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How to Get a Film Look on a Digital Camera

A bit of clever post production

By Harrison GalgutPublished 5 years ago 4 min read
Our example image for explaining what I think

So Digital certainly has a look to it, which is slowly being taken over by people wanting a “Film Look”

First off, if you want a film look you could shoot film. That is certainly an option, but that is quite an expensive option, in the UK it is about £10 per roll of film and £10 to get it developed, making 36 shots cost £20 (which is the same as one month of Adobe’s photography suite with 1TB of cloud storage).

The thing you could do though is create your own film style look (especially as everyone seems to have their own idea of what the “Film Look” is.

So let’s dive into how to build a preset to look like you want.

Understanding How Film captures light

The most important part is the tonal curve. Each film stock has its own unique curve. Each curve creates a certain look. 

How do you create a Tonal curve digitally? Well, the curves panel is a good place to start. Let’s look at a standard curve. It is a straight line where in the input is the same as the output.

A straight Tonal Curve

So how does film differ? Well, as film is analogue, and because of this doesn’t act in a predictable way (hence different stocks existing).

There are people who have catalogued and worked out what film stock has what kind of tonal curve, and you can find different people arguing over what film stock has what tonality and tint etc.

The reality is that they are all right as no one roll was exactly the same and the way film was produced, and made, changed over time as well. 

But the curve difference is important to understand, as using curves to create your contrast changes the dynamics across the image, as by moving one spot on the curves changes the rest of the graph, try it yourself.

The general rule of making a film look is to make boost the highlight part of the curve and drop the shadows, to make a kind of S-Curve like this (again, do this yourself; this is a curve I like and I think is similar to film photos I have seen).

A simple S-Curve

It doesn’t look like much of a change but it does have a big affect on the image.

So I added contrast in a specific way, but it doesn’t look like film yet. It is missing something, and no it isn’t noise (although film has a specific grain look depending on the stock you are shooting [insert an essay from other people about grain structure because I do not know enough about it]). So what is the image missing… Colour.


The HSL adjustments is your friend to make a custom colour panel and to make a look for your own images, or recreate a look of other images.

The Adjustments are split into three panels: hue, saturation, and luminance.

So what is the difference between Hue, Saturation, and Luminance?

Hue—This panel is about adjusting what shade of a colour you want that colour to be; for example, do you want you reds to be more of an orange or more of a purple?

Saturation—This panel is about how bright do you want that colour to be; for example, do you want your red to be more grey or more red?

Luminance —This panel is about how bright you want the colour to be; do you want your red to be closer to white or closer to black?

Let me show you how they work.

No changes

Hue Panel Extremes (Red +100 -100)

Saturation Panel (Red +100 -100)

Luminance Panel (Red +100 -100)


By creating a balance between all of these, you can create a custom colour feeling to make an image more yours or make them look like other film stocks.

That is the balance I quite like as a look across an image for my documentary or street photography work, I have other presets for other uses.

Make your own presets; don’t rely on other peoples presets to get kind of close to your vision, instead make your vision of how you see the world exactly how your images are.

Use your eyes to make your own preset.

One last thing on the film look: Exposure is really important to the film look. 

If you look at a lot of great documentary photography and National Geographic photography from the 1970s and the days of film photography, nearly all the images are “underexposed” by what the camera’s light meter would give you. This changes how the shots look in the long run.

You can also create tonal curves to have as presets on your camera, start playing with your cameras settings to make your photographs more you. 

Have a look at this article of mine to get an idea on why manual exposure is the best:

I hope you have enjoyed this article, I hope it has been informative, but I hope it inspires you to spend five to 10 minutes to make a preset which is unique—and then ages going out and shooting to make your vision perfect.

how to

About the Creator

Harrison Galgut

Professional Wedding, Events and Portrait Photographer. Always looking for new experiences and people to meet. Have a look at my work:

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