Well, yes, they sure can. You can apply filter after filter to your RAW or even JPG files and end up with an image that can look like it was taken on large format glass plates, crisp 1950s black and white, or off tinited/contrasty 1970s film, or more recent professional films like the Velvia/Provia from Fuji, KodaChrome from Kodak or even Ilford (my favourite). When editing video, you can get the film look with a few Adobe After Effects settings or a grain filter and a quick tweak of your shadows and highlights. On a purely technical basis, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference.
Q: When was this shot taken?
A: January 2008, on a Canon 400d. As a JPG. Thanks to Lightroom I have made the tones and general image look like it was a vintage black and white. And there is a place for doing that.
But there comes my issue with it. There is no skill in the images being taken.
When I started playing with photography, I think it was with a Polaroid Spirit 600. I remember getting it as a present when I was maybe about 7? The films were ultra expensive, £10 each (I was living in the UK at the time), and you only got 10 small shots! You see with a Polaroid, as it is a direct positive system, the camera’s film bay has to accomodate a full size print, because that film will become your print. It forced me to think a lot about the photos I was taking. I was always thinking about the cost, and I had to continually be mindful I wouldn’t waste an image with something I really didn’t want. Moving onto 35mm, the idea of the cost was still there. If I only had 1 roll of 36 or 24 that had to last a week, I had to really think about every shot I wanted. This is why, I think photographers were more skilled when film ruled. The film look could well be called better photos. Don’t believe me? Well, how many pro photographers, or amateurs with DSLRs that can shoot 10 or more frames a second do you see snapping away continually, ratting off 50 or more shots of one stationery item? Even in sport photography, to preserve film, you’d never use one whole roll of film using a rapid fire to try and get a shot of the goal being kicked or horse jumping at the right moment.
And, you didn’t always have the luxury of fixing things in post so much. Eg, no Lightroom or similar program to tweak a RAW, fix levels, or straighten a photo. You thought about your photos before they were taken and developed a certain skill set to make sure you fired the camera at the right moment.
So yes, digital shots can be made to look like film, but not really with filters so much. But by developing one’s skills enough to be a better photographer and start with better images, and not relying on the technology to save an average photo.