Grain is good

Grain is an artifact that's organically unique to film and depending on who you are, it'll either ruin your shot like sand in your chocolate or it's a grimy, gritty mouth-watering sublimity.

Sitting in a busy hotel restaurant surrounded by chatter while writing a blog entry isn't what most people would call perfect. But amidst the blathering white noise, this is where I find it easiest to write. Some of my favorite musicians still release new albums on vinyl because they feel that the LP's imperfections or "warm tones" enhance the listening experience and there now exists a black market for tungsten filament light bulbs because a 2700k LED light doesn't give a room that same comfortable and homely ambiance. 


One of the main reasons I stick with film in my photography is because it's imperfections add character to any image and grain is the signature imperfection of film. Digital cameras are perfect, too perfect and they've given birth to a breed of photographer to which technical characteristics such as sharpness matters too much. They've sanitized and disinfected photography.

Film grain is to be embraced, it's a byproduct of the complicated chemical process that creates the image itself and is therefore a fundamental component of the photographer's pallet. Film grain is the image and it's aesthetic appeal has gone to the grave as digital photography has taken over. To the digital photographer, "grain" is a dirty word and has attached to it the same stigma as "noise" or "pixelaltion" and so because grain is inherent to every film stock, film is apparently inferior to digital. 
Fine film grain
Kodak Portra 400

Of course, not every analogue photo needs gobs of grain. Some types of photo prefer a fine grain like the one above shot on Kodak Portra 400. A finer grain permits more detail which would otherwise be softened by a bigger grain. Some modern film stocks have such a fine grain that it's only noticeable when it's been scanned at an eye bleeding resolution. Fuji Velvia for one has been dubbed as "the digital emulator" as its ludicrously fine grain structure, strong saturation and it's extremely accurate colour reproduction is like that of a digital sensor. Google it and you'll see literally thousands of Velvia v.s digital comparisons. 

Lets get back on topic though, there's no use discussing grain that you can't see. If grain is good, then big grain is better. Here's some ways you can pump up the grain in your photos...

  1. Use a fast film speed - Faster film stocks (that's those with a higher ISO) have bigger grain particles to make the emulsion more sensitive to light. Don't get trapped though , some more expensive high speed film stocks are expensive because of the fine grain for it's speed. Like Portra 800, it's grain size is something more like what you'd expect from  a 400 ISO colour negative. For colour shots, I prefer Fuji Superia 1600 and as for B&W, nothing rivals Illford Delta 3200 for grain extravagance.
  2. Use cheap or expired film - Better yet, use expired cheap film. As I mentioned above, expensive film stocks are expensive for a reason. One thing photographers have always had to sacrifice when cheaping out on film is a bit of detail. The digital camera still insists on driving up the cost of film but cheap stocks are still out there. Expired film will appear more grainy than it's supposed to as the light sensitive crystals (silver halides) in the emulsion degrade over time, though this introduces other artifacts to the film such as fogging and colour shifts which may be undesirable.
Teapot grain
Illford Delta 3200
  1. Over rate your film and then push it in post - To rate the film is to set the camera with a different ISO than what is loaded. I could write a whole blog entry on the subject and I will but for the purpose of this one, over rating the film means to set the camera's ISO to something higher than what is loaded, meaning that if you obey your camera's light meter, you'll be shooting with a faster shutter than what is optimal for your chosen film. This will inevitably leave your shots under exposed but only until you push the film during processing. To push the film means to develop it like it's a faster ISO than what it really is. Develop the film at the speed you've rated it to. Again, pushing and pulling film is a subject worthy of it's own article. For instance a 400 ISO film stock rated to 800 ISO (-1 stop) and then pushed to 800.
Once you've loaded a cheap, expired, fast, over rated film stock and pushed it in post, you'll have yourself some ultimately grainy shots. However, you run the risk of joining the cult of lomography douchbags who use film only because they think it gives their photography an alternative and trendy style. It doesn't, don't be a douch.

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