Project Description

This video teaches the fundamentals of applying and controlling grain effects to enhance your photos. If you love the look and feel of grain, or if you’re drawn to the nostalgia of analog film, check out this tutorial.

Photos: Erin CostaHalftone StudiosJay Cassario


What is film grain? Film grain refers to the visible texture of photographic film. The little fractal lumps you can see are actually clusters of many grains. You would need a microscope to see individual film grains. But I’ll use the term grains to refer to those visible lumps, since that is what most people mean.

Let’s talk about how we evaluate film grain effects. There are three criteria to consider. They are where the grain is present in the image (as in a specific tone or hue), how much of the grain texture is visible, and the texture’s appearance.

If you make strong adjustments to your image in post processing, such as increasing the exposure three or more stops, more often than not, there will be visible noise in the photo. Noisy photos can make great candidates for grain effects. Added grain texture blends with the noise. The noise then becomes grain to the eye and looks like it is supposed to be that way. If you balance it correctly, it can be really pretty.

How to create film grain effects in Exposure

Exposure gives you unique controls over many of aspects of film grain effects. On the Grain panel, I’ll select one of the presets as a first step rather than build the effect from scratch. Exposure’s presets are customizable, so after I adjust it to suit this image, I can save it as a custom preset to use again and again in the future. On this panel, you can save just the grain portion of any effects you make as a custom preset, here.

The Amount controls designate where the grain effects will appear in the image’s shadows, midtones, or highlight tones. This decision of where to emphasize the grain effects is largely an artistic choice, but I don’t recommend applying the grain evenly across the entire photo. Even distribution of grain can look more like noise, which doesn’t have an analog filmic quality to it.

The Type section controls the visible texture of the grain effect. Push processing makes the film grain more pronounced and increases the image contrast. A few good examples of this are the variants of pushed B&W Kodak Tri-X film in the B&W FIlms presets category.

Lastly, the size of the grains themselves are controlled at the bottom of the panel. This is where you choose the relative size of the film grains vs the format of the film. Under the dropdown are popular film formats, such as 35mm, or 135. 120, or 50mm medium format film, and 4×5 film. The larger the film format you choose, the smaller the grain size. Larger film types will produce a more subtle grain look, so 4×5 grain may work better on a portrait or an architectural shot, whereas big 135 film grain might look amazing on a dark and moody street photography scene.