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.

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