My film to digital workflow

As I shoot with a mix of film and digital cameras I have had to create a workflow to bridge the gap between tripping the shutter on a film camera and importing the digital results into Lightroom for post-processing. With a digital SLR this process is simple, just take the memory card out and put it in the reader, but to do the same for a film camera requires a few more steps and requires a bit of organisation to ensure some consistent and usable results.

I thought it might be interesting to described the process I follow, mainly to show that it doesn’t have to be painful or complicated.

Processing the film

The first step is to process the film from the camera to create the negatives. Nothing really new here, I load the film into the spiral tank in a sealed changing bag and process it in Ilford chemistry in my bathroom.

The developer comes with guidance for all the major black and white film types so it is easy enough to get a decent negative without having to experiment. Washing and drying the negatives well is important to get a clean scanned image, but other than that it’s no different than preparing a negative for printing manually.

Scanning the negatives

I use an Epson perfection 4990 photo flatbed scanner to create digital images from my negatives. My scanner is transparency compatible as it has a light in the lid that illuminates the negatives from above so they can be scanned from the flatbed platter.

The negatives are fitted into a holder that takes several strips at once and automatically separates each frame into a separate file.

There are a multitude of settings that can be adjusted, but I just keep it simple and leave image processing until later in Lightroom. For 35mm film I scan at 2400dpi to produce a roughly 7 megapixel image which is sufficient for printing to about A4 size and web use. I let the scanner driver set the exposure for each image to give a proper spread of black to white tones, but I turn off sharpening, dust removal, grain reduction, etc. to leave the resulting file as straight as possible.

I then scan to .tiff files to give plenty of latitude for post-processing.

Dust removal

I take the next step into Photoshop to clean off dust and scratches from the images and save a clean file for post-processing in Lightroom. As the scanning takes a while there is plenty of time for doing this step on a batch of images while the next lot are in the scanner.

It’s fairly straight forward, I use a Wacom tablet and the Photoshop spot healer brush (i’m several versions of PS out of date, but it still works fine) to spot out dust and marks. It works really well on B&W film as the grain makes it easy for the tool to cover over the white marks without it being obvious.

I save the cleaned .tiff file over the original file as life is too short for archiving every step.

Post-processing the image

The final step that brings the scanned image in to line with one from my digital cameras is to import the scanned and cleaned film set into Lightroom 4 to fine tune the exposure and tone curve and make some decisions on cropping, sharpening and toning the images.

As I use a range of cameras and film stock I tend to develop presets based on both the film type and the camera used. Different film types, film formats, exposure meters and lenses require a range of different adjustments to bring them in to line with the style I am looking for.

Generally medium format is easier to work with as grain is smaller and images can be messed about with more before the grain structure starts to make it obvious. 35mm is a bit trickier, especially at ISO 400 where grain is quite visible. This is compounded by the fact that my medium format Bronica is excellent, where as some of my 35mm kit is, well, not so perfect. For example my Rollei 35 is a bit hit and miss on focus so certain shots required much higher sharpening and clarity adjustment to make them look right.

So that’s my process, a few hundred quid of hardware and software that just does it’s job without too much faffing about. The beauty of all this is that if you muck it up, or if you make it big and need a billboard sized print, you can just pull the negative back out of the folder and do it over again.

I like the hands-on approach to making my images, so for me these steps are a labour of love rather than something to be endured. Plus it is nice to set aside a couple of hours a week to work on my images, listen to a bit of music and generally enjoy photography.

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