Photography grain is a living, breathing aspect of our art. They are often considered the imperfections that make a photograph perfect. While there is a great deal of talk about grain, both in the digital and film realm, there is very little objective discussion seen.
Here there is a comparison between a digital photograph at 3,200 iso (albeit and old Nikon D80 camera) and a shot taken on old Tri-X at 400 iso. The author compares the grain with close up photographs to illustrate the similarity in grain. The problem with comparing film with digital is two fold; first film was made to be printed in a darkroom. It was designed to be made into a tangible photograph while digital was made for computer viewing. The difference is explained below. Second, the digital revolution had changed our approach to grain in a very fundamental way. What was an inescapable part of film photography is now something we have a choice over. The choice changes our perspective on grain.
Film Grain Scan vs Darkroom:
Let me tackle the first portion of my statement. When I first got into film photography I was shocked at the amount of grain in my photographs. I tried to recall my father's old photographs and did not remember seeing as much grain. I went to my photography books and aside from a few images, did not see the same amount of grain I was experiencing.
I blamed my development at first. I looked through different sites to see what I was doing wrong. I tried to agitate more and then less, I developed at warmer and then cooler temperatures, everything to find the trick to get rid of all my grain.
This continued until I finally got my darkroom set up. All of my digitally scanned, grainy film were able to produce some wonderfully smooth prints. A scanned film photograph begs to be zoomed in while a print must be seen as the entire image. The darkroom process determines the level of enlargement, and the emphasis on grain achieved. Once printed the image perspective cannot be altered.
This is not to say that there is no grain in the darkroom print, but rather that the final image cannot be zoomed to 100%. At best, it will be held a foot or two from the viewers face. A scanned copy gives us the ability, and actually invites a person to zoom into a level that no viewer would actually use.
For further comparisons, I have a full picture scanned and digitally processed compared to a photograph of the actual darkroom print.
Every piece of grain captured during the digital scanning process is indeed there. Grain is not altered however as soon as the image is converted into binary data we are empowered to zoom into different portions of the photo. Grain does not change, how we view images has. Pleasing grain in a print (digital or darkroom) is vastly different than that viewed on a computer screen.
An image, any image must be taken with the understanding of what will happen to it. My iPhone snapshots are precious to me. They show a candid moment in my life and I take them to share with friends and family. I do that via social media and have rarely if ever printed an iPhone photograph.
When I pull out my film cameras I am imagining the photograph in the darkroom, the final tangible photo in my hand and ultimately in a frame or album. The grain peeping, zooming in for all a photo is worth is simply not done, either in the iPhone shot or my printed images.
Grain (digital noise) as a Choice:
In the digital realm, our approach to digital noise has been forever altered. Now your choice of camera determines the amount of digital noise you have to live with. When I used my Nikon D300, I was paranoid about reducing this digital noise. Then I found a website which has since disappeared, which recommended approaching your family photographs as a documentary. Capturing the moment is more important than the image quality.
This simple concept changed my approach to photography. It freed me from capturing the perfect shot from an Image Quality perspective, and allowed me to just capture the perfect family moment. I stopped caring about digital noise at that point and my photography improved.
Patrick...confirmed film & digital photography addict.