Scanning Colors in Detail Shots (and Other Images with No Skin Tones)

Image by LMarie Photo

When Richard scans your film, skin tones are always our main focus. If there is a person in your shot, typically they are the subject of the photo, so we want them to look amazing! And because scanning machines can only control color balance across the entire image (and not specific color channels or selective masking/editing), that means all the other colors in an image just fall where they may.

But what happens when you don’t have any skin tones in your shot? We’re talking about landscapes, detail shots, lay flats, and the like. Without any skin tones to reference in an image, indicating your density and color preferences isn’t enough. There’s a wide range of color possibilities that could be interpreted from your film. That tablecloth? It can be hard to tell if it was pink or lavender or taupe. That wedding invitation suite? It’s sometimes difficult to say if it was white or cream or light gray.

These images are just a sample of how a range of colors can be achieved from the same negative… and without any guidance from you, we don’t know which one is right.

Image by LMarie Photo

A simple way to communicate a color is to tell us in the “Special Instructions” section of your order when you use Richard’s Online Film Ordering. This will help us achieve a generalized color in your scans—but it’s not very specific. For example, maybe you shot a pair of shoes, and you tell the lab they are pink. But, look at all the different shades of pink there are…

To really dial in on the perfect color, you can send the lab a digital shot that has been corrected on your color-calibrated monitor to illustrate the exact color.

Another option is to send a physical sample of the color to the lab along with your film. Just staple a small swatch of the fabric/backdrop/etc. to your packing slip. Then, be sure that the “Special Instructions” of your order indicate 1) that you sent a sample to match, and 2) what item in the shot we are matching color for.

Using gray cards or color checkers isn’t a recommended way to indicate color in your film shots for a couple of reasons. The first is that you have to waste a precious frame to shoot one, and who really wants to do that? The second is that you have to shoot the gray card or color checker every single time you change positions, the lighting shifts, or when you tilt your camera even by just a few degrees. The slightest change in the way light enters your camera will change the exposure.

Tip: Richard recommends using the Noritsu scanner for shots without skin tones, because it allows us to have greater control over color consistency from frame to frame (which is especially important for matching backdrop colors)!

Image by Albany Katz

There’s something under your control during shooting that will affect the lab’s ability to match color (and pay attention because this is a big one): light management. Be aware of how the color of your lighting affects tones! Let’s say you’re shooting a white wedding cake indoors under incandescent lighting (which is yellow), but there is a window right next to it letting in sunlight (which is blue). It is literally impossible for us to make that cake look like it is one uniform color, because each lighting temperature requires a different balance of color in order to make the cake look white.

Even in a situation where there is only one constant light source, light management is important. If you are shooting a landscape filled with lush tropical foliage during golden hour, those greens will take on warmth no matter what—even if they looked like a cool blue-green color throughout the day.

Tip: Don’t forget that the base tones of a film stock will affect the outcome of colors! It’s vital to stick with one stock if you want color consistency.

Another element of light management is consistent exposure. The amount of light hitting your film is the architect of color. If you have some shots that are overexposed, some that are underexposed, and some that are exposed normally, our ability to consistently match color from shot to shot is extremely limited (see some visual examples of different exposure settings here). When we have to shift density to make the lightness/darkness levels match across your frames, the colors will naturally shift.

So, what happens if you have skin tones and you want to match a specific color? This might happen if, say, you’re shooting commercial work where a product being worn by a model needs to be a specific color, or if you’re shooting a wedding party and trying to achieve a very specific color from the wedding (like bridesmaids’ dresses).

Image by LMarie Photo, cropped to show detail

In this case, we have to remember that scanning machines can only control color balance across the entire image. So, if you instruct the lab to match a color exactly, those skin tones are going to, as we said, “fall where they may”. And sometimes that works out—but sometimes, it means skin tones don't match your usual preference or even look completely unnatural. The same rules apply the other way around! If you say you want your scans to be warm and on the yellow side, then your skin tones will be scanned to reflect that preference, and the other colors in the image will follow suit (so, that turquoise jewelry will be on the greener side, or a magenta lipstick will lean on the redder side instead of purple).

The best way to approach this situation is to embrace our simplified method of communicating color: tell us about a specific item's color that you are trying to achieve in the “Special Instructions” section of your order. That way, we can get the general colors of that item correct and balance those color goals with achieving realistic skin tones.

And now that you know a bit more about matching colors, you'll be able to understand when colors can only be dialed in more with digital post services if need be (yup, Richard can do that!).

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