The Grain Game – How Much Is Too Much?

How much grain do you like in your photos?

By grain, here I’m referring to both the grain in film photographs, and the noise in digital photographs. I’ll use “grain” to cover both, and this post is not about the differences between the two, or the precise definition of “grain”.

Grain in colour photos is rather different, and not within the scope of this post either. Here we’re just talking about b/w photographs.

In shooing my Pentax Q with its infra red filter mode lately, I noticed the images are more grainy than the straight b/w mode with no additional filter. Which I quite like.

I thought I’d try a simple experiment with the Q on b/w plus infra red filter at different ISOs to see how much grain I would tolerate before it became too noisy for my liking.

Sky usually gives plenty of grain with this set up, so that’s what I focused on. I used the 02 Standard Zoom lens which I recently acquired.

First, the Q’s native ISO125.

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The sky has a little grain, which increases when you view the picture larger of course. Bear in mind that this is with the IR filter, which adds grain right from the outset. The Q on basic b/w mode at ISO125 exhibits virtually no grain at all.

Let’s step up to ISO200.

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Obviously more is creeping in, but still fairly subtle.

ISO400 next.

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I expect by this point some would consider this too noisy for their tastes. But I still like it.

ISO800 ups it further.

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And finally I tried ISO1600.

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At this ISO, if you’re looking for smooth, clean pictures, it won’t cut it. But for a more raw, edgy and moody look, I’d still be happy with this.

Comparing ISO125 and ISO1600 right next to each other, the difference is more striking.

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I’ll probably stick at around ISO400 when using the IR filter, I think it adds to the impact. But if light conditions were very poor, or if I wanted to deliberately force more grain, I wouldn’t be averse to trying ISO800 or ISO1600.

How about you? How do you feel about the amount of grain in your photographs? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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37 thoughts on “The Grain Game – How Much Is Too Much?”

      1. OK, thanks Jim.

        I think much of this comes down to very individual preference and perception. I don’t see what I would call “noise”, but I would certainly say the background is far from perfect, compared with what it actuall looks like to the naked eye.

        But then often (for me) this is the point of using a camera, we can make pictures that look slightly (or drastically) different to what we see with our eyes. They’re tools for magic making.

        For example using large apertures and close focus for shallow depth of field, and slow shutter speeds to give motion blur.

        I guess I see grain/noise as another option, another layer of possible alteration or enigma to layer in the photos we make. I rarely want to make images that look perfectly true to life.

      2. I completely agree with Jim here. Film grain is beautiful, especially when used effectively to compliment a photo’s subject. But digital noise? No, it’s just that: noise. It’s in no way pleasing to the senses at all. Noise, by definition, is irritating. It does nothing but detract from an image.

        That’s not to say a noisy digital image can’t have artistic merit, but if it was shot on film and that digital noise was film grain instead, then it would almost unquestionably add to the image instead of detracting from it.

        Personally, I really can’t stand digital noise at any level. I would say most people can’t actually, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. That’s why digital sensor design and image processing algorithms have focused so heavily on reducing it as much as possible. Simply put, it’s aesthetically unpleasant and unnerving. Severely so, in my view. This is why I exclusively shoot film. And also why I have such strong feelings about a need for a decent film scanner to be introduced to the market, affordably. One of the many issues with flatbeds is the extremely high levels of noise they add to scans, effectively trashing the content contained in the negative. Oftentimes all one sees is noise, and the grain isn’t even being resolved. A photo shot on TMX or Pan F PLUS and scanned with the presently available consumer options can end up looking substantially worse than an image shot at ISO 1600 or even 3200 on a cheap digital point-and-shoot. It’s almost guaranteed. This fact just adds to reasons why the lay man thinks film is old, outdated, inferior garbage. They see these poor quality, noisy scans and rightfully find them to be unpleasant. They are, after all, so who can blame them? In my opinion it’s created a horrible misconception in the minds of the masses regarding what film is capable of, even most younger photographers out there. This is extremely detrimental for everyone who’s part of the film community/industry across the board. Amateur film shooters can’t produce scans that do film any justice (severely disappointing for them), and therefore their images are bad advertisement for the products being sold by manufacturers in the industry (not good at all for their business).

        So, in summary, give me real film grain any day of the week. I actually don’t use fine-grain or solvent developers on purpose. I have no interest in reducing grain size to the point it disappears at typically used resolutions/print sizes or softening the grain through solvent action. I want to see it, and for it to be well-defined, showing off the inherent qualities and uniqueness of different emulsions. But digital noise, no thank you.

      3. P, thanks for your thoughts.

        I’m not sure if you asked the average digital photographer if they considered film and decided against it, their main reason would be the resolution or image quality. It would more likely be (in)convenience, cost, perceived difficulty (especially all manual cameras), ease/availability of developing and scanning services, and just generally preferring to use “modern” technology.

        I think it’s absolutely true that poor digital scans of film negatives don’t show us anything like how beautiful film images can be, scanned in the right way by the right person. I just don’t think that’s the first stumbling block for digital users perhaps considering film, because there are enough high quality film images online I feel to show what is possible.

      4. Hi Dan,

        That’s just it, though… I don’t think most (obviously not all) younger photographers (let’s say those currently high school/college age, or perhaps younger) ever even make it to the point of “considering” film. I think because they’ve never known anything other than digital they simply don’t and won’t take film seriously as a medium because frankly most of them have never, and likely will never as things currently stand, be exposed to anything that gives them reason to. Their “need” for instant gratification also plays a major role. In fact, I think the vast majority of them never give film any real thought at all, just dismissing it outright — whether consciously or subconsciously — as outdated, archaic, and something slow and “inferior” replaced by fast and “superior” digital technology, as I already stated.

        Based on my observations, even in the minds of the very small percentage who actually play around with film a bit, it’s a niche, “cool” thing to mess around with (at best), but certainly not something to be legitimately explored in any meaningful way. In most cases it’s probably going through a Holga (nothing at all against Holgas, but you get my point), and at the end of the day they’re still digital diehards. In my opinion, this is indeed because they really have no clue what film has to offer them and their photography, because shy of having their own darkroom how could they? After all, they didn’t grow up when all photographs were shot on film and traditional optical enlargements were simply the everyday norm. How often anymore do you go over to someone’s house and they have a big darkroom print of their family photo on the wall (plus tons of other “real” photographs)? Remember when that was virtually everyone’s house? Even if these younger photographers have shot some rolls, scanned some frames on their flatbed (even the highest quality ones available), and browsed through a few film scans of others online, what’s the likelihood that any of the scans they saw even remotely did the actual negatives justice? I’d say extremely low.

        I basically only search for and look at film scans because most digital photography just doesn’t do much for me (your work is a rare exception). And I’d say maybe only one percent of the images I look at are effectively portraying the unique qualities of film, on any level. Maybe less. So to be clear, that’s one out of every hundred images I click through (yes, it’s almost an exercise in futility). That’s not to say the others aren’t nice, or that the original negatives are in any way lacking, but they don’t showcase what film is capable of, for one reason or another (usually because of poor quality scanners or lack of resolution). The ones that actually showcase film’s capabilities to any degree are almost always scanned by the actual photographer themselves (not a lab) with Nikon Coolscan (ancient), Minolta Dimage (also ancient), Imacon, Noritsu (minilab equipment), or Fuji (also minilab) scanners, all of which are difficult to source and generally absurdly expensive. And importantly, they’re scanned at very high resolutions and left at their native output, not downscaled. I find that if a film scan is downscaled to anything smaller than about 6MP, then it may still be a nice looking image with clear artistic merit, but with regards to it being shot on film it frankly can no longer be evaluated in any meaningful sense. I understand the multitude of reasons why people downscale their images for the web and that’s fine, but it just leaves me having to imagine what the original actually looked like. On Flickr, I always filter my searches so that only images with a long edge of 3000px or more are displayed. For 3:2 images that’s 6MP. The rest just aren’t worth my time because I can’t make any conclusions about the emulsion or developing technique from them. And that’s precisely the reason why I’m looking. I’m trying to learn.

        Let’s try to put that into perspective. 6MP is probably what the average DSLR output circa 2005 (I’m guessing here, since I don’t care to look up a bunch of cameras right now). So that’s roughly a decade and a half ago, a very long time when discussing digital imaging. What does the average budget or mid-range, amateur DSLR output today? 24MP, or more? So is it not logical to say that for those younger, digital-only amateur photographers out there, with zero or very little exposure to film as a medium, to understand the capabilities of film compared to their digital bodies, would need to be viewing 24MP film scans (at least), so they can do some one-to-one “pixel peeping”? I would say yes, absolutely, because most of them have no frame of reference other than digital images. That’s what they have to compare film as a medium to, and thus rightfully that’s exactly what they will compare it to. Now let me ask you, how often do you see 24MP, high quality film scans from a legitimate film scanner posted online? Because I almost never do. If you know something I don’t, please tell me. Furthermore, how many digital photographers do you know who sit and browse through only film scans? And if they do, and they share my experience of only coming across one truly high quality film scan at an appreciable resolution out of every hundred images, then do you still think they’re getting a good idea of the value of film? I just don’t see it.

        Hopefully that better explains where I’m coming from. Sorry for dragging on so long!

      5. Hi P, many thanks for your further thoughts. I started to reply and it quickly turned into a blog post. So, er, I made it into a new blog post! Due to be published later this evening. 🙂

      6. Haha! Sometimes I feel like I’m writing blog posts in response to your blog posts! I’m long-winded, I know. Sorry about that!

  1. My preferred level is none. Since this isn’t actually possible, I try to keep it to a minimum. Perhaps it’s just “old school” film training, but I don’t think grain adds anything to the quality of a picture and therefor should be avoided if possible. Sometimes that isn’t possible, as low-light conditions force it on us no matter what. This sentiment only applies to my style and shouldn’t be interpreted as a condemnation of the use of grain to achieve an artistic affect – such as purposefully mimicking an old photo style.

    1. Very interesting to hear different views Marc. I love grain in images whether film or digital, I don’t like them looking to clean and clinical.

  2. I don’t worry too much about it either way. Having said that, when I looked at the last two you posted side by side I did say “Yikes” loud enough to frighten the cat.

    1. Ha ha, sorry cat! It’s funny how so far the comments here seem very anti noise. I really can’t see the issue myself, but then I generally prefer flawed and imperfect photos!

      1. Me too. I enjoy looking at old photo books and I always notice that a lot of the images by great photographers of the era would be ripped to bits on any modern forum for not being sharp enough. When I evaluate a lens sharpness is way down on the list of things I look for.

  3. Casually, anecdotally, I find a bit of consensus.

    Film grain is more than acceptable, depending on the subject, and in many cases reinforces the image. But, um, to my taste, for B&W only. We were sort of trained in it, first habituated to the spongy benday dot texture of mass print journalism, and later, mere grain read as reasonably sharp, yet not so sharp as to not be of the real world – a razor-sharp view is not how we see, unless intently focused. Some grain looks ‘natural.’

    In the whole monochrome canon of the mid-century-to-turn ‘street’ & environmental portraits, where the light was often less than ideal and push-processed Tri-X was the lengua franca, grain became the norm. Latterly, that could morph into grit compounding grit, as with Daido Moriyama, et al – the school of studied grunge – and became a thematic force multiplier.

    But digital noise is oddly repellant, seeming like sickly chemical stains in broad areas of one color, and muddied-up, adulterated tone values of the rest.

    1. Thanks William. This has given me an offshoot idea for a new post I’ve started…

      As I said to Jim above too, I think there are varying degrees of perception as to what noise/grain is, and what is “acceptable” to each of us.

      And that acceptable level may well be different for photographs other people have made and photographs we make ourselves.

  4. Film grain is awesome, digital noise looks unpleasant. My digital photos are mostly shot at low ISO, as I rarely shoot in low light nowadays. But I do add “grain” in post-processing. To simulate “film” somewhat, but especially to add texture. Smooth and clean photos lack any character for me.

  5. first and most importantly – why to give yourself such a question? who cares…how much..of anything…

    how much sugar in tea is too much?

    1. Well, if you look at the other comments Pavel you’ll see that people do care, and do have opinions on grain and noise.

      The offshoot consequences are that someone who does like even the slightest digital noise would not be happy shooting in low light with a camera at high ISO, so this noise preference will influence when and where they shoot, and the camera(s) and lens(es) they choose to use.

      Very similar with film, if you want to shoot at night with slow lenses and not use a tripod, you’d need high ISO film, which might not give your photographs an aesthetic you enjoy.

      So again, grain/noise preferences influence a host of other choices with your photography.

      1. I did not ask you for explanation how grains on photo shows up, but thank you for effort. Now, how much sugar is enough?

      2. Pavel, you said “why to give yourself such a question? who cares…” I was explaining that it’s clear from the responses here that people do care, and it does impact other choices in how we photogrpah and the equipment we choose.

        As to the tea, my personal preference is none, as I only drink mint and fruit tea.

      3. I am attempting to explain you my point. Which is – it does not matter how much grain photo contains. Everybody is different. Everebody has different perceiving of beauty. There is nothing like norm. Some people hate grain and do anything to avoid it. Some people love it and would even add it in post process. But that does not matter.

        It is same as suger and tea. Some likes it with lots of sugar and some likes it sugar-free. Like you do. So it is useless to ask tea drinkers – how much sugar is too much?

        The question was

  6. The last batch of 4×6 prints I mailed to friends and family was shot on 35mm B&W film, and the response was very positive. For now at least, I’m done taking digital (and color) pictures except for visual memos with the iPhone. Digital noise is no longer an issue for me. But film grain is very much an issue and the subject of much of my current experimentation.

    My standard for film grain is the box of wet prints I made in my darkroom 45+ years ago. I have been experimenting with different film stocks, developers, scanning techniques, and approaches to inkjet printing, trying to duplicate as nearly as possible the appearance of the film grain in those prints in the same size inkjet prints. Hint: scanning the same negatives and trying to photoshop the scans into matching the old prints is not the answer.

    1. I’ve been quite amazed in this thread how much people think about grain or noise. As long as it’s not horrendous, it really doesn’t make any impact for me, and can often add character.

      How did you make those old prints originally? Are the same techniques available to you today?

      1. My old prints were made in a tiny closet darkroom in our Newark apartment. I had a Durst M300 enlarger with a very good Schneider lens. The very small space limited the size of my developing trays so I was limited to 8×10 printing paper. The prints are either 6.7 x 10 (full frame) or 8 x 10 (cropped).

        When I returned to film in 2010 I was using Ilford XP2 and Kodak BW400CN (C-41) film developed by Walgreens and printed on a Epson C88 inkjet. Most of the people who saw the prints thought they were as good as, or better than, the old darkroom prints. I wasn’t so sure, but our present living space is even smaller than the old apartment so a darkroom was out of the question, and I’ve spent the last almost 10 years refining my hybrid, i.e., scanned film, process.

      2. Doug, are you at the point where you happy with your hybrid set up? (I’m thinking from previous conversation the answer is yes.)

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