Software Roundup: 4 Programs that Simulate the Look of Film

July 1, 2014

By RF Staff

Is film making a comeback? Judging from the increasing number of software programs that adjust digital images to simulate the look of film, it’s worth a discussion. For now, the future of that classic “analogue” look lies with film emulation software, so let’s look at some of the more popular programs (along with a few others that I think should be more popular). I’ll concentrate on the software that offers both color and black-and-white presets to narrow down the options. 

Alien Skin Exposure 6

Above: Alien Skin Exposure has one of the widest ranges of film emulations. The right-hand panel of the program holds extensive adjustments to apply once you select a preset.

At press time, Alien Skin Exposure 6 was just announced as a replacement for Exposure 5, and the revamped program offers a few key changes, including the addition of Alien Skin’s Bokeh functionality for selectively blurring backgrounds. (At press time, Alien Skin’s Bokeh 2 was still available as a separate program as well). Other changes to Exposure 6 include a cleaner user interface for quicker access to the program’s tools.

There’s a new basic control panel that gives you access to sliders for global adjustments of exposure, contrast, clarity and vibrance. Exposure 6’s image-processing engine has also been tweaked to make the app run faster, and full-sized instant previews of the effects allow you to compare before and after looks more quickly than in the previous version.

Of all the film emulation programs I’ve viewed, Exposure 6 has one of the widest ranges of available film-style presets, including black and white, color print, color slide, color and black-and-white infrared, and Polaroid color and black-and-white films. There are also presets for focus effects, tonality, split toning, vintage films, cross processing, lo-fi (lomography), etc. The custom adjustments include those for color, focus, grain, infrared, vignettes, borders and textures, and a tone curve. Once you create a custom look, you can save it as a user preset.

Alien Skin claims over 450 preset effects can be applied with a single mouse click in Exposure 6, which now integrates both color and black-and-white processing so you don’t need to switch between tools.

When used as a plug-in, Exposure sends the image back to the host program with each adjustment on a separate layer. Layer opacity or blending mode can be adjusted at this point if the host program supports them—a flexible and welcome touch.

Exposure 6 installs as a standalone application or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop CS6 or newer, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 or newer and Apple Aperture 3 or newer. (Exposure does not include a browser, but you can drag and drop files onto its desktop icon or open files from the program.)

With an MSRP of $149, Alien Skin Exposure 6 is available for Windows 7 or newer and Mac OS X 10.8 or newer operating systems.

DFT Film Stocks v1.5

Above: The same panel that displays film types in Digital Film Tools also displays adjustment options when you select the Parameters tab.

Less well-known than other film emulation programs, Film Stocks v1.5 from Digital Film Tools is the heart of the Film Stocks category of Tiffen Dfx. The plug-in software simulates 288 different color and black-and-white still photographic film stocks, motion picture films stocks and historical photographic processes. 

The default interface is quite busy with preset categories below the main preview window, an effects panel to the left and thumbnails of the available presets in the selected preset category on the right. Also fitting into the interface is a magnifier view and histogram. Fortunately, you can show or hide each element of the interface to your own preference.

Presets are available in the following categories: B&W Films, B&W Lo-Fi, Color Films-Cross Processing Print and Slide, Faded, Historical, Lo-Fi, Lo-Fi Cross Processing and Motion Picture Films. Within each category, I couldn’t think of a film for which there is no preset; included are Polaroid 600 and SX-70, and even GAF 500 slide film, which are seldom found in other programs.

With a preset selected, you click the Parameters tab to open the custom adjustment panel. Options are available for Black and White, Film Response, Color Correction, Filter, Sharpen, Diffusion, Vignette and Grain.

Film Stocks also includes some unique features, and allows users to stack different film stocks onto one another. The stack is displayed in the Effects panel on the left of the preview. Controls for opacity and blending modes are included in the program, as well as four masking options, including Digital Film Tools EX Mask, for additional blending. When adjustments are complete, Film Stocks returns you to the host program with a flattened image.

Along with being one of the most complete film simulation plug-ins, it is also a relative bargain. One $95 license allows Film Stocks to run in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Adobe AfterEffects, Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Aperture if installed on the same Windows or Mac computer.

DxO FilmPack 4

With two editions of DxO FilmPack 4 (Essential and Expert), either can be installed as a standalone program or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Apple Aperture and DxO Optics Pro. As a plug-in, you can process RAW files in Optics Pro and move directly into FilmPack. As with Alien Skin Exposure, there is no browser in the standalone version.

With an MSRP of $129, the Expert edition is well worth the additional $50 over the stripped-down Essential edition. Expert includes presets for about 60 analogue films and 39 Designer presets, along with a range of adjustments.

The FilmPack interface is clean and uncluttered with available preset categories including color slide film, color negative film, black-and-white film, designer presets and a custom categories you create. The Effects tab of the Controls panel has controls for film rendering, grain, filter, toning, vignetting and blur vignetting, texture, light leaks and frames. There is also a Settings tab in the Controls panel where you’ll find sliders for contrast, saturation, exposure, vibrancy, micro-contrast, hue, lightness and noise removal, along with a tone curve adjustment. 

You can print directly from both the standalone and plug-in versions of FilmPack 4 and export your images to Facebook from the standalone version, which also supports batch processing. The plug-in saves your image to a flattened layer in the host application.

As much as I liked the look of FilmPack 4, and while it has an effective list of adjustments, it falls a little short in preset options. However, if your RAW workflow includes DxO Optics Pro, Film Pack 4 is likely your best option.

Other Film Software

No longer available as a separate boxed program, Nik Color Efex Pro 4 is now part of the $149 MSRP Google Nik Collection, along with Analog Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro, HDR Efex Pro, Sharpener Pro and Viveza. While you wouldn’t suspect a program named Color Efex Pro to be film emulation software—and it isn’t even obvious when you open the program—scattered within the interface are film presets. Film Efex: Modern contains emulations of recent color films, but not Fuji Velvia 50 that nearly all other software seem to have.

Another program with hidden-away film emulations is Imagenomic Realgrain 2. A list of color and black-and-white presets are available for fairly recent films, including Fuji Velvia 50. The Realgrain plug-in has an MSRP of $99.95 or can be bundled with other Imagenomic plug-ins.

Replichrome 1.1.2a takes an entirely different approach to film emulation software. As a plug-in for Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Replichrome is designed to apply corrections to RAW format files. In ACR, the presets are based on Noritsu and Fuji Frontier scans of popular color and black-and-white negative films. Replichrome is available from for $99.

While all of the other film emulation programs have trial software available, the much buzzed about VSCO Film programs from the Visual Supply Company do not—nor did the company respond to any of our emails asking for review copies of VSCO Film. However, the five sets of these popular plug-ins are available for $119 each.

Whether users are truly interested in creating images that duplicate the effects 
of film or just want a starting point to 
create their own custom look, film 
emulation software is worth having in 
your arsenal.