How to design Fujifilm Recipes

“Nighthawks” Øyvind Nordhagen, using OWH Darkness recipe

Fujifilm has given us a great set of tools for creating distinct looks in camera, without having to do much post processing, if any. With some basic knowledge of these tools you should be able to play around and achieve what you want.

Get your references straight

Before beginning though, you need to know what your desired result should look like. I suggest you find around 5 reference images that look like what you want. Pay attention to contrast, color cast, saturation, sharpness and grain. Make sure that they are actually similar by comparing their histograms. If 3 images have faded blacks and the remaining 2 have rich black levels, you have some more research to do.

The next step is to compile a few of your own raw files that represent a selection of similar subjects and lighting conditions to your reference images. These will be the images you use to test your recipe. Don’t go overboard with this or you will be up all night going back and forth adjusting. 5 images is good here as well, as long as they represent some variety.

Download Fujifilm X-RAW Studio

Tweaking recipes in your camera is highly inefficient, so I recommend you download Fujifilm’s companion software X-RAW Sudio. It’s not without its flaws, but it gets the job done. Best of all is that it actually uses the RAW processing engine of your actual camera. This means the results will be identical to what you later will shoot with your recipe.

Contrast first

The place I always start is with the desired contrast curve. Look for tendencies in the histograms of your reference images (it can help to squint your eyes for this). Take this simplified example: We can clearly see that there is some crushing of the blacks involved, but with a roll-off in the bottom end. There is also a dominance of mid-highs, but again no clipping.

Now that you know how the histogram should look, it’s time to look at the tools to achieve this. Fire up X-RAW studio, zero out all the settings and select a neutral film simulation like Provia.

Dynamic range, Highlight and Shadow

Let’s tackle Dynamic Range first as it is a very effective tool. It basically compresses the highlights to avoid clipping and it’s one of the few adjustments that actually affect the raw file as well. It does this by under-exposing the image using ISO and then raising the shadows to bring back shadow detail. For this to work your ISO has to be high enough to under-expose the required number of stops.

DR has three possible settings:

  • 100: Off (might as well have been labelled that)
  • 200: One stop of highlight recovery. Requires ISO one stop above minimum (ISO 320 for X-T4)
  • 400: Two stops of highlight recovery. Requires ISO two stops above minimum (ISO 640 for X-T4)

There is also “AUTO” Which automatically selects between 100 and 200 depending on the scene.

Highlight and shadow should be fairly self-explanatory as all they do is affect the top and bottom end of the contrast curve. However the way to set them is a little bit confusing. Think of like this: Positive values increase contrast, whereas negative values decrease contrast. That way “+” and “-” make sense.

“Trashcans and Legs” Øyvind Nordhagen using OWH Chrome recipe

Achieving film-like contrast

A special word about this is warranted as it’s one of the more frequent questions I get. Here’s what you need to know: Slide film (or “chrome” or “positive” film) is very unforgiving and usually produces a sharp contrast curve. It is also prone to crush blacks and blow out highlights. If you’re looking for this kind of aesthetic, leave Dynamic range at 100/200/auto and play with Shadow/Highlight/Push-Pull processing (exposure compensation) until it looks right. Bear in mind that you will probably have to make some compromises with what you choose to expose right.

Negative film is very different. Exactly opposite of digital sensors, negative film is great at retaining highlight detail and bad at shadow detail. For this reason, shooting film you typically expose for the shadows. This is where Dynamic Range 400 really helps. It will let you over-expose your shot while retaining a nice rolloff in the highlights. Here’s a good starting point for a getting film-like contrast:

  • Dynamic Range 400
  • Auto-ISO minimum 640
  • Shadow +1 or higher depending on film simulation
  • Exposure compensation +0.7 or higher

Grain/Noise reduction

This is a matter of taste. If you want to emulate film, it’s helpful to allow a minimum of grain, but bear in mind that this setting is not entirely realistic. The problem with it is that 1) It doesn’t affect sharpness and 2) It applies grain uniformly to light and dark areas (film doesn’t work like this). Still, I like to use it from time to time. Both settings “small” and “large” work well together with “weak”, but “strong” is too much and unnatural in my opinion.

Also, keep in mind that the natural X-trans noise of Fujifilm sensors can actually be pleasing under certain circumstances. I also don’t like the watercolor effect of noise reduction so much. For these reasons I usually leave Noise Reduction on -3 for all my recipes. -4 is the minimum, but one click up from that allows the in-camera processor to remove the worst of the color noise without affecting the luma noise too much.

Sharpness

Let’s face it: If all your images are going on Instagram anyway, this setting will have little effect on the perceived level of sharpness. My dial usually goes between -2, 0 and +1.

Clarity

Clarity is essentially micro contrast, the contrast level of already contrasting edges, similar to a very blunt sharpness value (large “Radius” setting). If applied tastefully it can give good results in both positive and negative directions. But: please don’t think that pushing clarity can save any and all boring images. Personally I never use it because it adds a second of processing time after each exposure, which slows me down.

Colors

This is where Fujifilm’s creative tools are actually limited. You can play with White Balance if you plan to only use your recipe under one specific type of light, but I generally find this to be too limiting for my shooting style. I almost always leave this at “Auto”. Let’s tackle the other settings in order of how large the impact is.

White balance shift

A lot of recipes use a strong shift in the white balance. However I’ve never been a fan of this for color because the result is often too much of a wash over the entire image that doesn’t look natural to me. I find that values outside the -/+4 range is too far, but I will often use a minimum of R+1/B-1 to slightly warm up the image and take the digital edge off.

Color Chrome Effect/Color Chrome FX Blue

If you have these settings on your camera, they are great tools to use. What they do is to bring down the luminance of saturated colors. This keeps them from blowing out, again ensuring retention of smooth tones and rolloff. The darkening of color luminance also increases the perception of color saturation without actually saturating them more, which is a neat trick. The difference between them is that Color Chrome FX Blue affects only blues and Color Chrome Effect affects all other colors. If you only have Color Chrome Effect, it affects all colors the same.

Film simulations

Finally we come to the film simulations. They really are like magic and the reason I suggest you choose your film simulation last is that they can quickly limit your adjustment options for the other settings. Dave Etchells has made the definitive guide to all the film simulations. I recommend you read that if you are really interested. For brevity here’s my take on them:

  • Provia: Good starting point. Fairly neutral and works well if you are not trying to emulate film.
  • Astia: My favorite for the slightly harder contrast while still retaining beautiful color graduations of skin tones and warm greens and yellows. It also allows some “accidental” color shifts in shadows sometimes, which I find to be a nice little serendipitous nature to my recipes.
  • Classic Chrome: People buy Fujifilm cameras for this film simulation and it’s probably the most common base for Fujifilm recipes. Its trademarks are medium-low saturation, hard contrast, bright reds and a strong cyan shift in the blues. I use it occasionally, but I often find it overpowering. It has one important redeeming feature for street photographers: It lowers the saturation of dark reds and yellows, which makes things like brick, concrete and asphalt appear more neutral, allowing other colors in street scenes to stand out more.
  • Pro Neg Hi: This one is under-used in my opinion. It is very similar to Classic Chrome, but less extreme, making it more versatile.
  • Pro Neg Std: Pro Neg Hi with flat contrast. I can imagine some uses for this, but I haven’t personally used it yet.
  • Classic Neg: If you want your images to look like they were shot on a disposable film camera, I guess Classic Neg is an appropriate base. Personally I find it to be too much of an Instagram filter.
  • Eterna: Excellent for video work, but as with Pro Neg Std I always find myself compensating for its features by adding back contrast and saturation for photography. For that reason I haven’t used it in my recipes.
  • Velvia: Too harsh and green to be of any use to me.
  • Acros/Monochrome: These are good, but I’ll save them for another article.
  • Sepia: Seriously?

My wish list

Two things are keeping me from publishing my images completely unedited:

RGB Curves: If the existing tone curve adjustments could be made to the red, green and blue channels individually, this would allow for way better control over color rendering and much more creative freedom. It would allow us to break free from the color wash-approach I complained about earlier with the WB tint option.

Vignetting: Being able to add a slight vignette to my images in-camera would be great! Being able to select between a classic lens vignette or one that focuses on the camera’s focus point would be even better. You at least get to keep whatever vignetting your lens has by turning off “Lens Modulation Optimizer”, but this setting isn’t saved with your recipe.

“Flamingo” Øyvind Nordhagen using OWH Street recipe

That’s it!

Hope you are inspired to create your own recipes. Feel free to check out mine and also follow me on Instagram for many examples of how I use them. I have a few recipes in development at the moment which I will publish soon, so please consider subscribing here on Medium.

Happy shooting!

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Øyvind Nordhagen

Øyvind Nordhagen

Photographer based in Oslo. I write about photographic technique and editing.