Dear readers of SeriousCompacts, My name is Napier Lopez. You may not know me, but I’ve been a community member of this forum’s sister site, Mu-43, for a couple of years. You’ll be seeing a lot more of me now. Amin recently contacted me looking for help expanding SeriousCompacts and its sister sites--Mu-43, TalkEmount, FujiXSpot, and LeicaPlace--with regular editorial and review content. I was eager to oblige. Starting out as a complete photography novice, I lurked around Mu-43 and its sister sites for for months, finally made an account and posted many of my very first “real” photos for critique, and have since developed my style and technique by observing the works of countless other members more experienced than me. I’m a philosophy graduate preparing for an advanced degree in physics, but photography is an equal passion of mine (some friends have called me the triple ‘ph’, although I’m most fond of philographerist), as well as my full-time source of income. That probably wouldn’t have ever happened without the warm, thoughtful, and encouraging community that is Mu-43. All that being said, I now hold the title of Contributing Editor, and you can expect to see posts from me on the front page at least once a week in the form of opinion pieces, gear and software reviews, and more spread across Amin’s various sites. I hope you’ll join me in helping SeriousCompacts become an essential resource for all compact camera enthusiasts, and in fostering the continued growth of this wonderful community. Onto the longform. In Defense of Filters: Why are Digital Photographers so Concerned with the “Film Look”? For the longest time, I absolutely refused to set up an Instagram account (that’s @napilopez, by the way). I like social media, but as someone who makes his living from photography and carries his gear everywhere, I’ll admit I was suffering a bit from photographer’s elitism. I constantly burn the midnight oil processing my photos and don’t even take pictures with my phone any more; why would I post photos onto a medium where I was forced to crop my photos to 1:1 if I wanted to maintain any image real estate, and where cheesy filters just degrade information from already low resolution images? If I were to post images, I said, at the very least I’d avoid Instagram’s built in filters. Truth is, I was being hypocritical. I’d been doing the whole filter thing for years now, in fact long before I’d ever heard of Instagram, before I ever bought a real camera or learned anything about photographic technique. I used to be a bit into graphic design as a hobby, and had heard of Alien Skin’s suite of Photoshop plug-ins. I had tried out their film emulation plug-in, Exposure, with some of my cell phone images, and became hooked. My photos automagically looked nicer, and I started using Exposure for all my casual images. Likewise, their Bokeh tool allowed me to somewhat decently imitate the look of an image shot with a larger sensor if I was careful enough to use it tastefully and with proper masking. People with fancy cameras I didn’t know were called DSLRs started asking me what camera I used. Whenever I’d just respond “my cellphone and some TLC”, said people seemed pretty impressed. Shot with a highly advanced 1 megapixel Palm Centro. Eventually, I realized there was only so much I could do playing around with Photoshop and plug-ins for my phone snaps, and bought myself my first “real” camera, a Lumix G3. I thought that with a camera so much better than my phone, armed with a decent lens or two, I’d be satisfied with the pictures coming straight out of the camera. That was far from the truth. Though reduced, I still spent a ton of time editing my photos to get the look I wanted. I guess that’s just my style. Trying to learn from others, I always found myself most drawn to the photos that seemed to imitate the look of film, or indeed those that were actual film. Just recovering highlights, adjusting colors, and doing edits didn’t seem like enough. After doing some research on what made a photo look “film-like”, I started playing with tone curves and the bazillion sliders available in Lightroom and came to a pretty consistent aesthetic I was somewhat happy with, which essentially consisted of an S-curve with slightly faded blacks. For a while, it provided me with a happy medium between the look of film and the look of digital. Lumix G3, 20mm Still, I eventually realized I just flat-out liked the look of emulated film more, and thus software such as Exposure and VSCO are now integral to my workflow. But I have a confession to make: I’ve never shot film. I’ve never printed film. And quite frankly, I have no personal sense of what real film actually looks like. The best I have is the vicarious experience of looking at film photographer’s works. So then why do I—and so many others of the digital era who have never shot a roll of film in their life—like the look of film so much that we go out of our way to emulate it? The simple answer: it just looks good. A lot of the time, anyway. Abstraction and Aesthetics No photograph depicts the world as it is. Although photography has the burden of being more closely tied to the physical world than arguably any other artistic medium, even unedited images are forced to present only a small part of a more complicated whole. Of course, a photograph’s connection to the real world lies on a spectrum; some portrait and fashion photography involves so much set-up and post-processing that the yielded pictures are essentially paintings, whereas journalistic and sports photographers typically find themselves trying to present the most true-to-life images possible. But even in these latter genres that so value transparency, the photographer must recognize that an image can be misconstrued, that it may represent a scene inaccurately. Photography is always an abstraction of the real world. As such, most photographers aren’t really looking to objectively record information about the world as much as they want to *communicate* something about it. You can do this in a myriad of ways, and what processing aesthetic you choose to employ is an important such element. The interesting thing about film filters is that they generally mean captured information is being lost or degraded. But truth is, what matters to me is what the final image will communicate to my audience. Losing information can clarify a message, even if just by improving aesthetics. In the same way a sculptor primarily works by subtracting from marble to get his or her desired form, the photographer chooses what parts of an image he wants to retain. It’s like cutting off the fat from meat; we already do this all the time when we simply crop out distracting parts of an image, so if my shadows become a bit crushed by my s-curve, does it really matter if the image doesn’t necessitate that shadow detail? E-M5, 42.5mm Voigtlander. Did shooting this image through a window and applying a filter make the bride any less beautiful? Okay sure. Having your image “degraded” by a film filter doesn’t necessarily mean your photo is less able to communicate something, but can a film filter actually add to the image? Glad you asked. Look around at some great images with film emulation applied, and you’ll notice something. To my eyes, the filters generally add a sense of clarity and consistency to a photograph’s aesthetic presentation which is often lost with the more harshly recorded nature of digital. Let’s consider the most basic of image filters: black and white. It’s a debate that’s raged on with street photographers since the advent of color film, but one of the most common explanations for why street shooters often choose to stick to black and white is that color can distract from the story being told. To return to the cropping analogy, if having color doesn’t contribute to the story, why keep it around? Black and white can serve to beautifully simplify a photo’s story when a randomly colored object in a photo can pop out like an unfortunate zit. Alternatively, whether via a sense of nostalgia or some ineffable aesthetic property of the style, converting a photo to greyscale can evoke certain moods (timelessness, mystery, love, etc) in an image that may be more difficult to present otherwise. E-M5, 25mm. Cropped. Horizon and perspective fixed. Unnecessary colors and detail gone. Distractions removed. Once you’re talking about color again, things are a bit more complicated, but similar reasoning applies. Film filters often have tints or specific colorations that may invoke a vintage feel that for some reason we find appealing. A faded look with a ton of scratches and vignetting can enhance the feeling that “this photo is a memory” more than the original, more detailed photo did, because again, sometimes detail just doesn’t matter as much as the overall image. Once again, that super-fancy 1MP Palm Centro chip Subtlety and Practicality Still, you’re probably aware of most of what I said above in at least some vague sense. Film filters look cool an unusual, that’s why the Instagram generation uses them. 90% of the time though, I prefer to keep my effects much more subtle. I have some go-to film presets that I will adjust based on the situation, and there are certain looks that I consider almost signature styles. But in addition to a simple stylistic choice compounded with all the aesthetic enhancements I mentioned previously, there are some other, more technically practical advantages to using film filters to “degrade” an image that are often overlooked when discussing the topic. In particular I want to discuss the benefits of having multiple presets, and of grain, fading, vignetting, and flare. Film presets are sort of “auto-enhance” filters. I’m making a complete generalization here based on anecdote, but people usually seem to prefer images that lie somewhere on the extremes of contrast. Either they want an image that is very contrasty with colors that pop, or a low contrast, faded look to be used for exaggerated effect. If the photo is too “normal”, it’s uninteresting. One of my favorite filters, for example, is a “Fuji Reala Pushed 1 Stop” filter in Alien Skin Exposure. This filter is excellent at adding contrast without exaggerating colors unnaturally, skin tones in particular. E-M5, 25mm. Original SooC JPEG followed by edit Nothing too special here; I didn't shoot this and it's just for facebook(that's me in the picture). But without needing to go through several adjustments in Lightroom, I’ve automatically taken a pretty dull photo and made it just a bit more captivating without spending too much time on it. Of course, this may be blasphemous to some who have put in a ton of effort into developing their own specific styles or presets, or spend a ton of time getting each individual image just right. I certainly tend to make adjustments after applying a filter, but the fact of the matter is that using a film filter can save you a huge amount of time for simply getting something *good*. And when it comes to my photos, I’m a utilitarian: if it looks good, it is good. When running through a set of 200 images for a deadline due tomorrow, you appreciate every minute saved. E-M5, 25mm. Original followed by edited, the only alteration being applying a preset. I’d make a few more changes ideally, but Velvia is essentially the auto-magic filter for landscapes. Grain is the other quasi-ubiquitous feature of film filters, and it’s one often under-appreciated for its utility instead of purely its vintage effect. As alluded to earlier, our brains seem more wired to pick up on things that stand out than otherwise, and we quickly notice when there is an oddly intruding object, an inexplicably missing limb, or tragically blown highlights. Grain can help mitigate these things tremendously by another visual layer to the image which creates a greater uniformity and adds a sense of cohesiveness. Although it may seem slightly counterintuitive since you are adding something artificial to an image rather than removing, because grain is applied relatively uniformly over a picture, it allows you to “smooth out” an image, and is particularly useful for images where detail retention isn’t your primary goal. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in the case of shadows in high ISO images. At these settings, shadows suffer the worst degradation, and are the most visually distracting due to the high noise levels. For the most part, digital noise just isn’t that pleasant due to its typically rough pattern and chroma aspect (although color noise is greatly alleviated by most raw editors). Thus, whether you choose leave it as is for maximum detail retention, or apply noise reduction in post-production, grain can do a wonderful job of “filling in” that missing shadow detail with a pleasant type of homogeneous noise. My typical workflow has me applying pretty heavy noise reduction in Lightroom, followed by added grain either straight from Lightroom if using VSCO, or from Exposure (which creates much more pleasant grain). If that seems like I’m doubly losing information from the original image, that’s because I am. But I don’t care, as long as it makes the final image look better. Fading images has a somewhat similar effect, and I apply at least a slight fade to all of my high ISO images. My general policy is that if I don’t absolutely need the shadow detail, in which case I’d spend more time refining the image in Lightroom or even Photoshop, then I can simply get rid of it. On a bit of a tangent, I’d like to emphasize that midtone noise doesn’t really matter, which is why I frequently tell people to not post high ISO samples shot with good lighting, because most of the time you want to use high ISO, you’re not going to have good lighting. E-M5, This was shot at ISO 1600 by accident, and then pulled up about a stop in LR, making it more like ISO 3200, with absolutely no noise reduction. Would you really have cared if I hadn’t told you? At night, when most of your image is lies on the lower end of the histogram, noise becomes much more distracting. Adding a slight fade to the shadows by lifting the lower corner of the tone curve is one of the easiest ways of lessening that nastiness. By doing this, you are compressing dynamic range of the shadows in the image, which has the nice side effect of making gaps in detail much less noticeable, and making shadows appear much less clipped. E-M5, 25mm This image has the whole process above applied. Noise reduced to about 16 in LR, then applied a film filter which faded the shadows and added some light grain. At this largish web size what ISO do you think this image is? 1600? 3200? How about 6400 *and* pushed up by a little over a stop in Lightroom. That’s basically ISO 12800. Finally, I want to discuss vignetting and flare, the benefits of which I consider two sides of the same coin. Vignetting is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Darkening the sides of an image can have a great effect on making the overall lighting of the image direct the eyes toward what you want your viewers to look at, while potentially lessening distractions. Flare can work similarly if used tastefully, where it can highlight a face and mask uninteresting parts of a photo. But frankly, I also just think flare looks cool for pretty much anything except certain landscapes and architectural shots. I actively seek it out while actually shooting an image, but I’ll also add artificial flare in post when I think it looks good. It can also perform the same fading effect as the tone curve trick mentioned above. I feel like a magician revealing his secrets, but the flare here? Completely fake. As is the one in the image above. Anachronism One day I’ll go on Ebay and buy myself a decent film camera and variety of film rolls. I care too much about my photography not to become acquainted with the roots and process that came before the commodities I have today. But right now, I have a very vague idea of what real Velvia looks like, of what to expect from Porta 400 or Tri-X. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll be editing a photo and apply a filter with VSCO that didn’t quite hit the mark and be like “This looks terrible! Provia never looked this bad!”, as if I had any clue what I was talking about. Any educated photographer knows the advantages of real film from reading about it, from the generally pleasant grain, to the smooth highlight curve of print, to the vibrant colors of slide. But digital has just as many advantages, so I return to the curious notion of my generation’s obsession with imitating the look of film. I wonder if in 20 years, the next generation of photographers will be applying early-era digital filters to their images, adding the chroma noise and low resolution jpeg artifacts we tend to hate so much. Maybe what draws us to the film today look is just that vintage feel. Maybe it’s the unconscious (or in my case, purposeful) appreciation of the practical benefits a film filter can provide. Maybe it’s something else. And of course, this is not to denigrate the countless other photographers who don’t care for the style. Sometimes it takes more effort than it’s worth, and for some jobs it just looks unprofessional. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t work. But when it does, my answer remains the same as before: it just looks good. So what about you? Do you use film filters like VSCO, Exposure, or the Nik Suite? Are you a SooC jpeg person? Or do you go through your own process? Feel free to share below, along with why you like the process you use!