Why White Balance, Colour & Highlight Roll-off matter in film simulations

Putting aside for a moment the really important requirements for a good photo, that is content and composition, without either of which your photos will immediately fail, if your photo is trying to mimic a particular film stock then to be truly believable it has to provide a believable colour pallet. While there are many photographers out there that think that because you label a photograph as Kodak 64 or Superia 100 or Portra 160 that this is what it is, in truth, this is purely what the author of the recipe thinks it is and that means for you that this is purely a leap of faith in many circumstances. Even if you have researched film, and you do understand about white balance it does’nt mean to say that your photo exhibits all of the correct characteristics of film. You have to work hard to make a good film simulation and for this reason, understanding how white balance and highlight roll-off affect your image is one of the keys to success, although not the only ones, when trying to emulate film.

Now, I’m a member of a good many Facebook groups which focus on Fujifilm jpeg simulation as a creative tool. While many posts get close to vintage colourisation and tones, far too many, in my opinion at least, fail to nail a film look because they simply don’t manage their colour profiles and tones properly. This can result in images which are unrealistic in terms of white balance, overall colour and sometimes even the tone of the image. Working with film is like alchemy, it’s a truly magic process which makes creating exact digital facsimilies practically impossible. You can get close, but it’s really rather difficult to be exact. So with this being said, let’s examine a fact of life. When you look at the world, white is white. Even if it’s a dull grey day, white still looks white. If it’s a sunny day and the sun is blazing, white still looks white. So if white things dont look white in your photos, then your white balance is off and you need to resolve that problem before shooting tons of images which all look off. Now, I’m not a master of colour science, indeed I have no specific skills in colour management or indeed film processing. What I do have though is a good pair of eyes, a good understanding of content, composition and colour and an enquiring mind. I know that if you don’t start with the right basics, nothing else is going to look right. Sure, a lot of facebook photographers will praise your work but these people are often equally colour challanged and who know surprising little about photography! The key is to stop relying on others to tell you that you’ve nailed it and start believing in yourself. Once you can create beautifully compositions with stimulating subjects and great colour and tone, who cares what anyone else thinks.

So, the first step in achieving this enlightenment, other than to study some of the work of inspiring photographers throughout history, is to start nailing your white balance? Nominally, your camera can already do this for you as every modern digital camera today has an Auto White Balance (AWB) setting and this should give good results as lighting conditions change. However, another favoured method, one borrowed from the studio and one which I tend to use, is to use a grey card to set your white balance before you shoot. This is my first tip. Although they come in a variety of forms, the ones I use are 18% grey coloured fabric, about 12 inches in diamer (30 cm) with a white reverse – see image below. These can be folded and stored in your camera bag ready for use. You can buy these from many outlets including Amazon. When you need to use it you simply select a custom white balance setting, for example C1, and then, under ambient lighting conditions, you take a photo of your grey card and store it to C1. Once the photo has been taken you will be offered the opportunity to set colour shifts for red and blue  eg +2B, +3R. Once done whenever you select that particular custom white balance setting will be hard baked into your jpeg. Now be careful, if the light changes dramatically, ie it becomes cloudy when previously there was bright sun, you will need to recalibrate your custom white balance for the new lighting conditions. Don’t worry though, since the whole process takes just a few seconds it’s really no problem to change your white balance when needed.

Typical Grey Card used for White Balance settings

The second of my tips is equally as important. In order to be able to mimic film, you really need to look at photos taken with a film camera. Now, if you are lucky enough to have a film camera, as I do, then this is relatively simple as the photos you take with your preferred film stock are perfect for comparing to your digital simlations. If you don’t have a film camera, or the film you aspire to emulate is no longer available then you you still have an opportunity to fine tune your digital simulations albeit at arms length. Because of the internet, sites such as Google Images, Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram allow you to research 1000’s of scanned and digitised film images. These can help you understand about the colour and tone associated with your preferred film stock as well as allow you to study focus issues, image sharpness and IQ and the way shadows, midtones and highlights are handled. Personally my favourite is Pinterest but I’m sure you’ll find a place you really love too. Now of course, in order to get film into the digital domain someone somewhere has had to digitise the image but hopefully if you look at enough examples you will be able to build up a firm understanding of how to achieve the best simulation for your camera and preferred film recipe as well as what additional post-processing support you may need. Although the aim of most photographers taking images with FujiFilm cameras is to achieve film-like results straight out of camera (SOOC) the truth is that not all Fuji cameras are created equal in this respect so some light post-processing is often required. For example, the Fuji x-T1 that I use doesn’t have a grain option and it also has much less control over sharpness, highlights and shadows. To balance this, a simple preset helps move the resulting jpeg’s a little closer to the desired look. It’s not ideal but it does help achieve the desired look you want.

So, let’s look at some examples of white balance and highlight roll-off in actual film. In the first of these next two images, these are digitised Superia 200 film emulsions, we can see how the emulsion and processing of the film has handled the bright areas in the image. Here we have a very good example of highlight roll-off that is associated with film emulsions, i.e. the transition from bright white to extreme white is generally well controlled. Typically in film, this is really well handled and it is normally quite difficult to completely blow out the emulsion i.e lose all the details in the highlights or create that hard edge we see so often in digital photos pasted to facebook etc. This is because this type of control simply doesn’t exist to the same degree in digital processing and as such we are very likely to see burnt out sections of our image, especially associated with the sun or very bright light sources.  In the film image here the emulsion has provided a much softer transition in the highlights, although I would agree that because this image is digitised at a low resolution, it does to a certain extent look like it’s heading towards being blown out.  In the actual high resolution Tiff file it doesn’t look quite as harsh as this but you’ll have to take me word for this. This look is much sought after by photographers, especially FujiFilm users who are chasing film looks from their digital sensors. Having taken a great many digitial photos of this beach I know that under similar lighting conditions, it is very likely that my digital cameras will have burnt out the right hand side of this image (ie creating a hard transition from whito to blown out) if no action was taken to expose for the highlights.

Superia 200 film
Superia 200 film image shot using a Nikon FE

In this second image, again where the digital camera would have had difficulty iin handling the very bright white of the surfboard, or perhaps even burned a hole in it, film has easily managed to control the highlights. This is the beauty and wonder of film.

Superia 200 film image shot using a Nikon FE

Finally, let’s have a look at a film example with respect to colour, tone and white balance. Again, this image is Superia 200 film stock and conditions on the day were pretty bright ie it was a partially sunny day but with some cloud cover. The rendition of the colours is good in the film version, pretty much as you would expect with a quality film such as Fujifilm Superia They are just as I see them every day so this image as a good guide image when fine tuning my digital recipes. With regards metering, although I have a Minolta light meter I suspect for this image I just relied on the metering in the Nikon FE which I know to be pretty accurate.

Superia 200 film image shot using a Nikon FE

So, let’s now take a look at some digital images where I have made some modifications to the tone curve in camera to help achieve a “similar look” for the jpeg’s to what I might see on film.

This next image, in this case a digital image taken with the Lumix GX-80, which proves the point that you don’t need to shoot Fuji to create filmic looks, is taken from pretty much from the same spot as the previous image. The lighting is slightly different, it’s a different day but so close as to enable us to look at the two images comparitively. Before we go further, the image below is not a jpeg SOOC. That would be impossible as Lumix hard-bake their jpegs using their own technology. Since I have zero control over how shadows, highlights, sharpness etc are handled, I had to create a RAW to Superia 200 preset that takes the RAW file and add’s a little grain, drops the stucture, rolls-off the highlights and very slightly warms up the image. I also tweaked the blues and browns to get them a little closer what I was seeing in film. Overall the effects applied were fairly minor but just enough to make the two images converge. What I will do is to revisit this scene on a day similar to the days here and retake with the Fuji x-T1 using a recipe for Superia 200. That will allow me to compare the jpeg SOOC from the x-T1 directly with the film version. I will share the recipe once done.

In looking at the two images side by side I think that the most notible difference between the two is in the softness of the film image as opposed to the slightly harder digital image although to be fair, it’s pretty close. This is probably because the Lumix GX-80 has a 16MP sensor rather than something bigger like 24MP as found routinely on many newer cameras now on the market. I think that this helps to create a softness which is approaching what we see in our film examples. There is a very slight shift in the colours, the film version is definately a tad warmer than the digital version but again, it’s pretty close. What this means is that the white balance on the Lumix is very slightly off when compared to the film version but in all honesty, small adjustments would help to reduce the differences still further. All in all I think that this is a good example of how digital can get very close to film!!

Lumix GX-80 digital image through a RAW preset I created in On1

This next image is a Superia 100 emulation using the Fuji x-T1. Here I have set the highlights to -2 on the simulation to attempt to achieve a filmic highlight roll-off i.e. a soft transition from bright white to extreme white without loosing any detail in the highlights. This image also has the shadows set to +2 ie hard which in hindsight, could / should have been relaxed to +1. Even so, I feel that the image works really well as a film image despite the fact that it was taken using a digital camera.

Classic Negative (Superia 100) Simulation on a Fujifilm x-T1

The next image is another example of a jpeg SOOC in order to try to deliver a film experience. Again, this image is loosely based on Classic Negative (Superia 100) as I really like the tones and colours in this film stock.

Fuji x-T1 image based on Superia 100 recipe

In summary, the really noticeable thing about digital images is that they can often be overly hard (contrasty) and I think that this has a detrimental effect on the results when trying to emulate film. When cameras were manual and or used vintage lenses, often the results obtained where a little softer because of the lens design, optics and often, coatings. For this reason vintage lenses are often sought out when trying to deliever a true film simulation. So when I see photographers talking about using pin sharp lenses on a film simulation site I tend to smile as this is perhaps the most detrimental thing that I can think of when it comes to taking vintage images. A little softness in your lens can add bags of character to an image. My advice, when you get the opportunity to buy an old vintage lens give it some serious thought because armed with a good vintage lens, plus real film examples to base your recipes on, and a really good understanding of white balance and highlight roll-off you are truly on the way to creating vintage film simulations using any digital camera.