De-Glossing Digital – Creating ‘Analog’ Looks With Modern Cameras
In the last few years, we’ve enjoyed the fruits of key roadmap points for several camera manufacturers. For anyone using the major systems, that’s meant significant upgrades in dynamic range, low-light capabilities, resolution, and more – all qualities that make perfect sense to be focusing on at the scale of the industry we’re currently at.
Obviously, when manufacturers are releasing cameras in their roadmap, they aren’t going to make images less sharp, more grainy, or contain any built-in characters that might be seen as impediments: the natural modus operandi for the evolution of camera gear will always be sharper, clearer, better (whatever those mean at the time, and however they change – ie, post-focusing, and other things that will arise in time), where that is possible.
As we’re reaching a point where it now matters less what system you use from a file-output point of view, there’s never been a better time to look at what characteristics we’re leaving behind in the arbitrary quest for the most evolved cameras, and what specific unique things are literally thrown away through the process of technical evolution.
Usually, they’re the little ambiguous things that give a medium a little spark of magic.
They’re the things that we always come to hunt down again, as we get used to the new state of things, and as people look for other ways of creating emotional connection and narrative through the image. The idea of nostalgia is deeply interlinked with the tools we use to tell the stories that we do. And now we’re kinda all using the same tools, where does that leave us?
[Related Reading: 7 Tips for Analog Photography With Joe Greer & COOPH]
For me, that means looking back to the world of analog, and some specific things (rightly or wrongly) that are attributed to it: to me, those specific qualities are a slight imperfection of tone, general softness, a difference of how space is rendered, and a “general roughness around the edges”. I’m well aware these aren’t specific qualities of well-stored film in well-maintained cameras, but they remain aligned with the analog world regardless.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into a film vs digital shit-fest: any time these two categories appear in the same sentence, it’s usually from a competitive viewpoint, rather than one that engages in how qualities from one can rise in the other.
I’m not gonna tell you to throw out your digital gear and get a Rolleiflex (though, that’s always a great idea).
What I want to focus on here is the idea of simply looking at raw files as a base.
“But I am, you idiot! I literally shoot two stops under then do my preset thingy in Lightroom! How much more of a base can you get?!”.
What I mean when I say a “base” is by looking at the specific areas of our cameras and workflow where we can take some cues from the analog world, strategically, to differentiate our look from the look of the person next to us.
The End Game, (to me), Is Two Things:
- Not letting the camera manufacturer or the camera or the software do the seeing and interpreting of a scene. Think about it: camera manufacturers have folks in lab coats (probably, I’ll romanticize it that way), with graphs and all sorts of fancy things that let them collectively say what a colour should look like, how a scene should render, and how other qualities such as sharpness and bokeh should look. That makes sense when you’re making something for the mass market. But just as 5 decades ago we had film manufacturers setting a tone for what skin should look like (with debatably narrow profiling but that’s well documented enough elsewhere), now digital manufacturers do the same. We get to decide if that’s right or wrong, we get to decide how to interpret light, shade, the rendering of 3d space, and so forth. Never let the camera do the seeing.
- Broadly, for me, it is to soften and create some ambiguity in the image, and leave more for the imagination to interpret. Things like how and where black-points are set, what sharpness means, and how it is applied, and how a subject renders within the space around it, all affect how an image is digested.
Why Am I Rabbiting On About All This?
Because if you’re anything like me, half a decade in the game and processing thousands of files at a time, this whole pandemic has been great to create a bit of pause, to step back and look at exactly what looks and approach to the tone I’m normalizing in my own work, and how I can shift things up a little to stand out when the market re-stabilizes.
All fashion dies and comes back in a cycle, and that includes how we tell stories. How can you be at the edge of the intersection of old and new?
Here Are 5 Specific Techniques I Use To Give More of An Analog Look To My Digital Images.
1: Dehaze and Contrast sliders in Lightroom
One of my favorite simple little tricks, and one example of how a software designer created a function for some use, and how we can reclaim it for another. Slide the dehaze tool to the left, (or paint it in), for a beautiful natural, glassy haze. Use it carefully, or assign it to a brush. I use this to get something of an “old world cinematic” look.
Hot tip: Experiment with applying this selectively with a brush
2: Bokeh Panorama
A more complex trick, but an insanely rewarding one. Over a century ago, we used large cameras with enormous capture areas: be it on negatives or plates. The physics of such a large capture area meant that the images had a “3D” quality to them, most easily noticeable on the classic Australian Convict mugshots. Those cameras still of course exist, or, you can use the Bokeh Panorama technique to emulate the effect, and gain an impossibly beautiful rendering of space. Not to mention it’s kinda bewildering for your subjects who will feel a part of a strange science experiment.
Hot tip: your ideal lens range here is 85-135mm – any less and it might risk looking “too wide” and distorted, any more and you might need to stand in a neighboring country to get the shot.
3: Shutter Priority Bait-and-Switch
A lot of dreamy film photos from times past often look that way for an entirely un-romantic, un-dreamy reason: they had to make to with a slower shutter speed. I photograph on manual and have my shutter priority dial set to 1/4 of a second, so at any point, once I’ve got my safety shots, I can quickly switch to TV mode, and throw care to the wind and shoot slow-shutter images with reckless abandon, and they’re always a client favorite.
Hot tip: Throw a tonne of grain over the finished image in Lightroom.
4: Selective Shadow Dodging
This is a little of a sideways trick. Imagine you are holding an old print in your hand. The natural weathering of time can often have the effect of distributing the black-point irregularly across the image. This makes for a beautifully nostalgic, tactile feel. The aim isn’t to create something that looks like a cheap filter, and this is by far the most difficult of all the techniques here, because it’s very trial and error. Apply a reduced contrast layer to your image in photoshop, and then gently mask that in. You don’t want to just have pure-blacks on your area of focus, as it will look fake: there’s a gentle art to masking it in erratically and having it look authentic.
Hot tip: Make sure this is applied gently to feature and non-feature areas of the image alike.
After you’ve checked if your insurance policy is sound, it’s time to yank the lens off. This time-honored technique is simple and can be done with any lens. Using this technique you can adjust your plane of focus to be back to front, top to bottom, and anything in between. A natural feature of large format cameras over a century ago, this is now something we can use for gentle artistic effect.
Hot tip: 24-50mm is the ideal range, or up to 85mm if used carefully. Anything more and it looks fake. Second hot tip: Avoid dropping your lens, butterfingers.
6: Shove a Stocking Over the Lens
Another tried and true classic, this one still delivers. Also file this under “anarchic acts of resistance”, as you throw a cheap piece of fabric over your $2000 glass in a world where UV filters are regarded as coloring the end image. This look can partially be emulated in Lightroom (see #1), but in my opinion, the real deal offers far more versatility, and room to experiment, and the act of working within a fixed restraint is far more fun: both for you and your subject in the moment as they see themselves rendered in beautiful hazy goodness. Remember, your clients don’t know what they don’t know: chances are they’ve never been shot with someone draping a stocking over their camera.
[Related Reading: The Three Vintage Lenses I Use To Create A Film Look]
Hot tip: experiment with different levels of tension of the stocking, or also using your breath instead (it’s something of an easier ask if you’re borrowing someones stocking.)
Hope you enjoyed, happy crushing of everything your cameras engineers spent decades perfecting, it’s a glorious pursuit. Let us know if you’ve tried any of these tips in the comments below, and be sure to include some of your work!