Saltaire United Reformed Church in the rain, December 2019. Fujifilm X-H1 with an 11mm Wide-angle Fisheye Lens 51,200 ISO.
How to Selectively Add Texture with High ISO
What I am about to suggest will be absolute heresy to some digital photographers. The holy grail of digital photography is a clinically perfect picture in the technical sense. Additionally, I have written in the past that digital for me is too everything: sharp, contrasty, saturated and clinically clean. Therefore, I suggest if you are a person of a nervous disposition before reading on, brace yourself. Take a precautionary sedative such as a large G&T, even if you are reading this post as it arrives at 8 am!
We all want to find shortcuts to get the right result without taking the unnecessary time and or effort. Back in 2017, I wrote a blog post on my old blog called Adding Grain with Lightroom or Photoshop. This post articulated a method of adding simulated and well-controlled film grain. This was based on using the Photoshop and Lightroom Plugin called Silver Efex Pro 2. However, this is a post-processing technique that requires time and effort to execute plausibly. The more controlled the grain effect, with a more technical approach, the longer it takes to do.
The Process of Selectively Adding Grain
For me, in the past, the grain adding process would have been
1 Start in Lightroom
2 Export to Photoshop
3 Create a Smart copy layer of the background layer
4 Open Silver Efex Pro 2 on the copy layer, add the grain universally
5 Save, and return to Photoshop
6 Mask the added grain to appear in the selected mid-tones and shadows (NOT the highlights)
7 Blur the grain
8 Save, and return to Lightroom
9 Split-tone to add two or more colours
The Tricky Part
I found the tricky part of the process above is the masking in step 7. This is trying to mimic a chemical process in the darkroom where you don’t get sharp edges. What is more, the edges of the selection need a fair proportion of Feathering to make it look like a gradual bleed of grain from none in the highlights to the mid-tones or shadows. However, this issue is eliminated in the following suggestion.
The reason for using a Smart copy layer in Photoshop. This method means you can change your mind and make adjustments to the original Silver Efex settings. As a matter of fact, with any other method through Photoshop or Lightroom, further adjustment is not possible, you have to start again.
Below – Nelson Street, Street Photography Workshop, Bristol September 2019 51,200 ISO. Fujinon 18mm f2 pancake lens.
Making Life Easier
How would it be? if it were possible to get a grain-like look straight out of the camera? What is more, this would do away with the need for extended post-processing time and skill. Well, it is possible. Put very simply, at your cameras highest ISO setting, noise may be added to the mid-tones and shadows but not the highlights. Besides, this is exactly the effect I am achieving with post-processing without the work.
Not all camera systems are the same
However, I do not assume all camera systems and sensors produce the same result. I tried this technique with a Pinhole lens in 2009 on a Canon 5D II at 25,600 ISO with unsuccessful results. The outcome was unsuccessful because the noise at 25,600 ISO looked like a grid pattern. Further, see the example picture below.
Canon 5 D II 50mm f300 Pinhole lens 2009 somewhere on the south coast may be Paignton! Notice the grid of noise at 25,600 ISO
In 2014 I moved to Fujifilm with the X-T 1. The highest ISO I can find from the 20,000 pictures I took with that camera is 12,800 ISO. Indeed, the appearance of the noise is much more like film grain and most importantly not in a grid pattern. The X-T 2 also has a maximum ISO of 12,800.
The X-H1 has the same sensor as the X-T 2 but with a high ISO value of 51,200. What is more, from an artistic point of view for me, this is far better than the X-T 2. Last year, I did experiments on the X-H 1 with Raw and Jpg files to see at what ISO the noise became easily visible in online pictures. Also, I wanted to know if there was a difference in the noise of Raw and Jpg files. In truth, I felt the noise of the Raw files to be softer and therefore preferable for my purposes.
Corn St, Street Photography Workshop, Bristol September 2019 51,200 ISO. Fujinon 18mm f2 pancake lens.
Lastly, why not be brave and enter new territory, crank up the ISO to its max and see what you get. You might even like it. Just a note on exposure values, there will be less noise in the highlights when a generous exposure is given. Therefore, shoot to the right but do not over-expose the highlights.