’t want to buy used gear and adaptors, a great alternative is to get yourself some inexpensive manual lenses, like the Pergear 50mm f/1.8, 7artisans 50mm f/1.8, and Meike 35mm f/1.7. There are, of course, lots more manual options like these, many of which have flaws and character similar to vintage lenses, except that they’re brand-new and don’t need adaptors. Manual lenses are trickier to use, especially if you don’t have much experience with them, but I find them to be a rewarding, delivering wonderfully imperfect photographs.
5. Don’t Always Nail Focus
With digital photography, you have many tools to make sure your focus is spot-on; if you are unsure that you precisely nailed it, you can immediately review the image and zoom in to make sure, and retake if necessary. With film photography, not only are the focus tools much more limited, you don’t even know if you got it exactly right until the film comes back from the lab. If you study classic photography, you’ll notice that many iconic pictures didn’t spot-on nail the focus. You’ll even notice this in old movies and television shows, too. It was common, and nobody cared. It has become a small part of the film look.
Worry more about composition and storytelling, and less about getting perfect focus. In fact, my recommendation is to not review the LCD after each shot to check. Take the picture, and if you got focus perfect, great! And if you didn’t, don’t let the imperfection bother you, but celebrate that a little softness can be a part of the analog aesthetic. A little blur is not always bad, especially if the picture is otherwise interesting or compelling.
6. Use Higher ISOs
One of the big differences between digital and film is that film has lovely silver grain while digital has ugly noise. Grain can be ugly, too, but digital noise is generally regarded as undesirable, and usually it is, while grain is general regarded as artful. Fujifilm has programmed their cameras in such a way that the noise has a more film-grain-like appearance than other brands. It’s definitely not an exact match to any film grain, but it’s certainly better than typical ugly noise. So why not incorporate it into your pictures?
A lot of photographers are afraid to use high ISOs. Back in the film days, I remember that ISO 400 was considered to be a high-ISO film. Some people thought you were nuts if you used an ISO 800 or 1600 film. ISO 3200 film was only for the most daring, or for use under extreme circumstances. Early digital cameras were pretty bad at higher ISOs, too, but camera technology has made incredible progress, and now cameras are pretty darn good at high ISO photography. I routinely use up to ISO 6400 for color photography, and even higher for black-and-white. Those ultra-high ISOs just weren’t possible or practical 10 or so years ago. Now combine high-ISO photography with Fujifilm faux grain (found on X-Trans III & X-Trans IV cameras), and the pictures begin to appear a little less digital and a bit more film-like.
7. Overexpose and Underexpose Sometimes
Transparency film often requires a very precise exposure because there’s very little latitude for overexposure or underexposure. Negative film often has a much greater latitude—generally speaking it can tolerate more overexposure than underexposure. Each film is different. But here’s the thing: you don’t know if you got it right until later when the film is developed. In the moment you don’t know for sure if the exposure is really correct. With experience you can get pretty good, and exposure bracketing can help (not something you want to do all of the time because you’ll go through your film too quickly), but it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll end up with a few overexposed or underexposed frames. Sometimes this can affect the aesthetic or mood of the image, and by chance your picture is actually more interesting because of your mistake—that analog serendipity again. If you discover something you really like, you might even begin to do it on purpose (like overexposing Fujicolor Pro 400H by several stops).
Your digital camera has many great tools to help you get the exposure perfectly correct, which is great. And if you don’t get it right, you can know right away, and capture another exposure if need be, or fix it later by adjusting the RAW file. However, purposefully not getting the exposure just right, whether by overexposing or underexposing, is a good way to mimic the film experience, and sometimes you’ll get an unexpected result, which can be a very happy accident. I wouldn’t do this all of the time, but occasionally it is a fun and fruitful exercise.
Step One, which is using a Fujifilm camera, and Step Two, which is using film simulation recipes, are the most critical of these seven tips. You could use Ricoh GR cameras instead of Fujifilm, but I definitely recommend using Fujifilm. Step Three through Step Seven are optional, and they aren’t necessarily intended to be used all together or all of the time, although you certainly can if you want. Pick a couple of them—perhaps diffusion filter and vintage lens or high-ISO and underexposure—and see what results you get.
There are two things that I’d like for you to get out of this article. First, you don’t need software or editing apps to achieve an analog aesthetic. You can do it in-camera. All of the pictures in this article are unedited (except for some minor cropping). This saves you a whole bunch of time, and you might even find the process more fun. Second, I hope that this article inspires you to try something new. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Mistakes can be highly rewarding, and you might even discover something extraordinary.
A few more example photograph:
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