Everyone loves a bit of grain in their pictures, right? it seems like now we’re in the digital age and our shots come out baby-smooth and free of artefacts, we’re now trying our hardest to put that illustrious grain back into our pictures. As I’m your film guru for Breed, I’m going to show you the different levels of grain I’ve come across with my 35mm film camera journeys, and why and when to use it.
First off, its probably worth noting you can absolutely shoot a shot on film with no grain. The lower the ISO and the larger the film format (so like medium format and 4×5″ sheet film) will have less and less grain, so shooting a 4×5″ large format print on Fuji Provia 100f will give you little to no grain. As I’m primarily a 35mm shooter, I’ll have inherently more grain in my pictures (smaller physical negative size means I need to enlarge the detail more than I would with a bigger film size), but thats exactly what I like.
Little to no grain.
I believe this was shot on a roll of Kodak Portra 160 at box speed. The redness is due to indoors shaded lighting, and not overexposing the film too much. If we look at the left hand face, you can see the sharpness gives out to lovely creamy fine grain, which just reminds you of film shots from the 60s. In the shadows of the ear on the far right, the graduation from highlights to shadows is a smooth falloff with subtle grain characteristics. Instead of a smooth mathematical gradient like a digital file would record, the grain artefacts give a more visceral, random transition. Its this random grain structure than just adds a slight bit of interest to the fine quality of your images, and can transform it from a smooth digital file to something with feeling.
Using grain for effect.
This shot has clearly much more grain than the first. Shot with a high ISO film (Fujifilm 800z), and under artificial lights, the grain is large, obvious and unavoidable. In the black of the top there is an almost blue tint to the grain molecules, giving texture to the image. The image reeks of B-movie, 70s styled “grindhouse” horror flicks, and the grain choice was intended to enhance the low-budget effect. Even in the highlights you can still see grain, the grain is almost taking away some of the contrast of the picture and replacing it with a “haze”. Looking at the fur coat on the bottom left corner, the strands of fur are blurring and blending into each other with the sheer amount of grain and colour saturation.
Heavy grain use.
From the same photoshoot, just using a different kind of film. This was an Ilford HP5, pushed 3 stops in development. If any of that sentence confused you, don’t worry – I’ll be going over film jargon speak in a future post. By pushing a film in development we are able to shoot the film at an ISO far higher than the recommended speed on the box. Colour films do not fare as well in push-processing as black and whites. This is an ISO 400 film, but I metered and shot the film at ISO 3200. If I had developed the film as recommended, all my shots would be 3 stops underexposed, and would come out pretty low contrast and unworkable. However, by leaving the film in the developer for a longer period of time than recommended, the films grain becomes more developed, the grain gets larger and the contrast increases. Now the grain in this image is noticeable, the blacks are very deep and the skin tone is a mid grey tone and much like the colour shot, the subtle edges of hair and fine materials have been lost under a swathe of grain. You would shoot grain to this level if you wanted to emphasise a time of day or location perhaps, such as shooting at night or in a gritty dirty location.
I hope I’ve helped out a little here explaining about different levels of grain. I use my knowledge of film stocks to give an artistic effect to the shots, instead of letting the lighting levels dictate what ISO film I should use. If you’re looking to add atmosphere and mood to your picture, use a higher ISO film, or shoot on a smaller negative format like 35mm. However if you’re looking for clarity and sharpness, keep the low ISO films and enlarge your negative size to medium or large format cameras.