The simplest definition of noise versus grain, is lack of signal versus structure. To elaborate, noise generally occurs when there is a lack of signal...too little light. Grain is something that is part of the film itself.

Posted on October 29, 2012

Grain

Essay length: 434 words.
Reading time: ~ 2 minutes.

I know at this point you all think I’m a little wacky...isn’t grain that noisy stuff we try to remove or prevent in our images...? Not so, not so! Grain is a beautiful and naturally occurring thing when shooting film. When it’s right, it adds dimension and texture, provides a softness, or creates a mood that helps tell the story in the image.

The simplest definition of noise versus grain, is lack of signal versus structure. To elaborate, noise generally occurs when there is a lack of signal...too little light. Grain is something that is part of the film itself. As the ISO goes up on the film, the chunks of silver halide get bigger. This is really a simplification of the two, as there are other things that can cause noise or grain, some of which are unappealing. As in any situation, whether shooting digitally or with film, your best hope for beautiful images is proper exposure. Without that, you are unlikely to get good results from either medium.

My favorite films for contrast and grain are Kodak 3200 and Tri-X. The 3200 can be an obvious choice when I don’t have a lot of light, but I really like using these films because I think the images I get have an artful elegance about them. When I am photographing something where I am really blowing out the background with a wide open aperture, the grain in the film brings another layer of softness that I find very appealing. So, in a wedding portrait-type situation where I might normally go for something without grain to create a beautiful, creamy skin tone, instead I can create this appealing softness that also emphasizes the quiet moment of the bride getting ready for her wedding day. Or, in the case of some of the dance images I shoot, the grain adds dimension to an already artful situation. It is almost like creating a painting with film.

 Lastly, I really think that grain can add an element of drama and mystery that adds depth to an image. Since photography for me is a storytelling process, these films are excellent choices in situations where you either have a dramatic subject, or you want to create one.

So, next time you are shooting your digital camera in low light, don’t be afraid of creating a little drama with some noise... Or, if you are a film shooter and you have not tried any fast films, start now. Either way, the artist in you will be pleased that you took a chance, stepped outside the expected norm and made some beautiful and captivating images!

Portrait of little girl in B & W

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