I think one of the most unproductive conversations photographers can have is when we compare things like Canon vs Nikon, Lightroom vs Photoshop, and digital vs film. Each one is a tool, a means to create our visions as artists. They’re similar, yet so different–especially when it comes to the great film vs digital debate–that the argument is not really worthwhile. Personally, I shoot both (sometimes referred to as a hybrid photographer). Why? Because I love the look and feel of film, but I started out in the arena of professional photography by learning on digital equipment, which I still own. However, I am leaning heavily toward selling all my digital gear and going completely film by mid-2016. I have my reasons for that, but that’s an entire other blog post!
For this post, I’d like to compare a few of the film emulation presets that are currently on the market. It seems that even though there are many, many benefits to shooting film, a vast majority of photographers are purchasing presets for Lightroom (or Photoshop actions) to make their digital work look like film. Film is timeless and beautiful, so I don’t blame any of us. As I said, I started out on digital and spent years trying to make my work look like film before I realized I could just shoot film. Some of the benefits I see to shooting film if you like the film look are as follows: I personally find it easier, more forgiving when it comes to overexposure, and a major time/money saver because I don’t have to spend 12 hours a day at my computer editing, which frees up time for other activities, including marketing and my favorite: shooting! That said, many of us do shoot digital (or both) and would like our work to either have a film look, or have our digital work match up to our film work, since having a cohesive style is important not just for one event or session, but also across our portfolios.
For the digital photographer who does not need to match film scans to digital edits, I’ve made the comparison below. These are 6 images, the first on the top left being straight out of camera (SOOC). The remaining examples are the same image, but edited with various film emulation presets (Replichrome, Red Leaf, and Mastin Labs). To be fair and consistent, each one was edited with just one click, no adjustments being made. I just wanted to pretend that we were not trying to match to any specific film image, as a digital photographer would not have any images to match to. Were we trying to match to film scans, we would obviously make adjustments to exposure, temperature, tint, etc. But this is what each preset looks like based on one click.
For each of these, it is so important to look at them larger than what this post is likely going to show. I don’t know if you can get the full effect and subtle differences between presets without seeing these images full-size one by one. But for me, the clear winner for this bouquet comparison (which I chose because of all the bright colors) is Mastin Labs Fuji 400h + All Soft. The greens are soft and minty, the pink peony is vibrant, the yellow yarrow flower is gorgeous against the green, and the red peony is the perfect shade. I do find the Red Leaf presets to be a bit warmer than I would want, and the Replichrome is too washed out where the pink flower is concerned, and the greens did not succeed in becoming that film-esque minty shade. Almost, but not quite. They are all nice, but if we’re going for a popular Fuji film look, the Mastin preset is the perfect balance for me on this one.
Next, we stick with flowers, but I have included an actual film scan. So the actual film image is the top left, which I shot with my Mamiya RZ67 Pro II with Fuji 400H film (rated at 200). The second image (middle top) is the digital we want to compare the film image to so that it looks as close as possible. This image is SOOC, shot with a Canon 5D Mark II.
Once again, just to be fair and show what each preset does just in one click, I did not make any adjustments. Normally, I would make adjustments to contrast, temperature, tint, etc in order to get the digital image to match the film scan as well as possible. Which one do you think matches most closely to the colors in the film scan with only one click? I would say it’s definitely between the Mastin Labs and the Red Leaf Film Emulsion. The Red Leaf Film Basics is too washed out with yellow for me, and I’m not even sure what the Replichrome has done to the peony out front there, but it looks almost gray to me. I have a preference, overall for the Mastin Labs edit once again, mainly because of the colors, the soft greens, and giving me the most decent shot at getting the digital image to look like the film image. In fact, as you can see below, I got pretty darn close after I adjusted the warmth just a bit.
The color match up with the Mastin Labs preset just makes me happy. This was shot in golden hour sun, so it’s pretty warm as far as color temperature, and the Mastin Labs Fuji preset just brought it home for me more than tweaking any of the others did. So let’s next compare a portrait of a person with these presets.
Here is the lovely Tessa in golden hour, backlit sunlight. The top left is my RAW digital file, straight from the camera with no editing. So for the film emulation presets shown here, at first my eye is most drawn to the Red Leaf Film Basics edit (top right), but I think that could just be because humans tend to prefer warmer photos (it’s a psychological thing where we associate warm images with happiness and comfort). However, when we look closer, I can see that the detail is lost in her hair color, and the greens are definitely not the soft, slightly desaturated color that I personally prefer (as do many–not all, but many–film shooters). For this image, I think in part because it is a person and it’s important to get the skin tones correct, each preset would need additional tweaking to get it just right, but I do like the greens and the detail in the Mastin preset, and close second is the Red Leaf Film Emulsion. It’s OK to like whichever one you like, though. As I said, it’s just all up to personal preference. There is no “right” answer here, especially since we are not trying to match a film scan with this one.
One more, and we will add a groom this time! This next image is one of my absolute favorites. This is Tessa and Brady. I think it’s a great image to use to try and emulate a “film” aesthetic because it isn’t perfectly sharp (no film image is ever going to be tack sharp, which is one reason I love film), plus it’s soft and super romantic. Straight out of camera (top left) I did overexpose this image a little and got some purple chromatic aberration, but nothing that can’t be fixed in Lightroom with the defringing slider.
Because this image started out slightly overexposed, we got some interesting results. I actually love the SOOC on this one. I would adjust each of these presets to get it to look as much like the SOOC as possible, but with prettier greens. To achieve this with the Mastin Labs preset, all we need to do is decrease the exposure slider by -10. Boom. For the Red Leaf Film Basics (top right) we would need quite a bit of work, including temperature, tint, exposure, and I’m not confident even that would get us where we want to be. Once again, I think it’s between Mastin Labs and Red Leaf Film Emulsion. To adjust the Red Leaf Film Emulsion edit I would take the shadows up just a bit, desaturate the greens, and move the green hue slider slightly bluer, and increase green luminance. That said, the Mastin Labs preset requires the least amount of tweaking in this case (per my personal preference/style).
Overall, I really love the Mastin Labs presets and though I own each one of these other presets, the Mastin Labs just creates the freshest, most high end look for me and is consistent. It looks great without attempting to match it to a film scan, and it matches film scans wonderfully. I promise I don’t work for Mastin Labs, this is just a total test that I did for myself when deciding on which presets to use, and every single time without labels and without remembering which was which, I chose the Mastin preset. Every. Single. Time.
I hope that is helpful and I hope that you are not going crazy looking at all the variances in colors, like I do. I didn’t even go into color calibrating your screen, and when we think about what clients are viewing our images on, the real insanity begins, right? For me, I just go off of what my prints look like, and so far the Mastin Labs with the calibration on my iMac (27″ retina display) just works well.
Hi, I’m Ashley Noelle Edwards, a photographer and business owner who specializes in weddings, portraits, and editorial shoots in natural light. I also enjoy blogging, styling, floral design, and mentoring other artists. I want everyone to become a photographer because I think it’s the greatest fun. My education is in psychology, which often informs my blog posts on photography and business. I am currently based in DFW, TX but we are moving to Sacramento, CA this August, and travel frequently all across the US and abroad for photography.