Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Case For Grain

(Navy Pier, Chicago, August 2010, Elan 7ne, expired Fuji Superia 100)

This recent shot made me remember one of the aspects of film shooting that I really love, that is part and parcel with the film experience, and that (like so much that was once considered a drawback of film) is now experiencing a resurgence of popularity: grainy film.

(Harstine Island, Washington State, Fall 2003, Elan 7ne, Fuji Provia 100) 

I am old enough to remember the consuming quest for film stock that would produce "grainless" images - when landscape photographers waxed eloquently about the smoothness and lack of grain in Velvia 50 and the ongoing technical talks about how to expose/process/develop so that your final images showed as little grain as possible.  Yes, some people even then used grain artistically, but for the the majority of shooters grain was bad.

(Seattle, Washington, Fall 2002?, Canonet QL-17 GIII, Fuji Super HQ 200)

Now, when consumer-level digital SLRs and noise-reduction software can easily achieve near-pristine smooth images that could only be dreamed about in the days of film (and even from images shot at high ISOs where grain was just a given), grain is  no longer the big bogeyman of the film shooter, but often rather a courted "feature" of the images.  Film shooters have reversed all the technical wisdom developed to reduce the look of grain.  We shoot expired film, underexpose and cross and push process to our hearts content, just so we can get that "chunky" look.

(Seattle, Washington, Fall 2002?, Canonet QL-17 GIII, Fuji Super HQ 200)

I like grain, and have always had a thing for dark, brooding and grainy images.  When I want clean, crisp shots I reach for my 40D without a second thought.  Many post-processing programs now have options for simulating grain in digital shots, and there are techniques for layering blank frames of certain types of film onto a digital image to get an even more realistically grainy effect.  But simulating the grainy effect well is difficult.

(March 2007, Bloomington, Indiana, Canon 10D, color conversion and simulated grain)

And while digital noise can sometime create a pleasing effect, the mood is a lot more harsh and uncomfortable (sharp and rough) than the rounder, softer effect from film grain.

"Six String Samurai"
(Chicago Loop, January 2008, Canon 10D, color conversion, amped up sharpening and contrast)

How much easier to just pop in that roll of expired drug store film or some nice chunky and contrasty Tri-X and see what develops.

"Woods In Snow"
(February 2007, Bloomington, Indiana, Elan 7ne, Fuji Provia 100)

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