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Image Editing Tutorial – Realistic Film Grain

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Note: For this tutorial I'm using Adobe Photoshop CS4, but this technique will work in any image editing program that supports layers and features a Gaussian Blur filter, including Photoshop Elements, Corel Paint Shop Pro, PhotoImpact and GIMP.

When I talk to photographers about digital cameras, one of the things I hear most often is that they miss the atmospheric quality of a grainy, high contrast black-and-white print. Many modern digital cameras can produce high quality colour photographs in low lighting conditions where previous generations of photographers would have had to use high-ISO monochrome film and push-processing to capture an image. This technique would allow photographers to shoot in very low light conditions, but the resulting images would be extremely grainy and high contrast. While a digital image is technically better in every measurable respect, there is something very appealing about those grainy old photos and the way they capture the atmosphere of the time.

Adobe Photoshop has a built-in filter that is supposed to simulate film grain, but in my opinion it doesn't produce a particularly realistic-looking effect. Fortunately there is a fairly easy way to simulate black-and-white film grain more realistically using some simple filters that are common to most image editing programs.

The first thing we need is a monochrome image, and preferably one with good contrast. Since we're going for a retro look, I'll use this photo of my friend Ivan, taken as a promotional photo for his band. It has a nice 1950's look to it that will suit the technique well. I've already increased the contrast slightly using the Levels function.

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By adding our ersatz film grain we can produce something a lot more atmospheric, like this:

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Read on to find out how it's done…

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