My Photo Workflow: Shooting Film and Scanning Digitally, Part 1


Growing up in the 1980s and receiving my formal photographic education in the 1990s and early 2000s, my technical background was formed in a world of technological flux as mass-market photography was shifting from film to a digital platform. I began my education in a well-outfitted traditional black-and-white darkroom, and honed my film-based craft throughout college, working exclusively with medium and large format film and typically printing both color and black-and-white in a traditional, chemical-based lab.

However, this is not to say I did not embrace digital technology. While I still currently maintain a mostly film-based practice, I have, for a long time, been a great proponent of melding both film and digital photography by way of scanning and printing digitally. For me, this solution offers the best of both worlds: I get to use a greater array of cameras and techniques that are more familiar, while also having the more compact, accessible, economic, and instant abilities upon which digital photography is built.

Obviously an opinion of the minority, for me, one of film photography's greatest assets is the forced confidence that comes with it. Or rather, comparatively, you must rely on intuition and knowledge when working with film, rather than being at the mercy of your rear LCD for compulsively checking exposures and compositions while shooting. Film also offers a greater guarantee to the security of your images against the chances of a failed memory card or hard drive.

Outlining my workflow as it stands today, I have a fully digital workflow, post film development. This is to say, I scan my negatives and then print digitally, whether it be by inkjet printer or digitally exposed/chemically processed printing (i.e. digital C-prints and digital fiber prints). For me, this mixture of technologies yields the highest-quality results possible. I am able to still utilize the look and feel of film; I have the added control and the sense of luxury of computer-based production; and I can still output to traditional materials—with the lights on. This sort of photographic ice cream sandwich, where the ice cream is digital and the cookies are traditional materials, has a number of benefits opposed to a fully digital workflow, as well as a number of benefits, versus a fully film-based workflow.

In the beginning, the biggest hurdle, obviously, was pairing the digital tools with the quality of the film. In this case, since one can already enlarge negatives optically without sacrificing quality, the task was to find a scanner that could produce similarly high-quality results that would further enable me to adjust the look of my imagery with a computer. I began working with one of the best flatbed scanners possible (at the time, this was an Epson Perfection 4870 Photo), since scanning large and medium format was typically cost-prohibitive with a dedicated film scanner. Eventually, my scanning efforts did move over to a virtual drum scanner (an Imacon Flextight), as utilizing a true drum scanner was still out of my price range for regular use. The results, however, are visually indiscernible to optical enlargements at sizes up to 40 x 50". Currently, I split between the two scanning options, depending on the final output size. I've found that printing up to 16 x 20" is perfectly acceptable with flatbed scans, whereas the 30 x 40" and 40 x 50" prints need to be handled by the Imacon.

From the scanning stage, my efforts can now move over to post production, where the greatest benefits of digital technology truly reside. This will be covered in Part 2 of this series.

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Looking forward to part two. I'm currently looking for a good film to digital workflow, one that is a good balance between cost and result as I simply cannot afford a Flextight, and therefore looking at starting off with a flatbed or a cheaper dedicated film scanner. Tough decision. I want exhibition quality scans.