Film Scanning Workflow Tips

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Even though printing in the darkroom isn’t nearly as popular as it once was, the popularity of shooting film has been on the rise for the past few years. Rather than printing traditionally, many photographers are turning to scanning as an integral step in their film-based workflow, perhaps before making an inkjet print. This hybrid method is championed by many because it benefits from both schools of photography: you get the distinct filmic look from shooting real film, along with the experience of working with an older camera and lens, but you still have the flexibility and control provided by digital editing processes. The link between the film-based original and the digital post-production is scanning. Even though scanning is a relatively non-creative process, it’s still a process that requires technique, accuracy, and meticulousness to achieve the best results. Here are some tips to help with your film scanning workflow.

Well Before Scanning—Filing and Storage

Keep your film organized! This advice cannot be stressed enough. Just like the way you keep files on your computer organized, it’s equally, if not more important, to keep your film originals organized, labeled, and protected. I’ve used a simple and effective method for my entire photo career, which involves cutting film strips, sleeving them, and storing them in plastic binders. I use Print File Archival Storage Pages for all of the different film formats I shoot; make sure to find the one that best suits your film. When working with 120, there are different options for 645, 6 x 6, 6 x 7, and so on, which help you to avoid unnecessary trimming. After sleeving, I store my film in a closeable binder, like the Besfile Archival Binder. Versus using an everyday three-ring binder you might pick up at an office supply store, the “archival” binder has the advantage of essentially being a hard plastic sealable box that really keeps dust and dirt away from your negatives. They’re also stackable and fit on shelves nicely, which is a plus once you get up to having 15+ filled binders in a small New York apartment.

Besfile Archival Binder with Rings

Besides protecting your film, these two tools’ main advantage is that they allow you to develop a filing system for your film, which makes it easy to find in case you need to make a second scan, eventually. I try to relegate one binder to each year of shooting, regardless of whether it’s full or not. Then I label my archival pages with dates and info on where the photos were taken when I’m sleeving my processed film. Finally, all of my film is stored in chronological order by shoot, so I know exactly how to find a random shot from more than a decade ago.

Just Before Scanning—Dealing with Dust

Now that your film is organized and you’ve (easily) found the film you wish to scan, there are a number of steps that should be taken immediately prior to making a scan—all of which relate to keeping dust off of your film. If it hasn’t been stated yet, dust is the enemy of scanning, and the one element of the process that will give more headaches that anything else. Just like printing in the darkroom, or even similar to dealing with dust on a digital camera sensor, the best way to deal with it is to avoid it in the first place. Sure, you can spot all of the little dust specks from each photo after you make the scan, but that could be a waste of 5 minutes or more for each shot. With a few tools, you can combat dust in an efficient way and save some time when editing your files. Even with these precautions in place, trust me, there’s always going to be some dust on your film. These steps are here to effectively minimize the amount of dust on your film, not eliminate it.

The first step, as mentioned above, is to store your film in sleeves and in a covered and sealed container. This will prevent dust from accumulating on your film and will cut down on how much dust you have to remove using other methods. Second step, when handling film (removing it from the sleeves and inserting it into the carrier or scanner), is to wear gloves of some kind. I like these Kinetronics Anti-Static gloves because they fit my hands nicely, but in the past I’ve always used just plain cotton gloves with great success. Gloves prevent oils, fingerprints, dead skin, etc. from marring your film and make it easier to handle your film, in general, since you’ll be able to hold it by more than just the edges. Now that your film is being stored properly and you can safely handle it, it’s time to get the dust off. I use a two-step method involving a cloth and an air blower, but before getting into that, I will point out that many people like to use canned air, and that’s great. Canned air is a powerful tool for removing stubborn pieces of dust quickly, but sometimes it can almost be a bit too harsh for me, and ends up blowing the film out of the negative carrier. This is why I prefer using an Ilford Antitstaticum Cloth and a bulb-shaped blower, like this bright red Sensei one, for a tag-team attack on the dust. I keep the cloth on a table, folded four times, and then pull the strip of film through the middle two layers of the cloth while putting pressure on top. Then, after inserting the film strip into the holder, I use the air blower to remove any last bits of dust before making my scan.

Kinetronics Anti-Static Gloves

While Scanning—Getting the Most from Your Scan

The process of scanning can be a very simple process or a very complicated process, depending on the type of scanner and software you’re using (or if you’re scanning without a scanner). However, besides the quirks and idiosyncrasies of each scanner and software type, there is a handful of things to do to reap the most from your setup.

As alluded to above, one of the most important things you can do is to really, truly learn the software you’re using. Most scanning applications have an “easy mode” or some kind of very simple, guided method through the program that will just get you a scan quickly and easily. This usually isn’t going to give you the best results, so it’ll behoove you to learn more about what your scanning application is capable of, or look outside the box for a third-party scanning application, like LaserSoft SilverFast.

LaserSoft Imaging SilverFast SE Plus 8.5 Scanning Software for Epson Perfection V800

Regardless of the software in use, a few more things that can help improve your scans:

  • Make sure your scanner is on a stable and flat surface. This seems like an obvious and silly one, but it makes a notable difference in quality if your scanner is on a wobbly table or if it’s on your work desk that you are constantly bumping into. Just as you wouldn’t want to bump your camera on top of a tripod during a long exposure, don’t disturb your scanner when it’s scanning.
  • Scan “outside the frame.” If possible, that is. A lot of times, photographers will make a scan of only a portion of the film, attempting to get a final crop during the scanning process. Wait until the editing stages to crop your images down with greater accuracy and control.
  • Get a “flat” scan. Similar to above, you want to use the scanner to acquire as much information as possible, and then use other applications to manipulate it. Scanning software, while sophisticated in its own right, isn’t the most advanced application for making fine-tuned color corrections or judging contrast, brightness, and other basic exposure elements of an image. I recommend making the flattest scan possible, with the greatest dynamic range you can muster, and then waiting till you take your image into Photoshop or Luminar or something else before working with the curves.
Skylum Luminar 4

Hopefully, these tips will help make your scanning process a bit more efficient and result in a more productive scanning process. Did I leave anything out? Do you have any additional helpful hints for scanning? Let us know, in the Comments section, below.

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Last year, I bought the Plustek OpticFilm 8200i Ai Film Scanner. It comes with a slide film carrier and a negative film carrier, but I bought an extra pair of slide and film carriers. That way, while one carrier is in the scanner, I can load the other carrier and have it ready to scan. Workflow is much faster without having to pause to unload and load.

Definitely a good idea, Ralph. The amount of time a scan takes often seems to perfectly coincide with loading up an additional holder and dusting the film, so it definitely helps to expedite the scanning process if you have one or two spare holders to prepare in the meantime. Also loosely related is investing in a light table or light box (https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/Lightboxes-Light-Tables/ci/1558/N/4077634482) for viewing your shots beforehand and helping to decide which individual frames to scan.

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