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How to Build a Film Style Look in Adobe Lightroom

The post-2000s era of photography has been decidedly digital. Cameras with more and more megapixels, better high ISO performance, and lower prices have taken center stage.

That doesn’t mean that film doesn’t have advantages of its own. The distinct look and character of film photography is still sought after. To get the best of both digital and film, many photographers now recreate the film look at the editing stage.

Film look
This photo shows some of the classic traits of film photography: crushed shadows, a bit of grain, and distinctive color rendering.

There are plenty of top notch preset packs for simulating film photography with your digital images. In this tutorial, we’ll learn to build the look on our own, and consider a shortcut to getting the same result.

Define the Film Look

Before we start recreating the film style in Adobe Lightroom, let’s think about what gives film such a distinct and desirable look. What are we trying to build when we pull the sliders and settings in Lightroom?

But before dissecting the look, I want to emphasize that “film look can mean many different things based upon the type of film that’s being used. Rich, colorful films like Fuji Velvia might be outside your expectations when thinking of film, for example.

The image below is a great example of landscape film photography. The image certainly doesn’t look dated or aged, but the colors of the sky and foliage are rendered differently than they would be with a digital sensor.

Film Example
Film photo by Reinis Traidas. Notice the hues of blue and green that set this film rendering apart from a digital image.

In general, the film look can be broken down to three key aspects:

  • Film renders color differently than digital sensors, which tends to render color as “true to life.” Different films each have their own balance of how color appears.
  • The black and white points of film images are different than their digital counterparts. Notice in the examples of film photographs that the darkest points of an image are more of a really dark grey rather than black, and the brightest points of an image aren’t an exact white.
  • Film images usually have a bit of grain—those tiny little dots that are most apparent in the shadows.

Here’s another film image to illustrate the shift in black and white points. The shadows in the corner of the image aren’t quite black; they’re a very dark grey with, in this case, a green tint that is characteristic of the film used.

Crushed Shadows in Films
Photo by Akio Takemoto. Notice in the corners that the darkest parts of the image are a very dark green-grey.

Although each type of film has its own characteristics, there are some common styles that define the film feel. Check out famous films like Fuji’s Velvia and Provia, Kodak Gold, and Ilford Delta to sample the many styles of film that exist.

Now that we have a good feel for what makes film photography different than digital, let’s learn to recreate the look in Lightroom. 

A Shortcut to Film Adjustments

If you want one click film styles for your images, but don’t have time to build and master the techniques in Lightroom, visit Envato Elements. You’ll find reliable presets among the treasure trove of creative resources. If you prefer to shop for the perfect look instead of modifying one, you can download an unlimited number of Elements’ 26,000+ assets for one flat fee.

These are some of my favorite Lightroom packs of presets that simulate film styles:

50 Premium Film Emulation Lightroom Presets

Beart - 50 Premium Lightroom Presets

Deeptone Lightroom Presets

Deeptone Lightroom Preset

UltraFaded Lightroom Presets

Ultra Faded Lightroom Presets

If you do decide to use Lightroom presets, I recommend that you still continue with this tutorial to learn how to customize the preset film looks. 

Watch & Learn

In the screencast below, I create a quick film look in Lightroom. We’ll address each of the three keys to the film style in this video.

//screencast here

If you’d rather work with a step-by-step guide, the rest of the tutorial will be your resource.

Tweak the Tone Curve

Mimicking the black and white point adjustments of film is best handled using curves. With an easy tweak, we’ll mimic the black and white point adjustments that we studied above.

To get started with the curves, go into Lightroom’s Develop module and scroll down the panels on the right to find the Tone Curve panel.

To modify the curves, start by clicking the point curve icon in the lower right hand corner of the tone curves panel. This changes our view and places points on the curve, which we can select and drag to modify the curve.

Point curve linear in Lightroom

To modify the tone curve, we need to understand what the curve represents visually. The point on the left modifies the darkest black in the photo, and the point on the right controls the brightest white. Using these two points, we can adjust the blacks and whites that we studied in the film look.

Shift the Black Point

To pull the darkest parts of an image from deep blacks into a grey range, select the point on the lower left end of the tone curve and pull it directly up along the left side of the graph.

In the screenshot below, you can see a simple tweak to the curve to pull the tone up and shift the black point in the image.

Shift tone curve - black point

Shift the White Point

Before adjusting the white point of the image, add another point in the tone curve by clicking near the upper right corner of the curve. This will hold the curve in place at that point.

After adding the new point to the curve, select the point in the upper right corner of the curve and pull it down along the right side of the graph. This pulls the white point in the sky and the highlights into a more muted light grey range.

White point adjustment

You can see the effects in the windshield of the car and in the sky in the example above.

Color Adjustments

It’s impossible to generalize the color characteristics of film. This is because the characteristics differ from one type of film to the next, and can’t be easily summarized. In fact, my favorite thing about film is that we have so many options and ways to capture the color spectrum by changing film.

Because each type of film renders color differently, there are no specific tweaks to make. I recommend experimenting with the H/S/L (hue, saturation, luminance) panel to create custom color combinations.

HSL Panel

The HSL panel has three main controls to adjust color:

  • Hue allows you to change the color with the sliders; for example, by adjusting the purple slider, you can move the purples in your image into more of a magenta range.
  • Saturation controls the intensity of each color. Try pulling down the blue slider, for example, to desaturate the skies in your filmic images.
  • Luminance controls the brightness of each of the colors in your frame; for example, you could pull down the green luminance slider to darken the foliage in an image.

Remember that each type of film has its own way of rendering color. Combine color adjustments to create multiple film styles.

Grain Adds Character

For our last tweak, we can add grain to give the image a more organic look. Still in the Develop module, scrolling down the panels on the right until you find the Effects panel, complete with sliders for adding grain.

To properly add grain, zoom in to view your photo at 100 percent. Only by zooming in will you have an accurate perception of how much grain is being added to the image.

Grain Adjustment in Lightroom
Working at 100% and adding grain slowly ensures that you don’t apply too much. Use the sliders to fine tune the character of the grain in your photos.

After zooming in, drag the Amount slider to a midpoint. The Size and Roughness sliders are ideal for adjusting the look of grain in your images. Larger, rougher grain is going to feel like high ISO film, while smaller grain mimics standard, medium ISO films. Adjusting the size and roughness is an easy tweak to further enhance the film look and recreate the grain detail that characterizes film.

Save the Look

After you invest the time to create filmic looks in Lightroom, you can save your adjustments as a Lightroom Preset so that you can apply the same look to other images with one click.

To create a preset, find the Presets panel on the left side of the Develop module and click the button.

When the next box pops up, you’ll want to uncheck all boxes except those that represent the settings you’ve applied. 

New Develop preset
When saving a preset, only check the boxes for the settings that you adjusted. This allows you to apply the preset as a finishing touch without affecting the whole image.

If you followed this tutorial, I recommend leaving only the Tone CurveTreatment (Color)Grain, and Process Version boxes checked. Being selective with the boxes you check will allow you to apply the film style without affecting other settings such as exposure.

In the future, to apply the preset to an image, simply look for the preset that you saved in the Presets panel and apply it to your images with just one click. Also consider building multiple presets with varying color, grain, and curve adjustments, saving each as your own custom preset style.

Create multiple presets for each of the film styles you’re creating. Pretty soon, you’ll have a variety of homemade film types to apply to your images.

Recap & Keep Learning

The steps in this tutorial can help you build a film style that takes your images back in time. The combination of color, grain, and tone curve adjustments in the digital darkroom can simulate traditional film processed with chemicals. Run with the skills you learned to bring the film look to your digital images and create multiple presets to make your own custom types of film.

If creating, tweaking, and applying presets appeals to you, have a look at a few other tutorials on Tuts+ to guide you through making other adjustments to your images in Lightroom.