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How To Achieve That Crushed Black Film Look in Photoshop and Lightroom
Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 8 min read
That Film LookToday’s trendy photos have an aesthetic to them that’s hard to pin down. Despite being very different in subject matter, composition and even color, they tend to share a certain look and feel. What is it? When asked to describe this look, many would use words like “vintage” and “retro”, some might even go so far as to say these photos look more like they were taken on a film camera than a digital one. If we’re looking to recreate this effect though, these adjectives don’t really help us. There’s no “vintage” button in Photoshop that makes all your photos magically look like this, so how do you do it?
Dynamic RangeDynamic range refers to the full gamut of values for a given quantity. It’s a concept that can be applied to many different things, but most notably for our purposes, your senses. Sight and sound both have a measurable dynamic range that we’re intuitively pretty familiar with. For instance, in a really quiet room, you can hear the scratch of your pencil against the paper you’re writing on, but you can also hear the insanely loud screech of a group of fighter jets as they fly over your head. In terms of sight, you can navigate through a crowded beach on a bright sunny day and through a dimly lit theater as you head out for more popcorn.
Our Dynamic Range is LimitedThat being said, there are values that are beyond the natural dynamic range of our senses. If you turn down the dimmer switch in a room with no outside light, eventually, you’ll hit a point where you can’t see anything. The same thing happens on the opposite end of the spectrum when you look right at a bright light source such as the sun. Just like your eyes, your camera also has a dynamic range. This refers to the difference in value between the darkest darks and the lightest lights. And just like with your eyes, there’s a tradeoff at work. When your eyes or your camera adjust to perceive something really bright, they can no longer perceive darker values. Imagine walking into a dark room from the bright sunlight, it takes a minute to adjust! This can make it pretty tricky to take photos in extreme lighting situations. On a bright sunny day, if you adjust your camera so that the shadows are properly exposed, you’ll blow the highlights! Similarly, if you expose for the bright sky, you lose detail in the shadows (this is how you get a silhouette shot).
Fantastic TechnologyThe great thing about being a photographer today is that our technology allows us to push the bounds of the dynamic range that we’ve historically been able to achieve. High-tech camera sensors combined with post-processing software like Photoshop make it super easy to create beautifully bright and colorful photos with an impressive dynamic range.
In fact, many photographers push the limits of this technique and create surreal “HDR” (High Dynamic Range) scenes.
Why The Science Lesson?That long explanation of dynamic range may seem irrelevant to our pursuit of a vintage film look, but understanding these principles actually give us an important hint about how to achieve what we want. As it turns out, part of what makes film photos look “old” to our eyes is that many of these images have no where near the dynamic range that we’re used to seeing straight out of the camera today. If you compare the aged photo style we’re going for with the HDR image above, you can see that it’s pretty much the exact opposite in terms of technique. Instead of increasing dynamic range, we need to decrease it!
“Crushing” The Black in PhotoshopThe technique that we’re going to use for reducing the dynamic range in a photo is referred to as “crushing” or “clipping” the image, specifically the dark areas, or “blacks”. When you hear someone say that a photo has “crushed blacks,” this is what they’re referring to. For our test image, we’ll use this photo of two seagulls from Creative Market shop owner mrgeoff.
This photo has a pretty good dynamic range to start. The grass and trees in the background are all fairly dark, but there’s still a lot of detail visible. To make this image look a bit more film-like, all we have to do is add a single Curves Adjustment Layer. You can do this by clicking the New Adjustment Layer button in the Layers Panel and then selecting Curves. This will bring up the Curves adjustment settings, which depicts a histogram and a diagonal line. The left side of the histogram represents the dark areas of the image, the right side represents the light areas of the image, and the diagonal line is the tool that you use to manipulate how bright/dark different areas of the photo are. It seems a little intimidating at first, but if you play around with it for a minute, you’ll get the hang of it. To introduce some clipping in the dark areas, bring the leftmost point of the line slightly up (which increases the brightness of the dark areas) and to the right (which reduces the detail). If you wish, you can crush the white a little too by doing the inverse to the rightmost point. Here’s a comparison of the Curves panel before and after the adjustment. That’s all there is to it! Your photo should now have that film aesthetic you’ve been looking for. Wasn’t that easy?
Tip: You can achieve this same effect by using the Camera Raw filter and selecting the Tone Curve tab. Or, instead of a Curves layer or Camera Raw filter, try creating a Fill Layer (start with #4e4e4e), set the blend mode to Lighten, and reduce the opacity.
In LightroomAchieving the same effect in Lightroom is just as simple. Find the Tone Curve adjustment controls and treat them just like Curves in Photoshop. Here’s what the before/after looks like for this adjustment.
Is It Better?It’s important to note that, from a strictly empirical standpoint, we’ve actually made this photo worse, because we’ve removed pixel detail. However, people’s personal preferences when it comes to photography have nothing to do with empirical measurements of pixel data. Some people absolutely hate this look, others can’t get enough. Whether the photo is “better” or not after the adjustment in terms of aesthetics is completely in the eye of the beholder. Keep in mind though that this does represent a popular trend. The upside of following trends is that your work stays fresh and in line with what people like. The downside is that trends change quickly, so what’s popular today might make your photo look ugly and out of date tomorrow. Be especially aware of this as you build your professional portfolio. Hang on to those unedited versions of your images, they may come in handy when it’s time to update your site later!
Professional Film EffectsSo now you know how to crush your dynamic range to achieve a film look in Photoshop and Lightroom. You might be comparing your results to some of your favorites images though and thinking that you’re not quite there yet. It turns out that one curves adjustment barely scratches the surface of the measures that professional photographers go through to emulate film in the digital world. A good film effect often uses a combination of multiple Curves layers, color adjustments, and even additive effects like noise textures and light leaks. If you’re looking to take your film emulation to the next level, we’ve got tons of affordable, professional-level actions. Here are some of my favorites.
Tell Us Your Favorite ActionsThere are a million different ways to go about giving your photos a vintage look. I’ll bet you have your own method or favorite set of actions. If you do, tell us about them in the comments below. If you’ve created your own set of actions, why not upload them to Creative Market and make a little extra cash?