How To Achieve the Film Look Using Lightroom

How To Achieve the Film Look Using Lightroom

It seems as if the film edit is getting more popular every day. A lot of beginner photographers out there will do anything to achieve this look. The easiest way to do that is to buy presets but I want to show you how to create the look yourself. I believe once you understand how to create the look yourself you can begin to find your own style. I know too many photographers that take an image, slap a preset on it, and call it good. All the editing on these images was done in Lightroom 5. 

Before and After

I took this image at 1.8f 1/160 ISO 200 using an Elinchrom six foot Octabox.

Tone Curve

To achieve the film look, you are going to need to tweak the tone curve. If you go to the Tone Curve section in Lightroom and click on the square box in the bottom right corner, it will allow you to add anchor points. Once you add anchor points you can drag and change the tone curve. The adjustment that will give the image the film look is removing detail from the blacks. The blacks are adjusted on the bottom left of the tone curve. I dragged up my anchor point in the bottom left corner to remove detail from the blacks to them to appear matte. The highlights are in the top right corner of the tone curve. I slightly adjusted the highlights on the tone curve to soften them and remove some contrast from the highlights. This is the final tone curve I ended up with to get the film look I wanted for this mage.


This is the curve that gives this image a film look

I wanted to add a little bit of a warm tone to the image so I changed the tone curve to only effect the blues and and added a yellow tone to the highlights.

Adding yellows to the highlights



One downside to removing the details from the blacks, is that it can make your image appear less sharp sometimes. To fix this problem you will want to sharpen your image a little. The problem with sharpening is that it can make skin, especially on a newborn, look bad. Make sure to use your masking tool when sharpening. To use this tool you hold down the option key (alt on a pc) and drag your masking bar to show exactly what is being masked. Anything that is black is being left alone, while anything that is white is being sharpened. The masking tool determines where there is an edge in the image, and will only sharpen that.

Masking tool



My hope is that more people will begin to understand Lightroom and how to edit more effectively. When you sit down to edit your image from scratch, rather than using presets, you gain a new appreciation for your work. You will start to understand how lighting effects your image as whole, and how cropping in camera limits your cropping in post processing. As you learn how to use the tools in Lightroom, you will start to develop your own style. When you have your own style, your will start to separate yourself from all the other photographers that simply use presets they have bought. Look at all of the widely known photographers. They all have their own style that distinguishes them from the rest. Actively search for who you are, and your style. It's not something that comes easily, or quickly. It takes time, dedication, and a lot of photos to find who you are and what makes you different. 

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Deleted Account's picture

"It seems as if the film edit is getting more popular every day. A lot of beginner photographers out there will do anything to achieve this look. The easiest way to do that is to buy presets but I want to show you how to create the look yourself."

Actually, the easiest way is to buy and use film.

David Vaughn's picture

So buying the film, shooting it, and developing it is easier than moving sliders in Lightroom? lol

I get what you're saying, but I don't think you worded it well. Accuracy and authenticity don't necessarily mean simplicity.

Anonymous's picture

Right, obviously this article was more geared towards beginners. Now, if you can go buy a film camera and shoot on it, do it! It forces you to perfect your shot before you take it, rather than relying on editing skills.

Deleted Account's picture

Are you saying you'll get something other than "the film look" from film? :)

David Vaughn's picture

No, where did I say that? I said that shooting film will get you the authentic, true look of film. Using LR can get you an approximate digital representation of the aesthetic of film.

While using film will give you the "true" film look, it's more complex and expensive then using LR.

Ralph Hightower's picture

Depending upon what price you pay for a DSLR, it may take a few years for the price of film and developing to equal the price of a DSLR. I bought a Canon A-1 in 1980 which I still use. In 2012, assuming developing cost of $10 with scans and no prints, plus $5 and shooting 50 rolls per year, for a film camera where the Return on Investment has been realized, it would take a little over four years of shooting 50 rolls of film to realize the cost of a Canon 5D Mk III kit ($3500) with 24-105 f4L (12/2014)..
I bought a used Canon F-1N with the AE Finder and AE Motor Drive and two focusing screens for $450 in 2013. Looking at a 1982 Calumet catalog, the price new would be slightly higher in 1982 dollars. I haven't adjusted 1982 dollars to 2014 dollars.
But digital has immediate feedback; C-41 developing is disappearing from my area, so my cost and turnaround will increase with shipping.

Hunter Harrison's picture

As someone who shoots film professionally and constantly ($9800 film lab bill for 2014), I would say shooting, developing, scanning and delivering film is way, way, way easier than digital with Lightroom.

Let's look at my film workflow. Shoot, ship film to lab, have some coffee while it's developed and scanned. When the film is ready, I spend 15 minutes downloading, culling, tweaking and then delivering to the client. Seriously - just 15 minutes. Why? Because my lab is awesome!!!

Now with digital, the workflow looks different. Shoot, download, cull a brazillion photos because I over-shot (hey, digital is free right?), spend forever editing in Lightroom, export from RAW takes for ever, and then I finally deliver to the client. Hours later, I'm finally done. Hey, where's my coffee?

While film costs more, I can shoot & sell more to make up for it. Sitting in front of the computer ain't fun. While you edit, I'll shoot.

And my photos will look more like film than anything, anyone can produce in Lightroom.

Anonymous's picture

While I agree with you hunter that you won't ever get a genuine film shot unless you shoot on film, this article was supposed to just simply teach how you can try to mimic film using Lightroom. I think we all know nothing is as good as the real thing.

As far as editing time goes, I am very very careful how I shoot. My turn over time for a family photo session with 100 images all edited is about an hour.

Love to see some of your work by the way.

David Vaughn's picture

I would say that, for someone who doesn't care about the discussion of, "Oh yeah, I used Portra 400 and a Canon AE-1 (or whatever) for this photo" this method of getting a generic, nondescript, film look is easier.

But if taking potshots at various aspects of digital that aren't even inherent to the medium makes you feel better, be my guest.

Spy Black's picture

The problem I've seen with these "film look" digital processes, whether you use a plugin or hack it yourself, is that they rarely look like film.

The other thing is that, although the "numbers game" may look correct, it's always open to a lot of interpretation, and the end result, while it may have a nice look and you may be satisfied with it, may not necessarily look like film. Your own example is exhibit A. What makes your "after" shot film-like?

In that respect, the comment above about actually using film is not that incorrect in it being the simplest way to get the "film look".

james johnson's picture

As long as film has to be scanned and manipulated, then viewed on a monitor, I don't think it matters what your original medium is. There are so many aesthetic decisions and hardware/software changes applied between capture and display, that the subtlety of the original capture is essentially replaced by what you do with it.

Spy Black's picture

Unless, of course, you scan in and leave as be. ;-)

james johnson's picture

No one does that, but even if they did, it's still the same thing.

Even if it is scanned and not touched again, it has to be interpreted by the sensor and passed through a processor. Then interpreted by another processor/graphics card and finally by a monitor.

Spy Black's picture

I think you're splitting hairs here. :-)

james johnson's picture

I'm not sure I am. My point is that once you digitize film, a lot of what gives it the film look is deteriorated in the process... you have to make adjustments to bring that look back, which is the same thing you would do with digitally captured images.

This is especially true if you don't have high end scanner. Lower end scanners really suck and degrade the image terribly. You would be better off mimicking film with a digital capture.

Spy Black's picture

Not necessarily. When I scan film, whether it's with a flatbed or a high quality film scanner, the only thing I check is exposure, contrast, and color balance going in to make sure they look normal. On a flatbed I usually need to additionally add some smart sharpen to compensate for a flatbed's inability to focus. That's it.

Also, really I don't know of anyone who shoots film to bring into digital to have a film look, although I'm sure someone may do that. This whole "film look" thing is mostly a fad on the digital side, started by somebody who lamented that somehow digital "didn't look as good as film", and all that hyperbole.

Most people who scan film in is because they have a film source. Choosing to modify it after the fact has nothing with it being film. It becomes an image to work with, and the end result may not look like film at all.

David Vaughn's picture

I don't think the people will be using this method are too worried about how specific-to-film their photos look, because chances are, the people they show the photos to won't know what high quality film photos look like anyways.

That is why these tutorials often give a generic film look in that it is made up of certain traits that the pop culture of people who have not dealt with film personally, have associated with film. IE: faded blacks and yellowing.

If you want the look of, say, Fuji Velvia, then yeah, the best way to go about it is to actually shoot Velvia.

These tutorials aren't for those people.

Jacob delaRosa's picture

So what kind of film look are we talking about here? Portra 160? Maybe Provia 100 or hell even Kodachrome. And then there's the difference between 35mm and 6x7 which is gargantuan. Don't even get me started on 4x5. Point is that there's a lot more to the way film looks than just throwing around a few sliders. There are tons of film stocks out there and no two are the same.

Andre Miranda's picture

Hi Kenny!!
Nice article!!
I already knew how to create this effect manually on LR, but im sure that there are a lot of beginners (like me) out there that found it really useful. This effect is being used a lot and is kind a of trend here in Rio, Brazil, nowdays. So, anyways, I just wanted to thank you for your time to make this article. Because I know how some things that might sound silly to some, can be really useful to others who are starting. cheers buddy...

Graham Marley's picture

I will always tell people that learning what every tool in LR does is not only very important to using the software as an editor, but it really isn't even that hard. Aside from the curves tool, it's just a bunch of sliders: push them around to see what they do, there's very little more to it than that.

With that said, I do think there are real benefits to some preset packs. VSCO packs do a lot of color mixing grunt work between the RGB curves, HSL panels and raw calibration settings,
and that's a valuable time saver. What that means for me is they provide a great starting point for an image, from where I will probably need only 3 to 5 additional moves to get the image to be where I want it, and since I know Lightroom's tools on a predictable level, its a breeze to build out from there.

james johnson's picture

I have a colleague who started in film (even before I did) who refers to his workstation as "the choice machine".

I think it's an appropriate title.

Serge Chabert's picture

Ironic : shooting digital and then editing to get the film look.
If you want to get the film look, why not shoot with film in the first place ? If more people were shooting film instead of shooting digital and edit to get the film look, maybe manufacturers would not have had to discontinue their film product.

Wodan Rheingold's picture

This retro film look trend wouldn't have been here if everyone wasn't switched to digital in the first place. Before digital, it wasn't a 'look', it was 'photography'. Now it's just a trend that will go away in a few years.

Michael Meeks's picture

Lets argue. That's constructive!