Recreating the look of film in digital photography is quite the trend at the moment! Many photographers edit in a style that replicates the look of film photos that have been printed and have aged over time. The thing is, when the photos were first printed, though, they didn't have the green and magenta shifts that have become so popular when recreating a "vintage" look in digital photography. I have written several tutorials over the years that address how to get that faded/distressed photo look, but today I want to talk about how to replicate the look of film straight out of the camera, which lends itself to a clean, simple edit with creamy highlights and a balance of catchy colors with muted tones throughout. 

For this tutorial, I will be using the Clean and Creative Advanced Workflow along with hand edits to create a clean, bright edit that is reminiscent of film. For all of you visual learners, I have created a short video to walk you through the steps, and for those of you who prefer written directions, I have the recipe written out beneath the video. 

Note before getting started: keep in mind that the best way to achieve this look is to start with a properly exposed image in camera. This look can be difficult to achieve if you are working with an image that isn't properly exposed/white balanced. It can be done, but it will add more steps to your workflow.



The first thing I look at when editing for a film look is contrast. The contrast in film images tends to be a bit less than digital images, so for this example, I reduced the contrast to -50:

Balanced Lights/Highlights

One of the really beautiful aspects of film photography is the way in which the highlights are registered. They tend to be creamy, not too light or too dark, and appear less contrasty than digitally rendered highlights. I used the Recover Clipping preset to adjust the highlights, particularly in the blossoms:

Matte Finish

One reason why the "matte" effect is so popular right now is because it looks a lot like film. The Make Matte preset gives your image a subtle flattening out of the Darks and Shadows, similar to how those tonal values would look on film:

If you want to create an even hazier effect, you can move the point curve up in the Shadows region to make the Darks and Shadows even brighter:

Lower Saturation (slightly)

Many film brands tend to run slightly less saturated than digital images, but only very slightly less. When processing your digital images to resemble film, you may want to desaturate a tiny bit. In this case, I used the Desaturate Colors action from Clean & Creative. Be sure not too desaturate too much, though, or your image will look washed out:

After reducing the Saturation, I felt as though the Greens in my image had become too muted, so I went into the HSL Panel to increase the Saturation slider on the Greens only:

The Result

Here is a before and after example of the image that I edited:

So, just to recap, when editing to achieve a film look, here are a few things to keep in mind and be on the lookout for:

  • Contrast - Typically you will need to reduce the contrast of your digital image in order to achieve a film look
  • Lights and Highlights - Be sure to recover clipping in the highlights and lights
  • Matte Finish - Lighten the shadows for a flattening out/matte effect
  • Reduce Saturation - Film tends to look a bit less saturated than digital in many cases

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