Grain is Beautiful

Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600
Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600

Dear friend,

I have been thinking a lot about the aesthetics of photography — why is it that grain is beautiful, especially with film?

Why is it that most modern plugins and filters try to emulate the look of film?

Isn’t it funny that you don’t see any film trying to emulate the look of ‘digital’?

Imperfection is beauty

Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600
Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600

I think one of the biggest reasons why we love grain, the look and aesthetic of film, is because imperfection is beauty.

With most modern digital cameras, the photos are too crisp. Too sharp. Too perfect.

I think philosophically, imperfection is what makes beauty. I find the wear and tear of “patina” (faded jeans, brassing, peeling paint) as beautiful. I love Cindy not because she is perfect— but I love her for her imperfections. It is her imperfections which force me to be patient, more compassionate, and more empathetic.

“Warming” filters

Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600
Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600

There has also been a resurgence in the interest of vinyl records. Not being an audiophile, I didn’t really understand. But when I started to re-listen to some music on vinyls, I understood immediately. It was the imperfection of the vinyl records which made the music sound much more warm, friendly, and personal.

When listening to music on a vinyl record, there are cracks, hisses, and pops. The audio isn’t crystal clear— you hear some “warm” noise in the background, which I feel enhances the musical experience.

This is why I also love to work at coffee shops and cafes — the noise of the chatter of people and ambient noise is what makes me more creative.

Also when you’re shooting on the streets, the noise of the cars, people, and traffic adds more energy. Funny enough, I feel more at peace and calm when there is some ambient noise — rather than it being totally silent.

Grain is sublime

Kyoto, 2015 / Tri-X 400 pushed to 1600
Kyoto, 2015 / Tri-X 400 pushed to 1600

I feel the texture of film grain is sublime. The great thing about film is that the way the grain disperses is random. Therefore the dis-uniform arrangement of the grain is what makes it appealing.

There are a lot of digital grain simulations out there, some which do a better job than others. The worst grain simulations are when the grain is uniformly put throughout the image. The best grain simulations are when the grain is randomly put throughout the image.

I think grain makes photos more beautiful because they feel more authentic, more real. Grain makes a photo a little bit less visible, a little less clear— just like our personal memories, thoughts, and nostalgia from the past.

Do we really need sharper images, or more megapixels?

Tokyo, 2012 / Shot in RAW, processed in Silver Efex Pro 2
Tokyo, 2012 / Shot in RAW, processed in Silver Efex Pro

In today’s modern megapixel war — we are always striving to get cameras with bigger sensors, more megapixels, and more sharpness. But what we should rather be doing is going the opposite way — seeking to put an end (or a limit) to how many megapixels our cameras have, and instead, focusing on the aesthetics of the image (simulating the look of film, especially the grain).

I feel the biggest innovations in modern digital photography has been the Nik Presets (especially Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversions, which is now made free by Google). Not only that, but VSCO has done an amazing job with their presets (both in Lightroom, and especially on mobile). Personally, I preferred the aesthetic of the “A3” color film preset simulation on my smartphone photos (when compared to my medium-format photos shot on Kodak Portra 400).

Apparently Fujifilm is one of the big innovators in terms of digital photography — because of how their sensors work. Their sensors aren’t uniformly absorbing light in terms of R,G,B, (red, green, blue) — rather, their sensors randomize the R,G,B, intake. I’m not a scientist, but this apparently makes for better colors in images, and for their black and white images. They have also invested a substantial amount of money into research and development for film-simulation preset JPEG — using their lessons from their film department, merging it with their digital department.

What is the best camera to shoot with?

Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject
Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject

Now all cameras are “good enough”. Assuming we think that grain is beautiful — aren’t our smartphones “good enough” for our photography, especially when we post-process our images with VSCO or Snapseed, or any other software?

For me, I still prefer the ergonomics of a stand-alone compact camera (currently the Ricoh GR II), instead of only shooting on a phone. I have worked a long time shooting RAW, trying to create Lightroom presets which created a satisfactory “look” for me. And these presets mimic the look of the grainy, high-contrast film that I love to shoot.

I’m glad to say I have created a film simulation preset for Lightroom I’m finally 90% happy with.

Life is grainy

Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600
Busan, 2013 / Neopan 400 pushed to 1600

Let us proclaim — grain is beautiful. Whether that means to shoot with film (“real” grain)— or simulated grain.

Life isn’t perfect. It is jagged, rough, and imperfect. Life is grainy, fuzzy, and uncertain.

So let our photography reflect our lives — finding beauty in the imperfect.


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