After using a film simulation plug-in for the last 6 months or so, I recently, and only semi-consciously, turned off the "add grain" setting.
Color adjustment and sharpening presets were still working great for me as a starting point for fine-tuning and achieving more consistent results, but synthetic film grain was no longer appealing to me.
When I realized I had done this, it bugged me a bit, since I have always liked the grainy film look for certain types of photos. To figure out whether this was a good idea or not, I thought an experiment was in order. So, here is a three-way comparison of relatively clean digital output, simulated grain using Alien Skin Exposure's Tri-X 50% grain setting, and real Tri-X Pan push processed for ISO 800.
I have to preface this with a disclaimer regarding the presumed aesthetic appeal of chunky silver crystals embedded in film or the equivalent digital noise. Neither one of these is ideal in terms of high quality photographic reproductions of light bouncing of objects. However, I would like to assume for the sake of this comparison that there are some situations where a grainy B&W film printed at reasonable sizes can achieve a pleasing effect.
Although my preferred subjects for this type of treatment are people in mixed light situations, I used a non-moving object with consistent lighting and surface features that resemble the texture of skin in order to control the conditions for the comparison.
The first picture is a 100% magnified screen grab of a black and white conversion of an image captured raw with a 45mm f/1.8 Olympus lens on the OMD EM5 at ISO 200, wide open with a shutter speed of 1/400. My favored conversion utilizes the Technical Pan film setting in Alien Skin Exposure, and in this case, the default cyan filter setting produced what seemed to me to be the best overall balance of light and dark across the frame. There is not much noise to see here since I used base ISO, but if you look closely there is some texture to the grays - especially in the bokeh areas. It get's more intense at higher ISO values, but it looks good, and in general this is something I like about the current OMD.
The second picture is the same image with the Tri-X "salt and pepper" grain setting at 50%. This is more than I would normally want to add, but as you will see in the next picture, it is almost too weak compared to the real thing. I also tried 100%, but it produced really bad digital looking fuzziness that had none of the character of the real thing.
The third picture is the "real thing". Nikon F3 with Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and Tri-X Pan (TX400) push processed in Xtol to ISO 800, and scanned. I found platinum (warm) toning suited this image, so I used it consistently during processing for all versions.
Finally, as a frame of reference, the fourth image is a processed color version of the full-size image (no grain added).
I tried to keep the screen grabs big enough so that pixelation would not interfere with the visual impact of the grain.
To me, there is no doubt that film has an organic texture that the Photoshop plug-in doesn't quite match. OK, technically it is an inorganic texture, and when you pixel peep, the mosaic of crystals looks a little like the fractal patterns that people are complaining about getting from the Fuji X Trans sensor when converting images from raw, but at reasonable viewing distances it creates a good impression. Not unlike an impressionist painting, but probably far from the perfection followers of the f/64 group would require.
Since there were more frames to work with on this roll of film, I had some fun with it, and I'll try sharing a couple more shots later. The main issue with film is that it is pretty limiting compared to digital capture. There was not much I could do with the monochrome scans other than luminance level adjustments and a bit of toning. Sharpening did not really work well due to the grain, and there was no color conversion to work with in post-processing.
The best thing about film, to me at least, is that while it is more limiting, it does do what it does very well. If you want a contrasty monochrome image with really juicy grain, it doesn't get much better than this. It's still available, and as long as it matches your artistic intent, it is easy enough to incorporate into your workflow when needed.
Let me know what you think.