Fact or Fiction? Film Scan Edition
Scanning film is a complex art form, taking years of practice and a keen eye to execute at the highest level of standards a professional photog has. But these days, it’s so easy to receive misinformation from unreliable sources about your scans—why something is or is not, works or doesn’t. So, Richard is clearing the air around the mysteries of scanning, from our step-by-step method to the key characteristics that can and can’t be controlled in your scans. Do you know what’s fact and what’s fiction?
Developing film and scanning it are two unrelated processes.
Processing affects your negative, and if it affects your negative, it affects your scan. Richard’s processing is tightly managed—we use the most sophisticated dip & dunk technology and run daily checks on temperature, PH, and color balance. That means that from year to year, our processing results are super-consistent. That stability carries over to the consistency of your scans, too, and your negatives will last a lifetime.
The process of scanning has multiple steps.
Before your negatives even touch the scanner, we feed the physical roll of film through a dust brush and vacuum—this removes static and surface dust. Then, each frame is previewed in the scanner, and a super-skilled technician makes the necessary adjustments. During this process, scans of color film will go through an automated system to remove even more dust and scratches that are visible in the digital file (dust and scratches can only be removed from the base side, not the emulsion side). Then, a technician reviews the scans in Adobe Bridge, and any additional dust and scratches spotted on black & white film frames are manually removed.
Almost everything can be adjusted in the scanning process.
It’s amazing the range of image results you can get from a film scanner, because there actually aren’t that many controls. There is no layering, no masking or selective color, no detailed adjustment graphs for value levels and color curves… the photo above shows you the one and only “control panel” that a scanning technician works with to adjust an image.
There are two major variables that a scanner can adjust: density (the overall lightness or darkness of an image) and hue (the actual color—red, blue, yellow, etc). The scanner has much less successful control over contrast (the range of difference between lights and darks) and saturation (the vibrancy of a given color). But, don’t fret—you have a lot of control over contrast and saturation when you shoot! Overexposing affects both. #thepowerisyours
Skin tones are the most important thing in an image when scanning.
…but it’s a little more complicated than that. Skin tones are definitely a priority to get just right. This is because if there is a person in a photo, chances are they are the subject/focus of the image—so, that skin better look on point! But, we are also governed by what Richard calls “the Physics of Color”. When working with RGB colors (as opposed to physical ink in the CMYK color space), opposite hues have an interdependent balance. When you make an image less blue, it becomes more yellow. When you reduce magenta, an image gets greener. When you take away cyan, an image becomes redder. Because there is no masking or selective color in the scanning process, these changes in color balance occur across the entire image.
Now, imagine you have a shot of a bride and groom—the bride has a crazy orange spray tan, while the groom’s face is bright red from his pre-ceremony cocktails. The scanning technician must use their best judgment in balancing yellow with blue and red with cyan to make sure that both skin tones look their best. As another example, let’s say you have someone in a bright-white dress standing in the middle of a lush, green field. You can bet that the dress is reflecting its surroundings, making it green. So, the technician has to weigh exactly how much magenta to add to the image as a whole in order to make the dress look white again but not make the skin purple-pink.
“Density” is a term that only applies to film and film scans.
The term “density” is used to describe value (lightness/darkness) specifically in a film negative or scan because it applies directly to the physical composition and methodology of exposed film—a transparent medium that, when developed, reaches different levels of opacity.
Let’s use an analogy from Richard’s Pushing and Pulling Film: the Ultimate Guide—imagine a frame of film as an empty square. Drop a handful of sand onto the square, and that represents the light that hit the film. In some places there is more sand, and in some places there is less sand. The density of the particles affects the lightness or darkness of an area in the scan.
Anyone can scan negatives if they have a film scanner.
This is kind of like the Disney movie “Ratatouille”—anyone can scan, but not everyone can scan well! Scanning is an art, and it takes serious know-how and a razor sharp eye to master the perfect scan. That’s why the only scanners at Richard are experienced connoisseurs who take every frame as seriously as you do. Plus, the scanning machines themselves can be difficult to repair and maintain in tip-top shape! So, sure, anyone can scan your negatives, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get consistent, pro-quality results.
Richard adjusts all their scans in Photoshop to make them look good.
Sing it the rooftops, photogs: this is false! We are extremely adamant about never adjusting film scans in Photoshop or Lightroom after-the-fact, unless it’s absolutely necessary. So, we only hire the best-of-the-best technicians (below) to produce awesome images in the scanning process. After all, that’s where the Richard magic happens!
Why is it so important to provide a “true scan” versus a scan that is adjusted afterwards? Your negative is the one and only accurate point of reference for how your image should look. The scanning technician wasn’t with you when you were shooting, and they don’t know what the “live event” really looked like. So, if they veer away from the point of reference that a negative provides when making adjustments, who knows where the look of the final scans might go? Adjusting scans after-the-fact deviates from the only information about your image the lab knows to be true. #negsaresacred
Psst… there are very rare occasions when Richard will take a scan into Photoshop as a last resort. Usually, it’s when one or two frames are completely inconsistent with the rest of the images taken at a shoot. This often happens when a photog accidentally changes the settings in their camera without realizing it, takes a shot or two, and then spots the change and corrects it. We want all of your images to be as consistent as possible—even when you make an “oopsies”—so we adjust these frames when it’s impossible to achieve uniformity within the scanning process that we know our clients require.
Once Richard scans a frame, it is ready to be delivered to the photographer.
“Wait, didn’t you just say you don’t do post-production work on your scans?” Yes, but Richard still has a quality control process in place to make sure every frame is as awesome as it can possibly be! We’re talking about that extra bit of love that only Richard proudly puts into your scans. Before delivering your files, we’ll check for frame lines and rebate edges to make sure your film scans are client-ready upon arrival. #thatsjusthowweroll
There isn’t a huge difference between the amounts of time it takes to make a small scan versus a large scan.
The variance in time it takes to do different sizes of scans isn’t that big. But this begs the question: why are larger scans more expensive? The price of your scans is not just based on the time it takes to scan a frame. When the file size gets large, a lab must take into account the cost of the extra technology required to store and move those big beautiful files, as well as the staff needed to preform those actions.
Beyond that, Richard puts a ton of extra tender loving care into the removal of dust and scratches on your images—this adds even more time to the “standard” scanning process. For color film, this process takes an extra 33% of time beyond just the scan, and for black & white film, it’s a whopping 50%. While that amount of time might not be huge for one frame, Richard scans thousands of images every day… and that adds up faster than you might think.
Even though you’ve now got a handle on Richard’s scanning process, it doesn’t mean you won’t face more challenges and misunderstandings unique to your film photography. Always look to your negatives and your lab for the answers as to why your images look like they do—otherwise, you probably aren’t getting the knowledge you need to fix the problem! If you need guidance or recommendations, Richard is just a phone call or email away.
Want to know more about Richard’s scans? Check out our blog post comparing the Noritsu and Frontier film scanners.
Grab a visual guide to understanding color in your scans on screen and in print here.