What do you think of the 6 images below? Are they film or digital. Some of them are film (obviously digitised), and some of them are digital, some of which have been made to look like film. Do you know which is which? How hard is it to tell? I shall tell you which is which later in the post…
Really Nice Images
RNI or Really Nice Images are responsible for a series of film simulators for Lightroom, Photoshop and within some sort of app. In case you’ve lived under an analogue rock for the last few years, the idea behind these types of simulators is that they take the standard output from a digital camera and attempt to make it look like film. Does it work? Well, RNI make the somewhat audacious claim that it makes a “film simulator more convincing than actual film”! Whilst I shall definitely come back to that claim a little later, first I feel it appropriate to touch on how I’ve come to be experimenting with these simulators in the first place.
First Contact with RNI
I get contacted by some pretty unusual companies, at least unusual for a blog that’s largely about film cameras. One company literally hounded me about trying their photo realistic photo backdrops. These things are so far outside of my remit, yet they seemingly wanted to shower me with them. I declined. The point of mentioning this is to highlight that I’m not one to just take things from companies on a whim because the offer is there. So when RNI emailed me, my initial response was fairly negative (there’s a pun for you!). I shoot film, so when I want my photos to look like they were shot on film, for the most part I just shoot the stuff.
That being said, it’s mid wedding season for me, and though I only have a few booked this year, I have found myself once again getting bogged down in the annual process of relearning/remembering how to make my wedding photos look how I like them to. I can’t shoot a wedding only on film – as much as I’d like to, I just shoot too high a volume at weddings for it to be viable. As such it has crossed my mind on a number of occasions to try some of these film simulation presets. In fact on one or two occasions I’ve bitten the bullet, though to date it hasn’t gone to plan.
The last set of film presets I tried was one of the VSCO packs. I bought them in the hope that they would provide me with a good starting point for making my images look how I like them a little quicker. Unfortunately all that happened was that I got bogged down in the choices. If you’ve ever installed one of these film simulation packs into Lightroom you’ll probably be familiar with the impact of all of a sudden having hundreds of presets to try. Rather than speed up the process of post, the choice just became a hinderance. Not only because I could never choose a strong starting point simulator that felt like it was working for all the images, but I also felt like what I was trying to achieve in terms of a look to my images often seemed like it was getting further away the more I experimented.
In the end I gave up. It wasn’t the the VCSO presets weren’t good, I just wasn’t getting that much more out of them than I felt I could achieve myself with a slightly more simplistic approach to my post process. That being said, the idea of using presets has never really left me. So what with being bogged down in a phase of post processing wedding photos again, when I was offered some to try in return for writing a bit of a review, I thought sod it, I’ll give them a go.
Limiting the approach
Of course, after installing the presets I was faced with the same problem as I was last time – choice paralysis. There are countless presets that come with the version 4 pro pack I was given to play with. My heart sank a little. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this mass of choice felt like a bit of a dead end to me.
I emailed the chap from RNI straight away with my concern. His response was actually a big turning point in my approach to these things. First he told me that the huge choice is simply what the market demands, but actually he can see where my trouble comes from. The next sentence was really where the solution came from though – he went on to say “Personally I like limiting myself with one preset, using it as a starting point. For example Fuji Pro 400H is a nice allrounder or Velvia 50 if shooting landscape”.
This made me realise that the choice was only as big as I’d made it – I could solve the problem by just picking a couple of films and sticking to them as starting points. When I shoot film I mostly just shoot HP5 and Portra 400, so what better place to start than that.
Testing the RNI presets
For the sake of testing the presets I thought I’d use them on the subject matter that I’m most like to use them on again if I like them: wedding photos. What struck me as an interesting approach was to apply them to a bunch of photos I’d already processed to see if I liked the results the RNI presets gave me more than the shots I’d already delivered. The results varied a little, but actually once I’d got to grips a little with the slight tweaks needed, they were actually fairly positive in favour of the presets. I shall you talk you through a few shots as follows:
This first shot was crying out for a black and white conversion:
I must say, I very slightly prefer the RNI image. The contrast is a little stronger. I thought it quite interesting just how close my version was to the RNI HP5 though.
Time for a colour image of the bride in the final stages of her preparations.
I think I got the skin tones a little nicer, but other than that, the RNI Portra 400 has done a nice job again
This next image captured of this young man prior to the ceremony demonstrates another slight skin tone issue.
This next shot – shot using the evaluative meter toward a window – is a little dark, and needed a slightly heavier hand to get it to how I wanted it.
A couple more examples.
A positive outcome, but do they look like film?
So all in all, I was very happy with the results – certainly more happy than I anticipated being. That being said, I’m not sure they look entirely like film. Just to clarify that though, I’m not saying I don’t think they look like film, I’m saying I find it hard to judge within the scope of my own images. My brain knows they are digital so I’m having trouble discerning film-likeness in the images I’ve made.
I think the problem is, I can still see the digital traits that just stand out when you know you’re looking for them. Digital lost highlights just have a different look to them almost regardless of what you do to them in post process. And possibly even more obvious is that real film grain isn’t as consistent across highlights, mid tones and shadows in film as it is in these. That being said, at the same time I can also see some of the traits I’d expect from my choice of film in their corresponding simulators. Colour contrast is greater in the “Portra 400” colour images, and overall contrast is a little higher in all of the images – though deep blacks are cut off using curves in both presets. There is also an obvious and aforementioned use of grain which – whilst not perfectly film-like by a margin – does take the digital clinical over-sharpness away. Based on all of these objective observations I guess there’s some quite strong film-like look to them, and to be fair, if I didn’t have my wits about me – or at least they weren’t my images – I think I might just be caught out by them.
What’s interesting is that if you told me the colour shots were Portra 400 I’d probably believe you too – they do look broadly Portra 400 like. The problem with the claim that the colours look like Portra is that I for one couldn’t say for certain exactly what Portra 400 colours looks like. I know what Portra 400 looks like when it’s been scanned using a Noritsu scanner by AG, I can also quite often identify a Portra 400 photo that’s been scanned on a Fuji frontier by UK film lab (or Canadian film lab as they are now known):
But hold those two photos next to each other and they have a different in colour pallet. The Noritsu and Fuji scanners quite simply produce different colours. Both scans will be impacted by the native characteristics of the film, but how much do all the many other variables impact the colour, and more importantly for the sake of this post, how much of these variables have been taken into account when creating the colour profile of this preset? I don’t know the answer to any of this, so for me to say the Portra 400 simulator categorically looks, or indeed doesn’t look like Portra 400 in terms of its colours is just not possible for me.
That being said – and this is probably the clincher in terms of the colour accuracy argument – having flicked through the presets I can see that the Portra 400 one looks more like Portra 400 than for example the 400h simulator does. And of course, the 400h looks more like 400h than it looks like Portra.
Expand that comparison across the whole range of presets, and I guess you’d have a set of presets that – at least within their realms of their own finite existence – look relatively speaking as they should. In short It’s hard to pin point them as being specifically accurate to what they claim to look like, but it’s hard to deny – at least within the limits of my experience of emulsions – that the presets I experimented with make a pretty reasonable effort!
More convincing than actual film?
So where does this “…more convincing than actual film” statement come from? Well on face value it’s almost offensive to the average film photographer – it certainly made me do a swear word or two when I first read it. But actually, once you understand the context it’s pretty amusing.
So the story goes, someone on DPR did a blind test with more people guessing the results of digital images processed with RNI as film than the film shots presented. Of course the funniest bit about all that is the fact the blind test was done on readers of DPR – a website so overflowing with digital know-it-alls, is it and wonder they got it wrong?
Actually though – beyond the questionable intelligence of the what often appears the average DPR user – there is I think a strong reason why even the more intellectually robust masses might identify the simulators as analogue more readily than film itself. As digital has taken over from film so profoundly, and the increase in people’s awareness of photography has grown through iPhones and social media, I think what the large percentage of people think film looks like has shifted. Instagram is probably largely responsible. The filters that Instagram have perpetuated the use of over the last few years have – I’m almost certain – twisted the mass perception of what film looks like toward the more extremely characterful.
Of course the reality is, film – or at least analogue photography as a whole – looks like a lot of different things. Velvia for example looks quite a lot more like digital than than, I dunno, some Instax film. So, if you put a digital photo that’s had a Fuji Instax simulator applied to it next to a Velvia landscape, you’d probably find the average Joe – assuming they didn’t think you were trying to bluff them – identifying the Velvia as the digital image.
For me, as much as anything else – even though I haven’t seen the blind test – probably explains the outcome. The shots that were digital with RNI filters probably had stronger more “analogue” looking traits that the film scans did. Does that mean it’s more convincing than film? No of course not, that would be an oxymoron. All it really means is that the images produced with these some of presets are strongly compliant with what the masses deem as stereotypically “analogue” in look and feel.
So what about my blind test at the top of the post? They were, in this order: Film (Velvia – credit to Dustin Veitch – Thanks Dustin!), Digital (Leica M8 with RNI Portra 400), Digital (Leica M8 with RNI Velvia), Digital (Leica M60 with a tocuh of PP by me), Digital (Leica M8 with RNI Portra 400) and finally film (Portra 400).
Did you get that right? Did you have to look closely? Did you have to download the photo to look at the exif? (cheat! ;)) Does it even matter? The bizarre thing about all this for me is this idea of deception. The goal of these things is to make digital look so much like film people can’t tell the difference – at least on screen. But who are they trying to deceive? And why?
The real purpose
The answer – at least I hope – is no one. The simple point of these presets is to make digital look nice. The fact that they set out to simulate films – however successfully or otherwise – for me is little more than a marketing trick that appeals to a specific mass market. It also adds names to the presets that will make people intrigued, and it gives RNI an opportunity to market their product using the divisive, but intriguing slogan that they use.
Beyond this though, as mentioned, It also gives a basis for creating the wealth of choice and at least some idea of what to expect when you click from one preset to the next. By clicking Portra 400 – as much as I hoped I’d get something that looked like Portra 400 – I also hoped for a lighter touch to the post process… and that’s pretty much what I got. At least relative to what I’d have got If I chose one of the instant films…
No real replacement for film
Ultimately, I just want to point out the profoundly obvious. These things – however good or otherwise you think they are at doing what they claim they do – they can’t possibly replace film. Most people I know who shoot film are motivated by all sorts of reasons. The vast array of potentially different looks and feels to different stocks and analogue processes, the satisfaction of shooting something that is more tangible than a bunch of ones and zeros and the much more simple and easy to use cameras; all of these things and plenty more make up the different approach that real analogue shooting gives. I think the closest you could get to shooting film would be shooting a Leica M-D then having one of these presets apply on import into Lightroom. But even then, it’s just not the same is it? (not that I’d be complaining if I had a Leica M-D mind…)
To conclude …
I feel that – even by my waffling standards – this post has zig-zagged around this subject rather than cut straight through it. If I’m honest, this is because I really don’t know how I feel about all this film simulation lark. Do these presets speed up the process of obtaining a consistent look across a series of images? Or are they somehow cheating your way to a stylised look to your images? Do they help digital supplement film allowing those who prefer the look of film shoot digital when it’s more convenient or less expensive to do so? Or do they encourage an unnecessary departure from real film? Is this all a deception, or should it be seen as a compliment to the many facets of analogue photography?I don’t really know the answer to any of these deeper questions – so find my self sat in my usual position on the fence.
Of course if you change your questioning tact slightly I can be tricked into giving more definitive answers… For example you asked me if I’d recommend them for creating a few photos that looked like film? I’d say no, stop messing about on your computer and buy a damn film camera! That being said, if you asked me if I’d recommend them for turning an otherwise stark clinical digital image in to something more aesthetically pleasing? I’d say yes, most certainly, some of the results I’ve had tinkering with these presets have been really very nice. Finally, if you asked me if I thought they created images that looked like analogue photography? I’d say yes – bearing in mind my not being able to get past some of the digital-ness in my own converted images – I think they probably do as good a job, if not better than any other film simulators I’ve seen or used.
Ultimately though, if you want your photos to look analogue – stereotypically or otherwise – there are fair few arguably much more satisfying ways to do so than converting digital files… Just don’t let that necessarily detract from what RNI can specifically offer your digital photography!
Thanks for reading – and thanks to RNI for the presets!
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