Emulate Film Quality in Digital Photos With Photoshop

There’s a certain quality to film that is both indescribable and uniquely striking. There’s no doubt developed photos have a different visual feel than those present on a social media timeline.

All photographers argue about which is better — film or digital. I’m here to tell you to dump your digital camera, or at the very least, buy an additional SLR that uses film.

That is, until now. Read on to capture, at least partly, the unique color schemes and shadow levels only film can attain on a quick snap or selfie in Photoshop!

What Is “Film Quality”?

The film look is a highly sought-after effect in image editing. That’s because of the stark colors and shadows film provides. Different image qualities — such as the shadow, saturation, color range, and white balance — react differently to different film. This often creates slightly different impressions of the same portrait or landscape.

film quality photo
Image Credit: /u/lil-rap

This reaction between an image and its medium, along with the accidental light and film grain associated with the process, creates the unique and impressive overall aesthetic of film. It’s these very qualities which are often emulated by image editors to create impressive-looking photographs.

This isn’t meant to imply that the overall aesthetic quality of film photography is better, or worse, than digital. It’s also not to say the use of post-production and image editing can match the overall quality of capturing an image using film. It’s simply a sought-after quality in digital photography.

film quality photo
Image Credit: /u/Gregory_DeBaere

The film effect is replicated with digital images using color correction and film-ish texture overlays. Since digital photos, by and large, cannot replicate the color and shade palette present in film, the visual data will be edited to simulate the contrast and depth of color film accomplishes naturally.

Incorporate Film Quality to Digital

The following method of creating a film effect puts many facets uner your control. That will allow you to invest as little or as much time as possible to getting the exact color quality of your choosing. We will be adjusting the following image, shot using a Nikon D3200 digital SLR camera.

film quality photo
Image Credit: yairventuraf via Pixabay

If you’d like to follow along but have no photograph of your own on hand, you can head to Pixabay — where the image above was taken from — or use another online image repository of your choosing.

Whether you’re an aspiring photographer or an up-and-coming entrepreneur, it’s never a bad idea to have some stock photography websites at your disposal.

Step 1: Adjust Curves

The first step to replicating film quality is adjusting the contrast of blacks and whites in your image. Film photographs typically brighten the blacks and darken the whites of an image. This creates a sort of faded, graying aesthetic to images.

To do this, we’re going to use the Curves tool. First, however, right-click your layer and select Convert to Smart Object. This will allow you to modify and control any effect you establish on the image after they’re been imposed. Then, open the Curves window under Image, then Adjustments, and then Curves.

Once the Curves panel is open, click on the points where the squares on your graph intersect along the line. This will create nodes on your Curve which you can then manipulate.

film quality photo photoshop curves

Then drag the bottom-left node up and the top-right node down slightly, lowering the contrast of your shadows and highlights. Then, attempt to form of S in your curve by lowering the second bottom and raising the second top nodes slightly. This will adjust the mid-tones of your image.

film quality photo photoshop s-curve

You should now note an almost instant, film-like quality to your image.

Take your time with these curve adjustments, ensuring you don’t change the image too radically in order to gain a natural effect. Too much contrast will do the opposite.

Step 2: Adjust Shadow and Highlight Tint

The second step is to make particular colors pop in your image. This is achieved through adding particular tint to your shadows, midtones, highlights. To do so, head to Image >Adjustments > Color Balance.

You have a choice of three tonal balances and three sets of colors to affect. The best way to use this tool depends on your own image. For example, the image above seems too yellow and doesn’t display the red of the subject as much as I’d like.

film quality photo color balance

I’ll add blue to the Shadows, Cyan to my Midtones, and Red to my Highlights to create a nice juxtaposition of blue in the background and red in the foreground.

film quality photo color balance after

Remember to take your time with this process: while the image provided lends itself to a simpler color scheme, your image may contain more colors to consider.

Step 3: Adjust Hue and Saturation

Next, adjust the hue and saturation of your image. The excellence of film quality sometimes corresponds to how certain types of film portray certain colors. For example, some film may over-saturate certain colors, given them a slight pop effect. Others may add a slightly orange tint to reds, or slight green tint to blues. This is significant part of what makes the colors taken in film so attractive.

Having to fix color problems is one of the most common edits you’ll need to do in photography. Digital images just don’t look good straight out of a camera.

To simulate this, head to Image, then Adjustments, and then Hue/Saturation. In the following window, click on the drop-down menu labelled Master and select a color. From the options below, change the Hue, Saturation, or Lightness values by dragging the meter left or right.

film quality photo hue and saturation

Hue will change color values, saturation will take or add vibrancy to them, and lightness will brighten or darken them. As you change these values, take particular attention the bottom color range display. This display will show how the particular spectrum of color changes in your image while you shift the values.

film quality photo hue saturation after

I’ve only slightly desaturated the blues and saturated the reds in my image, not changing any other values.

Step 4: Optional Noise and Light Leak Screen

The final piece of the effect is optional, as the above effect accomplishes much of what one would consider to be a film aesthetic. This step, however, integrates a few imperfections often associated with film photography.

First, add some noise to your image. While the default noise in Photoshop does not simulate the exceptional grain created through film photography, it does give the slight impression of old-school film grain. Head to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. In the Add Noise window, you’ll note a few options. Uniform will typically provide a subtler noise rendering than Gaussian.

film quality photo noise

Ensure you input a low amount for this value so as to not overplay the effect. Check Monochromatic to make the noise black and white instead of RGB. Next, we’ll add a light leak overlay to the image. Light leaks were a visual byproduct of film cameras, and are often simulated using photo filters.

Most phones today have great cameras, but not all of us are great photographers. Thankfully, there are some filters that can breathe life into otherwise dull photos in a matter of seconds.

Light leaks were caused by holes and caps in a camera’s chamber, which would allow unwanted light to leak onto the film. Since film is very sensitive to light, it would integrate a unique color scheme into a photograph. The following is an example of a light leak overlay.

film quality photo light leak

These overlays, often composed of color lines or gradients, will impose a subtle color change to your image. To apply, add an overlay and place it top-most in your Layers panel. Change the layer type to Screen, and lower the Opacity of this layer. Change these parameters until you achieve the desired effect.

film quality photo light leak overlay

That’s it!

The Final Film-ified Photo

This is the final product of our process.

film quality photo effect final

No amount of image editing can capture the truly raw and unique aesthetic film captures. The above techniques, however, will provide a classical and impressive aesthetic feel to any digital photograph you can find or take yourself. Keep in mind that this effect will only be as good as the amount of time you’re willing to tweak the individual values provided.