Digital Retro Photography: Emulating the Film Look

During the early years of digital photography, professional photographers and advanced amateurs would scoff at its image quality and deservedly so. Digital cameras were still very expensive and yet were far outperformed by even the most basic film cameras that can be had at a fraction of the price. Indeed, those early digital cameras could not equal the resolution of film, much less surpass its image quality. Old-timers proclaimed that “digital would never look as good as film.” But they would soon prove to be wrong.

retro photography
Stranger No 2/100 – David by primenerd 

The Rise of Digital, the Look of Film

Fast forward a decade or so later and digital has taken the upper hand. Sensor technology has grown by leaps and bounds that, with the exception of medium format and large format, digital cameras now trump film cameras in terms of resolution. Furthermore, modern lenses undergo such advanced design and manufacturing processes that they are sharper than most vintage lenses ever were, tilting the resolution contest once more in digital’s favor.

However, image quality remains subjective and without getting into other performance areas (e.g. cost, turnaround time, reliability, ease of post processing), there are still things that film can do better. The “film look” — clean colors, pastel hues, muted tones, subtle highlights, the grain — is reason enough why some photographers just cannot relegate film into the dustbins of history.

retro photography
The Avett Brothers | Mid Four by Sean Molin

And so here we are. The vast majority of longtime professional photographers have migrated to digital, with some opting to retain their film gear either as a supplement/backup to digital gear or for personal project use (while shooting digital for paid assignments). The rest of us who took up photography in the age of digital mostly didn’t bother with film. After all, it was harder to learn photography on film — what with the complexities of manual focusing, manual exposure, film loading, film developing, and film scanning. Some of us wanted to try shooting film but could not find it economical. For while secondhand film cameras and vintage lenses could be had for extremely low prices, the cost of procuring film and having it developed meant that shooting film, while capable of producing excellent results, was pricier in the long run.


retro photography
Jared & the Mill by Robert Ramirez

The Best of Both Worlds

Fortunately, there is a compromise. It is what I would call digital retro photography — shooting digital images then altering them in post-production to make them look like they were taken with film. Indeed, all of the images strewn across this article are fine examples of digital retro photography. This technique can be achieved using a simple editing application with an array of color filters such as Instagram. But those seeking more precise adjustments would be better served by one of the advanced photo editors and RAW converters available today, including Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, and Apple Aperture.

retro photos
Morning on LaSalle by Bob Vonderau

The advantage of using a program such as Lightroom or Aperture for digital retro photography is that it makes use of presets. A preset is simply a pre-configured combination of settings that makes certain adjustments to attributes such as color mix, tone curve, clarity, and grain, among others. While there are a few presets bundled with both programs, there are hundreds of other presets available online either for free or for a fixed price. Among these additional presets, some were developed specifically to emulate certain film stocks such as Kodak Ektachrome or Fuji Velvia. A film emulation preset provides the palette, tonality, and graininess with one click, making digital retro photography a breeze.

retro photography
bird on a rail by Amanda Tipton

Among the more popular and polished film emulation preset sets is VSCO (available for Lightroom and Aperture; While it proclaims itself to be the gold standard for film emulation and retro photography, it is also a bit on the pricey side. A more economical option would be X-equals (available for Lightroom; Both these sets emulate popular films such as Kodak Portra, Kodak Tri-max, Fuji Superia, and Ilford Delta, among others. There are other film emulation preset sets available, but they usually have fewer emulations than these two. These retro photography presets should work equally well for both veteran photographers who wish to relive the look of their favorite films while shooting digital as well as newer photographers who wish to achieve the look of these films without shooting the actual films, some of them long discontinued.

retro photography
The Fog by Nathan Congleton

For those who want absolute control over post production, these retro photography looks can be achieved manually and without the use of presets on any advanced program. Generally speaking, film look should have lower contrast, reduced saturation, softened highlights, and a matte finish.

There you have it. If you ever wanted the look of film but, for some reason or another, could not shoot with actual film, there is no reason not to tweak your digital images, make them look like they were shot with film, and hop into the retro photography bandwagon.