How to make your digital photos look like film

Apr 19, 2023

Simon Dewey

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

How to make your digital photos look like film

Apr 19, 2023

Simon Dewey

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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I don’t enjoy my Zenit camera (it keeps chewing up film) but the lens that comes with it (the Helios 44/2) is legendary for it’s surreal swirly bokeh, so is an excellent choice to adapt. It’s often cheaper to buy the camera and steal the lens than buy a copy of the lens.

Why make your photos look like film?

Film photography has seen a huge resurgence recently – with loads of photographers shooting analog cameras and film doubling in price as suppliers struggle to keep up with demand.

Being one of these film fanatics myself, I totally get it: Analog photography gives us imperfect, flawed photos with bags of character. With digital cameras getting sharper and more perfect, social media filters and more and more access to editing software I think we are craving something more authentic. We want those flaws and rough edges back in our work.

How to make your digital photos look more like film

Of course, the easiest and most accurate way to get that film photography look is to buy analog cameras and shoot film. But with prices going through the roof for both film and vintage camera equipment, for a lot of people, this isn’t possible. Even as a professional photographer myself, using digital for the majority of my work makes more sense (as a wedding photographer, I usually pack digital cameras and an instant camera. My medium format and 35mm film cameras usually stay home) This article is meant as a leappad for experimenting and getting that analog roughness and expression into your digital work.

Shoot vintage glass

There are loads of great manual focus vintage lenses on the market and they can bring bags of character to your work. They also tend to be super cheap – especially those for discontinued lens mounts like the M42. You can pick up an adapter for your camera from Amazon or Ebay and be off shooting for the fraction of the price of a new digital lens. Having to manually focus also means that you will not always be spot on, adding character without even trying. I find the art of manually focusing also makes me more aware of where I’m placing my focus and opens up creative possibilities I may have missed if I leave it to my supercomputer digital camera.

digital photo look like film
This photo was taken on my manual focus Mitakon lens and I love the softness and character that it adds

Make your modern glass look more vintage

You can also experiment with filters. This summer I’ve been using black pro-mist filters (these are produced by Tiffen, Cinebloom and K&F). They make the highlights bloom and slightly soften the image – giving that dreamy look that we often associate with film and analog photography. If you don’t want to fork out for filters, a stocking over the lens or Vaseline can give a similar look.

A lot of manufacturers are also making modern lenses with a more vintage feel. I have a Mitakon Speedmaster lens that I love to bits, but companies like 7Artisans and Meike are making great cheap lenses which have character all of their own. They may be a bit soft around the edges and not have the modern coatings – but it all adds to the feel.

digital photo look like film bw
This image was taken using a Black Pro Mist filter – notice the blooming of the lights in the background

Slow the shutter speed

Often when looking back at older photos we see motion blur (or people trying to hold very still). This is often because the photographer had a slower film stock in his camera (it does not often turn out well when you push film to the same ISO’s as digital cameras). Medium format cameras often come with lenses that start out at f4, so with the aperture and the ISO hampered (and the need to shoot at higher shutter speeds anyway, as it’s medium format) blur is very much part of the user experience. Slow your shutter down and you will open up a whole new world of creative possibilities.

Slowing the shutter can help give a sense of movement and excitement.

Use that flash

Use the flash in the way that everyone tells you not to – direct and full on. If you want to emulate instant film or cheap point and shoot cameras just hit your subject with the flash, straight on. Because that’s how a lot of vintage cameras take their photos in poor lighting conditions.

If you want a more refined and controlled look (think Larry Fink or Martin Parr) you can also get a cable and take your flash off camera to add direction to the light.

Editing programs and presets – Film looks out of the box

Exposure X7 is one of my favourite programs for getting the film look straight out of RAW files. The quality of the grain rendering in Exposure is heads and shoulders above all the other editing options I’ve tried – you can assign it just to shadows, highlights or to help bring out detail. It also has creative tools to add light leaks, lens flares and all sorts of vintage goodness.

Saying that, I find it hard to make Exposure X7 fit my workflow well – so often my go to when trying to match up film and digital files are Mastin Labs Lightroom presets. These do a great job of emulating the most popular film stocks and fit in really well with my Lightroom workflow. Mastin also provide a lot of instructional videos to help you match up the files to the scans you get back from the lab – which is especially helpful if you shoot a mix of digital and analog.

In the digital world I use Fujifilm cameras, and Fuji are really good at creating film-like images straight out of camera. As well as the more analog experience of shooting with Fujifilm cameras and lenses I think this is one of the things that drew me to them.

Editing tricks

I’m a liberal user of the Dehaze tool in Lightroom – if you use it for the opposite purpose it was intended! If you slide it to the left it will give a softer dreamier look that comes close to the look of Promist filters or vintage glass. If you want you can paint it in to parts of the image where you want that softness.

You can also add grain in most image editing programs. The great thing about digital is you can add it to taste and on an image by image basis, rather than just seeing what comes out of the camera. Using a generous but well blended vignette can help emulate that vintage lens look.

Film also comes with a pre-set white balance. So it’s useful to remember that if you want to emulate the film look accurately then set the white balance to match up with the film you want to emulate. Some images may be warmer or colder than you would have chosen if editing afterwards – but that’s all part of the analog feel.

Change shape

We’re so used to seeing photos in a 3:2 format (every digital camera) or 4:3 (iPhone pics) that switching to a different format

Medium format can be square, 6×7 6×4.5… if you mix it up people will often assume it’s shot on film, especially if you put a fake film border on it.

Digital photo look like film analog
I’m cheating here – this is actually medium format film shot on a Mamiya C330. But it’s more to illustrate the point than anything else.

Embrace the benefits of shooting digital

Of course, the bonus of shooting digital is you can play with all these things in post processing (you can choose the amount and style of grain you like, for example) – You aren’t dealing with the real world limitations of vintage film cameras – so you can play around, take lots of photos and test photos and embrace the quicker learning curve that digital offers.

About the Author

Simon Dewey is a UK-based documentary wedding photographer covering Derby, the Midlands, and beyond. He describes his work as unstaged, unobtrusive, and all about connections and authenticity. Check out Simon’s work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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27 responses to “How to make your digital photos look like film”

  1. John Beatty Avatar
    John Beatty

    Umm, this is not new and “making digital look like film” using presets in LR/PS or even some cameras having onboard setting to simulate different films have been around for awhile. I’m not kicking the article, just saying it is not new. Taking a digital image and processing it to bring back the impression and mistic of film is enlightening. I recently did a project for a Civil war reenactment taking images and processing them to have the vintage 1860’s wet-plate look.

  2. Ian Warren Avatar
    Ian Warren

    How about shooting digital like you have film in the camera? . You only have 36 shots for today make them count…

  3. David Campbell Avatar
    David Campbell

    The trick is your film photos are already digital once they are scanned

    1. Aaron Yang Avatar
      Aaron Yang

      David Campbell I didn’t realize that until I have started shooting film myself. The “film look” is actually largely decided by the scanner and the scanning software. The film itself may exhibit different characteristics but it is not the dominating factor, and even the scanning backlight CRI has a more profound effect on the final image.

    2. David Campbell Avatar
      David Campbell

      Aaron Yang yeah a lot of people use dslrs to scan too. So editing you raw file to have that look isn’t really so far off.

  4. Rob Westmoreland Avatar
    Rob Westmoreland

    Analog Envy?

  5. Olivier Staiger Avatar
    Olivier Staiger

    Shoot video at 24fps and grab a videostill ?

  6. Johnny Martyr Avatar
    Johnny Martyr

    Synthesize things long enough and the original thing goes extinct. Then all we have left are hollow replicas of something nobody really remembers.

    Why not embrace the character of the medium one is actually using rather than falsify experience with inaccurate cosmetics?

    1. Phillip Conroy Avatar
      Phillip Conroy

      Johnny Martyr because (here in Australia) it’s bloody expensive!

    2. Steve Kavalin Avatar
      Steve Kavalin

      Johnny Martyr
      Brilliant and spot. Will be lost on many

    3. Joscelyn Olivier Avatar
      Joscelyn Olivier

      Johnny Martyr Because colour film is currently prohibitively expensive for many people, and if you only have the ability to shoot film on occassion its nice to have the ability to keep the same look with digital photos.

      I agree with your point in principle, but in practice its better to have the best of both worlds with the current film situation.

    4. Vic C Sciberras Avatar
      Vic C Sciberras

      Johnny Martyr people experiment with not just photography. There’s painting like mixed media for example and many more arts like sculpture etc. most do so for their enjoyment. Each to their own.

  7. Jeff Hedrick Avatar
    Jeff Hedrick

    How do I make my film look more digital?

    1. Johnny Martyr Avatar
      Johnny Martyr

      Jeff Hedrick notice how nobody wants to do that! 😅

    2. Vic C Sciberras Avatar
      Vic C Sciberras

      Jeff Hedrick many film shooters digitise their films and print digitally.

    3. John Umina Avatar
      John Umina

      Jeff Hedrick shoot Ektar

    4. James Mok Avatar
      James Mok

      Johnny Martyr don’t they post them online at all?… 😉

    5. Matt McFarland Avatar
      Matt McFarland

      Johnny Martyr Because most people like nice looking photos and therefore shoot digital. Film is obsolete. Unless you`re a hipster of course.

  8. Richard Gooding Avatar
    Richard Gooding

    …or you could shoot film

  9. Amandine Lefevre Avatar
    Amandine Lefevre

    Vraiment ? Pourquoi pas Je suis pas totalement sur

  10. Geert Kuster Avatar
    Geert Kuster

    Sitting behind the computer, tinkering with sliders to copy something which it isn’t, can’t ever replace the fun of shooting film, loading it onto the reel. Picking the developing times and seeing the negatives being displayed while it’s drying in the bathroom.

  11. Justyna Tarnacka Avatar
    Justyna Tarnacka

    Start taking analog photos, “move your head” while taking photos, and not take thousands of pointless photos and then edit. And on the topic specifically, I recommend the FIMO app, where you have analog films and you can have fun with it and maybe try your hand at analog film.

  12. Tim Auger Avatar
    Tim Auger

    Not all digital cameras are 3:2 format, despite what he says.

  13. Krzysztof Kwiatkowski Avatar
    Krzysztof Kwiatkowski

    It’s not about look. It’s about experience. Can’t hack it.

  14. Mahmud Khan Avatar
    Mahmud Khan

    When you have to scan or digitise, then why bother shoot film, rather use film simulations, if you love “film-looks”. In my opinion.

  15. Larry Goldfinger Avatar
    Larry Goldfinger

    Just buy a 25 year old junk point and shoot 2 mp camera.

  16. Nick Chan Abdullah Avatar
    Nick Chan Abdullah

    With nikon v1, just shoot at iso 1600 for that beautiful film-like grain