Black and White film effects

The film effects section of my last article on Aperture presets reminded me that I really like the film effects in nik Color Efex Pro and nik Silver Efex Pro.

I thought I’d try to emulate them in Aperture with a set a presets, starting with black and white film.

Download the presets here. Current version at time of this writing is 0.4.

(Note that my friends of Aperture Users @ Flickr are thinking of creating a website to house presets so I don’t know how long I’ll keep updating this. In the meantime, I added Pavel Sigarteu’s SinCity, El TiDY’s presets, and Ian Wood’s Aperture 2 Image Presets Project to the download.)

In order to show the B&W film effects, I hacked in an extension to my IMG Mouseover plugin. Above the image there’s a control panel where you can click to see the effect of the preset (and compare it to Silver Efex Pro):

Mark Kater

Mark Kater
Tagged, Financial District, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/30sec, ISO160, 35mm (47mm)

Click on the controls above to test the different film presets. Mouse rollover contain images processed in Nik Silver Efex Pro.

(Note that Aperture has decided to have a brain fart and replace all my photos even if they haven’t been changed at all. This breaks the images in Flickr. I tried my best to fix this. If any are broken or incorrect, please tell me in the comments below and I’ll fix them.)

How to use the Aperture Presets

I never explained how to use these presets. So here is a short tutorial:

  1. Open Adjustments tab in Aperture (Ctrl-A) —it’s the right tab in the Inspector (I to toggle).
  2. Select Presets > Edit Presets… from the menu
  3. Select Import… from the “Gears” menu on the bottom
  4. Select “Adjustment Presets.AdjustmentPresets” and click “Import”
  5. Drag-and-drop and organize as necessry

How to use Presets

  1. Find an image you want to use and hit Option-V to create a new version of the image (for safety)
  2. Go to the Adjustments tab, and choose the “Presets > (preset to apply)” here. Before letting go, note that you can see a preview of what it will look like when applied.
  3. If you hold the Option key while choosing a preset, it will wipe any previous presets before applying
  4. Learn about brushes to only apply part of a preset brick to one level. They work great with the black-and-white tool to create masking effects. 🙂

Bakari has an extended tutorial w/screenshots.

About the black and white film effects

My effects are not like Silver Efex’s film effects brick. This is because Silver Efex Pro emulates three properties of film: exposure response, color sensitivity, and film grain and I do a poor job, or don’t do it at all in Aperture.

I’ve already discussed film exposure—it was how I got to the tangent of black and white film in the first place. I simply used the curves tool to emulate the same curves that are in nik’s estimate. For the few black and white films I know, they seem to be about the right shape. All the films have S-curves, of a sort—just in different ways. In general, black and white film has a dynamic range much greater than that of digital cameras so this S curve is much less pronounced than in color films.

Black and white film actually also has different sensitivity to different colors—and different film chemistry behaves differently. For color sensitivity, I opted for the color brick instead of the color channels black and white one. I did this for three reasons:

  • The color brick is almost never used anyways in black and white processing (for obvious reasons)
  • The black and white brick has only three color channels, while the color brick has six (the three positives and their negative compliments).
  • This free the color channels of the black and white brick for you to emulate color filters easily. Yes, you use color filters with black and white film—in fact, this was an Ansel Adams hallmark.

I had a lot of trouble emulating nik’s routines due to a differing set of mixing rules and application order between the two programs. In most cases, I simply gave up and typed in the numbers from nik’s filters so as to preserve the trend, instead of the actual values. In general, I find my versions are most noticeably off in the highlights and shadows. 🙁

Aperture can’t emulate film grain, so skip that and added a little sharpness to my versions just for comparison purposes. I’ll discuss this next.

More than you ever want to know about film grain

The most obvious difference at high ISOs between my images and the mouseovers is the lack of film grain in Aperture. This is true at all ISOs but you can only see it in this tiny preview at high ones. The digital equivalent of this is known as image noise so it might seem strange that you would want to emulate an effect that adds noise to an image. The main problem with image noise is it has a very regular granularity instead of an analog one that we are used to. If you were to view a film image with a magnifying glass, you could see this granularity very easily, and when scanning film, it is important to eliminate this noise from your scans to restore the image to what it should be—especially if you plan on doing enlargements. If you don’t, then your post-processing algorithms might perceive this as detail and enhance it creating unintended artifacts.

But why add grain?

Real film grain is a perceived property of film. What is going on is our eyes (and brains) see image particles beyond the acuity of our eyes to perceive. But because they are organized “in analog” (randomly placed), our eye can organize clumps which are then perceived them as grain.

Because real grain is occurring in this range, grain doesn’t damage the overall perception of an image and acts as a way to assist the eye in achieving acuity beyond it’s normal ability, a phenomena known as hyperacuity and thus an increase in perceived “sharpness” of an image. This also explains why professionals add an unsharp mask as a last step to a digital image to assist the eye in perceiving sharpness.

So that’s how something, which should be eliminated in processing would want to be added back in in post-processing. Neat, huh?

By the way, this means you don’t add both grain and sharpness into your image in post-processing. It’s one or the other.

One black and white film

As I’ve said before, I love black and white photography for documentary work. It’s weird that I’m such a scientist but have to resort to a wholly unscientific application why. The greatest documentary photographs of the last century were shot in black-and-white and I want to capture that feeling.

Talking deeper about this needs to be left for another time, but since this is about black and white film effects, let me talk about my favorite black and white film of all time—the immortal Kodak Tri-X—specifically Kodak Professional Tri-X 400TX.

Look at these two images and then listen to this broadcast:

Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Nguyễn Văn Lém, Saigon, 1968 by Eddie Adams, taken on Kodak Tri-X film.

Dali Atomicus, 1948 by Philippe Halsman, taken on Kodak Tri-X film. (the link shows the unretouched version)

Here is my thinking about Tri-X.

It is said that the problem we Americans have with the font Helvetica is that our income tax forms are set in that typeface. You don’t have to be a fontographer to realize that there might be a sort of subconscious association of that font with something we hate.

What does this have to do with black and white film?

Most of the great photographs of the 20th century were taken in black and white. And when it comes to documentary photography a la LIFE Magazine, many of those were shot on Tri-X. Tri-X was the first widely available high speed black and white film—having been introduced just before World War 2 and reached its modern incarnation just after the Korean War.

I believe, just like with Helvetica, the association we have with the photos above and countless other Tri-X black-and-white images are still there when we see images, even digital ones, that resemble that. It explains why me, this incorrigible digital photographer, still post-processes the majority of my black-and-whites with Tri-X emulation:

Mark Kater

Mark Kater
Tagged, Financial District, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/30sec, ISO160, 35mm (47mm)

After visiting Tagged after coffee, I showed someone how my Leica works by photographing the web developer, Mark Kater. He thinks he should start charging royalties for all the times his image was used in this blog post. 🙂

This was processed in Nik Silver Efex Pro starting with the Kodak Tri-X 400TX Pro film setting. Mouse over the image to see the difference between it and an straight black and white process. Don’t expect me to replace my plug-ins with Aperture any time soon—Nik is just too good.

11 thoughts on “Black and White film effects

    1. You can see that in the final image, I used a little bit of selenium toning and the Philippe Halsman photography has sepia toning in it. I believe a couple of the actions I added have paper toning.

      Aperture has a color monochrome brick for toning and when stacked in Aperture 3, you can get a true duo-tone effect.

  1. These are great presets, but one little detail, while the picture of Dali may have been taken with Tri-X pro (which is a 320 ASA film) the the other picture of the street execution in during the Vietnam war was very likely take with Tri-X 400 they are two different films with quite different looks. The regular Tri-X is the iconic one that was used by Bresson on down through the whole era of black and white photojournalism. Would love to have both Tri-Xs to be sure 🙂 Thanks for the effort you put into these i certainly don't want to forget that!

    1. @John T. Thanks for the compliment and thanks for the correction.

      I should have been more clear that there are two generations of Tri-X film at two different ISOs. I should have taken the time to point out that the Dali photograph was taken with the sheet film version (320 ASA), and the other with the 400 ISO roll films. There was also war photography film that preceded Tri-X, but I didn’t do the research to know what was the preferred film of photographers in WW2 and the Korean War. I guess, I like the Tri-X look and I just did enough research to justify it without really being as thorough as I should have been!

      Unfortunately, I don't have a film camera anymore nor the lab to actually expose these to do the measurements myself. That’s why I based the presets on the data obtained my nik Silver Efex Pro (Tri-X 400 roll-type 35mm film). And try as I might, I can't make my preset perform as well as the nik’s. It's a great utility (though for color film, their Color Efex film effects isn’t as up to par and a lot of people prefer other solutions).

  2. Hi Terry,

    thanks for your excellent presets which are really helping me get started with Aperture. I looked for way to add noise in Aperture too and found a preset on a Polish site. I cannot understand Polish, so I don't know what the author wrote about it, but he adds the 'Color monochrome' adjustment, color set to white and intensity to .61 – less intensity works as well (I even like it better as higher intensities lead to a loss of detail. Enjoy your weekend!


  3. Hi! I believe this is the preset set I used to use for b&w, but it appears the file in gone. Are you able to host it again? Also, I think you created the loom effect I absolutely loved and can’t find it anymore either. Are these still available? Great work!

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