What is Film Grain?

Are you reading this title for the first time- “What is Film Grain?”

May be…May be not. Probably you hear about this term but you may not know the detail information about it. It may happen also that you know a lot about it but still you are curious to know more.

Well… whatever it is this article is going to be informative for you. Let me apprise you the nitty-gritty of film grain. I am starting with a definition.

Definition

Visible silver crystals in a film negative’s emulsion are called film grain. In other words, it is the random physical texture. It is an optical effect which is noticeable in an over-enlarged film photograph. Grain is an inherent part of a film image. Often they appear in the projection very densely

Determiner

If you’re shooting anything using physical celluloid that means you are capturing film grain also. It is natural. As it is an inherent component of film, the grain will always be there. How noticeable it will be is dependent on few determiners. Such as,

Frame Size

The size of the film frame may cause of different amount of grains. For example, footage originated on 16mm will look grainier than 35mm.

ISO

The higher a film stock’s ISO is the bigger the silver crystals are.

Shutter Speed

The slower the shutter speed, the denser the emulsion grain and therefore the less grainy the projected image will likely be. Fast film looks grainier. That means a higher speed film will have more visible grain, while a slower speed film will have a finer grain. As a result, very few shots in a typical Hollywood feature will look grainy.

Film Stock

Each film stock has different size of crystals that are most common in its emulsion. Higher quality film stock also has a lower chance of giving your image grain. So, if you were shooting something on 16mm, you are going to have a much grainer image on your hands. If you instead shot something on 65mm film stock, your grain will be much finer and less of a distraction.

Exposure

Film grain may dramatically change through exposure. Underexposing your film will increase the amount of noticeable grain on any film stock, especially in the shadows of the image. That’s because very little light hit the light-sensitive silver crystals, so the smaller unexposed crystals wash off the film in processing while the bigger crystals remain. If you overexpose your film, you will also start seeing more grain in the highlights.

Developed Film Size

Film developing for longer than normal will also create more noticeable grain. The more you zoom in, the more texture made of tiny crystals you’ll see.

Amount of Light

It may vary also for amount of light. If you shoot in limited lighting the less light produces more grain. While filming a scene with sufficient light may produce less grain.

Why it Still Exists in Modern Photography?

The amount of grain in an image has been an important artistic tool of cinematographers and directors for decades. This has become an artistic choice for some filmmakers for some following reasons:

  1. Using film grain technically and perfectly may add value to your film. When filmmakers want to give a rough or textured look that is relatable with film plot then they think it is good idea to use it. For example, Fight Club film has outstanding use of film grain in some scenes.
  2. Some filmmakers want to imitate an old camera’s visualization or else their movie plot represent ancient time then they use film grain just to bring that old essence. As instance I can say the film ‘Warrior’. According to my own opinion the use of distorted some good image perfectly and gave a vibes of old image through it.
  3. It can add an otherworldly texture to the film. Adding this to a contemporary digital production can help to provide a very specific feeling or mood. If any film’s plot is set back in the 20th century, film grain can help give off that feeling more beautifully than a straight digital look would.
  4. To hide banding in a scene many filmmakers use it. Banding is very ugly circles in the gradients. This often gets worse when the footage is displayed on a big screen. Placing a layer of grain over the footage will attempt to hide the banding and make it less noticeable.
  5. Eye pleasing grain may add aesthetic value in some films. According to the theme of film if grain is required to use it may contain a different taste. It can be added as another narrative element and dimension to a visual that makes it more tangible and charming.

It is not Always a Good Idea

There are also some disadvantages using grainy image. It is not always a good idea to use film grain. It sometimes makes unnecessarily distortion. In some cases it may make a movie unrealistic and disturbing. I discovered this type of film grain on Star Wars Battlefront. It completely ruined the graphics! Battlefront may look way better if there were no worthless grainy image.

Film Grain Vs Film Noise

There is confusion between this two. Some people matches film noises with film grain whether this two indicate two different concept. May be there are similarities but they are not the same thing. Let me explain it more clearly.

Film grain has a very scientific reasoning. This doesn’t happen in any Digital cameras at all. When a photo goes through the Dark Room Process, Silver Halide is used as a bath. When the photographic paper goes on the silver halide during processing the image, a little bit of metallic silver that has been in the halide makes a tiny little print on the photo paper. Whenever this happens, there is grain. This is not very noticeable for small images, but as the enlarger grows, this becomes more prominent since the particle print also gets scaled up.

On the other hand, Digital ISO noise is not because of having any physical particles present anywhere. It’s because of increasing the sensitivity of each pixel, allowing to expose more light on the sensor. In simple terms, high ISO noise is because of brightening the image too much to increase.

Digital ISO noise and Film grain are two very different phenomenons aimed at two very different types of cameras. Have you understood now?

Final Words

Although some filmmakers prefer to use film grains for some specific reasons but needless usage should be avoidable. Moreover, filmmakers have to remain more careful with their exposures while using it intentionally. The reason is, if they don’t expose properly, they will get an ugly grainy visual which may harm film’s quality. I hope you have found this content informative as well as educative. Thanks for reading all the way 🙂