The Art Of Scanning Film Negatives

Since I got back into shooting some film last year I've done mostly black and white. I develop my own B&W film and send the color film to a lab for processing. When I get the negatives I scan them onto the hard drive with a Canon CanoScan 9000F, which is an affordable basic scanner, using VueScan scanning software. Scanning the negatives from B&W film is pretty straightforward. Scanning color film negatives, however, I've found a lot more challenging. The few rolls of color film I've shot (mostly through the Rolleicord) have caused me a lot of frustration. I was having a hard time getting the color balance on target, at least without a bunch of work in post processing software. Over the last month or so I've spent some time learning more about the "art" of scanning. The result of this is that I have made some radical changes to my scanning workflow, especially for color scans. I now think I'm at the point where I can generate quality scans on a repeatable basis. I thought I'd share the process and a couple of sample images. Maybe you're thinking of starting to scan or maybe you are frustrated with the results as I was. Either way, I'm hoping this might be helpful to those of you that dabble in analog photography. OK, on to the fun!

Before I go into the process I thought it might be helpful to list the tools I use in the order I use them. I'll then dig into the step-by-step details. Here's the list:

  1. A suitable B&W or Color negative to scan.
  2. Lomography DigitaLIZA 120 Scanning Mask-A great tool to help the 120 negatives lay flat.
  3. The Canon CanoScan 9000F flatbed scanner-A decent scanner, especially for the money. It has acceptable quality for web and small prints but not quite enough for larger prints. I might upgrade this sooner rather than later.
  4. VueScan scanning software-A full featured software that helps get the best out of your scanner. I configure VueScan to generate a linear RAW scan, which is then converted to a color positive using ColorPerfect.
  5.  Adobe Lightroom 5. I import the VueScan generated negative into Lightroom before sending it to Photoshop Elements for color conversion.
  6. Photoshop Elements. I recently purchased this and use it with the ColorPerfect plugin to get good color conversions.
  7. ColorPerfect-A plugin for  that handles color conversion in Photoshop & Photoshop Elements
  8. Adobe Lightroom 5. Final processing, cataloging and image management.

Be sure to check out the video at the bottom of this post as well for a summary of the steps and how I configure the VueScan software.

Once I place the negative on the scanner I open VueScan and prepare to scan the negative.

Here is the Input setting in VueScan:

Vuescan Input-Color Raw

The input tab is where the specifics of the scan are set. Because we are wanting to generate a high-quality RAW scan we need to be sure that we configure this tab properly.  Here's the line-by line settings:

Task: Scan to file

Source: 9000f (the scanner I'm using)

Mode: Transperency

Media: Color Negative (If you are scanning B&W pick that)

Bits Per Pixel: 48 Bit (if B&W we'd pick 16 Bit)

Batch Scan: Off (we want to scan one at a time)

Preview Resolution: 600DPI (just enough to see what the image is like)

Scan Resolution: 4800 DPI- This is an important setting. You want to scan at a high enough resolution to get the most from the scanner, but not so high that you're adding a bunch of "extra" pixels that are essentially wasted because the your scanner can't resolve all the DPI. In the case of my CanoScan 9000 the true effective resolution is about 1600 DPI. But in order to get that I need to scan at a higher resolution and then reduce it down to 1600 in the output tab. Each scanner's effective resolution is different so you need to know what it is. I used a German website, filmscanner.info, to determine the true resolution of my scanner. They have tested a number of scanners and are a good resource. Based on the tests I have chosen 4800 DPI as the scan resolution. I tried 9600DPI but didn't see a real difference. Likewise, 3600 DPI was low enough that I could see a difference.

Number Of Passes: I've gone back and forth on this one. Some people swear by 3 or 4 passes but I haven't seen any difference (except in the amount of time for a scan) between 1 and 3 passes so I keep it at 1.

Now that we've configured the Input tab it's time to move on. The next tab is the "Filter" tab.

Here's the filter tab on VueScan

Vuescan Filter-Color Raw

The filter tab doesn't have much to it. Basically, if your scanner supports it, you can filter out dust, etc. using an infrared scan pass. This only works with color negatives so if you're scanning B&W and have a lot of dust on the negatives you'll be spending some quality time in Lightroom/Photoshop cleaning up those dust spots :-) If you are scanning color negatives, the infrared cleaning can make a big difference. I set it at "light" which seems to work fine in nearly all cases. One thing we DO NOT want to do is check the "Restore Colors" "Restore Fading", "Grain Reduction" or "Sharpen" boxes. The reason is that all of these are best left to a true post-procesing application like Lightroom or Photoshop.

Onto the color tab:

Vuescan Color Tab-Color Raw

The main goal of the "Color" tab is to scan the negative in as neutral a color setting as possible. We don't want VueScan (or any other scanning software) to try and do color corrections to the scan because we have a much more powerful tool for that, like ColorPerfect and Photoshop/Photoshop Elements/Lightroom. So in order to do that we select "None" in the Color Balance dropdown. We also want to select "Generic" for negative vendor, "Color" for negative brand, and "Negative" for negative type. These are all the most neutral selections. If you are scanning B&W you would select "B&W" for negative brand. Select "Built In" for Scanner and Film color space and sGRB for the other color space drop downs.

The Output tab is where we set the RAW file format:

Vuescan Output Tab-Color Raw

The Output tab is where we select how the scanned file is saved on your computer. You can set the folder you want the scan saved. You can also select the printed size of the scan. I'd suggest picking "Scan Size" for the most flexibilty. The most important (and only) box to check is the "RAW File" checkbox. Checking any other box will not save a true RAW file. The next section is the "raw size reduction" selection and if you remember from the Input tab I said that I was scanning at 4800 DPI and reducing the final scan file to 1600 DPI (the effective resolution of my CanoScan 9000). Well, this is the place I select the reduction amount. Your particular scanner may yield a different scan/reduction combination. You also want to select "48 Bit RGB" for color negatives and "16 Bit" for B&W at the RAW file type dropdown. Also, be sure you select "Off" in the Raw Compression dropdown.

Now, here's the linear RAW scan that is generated using VueScan:

The RAW Scan From Vuescan

It doesn't look like much, does it? Well, that's OK because there's a lot of information in that scan that will be extracted in the next step, which is opening the scan in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements and converting it to a color positive.

After opening the RAW scan in Photoshop Elements, I use the ColorPerfect plugin to do the heavy lifting of the negative to positive color conversion. At this point the image is 80-90% of the way to the final product:

The RAW File After ColorPerfect

ColorPerfect is a fairly east plugin to use. It basically takes the RAW negative scan and correctly converts it to a positive image. ColorPerfect has an amazing number of film presets that will get you pretty close to the final correct color balance. It also provides you with lots of adjustments to dial in the color balance. I could probably do an entire series of posts on the options in ColorPerfect but in most cases the basic (initial) conversion is very, very good. From there I do the final "touchup" in Lightroom

I open the converted image in Lightroom and do some basic color adjustment to get a very nice final image. I could do most of the final adjustments in Elements as well if I wanted to.

The Final Result

As you can see, the process of getting a quality scan of a film negative isn't as easy as slapping the negative on the scanner glass and selecting "autoscan". It takes a little bit of time and thought in order to produce a scan that is worthy of your skill as a photographer. But I think that it is entirely worthwhile. It will take a little bit of investment and time but I think you will be happy with the final results. Here's a video summary of the process that you can use to help you setup and use your scanner:

I hope you found this post useful. The art of scanning film negatives is a moving target. There are probably as many different techniques as there are photographers who scan film.  Because of that I'm interested in hearing of your particular scanning technique. Please let me know what works for you and why you use the process you use because I believe that there is a lot of room for all of us to learn from each other.

Happy Shooting!