example of photograph edited with Photoshop

Adding film grain

In this guide to digital photo editing, we show you how to add film grain to an image to get impressive creative effects on your final photograph

Digital noise is the photographer’s enemy. It’s that horrible, multi-coloured speckling effect that you get when your camera’s ISO is set too high, and it can ruin an image. There are lots of ways to prevent noise, but, carefully applied at the editing stage, adding a touch of film grain can really make an image.

Grain can give your photos an aged, atmospheric appearance, sending your subject back to a time when cars were hand-cranked and film cameras ruled the roost. In this tutorial, we’ll show you how to add film grain subtly and effectively for better images.

whicker basket

This picture of a discarded wicker basket in a temple works better in monochrome than it did in colour; the sunlit areas provide much-needed contrast to the subject and the walls, and the shadow cast by the basket is evocative. The finishing touch, though, would be a bit of film grain, giving the photo a slightly aged appearance.

Photoshop controls

In this tutorial we’re using Photoshop, but the process of adding film grain is fairly standard across most image-editing applications. Photoshop gives you a bewildering set of options when it comes to adding film grain: you can elect to add noise, or add a grain texture to your shot.

Everything is accessed via the Filters menu, but in this case we’re going to use the Filter/Artistic/Film Grain… option, as it’s the right tool for the job.

Photoshop Grain menu

The layout of the texture dialogue box is easy to get to grips with. The large space on the left (not shown) is occupied by a real-time preview of the changes you’re making to your image. Down at the bottom is a zoom tool, allowing you to view your image either close up, or as a whole.

If you’re zoomed into your shot, you can click on the preview and drag it around to move to different areas. The middle panel provides you with various textures. In this case, Film Grain is already selected, but you can fritter away entire afternoons playing around with the other creative options. Finally, the right-hand panel provides you with the controls for the tool you’ve selected.

Film grain tools

These three tools are simple to get to grips with, but the most important thing here, as with most digital editing, is subtlety and a light touch. Grain determines how much grain is added to your image, Highlight Area determines the exposure of your image (adding grain makes your image appear brighter, so use this one sparingly), and Intensity is fairly self-explanatory.

Too much grain

If your image looks like this at any point in the process, you’ve gone too far. Always bear in mind that your digital editing will be far more obvious once your shot is printed, and you should always remember that if your work is glaringly obvious on screen, it will be worse once it’s printed.

As a general rule, you shouldn’t set the amount of grain to be added to more than three. The exact number will vary slightly based on the photo itself and the exact effect you’re reaching for, but the most effective use of the grain tool comes from smaller changes.

It’s also good practice to look at your image both at 100 per cent magnification, and zoomed all the way out, to make sure you’re not making a mess of things.

Compare the two shots

This is a 100 per cent crop of our image. The red line marks the separation between the “before” and “after” shots. The difference between the two images is subtle, but the final print has a little more atmosphere than the original, smooth-as-silk image. The effect becomes even more effective if you print on matte paper, which can give a monochromatic image even more character.

The final image

The final, zoomed out image.

How to remove dust spots

We show you how to use your image editor’s spot healing tool to remove those annoying dust spots on your digital photos

“Dust is a huge problem: it’s next to impossible to prevent, hard to get rid of and it ruins the best of shots”

If you use a DSLR, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself swapping lenses – that kit lens that came with the camera isn’t going to do all the jobs all the time. That means, sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself facing a problem that photographers have faced since the advent of interchangeable lenses: dust.

Dust is a huge problem: it’s next to impossible to prevent, hard to get rid of and it ruins the best of shots. Many recent DSLRs have self-cleaning sensors to try to minimise the problem, and some can have custom dust maps created so that dust spots are removed in-camera, but knowing how to use the heal tool to get rid of those conspicuous dark spots is a must.

Dust on the lens

This shot has it all. White, powdery sand, blue skies and… a pair of horrible dust spots, ringed in red. Most likely the spots are hangovers from a less-than-sympathetic lens change, but we’re stuck with them now.

Close up of dust spot

The first thing we need to do is see how bad the problem is by zooming in. We’re in luck: dust spots are hardest to invisibly remove if they’re covering an area of particular interest or detail – a person’s face, for instance. In this case the dust spot occurs in an area of sky, and so, once you know what you’re doing, will be a doddle to remove.

Spot healing tool

This is the spot-healing tool. This screengrab is taken from Adobe Photoshop, but it’s a standard tool found in most decent photo-editors.

Spot healing brush controls

There are several different ways of using the spot-healing brush, but don’t be intimidated: it works just like any other Photoshop tool. Here you can see the most important variables: the size (diameter) of the brush and its hardness.

Spacing simply means how many times the brush is applied when you drag it over your canvas – one per cent means it’s constantly applied; the larger the percentage, the less frequently the brush is applied.

The angle and roundness of your brush will depend on the size of the spot you’re going to remove. Because most dust spots are very close to the focal plane of a camera (i.e. they’re between the lens and the CCD), they appear as fairly round, out-of-focus spots.

But remember that you can easily use the spot-healing tool to correct other image problems, such as blemishes on people’s faces. When dealing with irregularly-shaped problems such as these, the angle and roundness of the brush becomes a factor.

Removing dust spots

The trick with removing dust spots and blemishes – as with most photo manipulation – is to do it in as few steps as possible. The more work you do, the more likely your efforts are to be visible in the final image. With these dust spots, which are luckily fairly round, we’ll aim to get the job done with one click.

To that end, we’ve tuned the brush so it’s about a fifth larger than the area we’re trying to correct.

Note: The spot-healing brush doesn’t need you to select an area of canvas to sample pixels from – it does this automatically.

Removing dust spots

Notice that our brush has slightly soft edges. In this case we’ve set the hardness of the brush to 83 per cent. If your brush is 100 per cent hard, you can end up with a peculiar-looking coffee-mug effect, particularly if your brush size doesn’t totally cover your working area.

Dust spots removed

And with a single click, you’ve done it. This kind of editing takes a few goes to get right – make the CTRL-Z (Undo) shortcut your best friend, and remember that perfectionism is a trait of all good photographers.

If your editing is evident to you on your PC screen, heavy-handed healing can make your shot look worse than if you’d simply left the dust spots alone, so make sure your job is invisible by the time you save.

The finished, healed image

The finished, healed image. Both of our dust spots have been healed away with single clicks, and the final print looks pristine. Don’t forget it’s possible to take preventative action to keep dust spots from reaching your shots in the first place: be careful where you change lenses (never outside), and treat your camera to a hand-pumped air blower if you notice problems.

If you find dust spots appearing on your prints, give the mirror box (what you see when the lens is off) a few gentle puffs of air to dislodge any major particles. A final word of warning: leave sensor cleaning to the professionals!

Dodge and Burn

An introduction to the useful image editing technique known as ‘dodge and burn’ – lightening and darkening bits of an image to get the best overall effect

The dodge and burn tools are an enormously useful pair of utilities that allow you to adjust the exposure in very specific parts of your images, making areas of your image lighter or darker as you wish.

Unlike a global exposure-adjustment tool, or the Levels or Curves tools, they only affect the parts of the image you brush over.

So you might have a portrait shot of someone which would be perfect but for the lighting on the left side of their face; the dodge and burn tools are perfect for adjusting these minor flaws. The dodge tool lightens areas of your image; the burn tool makes them darker.

Note: the following screenshots are taken from Adobe Photoshop. The dodge and burn tools, however, are common to virtually every photo-editing package, including the GIMP, which is freeware.

Picture of a monkey

This shot of a monkey is generally well-exposed, but because there’s a lot of light coming from behind our subject, the edges have become a little indistinct: an effect not helped by the fact that the light has diffused through the monkey’s fur. Using the burn tool we can reduce the exposure on these edges.

Dodge & Burn toolbar

This is the dodge toolbar. The drop-down menu on the far left allows you to select pre-determined settings you’ve created yourself.

The Brush: command allows you to choose the size of your brush.

The Range: command is what makes the dodge and burn tools so useful. If you choose Highlights, the brush will only affect the brightest parts of your image.

Likewise, Shadows affects only the darkest areas, while Midtones affects those tones in between. This useful command allows you to work on edges between light and dark areas without affecting them both at the same time.

The Exposure: setting is the most crucial aspect of the tools. If set to 100%, it will add or subtract 100% of the brightness of the area you’re working on. Most of the time, anything above 10% is too much, but as you use the tools more and more you’ll find it easier and easier to get to grips with.

Close up of monkey's arm

Even with Highlights selected, a little precision never hurts when it comes to photograph editing, so zoom into the area you want to change. We’ll start with the arms, which are suffering from a halo effect thanks to the light bleeding through from behind.

Close up of monkey's arm

We need to use a relatively small brush size, and it’s important that we add no more exposure than we absolutely need. There’s no need to measure how much you need – you’ve got the “Undo” button on your side, but as a rule of thumb, keep the exposure setting down to under 10%. If you’re working with areas that are either very dark or very light, be even more sparing: stick to 5% or less. In this case we’ve chosen 7%.

Close up of monkey's arm

The “before” and “after” shots of this area show some subtle differences – the edges of the monkey’s arms look more defined and sharper.

Close up of monkey's head

It’s time to move onto the head. The principal remains the same – stop if your image is showing particularly drastic changes, and use a brush size proportional to the size of the area you’re working on.

Close up of monkey's head

Uh-oh. If your image starts to look streaky or smudged, you’ve got the settings for your dodge or burn tool wrong. This kind of effect is indicative of setting the exposure setting too high – remember, 10% is a safe maximum in almost all cases.

We’ve also gone over the edge that we wanted to darken, and in doing so have darkened the background as well.

A key point to remember with the dodge and burn tools is that their effectiveness is drastically reduced if you use them on non-textured surfaces, such as sky, or solid blocks of unfocused colour – this is why the smudged background looks so terrible here. Stick to using them on textured areas of your images, such as, in this case, fur.

Picture of monkey after Dodge & Burn

This is the finished image. At first glance it doesn’t look strikingly different to the original: this is a good thing.

When working on your image, make sure you literally keep sight on the big picture – continually zoom out and look at the image full-screen. If your changes are obvious on a computer screen they’ll look atrocious once your image is actually printed. A final word of advice: making any changes with Photoshop’s brushes is hugely simplified if you use a graphics tablet.