Doug Boutwell the occasional odd thought or image

The Futility Of Perfect Digital To Film Emulation

Why write this article right now? I mean, Totally Rad is just released a set of Lightroom presets to emulate film, shouldn’t I be lying my ass off to sell it? To be honest, I am VERY proud of Replichrome, and think it’s going to be the new bar to which other products have to rise (I’d say it’s the “standard”, but VSCO uses that word so much that they may as well have trademarked it). BUT, it’s not going to make your digital images look exactly like film with one click every single time.

You heard me right – digital will NEVER look exactly the same as film, 100% reliably. There are a number of reasons for this, and we could pick them all apart and try to tackle them with doctoral-level research, but the BIGGEST reason your digital and your film will never look EXACTLY alike ALL of the time is film itself. To be more specific, even film doesn’t look like film 100% of the time. Madness, you say? Not at all. For instance, please tell me which one of these photos was shot on Kodak Portra 160:


Give up?

It’s a trick question anyway. Those are ALL shot on Portra 160. Yes, you read that correctly. Two are from Richard Photo Lab in Hollywood, and two are from Indie Film Lab in Montgomery, AL. Each lab scanned the same frame on both a Frontier and a Noritsu. Any differences you see here are a result of the process used to digitize the film. The exact same photo looks completely different depending on the lab you send it to, the scanner they use, the mood the lab tech is in, the temperature of their chemistry, etc, etc – and this doesn’t even get into the reasons a particular film might behave wildly differently depending on the lighting, over or under exposure, presence of UV or infared light in the scene, coatings on your camera lens, ambient temperature, freshness, reciprocity, and a zillion other factors.

The fact is, trying to nail down what Portra 160 looks like, or any other film for that matter, is a bit like trying to nail down what a guitar sounds like, or what wine tastes like, or what love feels like. Yes, there are some general truths, but you can only really talk about THIS wine, or THAT guitar, or what YOU feel like when you’re in love. Therefore, expecting anybody’s version of Portra 160 to look exactly like the Portra 160 you just shot is a bit like asking somebody to make spaghetti just like your mom’s – it MIGHT be exactly the same, but chances are it’ll be subtly (or wildly) different.

In a nutshell, it’s impossible to perfectly emulate a given film 100% of the time, because it’s impossible to even define what a given film looks like in absolute terms.

So why try at all? Because it’s bitchin, that’s why. Just because I can’t make your mom’s spaghetti, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t cook spaghetti at all. Replichrome does a great job of recreating the palette and character of several films, for one specific manifestation of those films. In my case, I’ve been sending film to Richard Photo Lab in Hollywood for years now, and I think they do an awesome job, so I modeled Replichrome on the work that they do. I figure they know film better than anybody else out there, and if they say Fuji 800Z looks a particular way, I’ll believe them. Does Replichrome’s 800Z preset look exactly like every other roll of 800Z ever shot? Of course not, but it’s a darned good emulation of what you’d get if you sent your film to one of the best labs in the nation, and that’s about as close as we’re ever going to get.

But you know what? It’s GOOD ENOUGH. Good enough to mix film and digital from the same shoot, and good enough to make your digital images look a bit more human and alive. With 13 different films, and up to 6 variants of some films, you’ve got a lot of choices in your pursuit of a more romantic, beautiful character for your images, even if perfect accuracy isn’t attainable – and that’s worth celebrating. It’s an exciting time we live in, indeed.

Check out Replichrome at for more.

5 Responses to The Futility Of Perfect Digital To Film Emulation

  1. allan says:

    nice. love this.

  2. chris arnold says:

    As someone who used to shoot film I can tell you, Doug is absolutely right about how different the same film can look depending on your lab, your lab tech, the developer etc…..

  3. Pingback: Replichrome vs. VSCO - Which one should you buy? - Push the Shutter

  4. Luke says:

    Would you mind sharing the scanner/lab combo for the bottom right image?

  5. Heath says:

    I like your point, sir. You had me.

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