Scanning film

Technology has pushed photography along so far, so fast that it’s hard to imagine that just eight years ago, digital images, unless you were willing to spend several thousands of dollars, sucked.
I didn’t make the jump to only shooting digital images until an affordable eight megapixel camera capable of shooting in RAW mode became available. For me, that was Canon’s Rebel XT and I’ve never regretted that move.

But it was one that I waited more than a decade to make. The differences between a negative printed using a system of lenses and a diffusion box was readily apparent to an even moderately experienced darkroom technician.

Even the best film scanners can only bring the one technology to very different film source material and as a result tend to deliver only an average job of capturing the nuances of their source material.

Most scanners are optimised to produce the best results from colour negatives. That’s not surprising, since huge numbers of images were captured using that medium. Digital ICE, Kodak’s useful technology for repairing scratches on colour film doesn’t work at all black and white film and contrasty colour transparencies can only be captured accurately with the very best desktop film scanners and really only spring to life when they are digitized with a drum scanner.

Compounding the challenge is the rather grim reality that film scanners are slowly on the way out. Nikon, who make the best film scanners that most people can afford have basically exited the business.

Their software hasn’t been updated for most of the 21st century and while Silverfast makes modern scanner drivers for pretty much every major film scanner out there, it’s pricey. VueScan is a useful and significant cheaper alternative, but I’ve never been able to make it work well. It's a bit of an acquired taste that I've never quite embraced. Silverfast is feature rich, but complicated as well as expensive.

This post was inspired by my cousin Bill who shoots exacting portraits and has become very comfortable with a sophisticated RAW workflow. His older images, shot on portrait-optimised colour negative film, often using diffusion filters are proving to be a challenge to migrate to digital and I’m feeling it for him.

My own road to bringing my work into the digital realm so far has been a mix of disappointments and the occasional pleasant surprise. Medium format film generally scans well, though black and white images require detailed, quadrant by quadrant retouching. It’s a simple fact that any negative that’s been printed in a working darkroom is going to have picked up some dings and digital shows them all up in appalling detail.

The hard truth is this. Analog workflows worked well. Digital workflows work well. Bridging the two is challenging and requires work, patience and skill, more than most folks are willing to invest. Unless they happen to have two decades worth of negatives to bring into the digital realm and basically have no other choice.

My scanning workflow

My process is straightforward. I scan on a Nikon scanner that's on loan using Digital Ice in normal mode to deal with cruft on colour negatives and transparencies. Two 35mm models that I've owned have failed on me and I probably won't buy another one.

I do minimal colour corrections at capture, correcting major colour shifts in the Nikon software (the stand alone software still works on the Mac, the plug-in died in Photoshop CS3 and higher).

I scan in high-bit mode, which makes for honking big files – expect file sizes upward of 400MB for a 6x6cm colour original. That's led me to make significant upgrades in storage, because I save in TIFF format. I've been scanning and saving images, confirming focus and general colour quality and setting aside any major toning work and retouching for later in the dance.

With the enormity of the project before me, capturing and archiving takes first priority over finishing work. I plan to do finishing on the images when sales or projects bring them forward for serious consideration.

This roughly parallels what I've been doing with digital originals, which I archive in DNG format and, of course, my original negatives, stashed in yellowing Paterson glassine pages all these years.

These raw scans are backed up to two different drives from different manufacturers with one off-site backup in Houston. I'd like to do an optical media backup, but Blu-Ray needs to drop in price a bit more before I can consider it.
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