If you are like me, scanning is a bit of a pain. Never an ecstasy. However getting it right is important to some workflows. In this post I set out what works for me on black and white films, much which has been learnt through trial and mostly error …
Before I scan I ask myself two preliminary questions:
Firstly, is the picture worth it? Scanning takes time and the resulting images are large and therefore take bags of space on a drive. So before I scan I look at the negative on a light box (in my case an iPad ) and with a loupe to see whether the image passes muster: composition and tonality.
With a 35mm roll of 36 negatives, on average I would only scan about 5 images. With a roll of 12 negatives of 120 format I scan one in three images on average. My scanners also give me a preview option so this acts as a second check before I decide to scan.
Secondly, to what purpose will the scanned image be used? The answer to this question partly determines which scanner I use and how I scan.
Scanning a street photograph taken on 35mm film and destined only for social media or a web-site requires a less rigorous approach than scanning a 5 x 7 format image destined to be printed as a fine photograph in an exhibition or someone’s wall or as an alternative process image, say.
35mm film work-flow
Almost all of my 35mm work is with Ilford XP2 Super film. I like the way the film keeps grain in the sky highlights to a minimum, I like the fact that the film is very forgiving to over-exposure, I like the fact that I can process 4 films together in my rotary processor, and I really like that the film is amenable to infra-red cleaning through my scanners, removing dust and small scratches.
Occasionally I use Kodak Tri-X. For example If I want to push film to accentuate contrast in a street scene, then I would choose Tri-X. My work-flow is similar except that the infra-red cleaning is not open to me.
For 35mm scanning I use my old Nikon Super Coolscan 5000, partly because the setting up time is shorter than with my Epson 850. I find the flat-bed scanner holders a little fiddly and focusing harder. Also dust seems to be a bigger problem with flat bed scanners compared to film scanners. Some years ago Nikon stopped supporting its scanner so I now use Vuescan software, which works with most scanners. Works like a dream.
Here are the Vuescan settings (professional option in the intro panel) that I use:
In the input tab I use media: colour negative as I am using XP2 film, even though the film is B&W. For resolution I always use the maximum in case my intended purpose for the image changes. This leaves me with sufficient scope. I also tick the ‘fine mode’ tab. This helps to suppress any banding.
On the filter tab I have infrared clean on ‘light’. Too much filter strength reduces detail resolution. The infrared clean is only an option if the media is set for colour. I do not have grain reduction or sharpen options on.
On the colour tab I set the film up as Ilford XP2. I’m not sure this makes a huge difference as I will be altering tonalities in post-processing.
On output settings (not shown) I save to a TIFF file (48 Bit RGB) and set TIFF compression to off . I also set the colour space to Adobe RGB when I am scanning in Portra in 35mm or slides.
Here is a picture after post-processing, having scanned the XP2 negative using Nikon/Vuescan as set out above
Here is the flat looking image without the infra-red clean:
So for my street and travel work, using XP2 in combination with a spot removal programme saves me huge amounts of time.
Medium Format (120) work-flow
I use a flatbed scanner for medium format negatives. Cleanliness is therefore paramount, especially given that electrical equipment attracts dust. So: I use cotton gloves when handling negatives and the frames and glass. I clean the glass surfaces with small amounts of optic cleaning fluid using Pec Pads – these do not leave any lint/hairs behind. I also use a soft brush on the negatives. I don’t like using air-canisters – they tend to be too fierce and on occasion emit condensed liquid.
For 120 film I use the Epson v850 scanner as the Nikon is only a 35mm film and slide scanner. The 850 is quite a good flatbed scanner although it has some features that niggle me a little.
Firstly, I found that the negative holders for 120 film that came with the scanner were not quite the right size and the film was therefore not totally flat. So I bought some holders from betterscanning. I also did not like the clear plastic covers on the holders – difficult to keep clean. The betterscanning holders came with anti-newton glass.
Secondly, I find the iterative process of focussing a pain in the ass. The Nikon 35mm film scanner focuses as part of the software.
Also I’m not sure the 850 gives you much more than the 750 or 600, other than cost. Still, that’s what I have got and it works ok.
I have the choice of three software programs for the Epson: The Epson software, Vuescan and Silverfast 8 SE Plus. Vuescan and Silverfast give more processing controls. However I prefer to do almost all my post processing in LR and PS. What I look for in scanning software is the ability to accurately render an image with the least amount of information loss. The fact that the output image file is flat is of no concern as this is easily corrected in post process.
That said, for 120 film I tend to use the Silverfast although the Vuescan is certainly very capable. The Silverfast gives me a wider range of built-in film profiles, easier to use histogram controls, a densitometer (which I rarely use), and a good multiple exposure option as well as three types of infrared cleaning and the ability to mask areas from infrared cleaning. Infrared cleaning makes for some loss of detail. I also like the Silverfast graphical interface because it gives a more intuitive experience.
Occasionally I use multi-exposure, which both SilverFast and Vuescan offer. With multi-exposure, two scans are performed using different exposures, and then combined into one image. This increases the dynamic range and can reveal more shadow detail.
My medium format photography is destined for a wider range of possible uses: social media and my web-site, darkroom print from film negative to the best quality possible, darkroom print from digital negative. Also I use more types of film in the 120 format than 35mm. As well as Ilford XP2, I use Ilford HP5, Pan F, FP4, Kodak Portra, Tri-X and Rollei Infrared. I also use negatives that have been stained in Pyro.
So my preference is for Silverfast, then Vuescan. The Epson software has poor colour profiles which rules it out for me.
My usual Silverfast settings are set out below:
Silverfast vs Vuescan
Below is a Vuescan scan compared to a Silverfast scan, adjusted so that they show a similar tonal scale. The Vuescan scan is sharper (USM was switched off) but more of the sky highlights are clipped.
Since the most important things for me are focus and a full tonal range without clipping, of these two images the Silverfast one is more easily dealt with in post processing. The Vuescan image looks the better one but its sky problems are more difficult to resolve.
So I re-performed the Vuescan scan but this time in the Colours panel I moved the black and white points and the curve point sliders to near zero away from the default positions. The result below has much less clipping in the sky.
Allowing for these adjustments, I would be happy to take either image forward to post processing. The Silverfast image is slightly flatter which makes it easier to use.
So my slight preference is for Silverfast. I like the graphical input and the way the filters work. I also like the fact that infra-red cleaning can be restricted to a specific area of the image, although for black and white films (other than XP2) this is not a relevant factor.
Silverfast also has the option of AAOC to bring out shadow detail without affecting the light tones. However care is needed as this filter can give muddy outcomes as you can see below:
So I restrict my use of AAOC to the ‘low’ option and only on some images.
Here is the final post-process image from a Silverfast scan:
Finally, for a select few images I wet-scan the negatives on the 850. I tend to do this to ensure my 120 negative is completely flat for focus purposes. Also I will be scanning 4×5 and 5×7 negatives this way when my large format camera arrives in a few weeks time.
I use the Epson Fluid Mount and for the fluid I use Gamsol which evaporates without leaving a reside on the film. I use clear acetate sheets to provide the overlay on the mounted negative.
For me scanning needs to be simple and fast. However it’s important that you do not add too many artefacts into the image or drop important details. So some knowledge about the various controls is important. There are plenty of scanning experts out there who know far more than me. But I know just enough to get what I want, which isn’t much.