If you’re into film photography, having a film scanner and knowing how to scan your film is important. More than important, I’d say it’s a very necessary step in your workflow. Developing your own film is a good way of doing things too, but I actually consider it more important to scan your own negatives – and to know how to do this – than to develop your own film. Why? Why is it so important to scan your own film?
Well, unless you’re making prints out of your negatives – and if you are, you needn’t read this post – scanning film i.e. digitizing your film is the only way to share these images. It makes digital images out of film photographs, allowing you to share these images just like you normally would – on 500px and Facebook etc. And having control of this final image is why I advise you to always scan your own negatives. There’s a lot that goes on in the scanning process that can vary the results of your image – color accuracy, among other things – and you definitely don’t want some lab guy having control over what your final photograph looks like. Do you? That doesn’t happen when you shoot and process your digital images – why should you let that happen with your film shots?
Developing film is important too. A lot can happen in the developing process that can adjust how your negative (and your final photograph) appears. However, this also depends (largely) on what film you shoot. If you shoot color (C41) film, the developing process is a very standardized (and often automated) one for photo labs. It’s also a bit complicated to do at home. What this means is that even if you don’t bother processing your C41 color film at home – check out my post on the topic if you want to know how – even the most basic photo lab will have automated film processor machines that will do the job in minutes, with little variation in the output. So while it’s a lot of fun to develop film, even color film, don’t hesitate giving your C41 film to any lab. The final negative will be pretty much identical no matter which lab you give it to – or even if you perfect the C1 process and do it yourself
NOTE: Developing color slide film is hard. The process is pretty similar to regular C41 but the chemistry is different and is rather hard to acquire. It’s even hard to find a lab that develops (E6) slide film. So before you go shooting slides, make sure you know a lab that will process it for you. Either way, the lab is the way to go for color slide film too
Developing black and white film is different, though. The processing of black and white film varies a LOT, and therefore the final output can vary as well, based on many factors: the film brand, the film speed, the developer used, and so on. If any part of this is done wrongly – even slightly – your results will vary. That means that, depending on how incorrectly the film was processed, the results can look anywhere between slightly off to completely ruined. For this reason, I strongly recommend you develop your own black and white film. A good lab will usually do it right, but developing black and white film is really easy and a very enjoyable process – so why not do it yourself? Perfect the process and you get to have a lot of fun, and get consistently good results. What’s not to like about that?
Anyway, once you have your negatives (or slides), you need to make something out of it. There’s not much you can do with negatives – they look rather horrible – or even slides, although you can view slides through a slide viewer
But yeah, what next? You can make prints, either by yourself (although that’s rather complicated and expensive) or by asking a lab to do it. Lab prints are what people used to do back in the day when film was what everybody used, before the digital era. However, remember that if you get it done at the lab, once more you’re letting the lab guy dictate what your final results look like
So instead of investing in an enlarger and all the pricey equipment necessary to make prints, scan your negatives (or positives/slides) – it’s the best way to go. I mean, having prints is nice, but digitizing your images allows you to share your shots via 500px, Facebook, the usual – just like you’d share any other digital image. You can even make high quality prints out of these scans, if prints are your thing
Picking The Right Film Scanner
Alright, so it’s not like there’s no investment involved at all if you pick the scanning option. Your regular scanner probably can’t do the job. And proper film scanners – the drum scanners that professional labs use – can cost anywhere from $10,000 all the way up to $50,000. Or more. Even a dedicated film scanner – not a professional drum scanner but professional ones made made for home use, such as a Nikon CoolScan – will set you back around $1000-3000
So those are out of most people’s budget. But don’t fret. A regular flatbed scanner will work, as long as it’s got the resolution to scan film. There are many flatbed scanner models that are titled ‘film scanners’ and are the same as a regular flatbed, except for two things: they have higher resolution, enough resolution to scan a tiny frame of film and blow it up to a full-size image – and they come with film holders that will ‘hold’ your negatives in place for it to be scanned. They’re obviously not as good as dedicated film scanners with their specialized film-feeding systems and all that, and are lower in overall resolution and sharpness and all that – but they do a pretty good job nonetheless. And the more expensive flatbed scanners do a really good job
I use the Epson V600. It’s good. It’s not fantastic, but it does a good job. The photographs look pretty sharp, the resolution is fine, and the results just look good. If you crop to 100% and compare it with a CoolScan image, the results are miles apart – but so is the price. So yeah, I’d recommend the V600 by Epson. It costs around $200. If you don’t mind stretching your budget to the $600-800 range, the Epson V700 can be got for around $600, the V750 for $800. These are significantly better than the lower-end flatbeds like the V500/600, and produce very high quality scans for the price, so if you can afford it, go for one. Canon also makes pretty good ones – the CanoScan 9000F is comparable with the V600, and costs just under $200. All these come with digital dust-removal systems, something that is super important when scanning film – read on for more on this – and any of these will be great to start off with
There are plenty of other dedicated film scanners as well – some discontinued, some still in production – from Plustek (still being manufactured), Minolta (discontinued, I believe) and so on, which are cheaper, so you have more options. Plustek is one of the better-known brands still making dedicated film scanners that are reasonably priced, and although they have models going for $2000 and more, many of these are in the in the $500-1000 range. And while these mid-range models do not really compare to the high-end Nikon scanners (or even their own $2000+ models), they’re very good and can be compared to high-end flatbeds like the Epson V700/750 or maybe they’re even better
So if you’re choosing between these different types of scanners, high-end flatbeds vs. mid-range dedicated film scanners, know that each have their own pros and cons: the resolution and sharpness of scans taken by a mid-range Plustek will probably be better than ones scanned by a V700/750 – but the Plustek (if I remember right) does not have a dust-removal system, and it scans only 35mm film. In addition, some of the cheaper Plustek scanners require you to feed the film manually, which can be a bit of a hassle. The Epson has a dust-removal system, while also allowing you to scan 120 film etc. And loading film is rather easy. If your budget allows you to go for either one of these, think about which features you need – but if your budget is around $200, go for the Epson V600. It’s good!
You can also get cheap, low-end dedicated film scanners like the Lomography film scanner or from brands like ION, Pacific Rim, Wolverine etc. These do a decent job of digitizing your film strips, although the quality isn’t really THAT good. But depending on what you need from your scans, this just might be good enough for you – and at $80-150, they’re rather cheap
If you’re getting yourself a nice new film scanner, please use my ordering links! It’ll help pixelogist keep doing its thing, as you know!
Alright, that was quite a lot about why you need to scan your film and what scanner to get – now let’s get down to the purpose of this post: how to scan your film
How To Scan Your Own Negatives – Or Positives
Okay, so once you have your film scanner – flatbed or otherwise – you need to load your film into your scanner. Obviously. Loading a dedicated film scanner is different to loading a flatbed film scanner. These dedicated ones have a tray that feeds the film to the scanner automatically, or manually, and varies based on the manufacturer and the model; a flatbed has a ‘film holder’ that you place your film strips in, and then place on the scanner surface. Most flatbeds work the same in this regard. As I don’t have a specialized film scanner with me – I haven’t used one, to be honest – and as I feel most of you will be going the flatbed route, I’ll be discussing the process of scanning film with a flatbed. And as I feel most of you will be shooting 35mm film, that’s what I’ll be sticking to here. But know that all flatbed scanners are able to scan 120 film as well – they just need a different film holder, which is usually included – so that’s not an issue. However, some dedicated film scanners (like I mentioned earlier) cannot scan 120 film. So know what you’re shooting before you buy your scanner!
Loading your film strips
Alright, this is simple enough. You just need to be careful – very careful – when handling your film strips
You’d be best off handling the strips with cotton handling gloves – so get yourself a pair. If you’re going barehanded, make sure you touch them only by the very edges, completely avoiding the image itself. But seriously, get a pair of gloves. Also, you should have a clean microfiber cloth, as well as a large piece of soft (clean) cloth to place on your work surface. And try to do this in the most dust-free environment possible
Once you have these few simple items ready, open up the scanner lid. Remove the film holder (if it’s inside!) and place it on the large piece of cloth that you placed on your work surface earlier. Close the scanner lid – keep this closed at all times to keep the scanner dust-free. Snap the film holder open and place the top half anywhere on your surface
Then take your film out of the archival sheet. Carefully slide it out, pinching it gently from the edges. Always grip it from the edges, even if you’re wearing gloves. Place it in the slot of the bottom half of the film holder – making sure the film is only touching the clean cloth you placed beneath – then repeat with the second strip. However, make sure you load them in the right side up. Read your scanner to confirm which way the film should face: on the Epson V600 (and all other flatbeds, I guess) the shiny surface of the film strip should face down. Once both strips are in, pop back the top half of the film holder, snap it in place, and the film is basically loaded
Alright, don’t place the holder back in the scanner just yet. Make sure there’s no dust clinging on to it! Dust is a huge problem when scanning film, showing up as ghastly shiny white spots on your images; so do whatever you can to make sure there’s as little dust as possible – it’s not always possible to remove these spots in Photoshop. Use your microfiber cloth to gently wipe both sides of each strip, use a rocket blower to clear the strip, and make sure you can’t see any dust on either side of the film. Oh, and make sure you don’t blow on the film yourself or risk spraying saliva all over your strips!
Yeah, so once the film is clean, open the flatbed’s lid, place the scanner in its proper place (read the scanner instructions!) and shut it. Now your scanner is loaded
Above is a quick set of shots taken of the simple process of loading film. Note that this was just a quick series of shots that I took using a set of old, unimportant negatives. This is why I wasn’t too careful with them – no gloves, no clean cloth etc. and you probably can see a bit of dust on there. When you’re doing your own, please follow my advise about keeping the film strips clean and dust-free!
NOTE: Every now and then, maybe between each scan, clean your scanner’s glass surface. Use a clean microfiber cloth and/or a blower to keep it clean and dust-free
This plays a huge part of the scanning process. Third-party software like VueScan and SilverFast can be very useful – and more powerful than the regular software that comes with your scanner – IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING! If not, you could end up screwing things up completely by prematurely overcomplicating things for yourself. If this is your first time, stick with your scanner’s software. The Epson software (EPSON Scan) – the software I use – does a very good job, while keeping things nice and simple. It gives you enough options if you want, while also having an ‘Easy’ mode, if you want to let it do its thing automatically. Once you’re more experienced and feel like you want more from your scanner, check out these third-party apps
NOTE: The dust-removal technology, known as Digital Image Correction and Enhancement (ICE), is a combination of hardware and software. Epson’s own software uses this technology, as the V600 (and V700/750) has the hardware support. Third-party apps also have dust-removal feature, although they might not be called Digital ICE – and use the hardware’s dust-removal technology with their own take on the software side of things. Some say the third-party apps work better
However, note that this only works for color film. The content that makes up monochrome film prevents ICE for working in black and white. And even with color film, it doesn’t always do the job perfectly. Even with the better third-party apps. That’s why I urge you to take the trouble to free your film of dust before you place it in the scanner – that’s why I urge you to be so careful when handling your film – and why I advice you to keep your scanner lid closed at all times: to avoid dust spots and to avoid scratches and damages to your film. And unless you’re going for the Instagram look, dust spots really look bad; and while it can usually be taken care of using spot removal tools in Photoshop or Lightroom, it’s not always possible. So yeah, ICE works well in some cases, but don’t rely on it too much. Keep your film and scanner clean!
Using The Scanning Software
Alright, so let’s assume you’re going with your stock software and that you’re using EPSON Scan. That’s what I’m using so it’s easiest to explain with this app. If you’re using something else (Canon software, for instance) most of this will still apply, although it might be in a slightly different layout or might be called something else. Try to adapt what I say here, I’m sure it’ll be easy enough. If you’re using VueScan or SilverFast, you should know what you’re doing already – but even then, most of this will still apply
So yeah – open up the software. Most of these apps have an Easy mode and an Advanced or Professional mode. The latter isn’t really that advanced – it just lets you customize everything – and I recommend you use this mode from the beginning, to learn what does what, so you can really get the exact output you want from the scanner. So turn your software to Professional mode
First of all, check your Document Type and make sure it is set to Film (and not regular documents). Next up, select your Film Type: Color Negative, Color Positive/Slide, or Black and White
After that, you get to select your Image Type: you get to choose between 24-bit or 48-bit for color, or 8-bit and 16-bit for greyscale. I recommend you use the lower setting for either – that’s 8-bit greyscale or 24-bit color – as there’s really not much perceptible difference between this and the higher setting, and your output file is significantly smaller. Remember that these scans will (or should) be saved as uncompressed TIFF files and the file sizes will be very large, much like RAW files; you can edit and convert to JPEG later (read on) but until then, it’ll be a large TIFF file, so don’t make them larger than necessary – 8-bit greyscale or 24-bit color is fine
Setting the right Resolution is vital. The Epson V600 can go up to 6400 dpi, but I recommend you set it lower than that. Most flatbed scanners don’t perform that well over 3200, so I recommend you set it at 3200 – that’s as high as you can safely go without getting any image quality degradation. You can set it lower if you want to – but I suggest you keep it at around this setting, just in case you require a high resolution version later on
Document Size and Target Size can be left at default values
Lastly, you get to select Adjustments to your scan. This can be a bit complex, so I advise you to leave these alone unless you know what you’re doing. I too leave them at their default values, because I’m far more comfortable making these adjustments in Lightroom. I’ll show you what Lightroom adjustments I do later on. But what you should select here, however, is the Unsharp Mask Filter (USM filter) and Digital ICE dust removal (for black and white film). The USM filter – as you probably know – sharpens your scan rather nicely – while Digital ICE attempts to detect dust on your film and remove it as well as it possibly can
Once your settings are locked in, hit Preview. This will generate a ‘quick’ scan of each film frame, allowing you to see a preview before the actual full-resolution scanning takes place. This is because the full-resolution scans take quite a while – it could take around 2-4 minutes per frame – and you don’t want to have to wait all that time before you know something is wrong. So hit Preview
This preview especially important if you make your adjustments right here in the scanning software – but as we’re doing it later on, you don’t need to worry about how the image LOOKS. Just make sure the software detected your film frames properly and cropped it just right. Sometimes things can go a bit wrong and the software crops out half of your frame. If this happens, you have no option but to open the preview window and manually crop each frame. It’s a bit of a nuisance, cropping 12 frames manually, but it’s not as bad as it sounds – however it’ll save you a lot of hassle if it’s done right automatically. See below to understand what I mean
Once you’re happy with the crops, hit Scan. A new window will pop up for you to select the destination directory for the scans as well as the file format. These options might be available on the primary window in other applications – either way, select your directory, choose TIFF as the file format, hit Scan again, and wait patiently while it scans each strip. It probably takes around 20 minutes to scan 12 frames of black and white film (each strip containing 6 frames) or around 30+ minutes to scan color, with Digital ICE on – as dust-removal takes an additional minute or so per frame
Alright, are they done? Good. Open your scanner lid, and unload the film – basically the loading process in reverse i.e. close lid after you take out the film holder, place it on the clean cloth, open it, gently take the strips out (wearing gloves) and place them in the archival sheets. Then reload the film holder with new strips, and repeat the scanning process, making sure you preview before scanning
And that’s it. In around an hour or so, you should have all 36 of your frames scanned in your destination directory. Or 12 frames, if you shot 120 film. Either way, you should now have all your scans in uncompressed TIFF files. Don’t freak out if you think they look horrible – color scans tend to look rather bad before editing – we’re going to fix that soon
Editing Black And White Film Scans
Let’s start with the simpler type of film. It’s simpler because color accuracy is the biggest issue when scanning film – colors can be very distorted in some scans – and therefore, being colorless, it’s obviously easier to adjust monochrome film scans
NOTE: I always try to keep my editing process for film photographs extremely basic, emulating as closely as possible what was actually done in the darkroom back in the day, and nothing more. I feel that this gives a more pure feel to the photographs, and that’s what film is all about
Anyway, for black and white film scans, here’s what I do:
Crop: Of course you can crop your film scan. People used to crop photos in the darkroom too, when making prints from negatives. Crop it till you like it
Spot Removal: Ah yes, when you first open your image, you’re probably going to be surprised at the amount of dust you notice in the highlights. If you don’t, you either did a really good job keeping the film strips dust-free, or you just got lucky. But the odds are you will need to remove some dust. Use the spot removal tool in Lightroom and get rid of as much as you can. I’m not sure if this was done in the darkroom, but this one really improves your overall shot, so don’t pass on this
I wouldn’t use the adjustment brush or graduated filter or red-eye removal (not that there’s any red-eye in monochrome) as they’re very ‘digital’ tools. The graduated filter might be alright if you’re just trying to fix your exposure, but keep it at that
Noise Reduction: I don’t usually use noise reduction in film photography. It’s not darkroom-accurate, is it? But it’s an option. If you shot with a fast film and feel the grain is too much – black and white film grain actually adds to the shot, in my opinion – you can use the Luminance NR slider to cut down on this. Do this before you sharpen
Exposure: My old Nikon FM2n has an incredibly accurate light meter – my Lomo LC-A does a great job too – and I use an external digital Sekonic meter with my Canon P, so my film exposures are generally very accurate. But if your shot is slightly off, feel free to adjust this slider, in addition to the graduated filter, if you used that already. Having saved the scan as an uncompressed TIFF, you should be able to play around with this slider more than if you compressed it to JPEG, much like a RAW file – so adjust it till your satisfied
Contrast: Adding contrast to black and white shots always helps, so you’d probably want to increase this slider. But make sure you don’t overdo it – there should always be some visible detail in most of the highlights and shadows. You can also adjust the Highlights/Shadows sliders that are available in Lightroom, and if you’re up to it, adjust the tone curve as well, for a more customized control of contrast
Clarity: This basically sharpens the image. We’ll talk about sharpening later, but you can increase this slider a bit or leave it as it is
Sharpening: Sure, this wasn’t available back in the darkroom days, but they weren’t using cheap flatbed scanners to showcase their work, were they? More expensive scanners produce sharper results, but the ones in the $200 range produce scans that need a bit of sharpening (even with the USM filter turned on)
Like when adjusting digital images, don’t over-sharpen – anything around the 35-45 mark on Lightroom’s Sharpening Amount slider is fine. Also, use the Mask slider to mask out areas that don’t need sharpening – to put more emphasis on the edges. See my posts on using Lightroom, for more on this
And that’s about it. You can add a bit of a vignette if you want. And a bit of film grain. But those are purely digital additions, and if you’re keeping things authentic, you don’t need to. And yeah, that’s it
Editing Color Film Scans
Regardless of whether you shot negatives or positives, the result is color and the process to edit color scans is the same
First of all, don’t despair when you see your results. By default, without adjustment in the scanning process, the colors are going to look rather awful. But even though they look really bad, it can be fixed rather easily
But to get accurate colors, it’s REALLY important to have a calibrated monitor. It helps for adjusting monochrome images too, but it’s absolutely necessary when editing color images. You can’t get proper color accuracy if your monitor doesn’t show you the true colors of the image!
Alright, so most of what I do for black and white scans – all of it, in fact – applies to color scans too, so I won’t describe these adjustments again; I’ll just mention at which point it’s best to make which particular adjustment. Alright
Crop, Spot Removal and Noise Reduction (if you’re using it) should be done in the beginning, as with black and white scans
White Balance: After that, we come to the first color-only adjustment. Fix your white balance and 90% of your color accuracy problems are solved. Unfortunately, this could be harder than it seems, so you might need a bit of experience before this becomes an easy process
Firstly, you can use the White Balance Selector that Lightroom has, and click an area of the image that should be white. Note that this area doesn’t necessarily need to look white in your current image; if you remember someone in the image was wearing a white t-shirt, for example, click on that shirt, even if it looks yellow at the moment
This is an automated way of getting the correct white balance, and even if it doesn’t get you the perfect result, it’ll give you a great starting point from which you can tweak it. If there’s no such ‘white’ area in your shot, though, you’re on your own. Use the temperature and tint sliders and do your best. With some experience, you’ll get there
Next up, Exposure and Contrast adjustments, Highlights/Shadows/Tone Curve adjustments. You can also adjust Clarity – and since this is a color shot, you can adjust Vibrance/Saturation. You already know what this does, right?
Before sharpening, in color images, there’s a very important tool you can use in Lightroom to get even more accurate colors. Even if your white balance isn’t perfect, using this tool, you can adjust individual colors and hues to get your idea of the perfect result – or as close to it as possible
This section is known as HSL and it works beautifully. What is HSL? I talked about this in my Basic Photo Editing posts a few months (or a year?) ago, but I’ll go through it again here. HSL stands for Hue Saturation Luminance, and does a very basic thing: it adjusts the Hue and Saturation and Luminance of a series of (8) colors. For example, you feel the blue sky in your shot isn’t vibrant enough? Increase the saturation of the Blues, and reduce the luminance a bit. No other color is modified. Your red flower looking a bit purple and a bit washed out? Adjust the hue of the Reds till it looks red – and bump up saturation. Again, only the reds of the image are adjusted
You see how useful it is? I found it particularly helpful when adjusting scans that have large areas of green foliage, foliage that looked brown and sort of dead. A quick adjustment of the hue and saturation (and maybe luminance too) of the Greens and they looked beautifully fresh and alive
Yeah, if you can’t get your colors nice and accurate after white balance correction, HSL can do wonders. If your colors still look bad even after HSL adjustment, you’re in trouble – but 99% of the time, these two will get you very realistic results
Lastly, sharpen your image, just like you would with a monochrome shot, and you’re done. The optional ‘digital’ tools at the end are available, if you want. And that’s it
Exporting Your TIFFs
Once the editing is complete, export the files as JPEGs. Export them at 100% quality, or limit by file size, but give it at least 5-8MB per image. I export them as very high quality JPEGs – high quality because I archive these files – and delete the TIFFs. When shooting digital, I always archive the RAW (.dng) files but in film, I already have the actual negatives/slides archived, so I don’t waste space by archiving the TIFFs too. JPEGs are good enough – but I keep them as high res as I can manage
And that, I think, just about covers everything I know about scanning and editing film. The main reason for doing all this by yourself is to have control over your images. It’s also a lot of fun. Developing film is one part of it, but scanning is an equally important and equally enjoyable part. Even though it can be a bit boring while the scanner’s doing its thing
Making prints is fun, but it’s a hassle. If you can afford the equipment, go for it. But I feel most people share images online anyway, so scans would be ideal. And that’s not to say you can’t make prints out of scans – of course you can. Even if you give your film to a lab, they’d probably scan it and make prints out of the scans. That’s just because it’s easier. So if you like prints, that’s still an option. But scan first
In the end, it’s taking things back to digital, but it’s got this film feel that really makes things fun. Try it out. Let me know how things went worked out – leave a comment. And please use my links if you feel this post helped you decide on a scanner…or if you just feel like being nice! Until next time
By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post is my own except where noted
- VueScan 9.3.21 Scanner Interface Gets Update to Improve Detection (news.softpedia.com)
- Film processing in a digital wold, Jean Varra | Ina (slideshare.net)
- Bring Your Pictures into the Digital Age with the Epson Perfection V550 Photo Scanner (geardiary.com)
- VueScan 9.3.18 Improves Infrared Cleaning (news.softpedia.com)