I love film. It’s what I grew up with, and it’s what I made most of my photographic discoveries – and mistakes – with. I love its richness, depth, unpredictability and character.

So I’m especially interested in any film simulation software which promises to replicate the look and feel of traditional silver-based films. But I’m also a bit sceptical, because many of the film simulations I see from plug-ins look quite suspect to me.

One problem is that they don’t always look like the films I used to use; another is that they don’t even agree with each other.

Film simulation plug-ins

So I’ve taken the same shot (above) and processed it using Alien Skin Exposure 5, Color Efex Pro, DxO FilmPack 4.5 and Silver Efex Pro, all of which promise to replicate the look of traditional film. I don’t have test results for all of them with every film because they don’t all support the same range of emulsions – but the results are interesting nonetheless.

On their own, each of these plug-ins makes a good case, but it’s when you put them up against each other that you realise they can’t all be right…

I’ve picked six ‘films’ to simulate. There are plenty more, but I’ve chosen the ones I know best from my own film photography days. I’ll start with the colour films, then move on to the black and white…

01 Kodachrome 25

Film simulation plug-ins

This was one of my favourite films. Slow as heck, true, but I thought it had really nice colour rendition, good saturation and not too much contrast.

Only two of these plug-ins offers a Kodachrome 25 simulation – Alien Skin Exposure 5 and DxO FilmPack 4.5

The Alien Skin rendition looks the best to me, while the DxO version doesn’t have the saturation I would expect. I’m not particularly convinced by either, to be honest. I’ve scanned plenty of Kodachrome 25 transparencies, so I know what to expect, and if I’d shot this scene on K25, I’d expect a much richer, more saturated outcome than either of these.

02 Kodachrome 64

Film simulation plug-ins

This was my favourite colour film, and I can’t really understand the (bad) reputation this film seems to have. Some say its colours are super-saturated and unreal (I think this is an unjustified Kodachrome reputation in general), others say K64 images have a magenta cast.

I don’t think either is true. My Kodachrome 64 transparencies have neutral, subtle tones and a particular ‘steely-grey’ rendition in skies that I really like.

But this is where you get the biggest variations in the digital versions. Of all of these, I think the Alien Skin Exposure 5 version is best, though to me it just looks like the original digital version with a tad more saturation.

Of the rest, the Color Efex Pro version is just a pantomime effect –too much contrast, too much saturation. The generic DxO FilmPack 4.5 version is OK but, again, looks just like the original with some tiny tweaks, but the non-generic DxO version (why are there two?) is flat, magenta and, to my eyes, just plain wrong.

03 Kodachrome 200

Film simulation plug-ins

I’ll admit I used Kodachrome 20o only twice, and found it grainy, contrasty and with such a strong magenta cast I vowed never to use it again…

The Alien Skin Exposure 5 rendition is very flattering, to say the least, the Color Efex Pro rendition is (again) a pantomime version that’s just plain wrong, while the DxO FilmPack 4.5 version is probably closest to the results I got from the real thing. Though much as I love K25 and K64, I don’t really want any of my shots to look as if they were taken on Kodachrome 200…