Hybrid Photographers: How to Color Match Digital to Film

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Hybrid Photographers: How to Color Match Digital to Film

While digital photography has dominated the market for the past few decades, there are plenty of wedding and portrait photographers that still shoot film. Those of us that shoot both (colloquially labeled “hybrid shooters”) have to contend with the two mediums’ unique characteristics in post-processing. I promise make this about a film vs. digital debate, but rather about how to marry the two.

Why would we do this to ourselves? Why not just use one or the other? I started my journey in photography in the darkroom, with film. Over the past decade or so I’ve flip-flopped between various digital cameras but always found something was missing. What is it about that “film look” that draws us to it in a way that’s difficult to describe? We can say the colors are richer, the tones are dreamier, and overall it has a more romantic feeling. Qualitatively speaking, we can describe the look of film, but can we artificially replicate it? It’s a question I had become borderline obsessed with only to come to the conclusion: no, but maybe we can get close.

The Photoshoot

Hybrid photographers have different reasons for shooting both. I shoot digitally for the convenience and the cost, and use film for the most important details, when the lighting situation calls for it, or when I am shooting a subject that benefits more from film than digital. I also shoot film to collect samples for a color palette I want to reproduce in post. As an example, I typically shoot one roll of film per setting at weddings (getting ready, formal groups, ceremony, reception, etc), plus another roll or two specifically for the important moments throughout the day. When I am finished culling through the images on Lightroom, I end up with something like this:

The first three are my digital shots (above) and the second two on film in a similar spot from earlier (below).

I love the last two on film and will use them as a reference point to apply corrections to the first three digital images.

Lightroom: Basic Corrections

In Lightroom’s Develop module, I typically only use three tools: profile, white balance, and tone curve. The idea is to quickly apply just a few global corrections to get in the same ballpark as the film shot. For this example, I’m using this image:

Hold Shift + R to enter Reference View. Then, drag the film image to the left panel and click on the working image to add to the Active.

Profile: Film is usually softer and less saturated than digital, so pick a profile with those characteristics, like Adobe Neutral or, in this case, Adobe Standard.

White balance: Using the White Balance Selector (W), hover around the image, while keeping an eye on the navigator thumbnail until you get a similar balance. I clicked on a neutral part of her dress.

Tone Curve: I was using Kodak Portra 400, which typically has true blacks and soft whites, so I created a tone curve which reflects this.

Getting closer. Note the histogram on the top right. I’m losing a tiny bit of cyan detail in the blacks, but still have plenty of data to work with in Photoshop.

We can do this in Photoshop as well, but the more we can do in Lightroom, the more we can apply edits to similar photos, as I can easily sync this photo to the other shots in this series.

With the first photo selected, Shift-Click (or Command + Click on Mac), and select each image in the series. Then hit Sync.

Depending on the amount of work to be done on each image, I might do more color correction in Lightroom than in Photoshop for the sake of time and sanity. I’ll cover that in another post, so for now, with the active and reference images both selected, right-click on either image thumbnail and click Edit in Photoshop.

Photoshop: Advanced Color Matching

This portion may seem daunting at first, but gets easier, faster, and more satisfying the more you practice. The amount of matching you want is completely up to you, but don’t be like me and spend way too much time worrying about an exact match (it won’t happen).

  1. Interface Setup: Once the two images have opened in Photoshop, you’ll need to make a reference copy window of your working image. To do this, with your working image selected, go to Window > Arrange > New Window for [whatever your file name is] or Ctrl/Command + O. Set up your tools, layers, etc., however you like, and then use a large copy of your image to work on and a small copy next to your reference image. Mine looks like this:

Why use two windows? We can’t trust our eyes. When we scan from one image to the other, the further the distance between the two the more two different colors will appear the same. We also can’t see errors quite as easily when we are zoomed in on an area of an image, so keeping a copy of the overall image in view will help to catch blemishes, brush strokes, etc. In case you need another reason, monitors aren’t always perfect, and sometimes an image will slightly change colors from one side to another. Mine is slightly warmer on the left side for example, so placing both images on the left side will match more accurately.

  1. Global Edits: These are edits you apply to the whole image. They should be very subtle and are meant to nudge the colors in the right directions. First we’ll start with tone. Her skin is lighter, and the image overall is more contrasty in the film shot, so I’ll start with that.
  • Tone Curve: add a curves adjustment layer with Luminosity blending mode and apply a tone curve with sharp shadow falloff and steady incline to highlights, like this:
Don’t worry too much about the exact placement of the anchor points. To get a film curve, just anchor the shadows, anchor the highlights, and raise the midtones.
  • Selective Color: Next, take a look at the highlights and shadow color. I notice a slight magenta in the highlights (typical with Portra) and cyan/blue in the shadows. Add a Selective Color layer with Normal blend mode. With this layer selected, we’ll change the Black, White, and Neutral colors to reflect the film version. Here are my changes:

3. Local Edits: Corrections made to specific parts of the image.

  • Selective Color: Again, make a Selective Color adjustment layer. This time, you’re going to target just the skin tones. I typically slide the reds more towards red, magenta, and blue; then, the yellows more towards cyan, yellow, and brighter. If I need to make stronger adjustments, I’ll also change the color tone of the blacks, whites, and neutrals. Using a layer mask, you’ll paint white over the area with skin only.
  • Paint: At this point, I can leave the image as-is and copy the adjustment layers over to my other images in the series. If I really want to match the color palette further, I will take samples from the film image and paint them into the active image. In this example, I sampled blue from the floor and applied it to the wall, red/yellow from her leg and applied it to her arm, and magenta from her shirt, applied it to the dress. It’s subtle, but effective.
  • Create a new layer with Color blend mode. Using the brush tool and about 20-30% opacity, alt- or option-click on the reference image the color you want to sample, then paint in the areas that you want to transfer. Painting very lightly and gradually always looks better and will limit your frustration.

When to Stop

This is the hardest part for me. I could continue by adding grain, gradient masks, blur layers, etc., in order to match the details, etc. But if I have 1,000 wedding images to go through, I’m just not going to have the time. In a future post, I will go over how to match these photos meticulously at the pixel level, so stay tuned. For now, I think this is a much improved version:

Film image shot on Kodak Portra 400 (left), a digitally-matched image (middle), and the original digital image (right).

Shameless plug: While retouching is deeply personal and an integral part of our photography tasks, it can also become tedious. If you need a break, let me do it for you! I offer retouching services for photographers, whether it’s simply culling and correcting thousands of images from your wedding session or extensive editing in Photoshop. Visit my website for more information.

Have suggestions for matching your hybrid work? Let us know in the comments!

Nicholas Horton is a wedding photographer specializing in film and hand-made prints. Nick is also a commercial photographer and has had the opportunity to be an educator for digital art and image retouching over the past 12 years.