How to edit photos to look like film

In this post, I’m going to show you how to edit your digital photos to look like 35mm film, which you can save as a preset to use in ACR or Lightroom on your own photos.

Why because many photographers today who shoot digitally want to edit their photos to simulate the look of 35mm film.

I have been using film to take photos for over 30 years. And I enjoy the look of 35mm film like many other photographers do too.

You’ll see how to apply basic settings, tone, and colour adjustments to your digital images to make them look like photos taken with a popular 35mm colour negative film (e.g., Fuji Superia 200).

Making a film preset is relatively easy when you have photos taken with both digital and film cameras. Therefore, it is possible to edit the digital image to simulate the one taken with film. Thus, it’s possible to create your own film preset.

Simulating the characteristics of 35mm film basically comprises 3 steps:

  1. Apply basic settings to your image.
  2. Match the contrast of the film image.
  3. Match the colour of the film image.

This is the photo (Figure 1) I am going to simulate. It was taken with the Ricoh FF-9 35mm compact camera and Fuji Superia 200 35mm colour film.

ColorChecker, Fuji Superia 200 Colour Film
Figure 1. The X-Rite ColorChecker as photographed with Fuji Superia 200 35mm colour film.

1. Apply basic settings to your image

This is the photo (Figure 2) I am going to edit to look like the one taken with 35mm film.

It was taken with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III digital camera, with basic settings applied (See figure 3 below for details).

ColorChecker, Fuji Superia 200 Colour Film
Figure 2. The X-Rite ColorChecker taken with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (before tone and colour settings are applied).

Figure 3 below shows the basic settings I applied to the digital image (based on ACR/Lightroom’s new auto settings).

How to make a film preset, basic settings
Figure 3. The basic settings I applied to the picture taken digitally.

2. Match the tone/contrast of the film image

Next, you want to simulate the tone/contrast of the film. To do this, measure the brightness of the six grey patches in the picture of the ColorChecker taken with film, and apply this curve adjustment to the same picture taken digitally (see Figure 4 below).

How to make a film preset, tone curve
Figure 4. Point curve applied to the digital image.

3. Match the colour of the film image

Lastly, measure the hue, saturation, and luminance settings in the picture taken with film. And apply these settings to the picture taken digitally.

To do this. First, use the Color Sampler Tool to measure the eight colours in the film image. Second, adjust the HSL values in the digital image to match those values in the film image (See figure 5 below).

Figure 6 below shows the digital image with the basic settings, tone curve, and colour adjustments from the film image applied. This picture should closely simulate the picture taken with film.

Edit your digital photos to look like film
Figure 6. The X-Rite ColorChecker from the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (after the basic, tone, and colour settings applied).

Side-by-side comparison

Below, I have put the picture taken with the film on the left and the picture that was taken digitally on the right. The comparison is not perfect, but then neither is 35mm film (nor the same photo processed by different labs). But it’s good enough!

It gets better:

If you want to know how to invert 35mm colour negatives in Photoshop to make a positive image. Check out my other blog post.

Thanks for looking. I hope you found this photography tip useful. If so, please like and share. Thank you!

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