When Image Noise/Grain Can be Useful

Inglourious Basterds

Despite us photographers always wanting cleaner images like in the example of the recently announced Canon G11, there are times when image noise can be useful to us. A while back, I wrote about how it can be used in your advantage to satisfy your clients. With the closer merger of video and stills these days and in honor of Grindhouse-style movies like the upcoming Inglourious Basterds here is when image noise and grain can be useful to you.

Vintage Look

Years ago, photographers use to embrace film grain and not complain about it. Today, we’ve become spoiled by always wanting cleaner, crisper images without any of that grain that blots out details. If you really want to capture that vintage look in your images without using film, crank the ISO up or take a clean image and layer image noise on top using Photoshop’s filters. Using this method can be useful for weddings or artistic uses such as a photoshoot that is meant to look Grindhouse-style, in telling a story through flashbacks, etc. In video, it’s best to apply the effect during the day as normal night shooting already can apply a significant amount of grain even if you’re shooting with a RED One or 5D Mk II.

Keep in mind though that if you are going to apply grain, do it in small amounts until you achieve the exact look that you want. Otherwise the grain won’t look good and will become a nuisance for your audience.

Black and White

The Poor Homeless Man
This is probably the classic example of using image noise and ties in with the vintage look stated above. Granted, clean black and white images look very nice if lit and balanced correctly. However, adding image noise to a black and white picture can give it a specific look, whether vintage or not. In video, it can present a whole different feeling to the viewer. Image noise and grain are seen often in movies if we just look for it.

Shallow Depth of Field

Alex Using her iPhone as Fill Light
Click on the image above and view it in large. Look really closely. There’s a lot of image noise in there, it was shot with my 5D Mk II at ISO 3200. The focus is on Alex’s face and everything else is totally out of focus and blurry. However, the image noise from the high ISO makes it something really nice to look at besides some blurred out lights as a result of the bokeh.

Covering Conflict

During my time at Magnum Photos, I saw the work of conflict photographers like Susan Meiselas. The intensity of the photo was added to by the fact that everything was shot at such high ISO film. The high ISO film gave off a lot of grain and when I thought about how that photo would have been captured if she were shooting in digital, I realized that the grain gives it a look that heightens the urgency and experience of seeing the effects and expressions of those in the middle of the conflict. It really put into perspective what we experience in conflict and how much the mainstream media really hides from us.



  1. Jeffery Stevenson says

    I don’t think Inglourious Basterds is a Grindhouse-style film at all. It’s a war film.

    And while I understand the idea behind image noise, I think it detracts from the photo in the Black and White subsection. It’s done brilliantly in the Vintage Look and Shallow Depth of Field subsections, but the homeless picture just has too much fuzz.