The Process: a film curve

No matter how advanced our cameras, no matter how high the resolution or how sharp the results, many of us still consider film images to possess a certain quality that's often missing from an out of camera digital picture. There's something "natural" about film that comes from a complex combination of elements and how they react together. Needless to say we could devote entire chapters on the subject but basically, it comes down to character: every film stock had a specific curve, grain and sensitivity that resulted in a baseline look and a very specific visual rendering.

If you're a Lightroom user, there are preset packages available that do a terrific job of replicating the classic looks of film with very little effort. VSCO Film is the most well-known and pretty much the standard out there. It's also the one I'm most familiar with, having been a beta tester on some of their offerings. But there are other products as well, each with their own takes on the same idea—Totally Rad's Replichrome for instance or RNI's film packages that are also highly praised. All interesting in their own right.

As great as these are however, presets should always be treated as starting points. Because every image is unique and requires different manipulations that will usually go beyond the one size fits-all approach. Understanding the fundamentals of image processing, what goes on behind the scenes of the film emulations, will only allow us to more fully control the final results, regardless of tools, and eventually perhaps create our own personal signature.

With Fujifilm X-series cameras, we've seen a rather successful attempt at bringing film character back through JPEG-based film simulations. But even when I'm shooting Classic Chrome or Acros, I still apply the same approach that I would with raw files—the difference being in the level and amount of adjustments that will be needed.

In my workflow, processing includes two main components:

  1. Tonality and density, which basically translates to shaping the visual character of the image through contrast, curves etc. This is done through general adjustments (meaning we're affecting the entire image).
  2. Assessing the various elements in the frame and intensifying their value. This will be done through localized adjustments (brush, graduated or radial filters).

A few eons ago I mentioned a film curve, a basic element I apply to all my images in one form or another, regardless of the software I'm using. I've probably received more emails about this than anything I've ever talked about on this blog—which I completely understand. The idea of some sort of goto setup for any image is obviously appealing. The truth however, is that there's really no miracle or super-secret weapon: this is essentially just a mild toning adjustment that I happen to apply to pretty much any image as a starting point. It's not the end-game, just one small part of the equation.

But here's the important takeaway: we can do this in any application that offers a Curves module. Which means it's an entirely portable workflow that doesn't rely on plugins or app-specific tricks. When I briefly flirted with Capture One Pro, I was able to quickly recreate most of my "looks" simply through the app's Curves module—at least their basic building blocks. Once that was done, it simply became a question of tweaking the new presets using COP's other built-in tools. All apps are different and usually require slightly different manipulations to achieve the same look. But it always begins with this simple curve. So here it is in all its mundane glory:

Yup, it's an S-curve. A bit anticlimactic isn't it? But that's all there is to it. There are four points by default and each one serves a specific purpose (from lowest to highest):

  1. Fade black point. This is often referred to as a matte look.
  2. Add shadow contrast.
  3. Add highlight contrast.
  4. Fade white point.

Points 1 and 4 are important because they're placing limits at each ends of the spectrum, compressing tonal values into a smaller space as we shift them up or down. Now, it may seem counterintuitive to trash ANY visual information in this age of ever expanding dynamic range. But in the end it's all about how an image looks—not how much data it displays. What a photographer decides at this point is entirely personal in my opinion. Here's an image I've quickly processed that incorporates this curve (plus some basic and local adjustments):

So what do I mean by compression? Let's look at an extreme example to make this a little clearer. First, that same image SOOC (straight out of camera):

If I push the exposure slider in Lightroom's Basic panel I get the following response (this is a JPEG btw but a raw file will eventually react more or less the same way):

The entire image is getting pushed towards a white point currently set at 100%. Now let's reset and do something similar with the Black slider, dropping it all the way down.

Same deal: image values are pushed towards 0%. Ok. Let's set that film curve again, but this time let's also compress black and white points (points 1 and 4) much further to see what happens. Here's the curve I'll be using:

Now if I push that same exposure slider, here's what happens:

Quite a difference right? That's because the highlights are no longer at 100% but somewhere around 74%. The curve we've set is restricting the tone range. If I reset exposure and drop the black slider:

Our black point is now around 15%, so the black is no longer black. Again, what the Tone Curve is doing is establishing limits for the Basic panel, which will now work solely within the values we've set. We've essentially created walls at each end of the spectrum and there's no way to go beyond. We can push like crazy but we can't jump over them. Obviously, we'll rarely use anything this extreme but hopefully this helps you understand how certain looks can be achieved. The image below is an example of this method incorporated in a personal preset I call BW-MANN (as a nod to Sally Mann). 


So that's it. This is the premise of what I call the film curve—just a slight compression that will then work in conjunction with tweaks in the Basic panel and everything that follows. No voodoo and no earth shattering revelation. But as simple as it looks, it can actually be quite powerful and I suggest you experiment with various images to get a feel for the way certain scenes will be affected. The great thing about our apps today is that nothing is ever destructive; so go crazy.

There's much more that can be done in the Tone Curve panel; this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
We'll examine more in future posts.

This post is part of The Process, an ongoing series on the craft and art of photography. Find more articles here.