How to scan film – A basic guide by Guilherme maranhão
Guilherme maranhão shares with us his experience and techniques in scanning film. It is about time that we had a scanning article on this site. I hope this helps.
In order to get film photography into the digital world it has to be scanned. That can be done to either negatives or prints. So for those wanting to scan some negatives and those who have a scanner capable of such a thing I wrote this guide.
This guide makes it a bit more complicated than simply using the software that came with your scanner. On the other hand I believe it enables you to get much more quality from your scans and in the long run will make you want to continue shooting film. So bear with me for the next few paragraphs.
For the purpose of this guide we will use a Epson V600 scanner. This is an affordable flatbed scanner that is very easy to use. Compared to dedicated film scanners or even to some older graphic arts scanners it lacks image quality, but it is a viable option on many OSes and its simple interface makes it ideal for less experienced users.
This guide also assumes you have a digital workflow in place for your digital photographs, we will output files from the scanner software that will be like raw images in need of tone, curve and sharpness adjustments as well as spotting and cleaning. Any version of Lightroom, for example, is much more capable than most scanner’s software in those aspects.
The first step when setting out to do a few scans is to clear up some physical space around the scanner. There should be room for a couple negative pages on the table on the scanner side. A damp cloth could be used to remove dust from this surface and from the scanner cover as well if it has not been used in a while. Dust is a major problem during scanning, any measures taken to remove it from the workspace during scanning will save a lot of work later on. A while ago I started keeping a pack of scent-free baby wipes in the studio, I find they are a great help.
In order to take film strips into the scanner, there should be a film holder of some sort. Study your scanner’s holder and check for indication of how the film should be positioned in it. For flatbeds usually the film is placed with its base side towards the scanner glass and its emulsion side away from the glass. The film holder should prevent the film base from touching the glass as well, to prevent newton rings. Film flatness is also a must, check the instructions on how to insert film into the holder to make sure film is held as flat as possible.
Place the film holder inside the scanner. Epson scanners, for example, have letters printed on both holders and glass frame, match letters to position film holders correctly. Film holders usually have space for film and sometimes a window to allow for light source calibration, make sure film placed in holder doesn’t block any other windows on holder.
Go to the scanner’s software in your computer. Let the software know what kind of film you have mounted in your scanner (color or b&w, negative or positive). Ask the software for a preview image. Next you will have to decide the color depth of the scans to follow as well as the resolution, wether or not there will be automatic dust cleaning and exposure and in which file format the image will be saved.
These decisions will impact on the size of the file created and also in its usability. RGB images with 24 bits (8 bits per channel) saved as Jpegs with be good for a quick email or even a blog post. Tiffs with 48 bits of depth (16 bits per channel) will take a lot of room in your hard drive, but will be very flexible in terms of output when processed later. These can be treated like RAW images from a DSLR to yield the best results from your negatives and I’m going to focus on this path in this guide. (I should add that keeping these 48-bit Tiffs enables you to always come back and redo your workflow to suit new needs and ideas just like RAW files.)
In this example I’m using Epson own software, I choose Film as my document type and Color Negative Film as the Film Type. After the preview I choose to see thumbnails, the scanner software automatically recognizes the frames and shows each picture. I can rotate each one and place it in the correct orientation. I checked all four images in the strip to have all four scanned, sometimes that is not the case. I choose 2400 dpi as the resolution and turned Digital Ice on since the film does not contain silver. For color film I usually leave the Auto Exposure button applied (in the Adjustments, the far left button).
Other scanner’s softwares will have similar adjustments, the idea here is to choose 48 bit rather than 24 bit (some people call it 16 bit rather than 8 bit) and a resolution enough for your use of your pictures.
The little button on the right of the Scan button will let you access the File Save Settings for two important things: where your files will be once the negative is scanned and what type of file it will be, since we are using 48 bit depth, I believe Tiff is the most appropriate.
I don’t recommend doing any other adjustments in the scanning software at this point. As you can see I unchecked everything I could except Auto Exposure. Hit Scan and wait a few minutes to get to your files.
Next step now is to bring them to a software capable of dealing with 48 bit images and easy enough so that you can tone them the way you want. I used Lightroom 4 for this guide. The next screen capture shows the 4 images just imported into Lightroom.
I usually start with a medium contrast curve on Lightroom. Then I use the exposure slider to get a nice histogram. I like warmer images, so I use the wb slider to get there, but I try to look mostly at the image highlights trying not to turn white tones into cream tones (in this image, for example, the ground still looks a bit blue being iluminated by the blue sky, will deal with that later). If you shoot RAW in a DSLR with auto white balance the process so far is very similar.
To get the dark tones to be even warmer than the highlights I use the split toning feature and usually set the hue at 32 (sort of sepia) and go from 1 to 9 on the saturation to get what I need. If you decide to change the white balance later, disable split toning while you do that, to make it easier, and enable it again later if necessary. In the example, you can see the leafs are still quite the same, but the ground was made a bit more golden in the process.
The scanner used in this guide gets a lot of complaints due its poor focusing abilities or image quality. As a matter of fact you can try the negative directly onto the glass, over at the film holder, nothing will make it better. If the negative you are scanning is not that dark (enough to make the file noisy) you can always sharpen the scanned image much more than you usually sharpen a DSLR file. You can use some noise reduction if the image starts to look grainy (not from actual film grain, unfortunately), but as a rule of thumb I keep masking slider up around 40 to keep the sharpening filter off the scanner noise and for me it seems to be enough. In other sharpening interfaces this is called threshold.
The basic toning and sharpening are done and the image could be printed or exported to a jpg. You may need to spot the image if you still have dust or other film blemishes, add metadata and whatever it is that you do on your normal digital workflow.
I’m a Brazilian photographer based in Sao Paulo. I photograph weddings to make a living and I have been interested in scanners for a very long time. You can see some of my personal work here: http://www.guilhermemaranhao.art.br/
Thanks for sharing your tips and technique with us Guilherme. If you have any tips of your own please comment below.