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How to Get Realistic Film Grain Using Displacement Mapping

I wrote this article explaining why most film grain effects look fake when applied to digital photos.

Here is a step-by-step tutorial to get realistic film grain in Photoshop. I am using Photoshop CS6, but it should work in any version with the displacement map feature.

1) Open up your image.

1-open-your-image

*If you are applying this to an image that is already open, make sure that the layers are merged into a single layer.

2) Create a 50% gray layer.

2-create-a-new-layer-with-50-percent-gray

Create a new layer. Layer>New>Layer.

Make sure to set Mode: to “Overlay” and check the box that says “Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray). 

Name the layer “Film Grain” and hit “OK”. 

You won’t notice any changes which is what we want since we don’t want the to change the brightness of your original image.

3) Add grain.
3-add-noise

Filter>Noise>Add Noise.

We recommend using an amount between 10%-40% depending on how much grain you want. For this example, we will use 40% so that it is easier to see the difference.

Make sure to select “Gaussian” and “Monochromatic”.

4) Blur the grain slightly.

4-blur-the-noise

Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur

Set the Radius to 0.5 pixels and hit “OK”

5) Hide the background.

5-hide-the-background-image

Hide the background image by unchecking the background layer on the lower right in your Layers pane.

You should now only see the film grain layer.

6) Save the image as a PSD.

6-save-as-psd

File>Save as

Make sure the Format is “Photoshop”

Remember where you saved this PSD file because we will need it in an upcoming step.

7) Unhide the background image.

7-show-the-background-image

Unhide the background image by re-checking the background layer on the lower right in your Layers pane.

8) Duplicate the background image.

8-duplicate-the-layer

Duplicate the background image by right-clicking on the backround layer and choosing “Duplicate Layer”.

Select that new duplicate layer.

9) Appy the displacement map to the duplicate layer.

9-displace

Go to Filter>Distort>Displace.

Choose 1 or 2 for the horizontal and vertical scale. We will use 2 for our example so the distortion is more obvious. Experiment and see which one you like.

Select “Stretch to fit” and “Repeat edge pixels”

Hit “OK”

A window will open asking you to choose a file.

10) Select the PSD file you saved in step 6. This is your displacement map.

Hit “Open”

You will notice that certain edges will have a somewhat pixelated look to them. This is exactly what we want. The pixelated distortion is based on the film grain and it’s what gives the look of textured grain.

In this example, I’ve hidden the Film Grain layer and zoomed in so you can see exactly what this is doing.

Without Displacement Map

Without Displacement Map

 

With Displacement Map

With Displacement Map

11) The final step is to reduce the Film Grain layer to suite your taste. 

Keep in mind that the size of the film grain will not change, just the opacity. To change the size and amount of grain, you will have to decrease the amount in Step 3.

We recommend using 50% opacity for the film grain layer.

In the end you will end up with an image like this.

11-final-image

Final Image with Film Grain Added

Original Image

Original Image

Final Words

The difference between using a displacement map and ONLY applying a film grain layer is subtle, but that makes all the difference in the world. The feeling of texture in the image is not easy to see, but something you can “feel”.

If you found this useful, please leave a comment below.

Automated Action-Set for Photoshop

A semi-automated action-set is available for purchase on our website.

You can see more examples that show the film grain effect on real photos.

Why Film Grain Effects Look Fake

I can almost always tell when someone applies fake film grain to a digital photo. It doesn’t look right. It looks as if someone just overlayed film grain on top of an image. I think I’ve figured out why.

Looking at a photo taken with real film, it looks like it has texture. A lot of photographers describe it as grit. The problem with most of the film grain effects available is that it doesn’t add texture, it only adds noise.

Nitty Gritty

Close up of silver halide crystals
Close up of silver halide crystals

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and it finally came to me. I’ve been researching film grain, and looking at microscopic images of grain (silver halide crystals.)

At the same time, I was looking for a matte screen protector for my iPad Pro to increase the feedback when using the Apple Pencil. (Think of drawing on glass vs. drawing on paper.) Then it came to me, it’s all about texture. Film grain is not only about the monochromatic dots you see on a picture, it’s also about the microscopic distortions it makes to the image itself. It’s about texture. It’s about displacement.

Displacement Maps in Photoshop

A while back, I was looking for a way to place text on a textured surface in Photoshop. Then I came upon this video about the displacement map feature in Photoshop. The results were amazing.

Putting 2+2 Together

So if you’re still with me, I think you know the point I am trying to make. To get a realistic film grain look, you need to use a displacement map to make micro-distortions to your image. You also have to apply the grain overlay, which is what everyone does anyway.

Close-up with film grain applied
Close-up with film grain applied
Close-up without film grain.
Close-up without film grain.

Notice how the displacement mapping distorts the edges of the letters.

Example on Canvas

If you want to make your image look like it was printed on a canvas, you have to distort the image according to the canvas texture. If you just applied a transparent canvas overlay, it would look fake. The same applies to film grain. If you want the grain to look real, you have to distort the image according to the texture of film.

Without displacement mapping. Only using a canvas overlay
Without displacement mapping. Only using a canvas overlay

 

Doesn’t it look a lot more realistic with the displacement map of the canvas?
Doesn’t it look a lot more realistic with the displacement map of the canvas?

Step-by-Step Tutorial

If this is something you want to try on your photos, we have a step-by-step tutorial here. We also have a paid action-set for Photoshop with fine, medium and coarse film grain effects using displacement mapping.

Automated Action-Set for Photoshop

A semi-automated action-set is available for purchase on our website.

You can see more examples that show the film grain effect on real photos.

Famous Black and White Photo from Henri Cartier Bresson

4 Free Black and White Presets

Famous Black and White Photo from Henri Cartier Bresson
Famous Black and White Photo from Henri Cartier Bresson

These are not the same as our M-Monochrom Look Preset. You can find that preset here.

Here are 4 free black and white presets for Lightroom 4 and higher. They are designed to emulate a classic rangefinder look. Let us know what you think.

The 4 Free Black and White Presets for Lightroom 4 are:

  • BW Linear Contrast
  • BW Medium Contrast
  • BW High Contrast 1
  • BW High Contrast 2

These are completely free. All we ask is that you post to our Flickr Group  or follow us on Instagram @like.a.look and tag us with a picture using one of the presets #likealook.

Is the Leica Look Real?

We get a lot of people asking the question, “Is the Leica Look Real?” These people usually fall into one of two camps. Some are skeptical as to whether a “Leica Look” really exists. They claim that almost any black and white photo with depth of field can be mistaken as a Leica photo. The other camp believes that there is such a thing as a Leica look, but it’s not something that can be recreated unless you are using an actual Leica camera. Let’s investigate.

Incorrect Attribution?

First up is the idea that the Leica Look is just an incorrect attribution to Leica. Maybe it’s just what an unknowing person calls a black and white photo with some depth of field. In that case, there are other factors that account for the Leica Look as well. There’s also the tonal response, lens sharpness and micro-contrast that most Leica images share. That is to say that “the look” is a consequence of these qualities, and therefore are as real as the Lomo Look or Diana Look. The Lomo and Diana looks are obvious, while the Leica Look is difficult to pinpoint. I think that it’s subtlety is part of it’s allure. It can be “felt.” It’s there, it’s just not in you face obvious. If it were obvious, then we wouldn’t be having this big debate about it now would we? So we can probably agree that there is a look, but is it exclusive to Leica?

A Look Exclusive to the Leica Hardware?

Now, for those who think that there is such a thing as a “Leica Look”, but that it’s exclusive to Leica, I ask you the following question: What is it about a Leica that cannot be re-created by another manufacturer? A Leica is not like gold, something that can never be recreated. A Leica is engineered by people and it’s properties can be re-engineered by others. It is completely possible for other camera manufacturers to make a camera with all of the Leica qualities minus the red dot.

Panasonic actually makes Leica branded cameras with it’s LX line. It’s true that Leica optics are top notch although some may argue that Zeiss lenses are actually better. My point is that every design can be replicated. Leica isn’t the only rangefinder manufacturer. They aren’t even the only digital rangefinder manufacturer, see the Epson RD-1. In that case, what differentiates them from the others if not the hardware? Let’s see.

The Real Attribution Error

Before digital cameras were ever invented, all we had were film cameras. Leica’s were known to be the best portable film cameras money could buy. Why? Because they were compact rangefinders with great lenses (primes only). The high cost attracted only the most serious photographers. It’s similar to how Harvard produces successful graduates, but they also only accept the best students.

It’s tough to determine the precise causes of their success. Maybe if Leica’s were inexpensive and if Harvard accepted mediocre students, we might be a step closer to finding out the true factors of success. That will never happen because they don’t want you to know that part of it has to do with their pre-selection process. They want you to assume that their success is because they are the best, not because they only market to the best.

Hardware Differentiation

Now with technology advancing, there are other factors that determine the quality of a camera’s output. Lens manufacturing processes have made making high quality lenses possible for many camera manufacturers. Just look at the inexpensive 20mm F1.7 lens that Panasonic offers. It’s between $300-$400 right now and is plenty sharp. Can spending $5,000 more get you a sharper lens? Sure. But how much sharper? Probably not $5,000 sharper for most users.

So how can Leica differentiate itself if others can easily replicate it’s camera’s output by making hardware that is on-par with theirs? The answer: through software.

Software Differentiation: In-Camera Processing

Let’s take a look at in-camera processing. Many manufacturers are using the same sensors. The Leica X1 shares it’s sensor with the Nikon D300s. The Leica D-Lux and V-Lux series share almost all the same hardware. Now compare the output of a Leica X1 and a Nikon D300s. Compare the output of a Leica D-Lux 5 with a Panasonic LX-5. Why is there a difference?

The answer lies in the firmware. That’s the only thing that distinguishes the D-Lux from the LX. That’s the main thing differentiating the X1 and the D300s, (more so than the body and lens in my opinion.)

JPEG Output: A Brand’s Signature

The firmware controls how JPEG’s are processed. JPEG output is an obvious place for a camera manufacturer like Leica to start. They know that if the JPEG’s look good, people may just keep and share those instead of adjusting the RAW image in post-processing. Maybe that’s why the Leica X1 doesn’t give you an option to shoot exclusively in RAW, it’s either JPEG or JPEG+RAW.

This is great for manufacturers because they can have a signature “look” that can be associated with their brand. All they have to do is tweak their response curves, adjust their in-camera sharpening, contrast and noise reduction, and change their colors profiles slightly.

Every camera manufacturer has a look. There is a “Sony Look,” a “Canon Look,” a “Nikon Look,” an “Olympus Look,” and yes, a “Leica Look.” Sometimes the look can be attributed to the hardware (i.e. sensor size: full-frame vs small-sensor vs. micro-4/3rd’s vs. crop vs. medium format.) A lot of it can be attributed to in-camera processing.

The Truth About RAW

What about RAW? Aren’t RAW files just the raw data that the sensor captures? The images from a Leica’s raw files also have the characteristic Leica Look so doesn’t that mean that it is all because of the hardware? NO! There is a secret thing called “private maker notes”. See this article.

Dcraw, an open source software dedicated to converting RAW files from many camera models, exposes this. If you look at a RAW file from a Leica X1, open it in Lightroom, (the software that it comes bundled with,) you would think that it would look the same as the Dcraw conversion right? Well it doesn’t. Even the RAW file has sharpening and other post-processing applied to it. Read about it more in this article.

It’s obvious that Leica wants it’s photos to have a certain quality, sharpness to be specific. They are known to have the sharpest optics and don’t want to lose that distinction due to some Leica users who decide to apply too much softening to their images in Lightroom. They minimize this by sharpening all of the images, even the DNG’s in the X1.

Microscopes and Medical Equipment

Keep in mind that Leica also manufactures professional microscopes and medical equipment. The science and medical fields require equipment with the best optics. They also require the post-processing of images in order to be able to see things in greater detail. Leica knows a thing or two about sharpening, contrast and overall image enhancement; all while maintaining the accuracy of the subject in focus. Hm, now that sounds useful doesn’t it? I know they are independent companies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they shared some info with the other divisions.

Conclusion

I think that there is a “Classic Leica Look” and a newer, “Digital Leica Look.” I think the Classic Leica Look can be attributed to the superior sharpness of their lenses. The new digital Leica look can be attributed to their superior optics combined with Leica’s attempts to recreate the classic film look using digital sensors. The new Leica Look requires some post-processing.

So what does this all mean? It means that if you are a good photographer with decent hardware; a good camera with a good sensor, and a good lens, then it’s possible to get a similar “Leica Look” without having a camera with a red dot. It’s possible as long as you can simulate what the Leica does in-camera with it’s processing. Can the LeicaLook software do it perfectly? No, it’s a work in progress. That’s why we give free upgrades to people who purchase our Pro version.

Leica is not going to give away it’s secret recipe anytime soon, maybe when Coca-Cola releases theirs. When that happens, we can stop development of LeicaLook. Until then, we will continue working hard to give you guys that elusive Leica Look.

Here are a few questions for the you guys:

  1. Do you think that the Leica X1 has the Leica Look despite it not being a rangefinder?
  2. Do you think that the JPEG output from the Leica D-Lux is different than the Pansonic LX despite the same hardware? What differences do you see?
  3. Do you think that the Leica’s in-camera processing can be accurately replicated in Lightroom?
  4. Does the fact that the Leica M’s are rangefinders (and most other digital cameras aren’t) make a difference?

It’s open for discussion. I would love to hear your input on this subject. Please leave your comments below.