In Defense of Filters: Why are Digital Photographers so Concerned with the “Film Look”?


Bangalore, India
Real Name
A couple of points:

What people seeking a "film look" to their digital images are seeking is often a chimera. What they are attempting to reproduce is the look of film once it has been digitised .

Grain (actually "graininess") is the perfect example. Much of the "grain" seen in film images viewed on screen is due to a scanner effect called "grain aliasing" (also the poor sharpening that Flickr applies when resizing images has an effect - a quick look at any of my own film images posted here at SC will reveal graininess that simply isn't in the negative or indeed in the original-sized scan)

(In the end, this is a bit of a personal bugbear rather than anything else. I'm certainly not going to persuade anyone at this point to stop thinking that these PP manoeuvres bear much relation to film, because it has become conceptually embedded in the discourse about PP.)

However, there really is a problem with the idea that a camera is "more directly recording reality".

A camera does not have privileged access to things-in-themselves. Painting or drawing don't have it either, but they don't have it less than photography.

This misapprehension is probably because a photograph looks so much like what we see, although I do wonder if it also has to do with a sort of scientism that persuades people that the more "technological" something is, the closer to "reality" it is.

But a moment's thought (well, perhaps more than a moment) about how a camera works (it doesn't matter whether film or digital), and how the human perceptual apparatus works, and how one works in conjunction with the other soon makes it obvious we're making a mistake.

We don't even have to invoke all that to recognise the nonsense:

Let's say I take a photograph of a chair, and then I make a pencil drawing of the same chair.
You look at both.
Does it make any sense at all to say that one is closer to the "real chair" than the other?
Does it make sense so say that one is a more accurate representation of what we see than the other?
(The two statements are not equivalent)

The reason why all this might matter - in a discussion about something as trivial as the whys, wherefores and aesthetics of post-processing digital snaps - is that any sort of discussion can only be weighed properly when we understand what assumptions are embedded in the discourse without being made explicit.

In your case, your belief that photographs are "closer to reality" than other forms of representation will make a difference to how you see and what you say about the aesthetics of post-processing.

And of course, in my case, my belief that all representations are more or less equivalently unrepresentative affects how I do photography.

Beautiful, just beautiful!

Now all we need to do is take the camera out of the equation, and we end up with Bertrand Russell.


Vicenza, Italy

Beautiful thread.


Vicenza, Italy
Just a short un-philosophically informed note. Or is it philosophically uninformed, sorry for the pidgin english...
What we see (like or dislike) is educated. It depends on what we have seen and what has been teached/told us is good or bad.
Try to explain what blue, red or... grain are to a blind person...

I am strictly... relativist. I cannot stand "purists". My cropped and PPed photo is not "real" photography? Well, do you get around into a car or do you really move, and I mean by feet or a horse to be generous?

Photography is nowadays a digital affair, and these are just tools. And I cannot know what is the blue you're seeing. Yes they can measure it, but human view is so personal that scientist haven't yet discovered an objective way to estabilish what anyone is actually seeing.

We can guess, use our own education and some external help, but I don't see a reason to limit ourselves in showing what we think we have seen and our interpretation of it. This happened in the film era too, when there were less variables but they where nonetheless fully exploited.

Nothing's changed. There is the mainstream, and the majority of us fall around there. Taste changes because there are some geniuses that make it change (and I mean the creators of instagram, of the commercial filters and such). TV perhaps. How many of us would like, today, a woman like those Michelangelo painted. They were beautiful. They are fat. [Please, this is a metaphor, not a politically uncorrect aesthetic judgement].

I like the freedom we have, I think it's, yes, liberating. But I am also aware that the OP's filtered images are not better than the unworked ones. They seem better to the majority of us and to the OP too. Now.

So, in general, I'd say we represent reality as we see and think it, in the way our technical instruments allow, and following the predominant aesthetics, within whose limits we try to find our way. A few go outside and in general you find geniuses among them; and people of success, but the two things aren't necessarily related. And some crap, which can also be successful... [put emoticon here]

This is not a pipe, wrote Magritte depicting a pipe. It's what he saw. Just change that farking "film look" with "my look" and you're perfectly ok.
Limiting the technical instruments to a narrower range of possibilities is like driving your car at 20MPH max. Of course you can do, it's a choice. Someone will go backwards too.

Cheers and sorry the short note has become a longish one.
An happy SE presets user who has also developed FP4 and HP5. I miss those, but I've never been as good as I am now at masking. :)


Top Veteran
At the beginning of my digital photography, some ten years ago, I never used any kind of Photoshop. I wanted to get a satisfactory look from the camera, and I wanted something that resembled the original scene as much as possible. Truth in imaging, as it were. Quite proudly, I would often say that my photos were exactly as they came from the camera, often not even cropped. Always aiming for both truth in imaging, as well as being able to present an image straight out of camera without editing, lead to a very strict approach to what I shot and presented, and my photography benefited immensely from it.


30D - Looking through the window by Archiver, on Flickr

As time went by, I experimented with Alien Skin and Photoshop, and fell in love with the looks I was able to get. While I never got into HDR (godawful bovine vomitus), I did a lot of black and white conversions, conversions to different 'film types' according to Alien Skin, and selective adjustments to saturation, contrast and sharpness. The creative aspect of postprocessing opened up to me gradually.


30D - Photo Review by Archiver, on Flickr

But what really got me was the look that many film cameras were able to create. Looking through flickr groups for cameras like the Contax T3, Fuji Natura Black, and the Olympus XA, really wowed me. It was colour and a 'look' that I was never able to emulate, particularly with a small sensor camera. So I bought film cameras. Lots of them. And shot with film. Lots of it. The discipline of shooting film, knowing that every single frame must count, pushed my photography even further. Each frame rewarded me with improved content as well as a rich and unique look.


T3 - The Lady of Shalott in film by Archiver, on Flickr


Natura - Southbank by dusk by Archiver, on Flickr

Ironically, the look of film I discovered is irrevocably bound with the digital postprocessing done by most labs. Every roll I shot was colour corrected and often boosted by the lab tech. But the looks of each film type were distinct, and inherently distinct from 'normal' digital images due to their colour palettes, dynamic range, levels of contrast, etc.

The above film image, taken with the Natura Black, had been absolutely smashed by the lab tech. I adored the results, and all the hits and likes and being on the front page of flickr Explore attested to these results. But the original scene looked much more like this, taken by the Fuji F30.


F30 - Southbank by dusk comparison by Archiver, on Flickr

Some preferred the punched up film look, others like the more natural look. I tend to prefer it rich and unique.

But it is this 'rich and unique look' that I now seek to put in every image. More gear, more choices, and suddenly I was shooting with a 5D Mark II, a couple of Sigma compacts, and a slew of small sensor wonders. As I found how to get the look I wanted in digital form, I shot film less and less, particularly after getting the Sigma DP1 and DP2. They have the most 'film like' response that I've encountered in a digital camera, apart from the Leica M9 and perhaps the Ricoh GXR-M.


DP1 - Chinatown by Archiver, on Flickr

To the OP: do yourself a favour and buy a good but cheap film camera. Get a Pentax ME Super or MX, and use the manual focus 50mm Pentax-M SMC f1.4. Shoot it with Fuji Pro400H or Portra; do some people shots wide open. Have it developed and scanned by a good lab and you will be very pleasantly surprised.

Do I use 'filters'? I've been doing this long before Instagram 'filters' were around, so I just think of it as distinctive postprocessing to create a look that I enjoy. I no longer aim for 'truth in imaging', but a rich and artistic sense of what was there.


E-M5 - NYK by the Bay by Archiver, on Flickr


E-M5 - Through tunnels of wishes by Archiver, on Flickr


Real Name
Napier Lopez
I know it's been a while, but had to necro this thread. I've been working on a VSCO vs Exposure comparison for a while, so I decided to reread it and some of the more recent posts I'd missed. Just wanted to say there are some wonderful insights here all across the spectrum of aesthetic preference. Actually gives me a good idea for a future post, where I might do a little interview of sorts with a variety of forum members of photographers about how the see the world and maybe why they see it that way. For example, I may fundamentally disagree with some of pdh's points (mainly the issue of reality) on the matter, but find his insight great. Or alessandro's post, with the very pertinent point about what is beautiful today may not be beautiful in the future. I'm sure archeologists in the year 3000 might be annoyed by all my unnecessary grain. Sometimes I am too, when I look back on photos =P

Just a wonderful example of how members of an online community can all learn from one another. Cheers everyone.
Milwaukee, WI USA
Real Name
and for our friends in the American south it would be.....

y'all necro

I have some vague memories of a basement punk rock show when I was in high school by a group that called themselves the Necromantics..... not to be confused with the necrophiliacs :eek:


Colorado Springs
I recently bought a used Sony NEX-5N. I also bought an NEX/M42 and an NEX/MD adapter. I will say that the "film look" isn't only the film, it's also the lenses. 35mm film lenses were engineered differently than lenses designed for digital cameras - whether fixed or interchangeable. Without getting too scientific, everything will appear differently with film lenses. It's usually a subtle difference, but noticeable just the same.

Here's a photo I took with my NEX and a 70s era Vivitar 200mm M42 lens. I opened it to it's max aperture of 3.5 and focused on the 55mm lens in the foreground. I also shot it from about 2 meters away. The lighting is through a west window about an hour before sunset. (None of this was planned as such - I was just eager to try my new adapter.) To me, this looks like film.


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