Why You Should Add Grain to Photos (+ Best Way to do it)
Adding grain to photos may seem counterintuitive, but it's actually a powerful creative tool in post-production. Learn how and why you might want to try it.
By Ana Mireles
Have you heard of the film grain effect? If you’ve ever used a photo filter to give your pictures a vintage look, you’ve probably added film grain.
Film grain is basically noise. So why would you want to add grain to your photographs?
As you might already know, film grain is not always a bad thing.
Keep on reading to learn how to add grain to your advantage and when it is best to do so.
Why do Photographers Add Grain to Photos?
To explain why you’d want to add a grain effect to your photographs, let’s start by defining what we mean by grain.
Even if you’re doing digital images, when you talk about grain, you’re referencing something from film photography.
The film negative you put in a film camera has an emulsion made with light-sensitive silver crystals. These crystals came in different sizes according to the sensitivity of the film.
A higher ISO meant bigger crystals, and a lower ISO film had smaller crystals. Remember that when you’re shooting film, you have a fixed ISO.
Once you developed the film, the crystals turned into film grain. The higher the ISO, the more visible grain you’ll get because the crystals are bigger.
On a film camera, you can shoot film with a low ISO as if it had a higher ISO. Then, you would ‘force’ the sensitivity with the chemicals when you develop it. This would make the film grain more noticeable.
Digital noise is the equivalent of film grain on a digital image. It also behaves in a similar way. When you shoot with higher ISOs, you’ll have more noise.
You’ve probably heard that you should avoid using a high ISO to prevent losing image quality due to noise.
I’m sure you’ve also heard that whenever you have noise in a photograph, you can fix it in post production (i.e. with editing software), for example, by using the noise reduction tool.
Maybe you’ve also heard that you should be careful when using the sharpening tool because it can introduce noise to your images.
While all of these are true, there might be times when adding grain to photos is a good thing. Here are some examples.
Give your images a vintage feel
The first and more obvious reason to add grain to your images is to give them a vintage look.
Even if some photographers still shoot film, we mostly associate film photography with the past.
So, when you add a film grain effect to a digital photo, it automatically gets a retro look.
You can round up the vintage look of your images by fading the color, adding a light leak overlay, or turning them into black-and-white photos.
Add detail to a photo with a soft focus
If your images feel like they could use some sharpness, an added texture can help. That’s when adding grain can make a big difference.
Not only does the film grain effect adds detail to the photo, but it also gives a reason why there’s noise in the image.
Instead of focusing on the technical problem, you can make it look like it’s a vintage shot.
Noise can fix color banding
I won’t go into detail about why color banding occurs or how to prevent it when you take your photo. You can read all about that in this article.
Here I’ll briefly explain the process of how to add film grain to diminish the banding problem in your pictures using Photoshop.
- Go to the menu Image > Mode and select 16-bit.
- Duplicate the background layer.
- Change the Blending Mode to Overlay.
- Go to the menu Filter > Noise > Add Noise and start adding grain by moving the slider.
- Click OK when you feel it’s enough.
- Add Gaussian blur (optional).
- Change your image back to 8-bit mode.
How Can I Add More Grain to a Photo?
Start by importing your photo into Lightroom. Remember that this way, you’ll be working on a copy created inside the LR catalog. Your original image will remain intact.
By default, imported images are in the Library. So, select the one you want to edit and move to the Develop workspace.
On the right side, there are all the editing tools. Scroll down until you find the Effects section. Open it by clicking on the arrow next to it.
Here you’ll find two effects – Post Crop Vignetting and Grain. You want the Grain one.
The first slider is called Amount. Moving it, you determine how much-added grain you want.
The next slider is the Size. A smaller size makes the grain more defined. When you increase the size, the image will lose sharpness. It looks similar to using the Noise Reduction tool.
The third and last slider is Roughness. It controls the gritty texture.
Move all the sliders until you’re happy with the filmic look. That’s how easy it is to add grain to your photos using Lightroom.
Another possibility is to use Presets. You’ll find this section on the right side of the Develop panel.
Lightroom has three Grain presets – Light, Medium and Heavy. Then, you can adjust the visibility of the preset by moving the Amount slider on the top.
Can you add grain to iPhone photos?
Yes, you can get the grain effect on iPhone. There are many editing apps that have vintage filters to add a film grain effect.
Here’s how to do it in Snapseed. You can choose anyone you want. I decided to use this one because it’s free and available for iPhone and Android.
- Download Snapseed from the app store if you don’t have it.
- Open Snapseed.
- Tap the big plus sign in the middle of the screen or the word OPEN in the top left corner.
- Choose the picture you want to edit.
- Tap on TOOLS.
- Tap on Grainy Film.
- Choose the photo filter with the grain texture that you like best. You can see how they look by tapping on each one.
- Touch on the Adjustments icon to open the menu.
- Adjust the amount of grain added and the style strength.
- Tap the checkmark to apply.
- When you’re done editing your photograph, tap Export.
- Choose Save, Save a Copy, or Export according to what you need.
While most photo editing apps allow you to add film grain, you might want one that specializes in it.
Some good options are Grain Cam, Filmroll, Analog Story Editor, and WILD SHOT – Photo Filter Grain.
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