The above image looked fairly rough and ready under a loupe. It printed ‘OK’ at 12″x9.5″ but it comes alive at 20×16 where the grain is no longer ‘suggested’, but clearly visible and beautifully crisp. The physical manifestation of the print matches the subject matter and so the two are ‘in harmony’. Were I to have shot it on digital, I am not sure the image would be as effective if rendered in perfect detail and without grain.
Do Digital Images Gain from Grain?
Perhaps it’s not always the case, but think that it very often is true. This is absurd, some of you will say, because ‘everyone was trying to get rid of grain when working with film’. The weakness in this argument… is in the fact that it is not remotely true. A very many extremely accomplished photographers and print makers were pursuing grain for a variety of reasons and I believe that these creative objectives are no less valid in the digital age – perhaps even more so. I frequently hear the critics of adding grain suggesting that those who do so are ‘trying to make digital photographs look like they were shot on film’. But I wonder if this misses the reason why grain was considered of interest and potential benefit in film photography. Film of various speeds just happened to give us a varied grain palette to use as we wished.
Firstly, I believe that the sky is limit when it comes to presenting an image, right from before the moment of capture to the presentation of the image. There are no right and wrong ways and so we have many more options available than we ever did when shooting film. Achieving large grain-free prints in the past was the preserve of large format photographers, but this is no longer the case. Every digital camera produces smooth tones, at least in areas of continuous tone (such as the sky).
What does grain do?
Grain can prevent an image being seen as a literal representation of the world we see around us. B&W photography is often about creating an experience and this leap of faith can sometimes be more readily presented when there are fewer literal visual ‘reality hooks’ in the image. The lack of colour is the first step. The world is not black and white, so we are already one step removed. It is also not grainy, so this can be used as a second screen that allows us to draw the viewer further away from any possible literal interpretation.
Secondly, grain gives visual purchase to the print itself. Areas of smooth tone are not just flat areas of smooth tone. There is an inherent texture, which lends presence to that area of the print. It can somehow be more ‘there’ as a result, especially when contrasting with the smooth white borders of the paper base. Grain can help define the image area within the larger piece of paper. Grain obscures detail. Now, this was hardly an issue in the film days because the image detail itself was made up of grain. Even if this negative was enlarged very little, the image still comprised of a random structure of silver halide grains. The result was an organic feel, which perhaps complimented the organic and imperfect nature of the world as we see and experience it. Digital can, under certain circumstances, render images a little too perfectly. After all, pixels are all identical little blocks with 90-degree corners. Film grains were never this perfect and so did not impart the same sense of ‘cleanliness’ to the image. Though less evident with the increasing resolution and performance of modern sensors, we still hear comments of images that look a little ‘sterile’, ‘plastic’ or ‘synthetic’. While this can work beautifully with some subjects, it can look awful for others. I, for one, used to avoid some very slow films (especially in larger film formats) precisely because of the sterility and oddly artificial look that often results (my opinion). It seems absurd that high resolving films with very fine grain could produce images that felt less natural than coarser films, but its how I feel about it. An analogy some might be able to relate to is the CD vs. vinyl. Some would argue that the imperfections of vinyl somehow enrich the listening experience…. that lower fidelity is more pleasing. Perhaps grain can be likened to the crackle and snap of a vinyl record?
The above image works much better with grain in the white space to create texture rather than just tone against the paper base. Split toned prints with a crisp and clearly visible grain structure are dramatically better than grainless prints, in my view.
If you agree with the above, it means we can potentially benefit from adding grain either in quite large quantities, or very subtly indeed. As an example of the latter, I often find that images shot with the Leica Monochrom benefit, at the minimum, from a very fine sprinkling of grain just to take the edge off the otherwise perfect image. While even at 1:1 the difference is subtle, the feeling when looking at the resultant print can be quite significant. You don’t have to be able to see the grain clearly even up close, to be able to feel the changed nature of the print from some distance.
This image was shot as part of a mini-series to produce hyper-real images of ordinary scenes in Afghanistan. I wanted to create colourful open feeling images where the nature of the images itself helps to convey a certain message. Its hard to convey in very small files online, but is visible on the A3+ prints I have made. I added a tiny weeny amount of grain to just take the edge of the ‘digitalness’ of the prints. You don;t notice it, unless I show you a grainless one next to it.
How do we add grain? Well, its pretty easy in post processing as most of you know, either using your regular processing software (Lightroom, Photoshop etc) or through additional plugins. Personally, I prefer the grain produced by Silver Efex Pro 2 than what I can achieve with Lightroom. Its subtle, but Silver Efex does seem to produce more organic looking grain which has a more pleasing distribution throughout the tonal range i.e. the intensity is proportional to the density of the image. Once again, this is like film, but I think it is appealing not because of this, but because strong, high contrast grain in delicate highlights doesn’t really make sense, whereas it does in a solid mid tone. While Lightroom allows us to adjust the amount, roughness and size of grain, I still find the results less pleasing to the eye than Silver Efex, but I cant explain it more technically than that. There is nothing above that cannot be applied to colour images, but I find myself less compelled to do so. When confronted by large expanses of perfectly smooth blue sky, I do, however get the same urge to go spoil it with a sprinkling of grain, but YMMV!