There is more than one way to skin a cat.
I don’t know who the ghoulish S.O.B. was that made up that old saw. I love cats, and let it just be said right up front: I do not support the skinning of cats, no matter which technique you employ.
The reference, in this case, is to the photographer’s process, and perhaps more specifically, the thing we call workflow. I’ve got a project that I need to submit by the end of the month, and it involves scanning some of my old black and white negatives and turning them into presentable digital files. Today I’m going to get into that analog to digital process and while I will try, as always, to be as entertaining as possible, let me tell you right off the top that this information is mostly for the person seeking advice on the scanning process, or just the intensely curious. I won’t be going into the minutest detail here—there are photo tech and photo editing blogs online that are very helpful in that regard, and I’ve provided some useful links throughout. My aim is to offer a little about my own process and give a good overview of where you might want to start if you have been considering turning that shoebox full of old photos or negatives into really polished images for use online or for printing.
If that doesn’t grab you, I will also be featuring some pretty pictures that I shot a long time ago.
During my monthlong residency on the Redux I have talked about process and technique on a couple of other posts, namely the one where I spent the day making photogrammic Lumen prints in my back yard, and the post a couple of weeks ago when I offered a tour of my darkroom and talked about the process of setting one up.
I have to scan some black and white negatives and prepare them for my website, and also prepare some of them for a portfolio submission to a magazine. I’ll be working with the shots I took on my first trip to South America in 1999/2000, when I was shooting with my trusty Chinon 35mm and still learning what it meant to be an intrepid photographer. (See my darkroom post, as mentioned above.) It’s important to note that the condition of the media you are about to scan is everything, especially in the case of negatives, whether in the real darkroom or the digital one. If it was a badly shot or processed negative the first time around, it is what it is. We’re not making miracles here. That being said, the advancement of tools in both scanning and editing software is amazing these days, and you can rescue almost any yellowed or cracked old-timey photograph and make it look amazing; you can correct flaws in old or damaged negatives that once was impossible in the analog darkroom. As a case in point, some of the color negatives from that South America trip had been damaged by cat urine (which is another story that details the closest I ever came to skinning a cat) and though many were destroyed, I was recently able to save a lot of them in the editing process.
There are three primary components to making a good digital file out of a scan. The scanner, of course, the scanning software, and the editing software. This is based on the assumption that you are working with a relatively modern computer, with whatever operating system is comfortable for you, and a good quality monitor on which to view and edit. I feel like it kind of goes without saying that you need those things, and while I’m not going to get into the variables of what makes a good monitor or calibrating one, they are definitely things you should look into if you intend to create and share and reproduce professional-quality digital files. For the sake of reference, I will geek on you a little bit and tell that I work on an iMac and have their latest Retina 5K display, which I keep properly calibrated with an X-Rite Color Munki Display. You don’t need these things, they are a preference, and I am making images that need to be accurate when contracted to professional printing labs.
The same thing goes for a scanner, really, because as with most things, you get what you pay for. There are many types and features of a good scanner, and a lot of things to consider, but if you’re like me, you want to land somewhere in the middle on versatility, quality and affordability. You will probably end up getting a good flatbed scanner. Mine is an Epson V600, and I’ve had it for a few years. I’m sure there are better ones available for that price now, but it has served me very well for my workload, which is generally scanning negatives and instant prints, and occasionally some old photographs.
While I love their scanners and printers, I’m not as fond of the scanning software that Epson includes with their scanners. Again, I’m not going to geek out now on the how and why. Once you start getting adept at using these tools, you form your own personal preferences. With Epson, it’s mostly user interface issues, and the ability to handle odd sizes (medium format negatives, for example). I use the VueScan software, which you can purchase online, and is really popular among tech geeks. I like the options you get in the import process and the ease of exporting directly into Lightroom, which brings me to that third component.
Adobe Lightroom 5 is the base photo editing software that I employ. I use Photoshop CS6 also, for difficult edits, but most of my photos never go through Photoshop at all. Every single one of them gets run through Lightroom, and if you’re not familiar, it’s an invaluable tool for editing, managing and organizing your photographic images. I started using it about 5 years ago, and it has absolutely overhauled my workflow and drastically improved the quality of my work.
Again, these are my preferences and the tools that I use, but as long as you have a decent scanner, good software to use with it, and photo editing software that you are comfortable using, you are on your way. Let me talk, then, a little about my workflow, and I’m going to keep it short and simple.
- Handling the negative. I store all my negatives in archival sleeves and organize them in binders. You might be pulling them out of musty boxes, and even if you think that you will never need them again after you scan them, file that under just-in-case. Maybe it’s just that to me, the thought of throwing away negatives seems akin to chucking out demo recordings or razoring old master works, but it only takes a little work and a little money to archive them, and if you’re this interested in scanning, you’ll want to hang onto them. With most of my negs, I’m working with a contact sheet for reference, but even then, I use a small light table and a loupe for looking closer. I always handle them with protective gloves and wipe them with anti-static pads before loading them into the Epson’s negative holder. I also clean the glass on the flatbed itself. Getting rid of dust is the key here. It makes the editing process easier.
- Scanning the negative. I’m not going to get into all the gory details about the settings options here. You have to get to know the scanner software, and honestly, it involves some trial and error. Having said that, the VueScan interface is really self-explanatory. It just comes down to what you’re going to use them for as far as the sizing and resolution options, and whether you want to apply filters, crops, etc. I usually apply a light infrared filter to get rid of some dust specks, and import the file large enough for either printing or digital use, but most of the editing I do in Lightroom and Photoshop.
- Editing the negative. There are so many things you can do at this stage, that I am again going to avoid heavy detail. But I will say that in the case of scanning negatives, it’s important to me to stay as true to the original feeling of the shot as possible, and that includes crop. Most of the processing is going to be cleaning up dust specks, adjusting tonality and contrast, tweaking shadows and highlights. You have to get proficient in the editing software of your choice, and really maximize it to get great results. Working in the digital darkroom is no different than working in an analog one, in terms of taking as much time as necessary on a single image, in order to get it just right.
If all of this is really something that interests you, there is a lot of information online, just start googling. If you’ve got a lot of negatives, it can be a tedious and time-consuming process, but it’s worth it when you get that shiny and prettified file in front of you on your computer monitor. As much as I love the texture and feel of a real darkroom print, there’s something about the light of the screen that really makes black and white images pop in a way they never can on paper. And if you’ve actually had the interest to read this far into this post, then you might be up for the process.