Simulating Classic Film Effects in Photoshop

18th September 2015 Image Editing


One of the great advantages of using film is the ability to change colour palettes just by changing film types. Want bold, punchy landscapes? Use Velvia. Want delicate, smooth tonality? Try Astia. Want surreal effects? Use a sheet of infrared film. This has now been lost with the addition of digital sensors, although many photographers that are shooting digitally, want to be able to simulate these classic film effects in Photoshop.

There are a collection of techniques to be found across the web, or in books. These particular techniques below have proved popular with other photographers and clients and although I did not invent any of these techniques, they have been well tested and refined and used in high end Commercial Photography. They are in my opinion the best bases from which to work.

Most of these techniques work well, but only with a suitable image, so some experimentation is required, along with experience and judgment to decide which technique suits which image - not just as a Photoshop technique, but also with respect to the content and meaning of an image. I think it is important in Photoshop not to just do what looks 'cool' but to try and achieve that which looks right.

Most of these techniques can be made into Photoshop actions, and if you use adjustment layers, leave the image in a state ready for final tweaking. There is a downloadable action set for you at the bottom of this page, which contains a few of these already in action form for you.

Techniques and Notes

Screen shots have not been provided for all techniques as they are really bases from which to work - no Photoshop technique works equally well on all images. Ultimately, each image will need to be tweaked as appropriate to get professional results, and only trial and error and experience will tell you which techniques are appropriate for a certain image.

Digital Lith

Digital Lith is a process that produces high contrast, toned prints.

Example of a Digital Lith Image
Example of a Digital Lith Image
A basic approach

Make a copy of your image as a layer. On the original image layer, use a curve to increase the contrast and clip the mid and high tones. On the copy, use a curve to decrease contrast and clip the low tones. Add gaussion noise to the original image layer to simulate grain. Change the layer blending mode to multiply and tone the copy layer with a curve (season to taste).

These are the sorts of curves you need:

A second approach

The above approach provides quick and easy results of reasonable quality. A better approach to achieving lith-like tonality is to use duo-tones. This way you can get lith like tonality - with or without lith like grain, it's your choice.

First, you need to be in duo-tones mode (you must in grayscale mode to switch to this). Select a total black and a colouring tone (again, season to taste). With the total black gradient, make the left hand side of the curve flat to zero, all the way up to the 70 to 80% mark. You can make the right hand side flat to 100% if you choose, which reduces the contrast in the low tones. For the coloured tone curve, lower the right hand point to about 50% or even less.

Bleach Bypass

Bleach Bypass is a film laboratory technique where, by skipping the bleach stage in the color processing sequence, silver is retained in the image along with the colour dyes. The result is effectively a black and white image superimposed on a colour image. Bleach Bypass images have increased contrast, reduced saturation, often giving a pastel effect. This technique, combined with digital grading, is very popular on shows like CSI.

The Technique

Take your photo and copy it to another layer right above the original, set it's blending mode to overlay, and add a hue and saturation adjustment layer above it and desaturate to your liking (try -60). Add a curves adjustment layer above it and tweak the colors to your liking. The overlay step will increase your contrast and give your colors a harsh look. All of these steps can be adjusted by opacity. Generally, you will find a curve with the blues and greens pumped up to be appropriate - typically this chemical effect is applied to cooler film stocks.

Cross Processing

Cross Processing is deliberately developing E6 film in C41 chemistry or vice-versa and gives effects like this:

A Digitally Cross Processed Image
A Digitally Cross Processed Image
The Technique

These curves for this one are a bit complicated so I have just put them up for download. See the downloads section below.

Soft Focus at Time of Capture

Duplicate the image layer and apply an appropriate amount of gaussian blur - a bit more than you want in the final result. Go to the edit menu and choose 'Fade Gaussian Blur'. Change the blending mode in the fade dialog box to 'lighten'. Season the amount to taste. This causes the 'whites' to bleed into the 'blacks' and simulates the old 'stocking over the lens' effect.

Soft Focus at Time of Printing

Duplicate the image layer and apply an appropriate amount of gaussian blur - a bit more than you want in the final result. Go to the edit menu and choose 'Fade Gaussian Blur'. Change the blending mode in the fade dialog box to 'darken'. Season the amount to taste. This causes the 'blacks' to bleed into the 'whites' and simulates diffusion printing in the dark room.

Soft Overlay

This isn't particularly like any classic soft focus effect, but it is my favourite for high key portraits. Simply duplicate the image layer, change the blending mode to overlay, and the opacity to about 50%. Now, add an appropriate amount of gaussian blur to the layer. This can do wonders for skin tones!

Tri-X Tonality

The best basic technique to convert from colour to grayscale is to use the channel mixer in monochrome mode, with the total values for the R, G and B channels equalling one hundred - most of the time I have the red channel at 70% of this or more. However, I'm always looking to emulate the old classic Tri-X look in this process, and I have a useful action to do this. This will bring a surprisingly good match of Tri-X tonality to your BW conversions. The action is part of the set available for download below.

Simulating Black and White Infrared Film

Example of Black and White Infared Film Image
Example of Black and White Infared Film Image

This is at best a moderately good approximation of infrared film, as there is a fundamental flaw in the approach of using a non-infrared sensitive device like a digital sensor to simulate the response of materials that are highly responsive to infrared light. Technically, digital sensors ARE sensitive to infrared film, and you're best off using an approach such as those detailed here to capture your image initially. However if you have an image that you think might look good with that infrared look but was captured on normal film or a digital camera, try this approach:

Use the Photoshop Channel Mixer, and click the monochrome box. Adust red to +160, green to +140, and blue to minus 200. This is a starting point, and you should experiment from here. The total in the channel mixer should still be 100, or you will affect the global luminosity of your image.

Non-destructive Dodging and Burning

The dodge and burn tools in Photoshop are crude at best, and destructive to your image. A much better technique it to create a choose Layer/New Layer and create a soft light layer filled with the soft light neutral colour (50% grey), and then paint on this layer with white (to dodge) and black (to burn)...adjust the opacity to suit. You will need one of these layers for each 'level' of dodging and burning you need. (If you imagine the darkroom, when you cut masks or use dodging tools to add one-stop here or remove three stops there).

Fog Effects

Ok, this one doesn't have much to do with a film effect, but it is an effective technique so here it is. This is much simpler than using a real fog machine!

Open you image and duplicate it onto a new layer. Select white as the foreground colour. Use the linear gradient tool to create a gradient from white to transparent (this a preset gradient, usually the second gradient in the list). Drag a gradient from the background toward the foreground of the image. Adjust the layer opacity to suit. For a more realistic effect, use the dodge and burn tools (or a soft light layer, see above) to create areas in the digital fog of greater and lighter density. You can use the liquify tool to add swirls and texture.

Download Pre-Made Actions

The file attached below has some of these effects already in action form (Tri-X, Bleach Bypass, Soft Overlay and Cross Process). You may need to modify a few paths in the actions for them to work properly, which is easy enough (just double click the step in the action you need to change and locate the appropriate curve or whatever on your hard drive).

Longer Installation Instructions

The effects are in Photoshop action form. What you need to do is create a directory somewhere for your own actions, and place the unzipped files inside there.

Then, inside Photoshop, you need to go to the 'Action' palette and choose 'Load Actions' from the menu that appears when you click the little arrow on the top right hand side of the Actions Palette. Browse to where you have unzipped the files, and choose 'Simulated Film Effects.atn'. Photoshop should load the actions into your actions palette. From now on, under the Simulated Film Effects header, you should see the following actions:

  • TriX
  • TriX + Red Filter
  • Soft Overlay
  • E6 in C41
  • C41 in E6
  • Bleach Bypass

Open up an image. Go to the actions palette and expand 'E6 in C41' by clicking on the arrow next to it. Now, double click the line 'Make Adjustment Layer' in the action. This sets the mode to 'record and play'. You will see the a dialog box for the new curve layer, just accept the defaults and the curves tool itself should open up. In this box you need to click 'load' and navigate to the same folder you unzipped the files into. Select the 'E6crossprocessC41.acv' file now and click ok. The curve should be applied to the file, and from now on the action should work perfectly without you having to go through all these steps.

The same general approach applies for all the actions that use curves on the disk (i.e. the C41 in E6 cross process and the TriX actions) - you just double click each line where it is looking for a curve/huesat layer/etc on disk, and navigate to the place where you downloaded the curve. From then on the action will know how to find the curve and will work appropriately.

It sounds much more complicated than it is - once you do it you'll see it is easy and you only have to do it once.