Adding Realistic Film Grain

It’s ironic that as camera makers are delivering cleaner images, many of us are striving for that grainy film look. Of course, digital noise has a different feel from film grain and mono images can look too smooth, so let’s look at how to add grain.

The obvious starting point would seem to be Photoshop’s Film Grain filter. However, I find a combination of the Noise and Gaussian Blur filters gives more control with a more random feel to the effect.

As with most Photoshop work, it pays to keep your edits separate from your image. I’ll be using the Smart Object feature in Photoshop to allow you to go back and re-edit the grain effect later. Making the Layer into a Smart Object also allows the filters applied to the layer to remain editable.

1. Make a new layer

Open your image and add a new layer. Re-name the layer Film Grain and click Edit>Fill. In the dialog box set the Contents to 50% Gray, then click OK. Change the layer’s Blending Mode to Overlay. This blending mode only shows pixels lighter or darker than 50% grey so has no effect yet.

2. Convert to a smart object

Next convert the layer to a Smart Object using Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object. The layer icon will change and any filters we now apply will be Smart Filters. All the settings will remain editable allowing fine-tuning of the results. If you save the entire file with Smart Objects you can rework the image at any time.

3. Add the grain

Start to build up the grain effect. Select Filter>Noise>Add Noise and in the dialog box click the box for Monochromatic. Select Gaussian Blur to give a more random effect and choose a value for Amount. Pressing the Ctrl and ‘+’ keys zooms in to 100% while you’re experimenting with the settings.

4. Smudge the grain

The initial effect can be a bit sharp looking so we’ll add some blur. Select Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and adjust the settings to soften the grain. Click OK when you are happy. Double click the Hand tool to zoom out to full page. Toggle the Film Grain layer on and off to compare the results.

5. Time to fine-tune the effect

You can go back and change the settings by double clicking on the filter name in the layer stack. This brings up the original dialog box and you can adjust the settings further. It is worth saying that if there is another filter above it in the stack you won’t see the effect until you OK the change.

6. Final step

I decided to add a touch more fine grain above the blur filter to finish off. Using the Noise Filter again but this time with a low setting of 9%. Allow the previous adjustments to show through by double clicking the Blending Options icon to the right of the filter name and reducing its Opacity to around 50%.

Taken from the January 2011 issue of Advanced Photographer magazine