Film recipes and why I don’t use them

Warning: boring shed pictures again.

There are a number of people creating film-simulation ‘recipes’ for digital cameras, with good reasons and results. Especially note the fine efforts of Ritchie Roesch of Fuji X Weekly. Fujifilm cameras are particularly set-up for this sort of thing, but other ‘better’ cameras have similar settings adjustments in them. My Lumix ZS60 in fact has some specific film simulation settings, albeit buried deep in the touch-screen menu system. I’ve done some such setting changes with my Canon as well; it is in fact defaulted to a Kodacolor simulation with rich, warm tones and slightly elevated contrast – because that’s how I like to shoot.

Film has four basic characteristics: speed (ISO 100-800 as not many cameras can truly go above that level), colour type (including white balance [temperature] and saturation), contrast (one of the simplest variables), and grain. Only grain presents difficulty for digital simulations unless you have a camera (like certain Fujifilm models) that has a specific setting for that. Otherwise you’ll just be varying the resolution, which is the “digital equivalent” (“grain” introduces a fine noise effect).

Now here’s the thing. One of the advantages of digital over film is that you’re not stuck shooting 12/24/36 exposure on all the same ‘film’ type. You can easily change from shot to shot, as you see fit. The film recipes can allow you some preset choices to go with, providing your particular camera makes is easy to keep the simulations easily to hand. My old Kodak P850 has three “user defined” selections right on the main function dial, and all I had to do was remember what I had them set for. It’s somewhat more difficult with the other cameras, as the custom settings are notoriously menu-accessed and therefor not the easiest to get at – or remember.

So failing memory and increasing laziness affects my own choices, and I resort to some pretty simple solutions. Namely not making the changes in the camera. I’m notorious for warning against shooting in B&W, and that’s not just because the shot might look better in colour. My experience with digital B&W is the out-of-camera results tend to be rubbish. Perhaps something like the Leica Monochrom can produce fantastic results (it had better for the price), but the average camera trying to assemble a black-and-white image from the RGB detection under a Bayer filter tends to come up short. More often than not I find the contrast lacking, and if I crank that up the dynamic range goes ‘poof!’ (or other humorous sound effect of your choice). Thus I shoot colour and desaturate if I think it will look better in B&W.

I have adopted a similar stance for other versions of film recipes. Basically, shoot what looks best to you as full colour coming out of the camera, and then adjust the individual picture on the computer if you think it will look better rendered a different way. Sounds weird coming from someone who also boasts about not doing a lot of post-processing, but for end results – which are all that matter – it’s a good way to avoid missing a shot that would look better under different settings. The other option is to shoot it over and over in all kinds of ways and then pick the best from a dozen images. Ergh. Who wants to do that? If you post-process you can also have pre-set film recipes and not fiddle around endlessly adjusting settings by tiny amounts and wondering if that’s ‘perfect’ or not. Film has latitude; let your digital images have it as well. Perfection is not required for art.

Examples time. Here is the infamous red shed shot with the Canon T100 set with my Kodacolor recipe:


One picture, incorrectly exposed I admit, and now we will process it to look like different film types. First, how it would look with the settings “normal” for the camera. This is not a different picture, just different processing to look like the standard output from the camera.


This one is simply desaturated to black-and-white:


Now let’s look at some colour variations. Starting with the silvery-blue, low saturation appearance that some people like.

“Bleach bypass”

Or you can crank up the warm tones (red, yellow, and magenta):


Or crank up the cool tones (blue, cyan, and green):


Which changes you make and how extreme you make them is up to you. What the subject is will also determine what effect you use, of course.

I’m not saying this is the way everyone should do it or even the way you should do it all the time; it’s just presenting an option to trying to get the film simulation right in the camera. You may find it easier to do this way than to adjust camera settings, or you may not have the camera settings to adjust. Likewise what software you have can limit your post-shoot processing. I just use the very simple GIMP program, and my files are JPEGs not RAW. As such there are certain effects not available to me on the computer which are available in the camera (or with the camera in the case of using colour filters). But it works for my “professional snapshot” style of photographic art.

By the way, one of the most fun things I’ve done with my Canon T100 was simulate a Kodak Brownie 127 camera from the 1960s: Shooting with the Canon Brownie. That’s not just film simulation, but camera simulation and even photographer simulation!

3 thoughts on “Film recipes and why I don’t use them

  1. Interesting. Reminds me of the fora activity over Kodachrome recipes for the Olympus Pen F. Tried it, didn’t see the similarities and put my Pen F back. I have a pretty good eye for Kodachrome 25 and 64, considering I used it for several decades before Kodak stopped manufacturing it. Nothing digital matches the look, and frankly, it shouldn’t. Kodachrome has it’s “look” because of its formulation and resultant limitations.


    1. I have to agree that many of the simulations seem to be for some version of the stated films that I’ve never seen before, which is odd considering how much film I’ve shot over the decades. One of the qualities of film which can not be duplicated digitally is its latitude, which is not the same as dynamic range.
      In the end all that matters is what the image looks like and if you like it that way.


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