On Digitising (Part 3 – my process)

In part 1 of this series I introduced my digitising set-up and in part 2 I then talked about how I hold the negatives flat and steady for copying. In this third and final instalment I want to cover the copying itself and finally the post production.

Let me start by saying that I keep it simple. No stitching, no fancy software, no wet-mounted negatives or any of the other interesting things that you may be aware of. So, keep that in mind. This is not a highly technical article but the real-life process of someone who recognises the need to digitise his film especially for sharing on social media but dislikes doing it and rarely prints digitally. My printing is done in the darkroom and only very occasionally do I purchase an inkjet print (I do not own an inkjet printer).

I guess that is the first point I would make for anyone contemplating getting into digitising their negatives. What are you going to use the files for? If it’s just for social media, websites or blogs etcetera then I believe that my method as described here will work very well. If however you want ultimate quality then what I am going to describe may not be your best approach. That said, I believe that the results from this form of digitising negative film can be far more than simply adequate! I will give an example at the end of the post.

Capturing the files

So, let’s start with the hardware that I use to capture the files. The copying set-up (left) was briefly discussed in Part 1. It comprises a Fuji X-T3 mirrorless digital camera, a 60mm f2.8 Nikkor Micro lens with adapter, a copy stand and various holders.

I’ve already mentioned that I work in a darkened room to avoid reflections but it is worth knowing that the 60mm lens I am using has a front element that is very deep-set in the lens body so I doubt any stray light is going to be striking the lens but nevertheless I am continuing to work in the dark.

I use a solid copy stand so everything is kept as stable as is possible and I also use a cable release so I do not need to touch the camera itself. I use an aperture of f8 or f11 and move the camera up and down the stand until I fill the frame from left to right with a single negative. I manually focus on the negative using the focus peaking feature of the camera to guide me. In practice I find that once I’ve set the focus for a roll of film then I do not need to touch it again for that roll, however I keep an eye on the LCD screen throughout to make sure the focus peaking lines are still glowing.

I manually set the shutter speed using the histogram to guide me. I will typically bracket one stop either side of the camera’s recommended shutter speed* but often find that I can create four exposures that all fit within the histogram without clipping. Incidentally, when considering clipping don’t forget that black parts of the holder or bare parts of the light pad will skew the camera’s recommended exposure. At some point I will do some experiments to see whether simply exposing for the highlights/shadows is all that is needed but for now I like having my options open without needing to rescan the negatives on another occasion. Hard drive space is cheaper than my time at present but one day I will sit down and work out which works best for me.

Me. Now, that’s an important word for You. Whatever you read, watch or listen to is only that person’s way of working. It’s what works for them and you are right to use it to inform your experiments but ultimately it’s what works for you that matters. Ooops, nearly slid the soapbox out from under my desk then! Back to business.

* Since preparing this post I have found a resource which suggests exposing at the camera’s metered exposure, or one stop over (exposing to the right). All of which seems to validate my approach – apart from making one exposure at -1 of course. I will adopt this going forward.

Converting the files

So, I have a memory card holding my newly copied files with a choice of exposures and also saved in both RAW and JPEG. This is an old habit from when I worked exclusively with Fujifilm digital cameras but is actually helpful given that I process the files on two different systems. Depending on where I am and/or what mood I am in I will typically convert my files using either the iPad or my desktop computer. Whilst all these negative images are destined to live on my computer hard drive I typically use the JPEGs on my iPad and the RAW files on the computer.

As a rule of thumb, and pending any proper experiments, this approach of effectively bracketing exposures currently works for me. I typically use the file with the most central histogram as it usually gives a flat, low-contrast image with which to work. Why make life complicated if you don’t need to?

SNAPSEED is my conversion software of choice on the iPad. It is simple to use, does everything I need and was free. I start by straightening the image and cropping away all the extraneous parts, leaving me with just the negative itself in whatever format I was using. I then apply a normal black and white adjustment to ensure I have no colour cast. I capture JPEGs as monochrome on the Fuji so this is probably a redundant step but it keeps the process consistent compared to my desktop conversions.

Rotate followed by Crop (highlighted)

I then Invert the image using a Curves adjustment (again as I would on the desktop). This gives the basic image from which to work and from here it’s a case of using the normal local and global adjustments to convert the image to taste.

ADOBE CAMERA RAW (ACR) and sometimes Photoshop (PS) are my weapons of choice when using a desktop computer. I use the RAW files, hence I always start in ACR and oft times that is enough. However, if I want to add borders or undertake anything more involved I will take the initial conversion into PS. I have tried to keep the desktop workflow very similar to that used on my iPad and on the whole this is what I do, however there’s no escaping the greater scope that PS offers when required. Whilst I try to avoid using the computer as much as I can I will sometimes take a few of my digitised negatives into Photoshop for a “play” – more on that perhaps in another post.

So, my basic workflow in ACR is as follows. Open and immediately crop and rotate as required. I then reduce Saturation to -100 and invert the Curve to give me the basic conversion. I then make any global adjustments in the Basic panel, typically adjusting contrast and overall brightness using Clarity, Dehaze, Exposure and Contrast. If that gives me what I want I will add a vignette if required and sharpen both from within ACR and save out my finished file.

ACR conversion – this hasn’t been into PS

Sometimes, perhaps if I want to add a Duotone or a border to the final image, I will take the file into PS for finishing off but I will still do all the basics in ACR. For my recent woodland series this was the approach I took; tidying up the crop and a basic conversion in ACR then into PS for the duotone and final tweaks before adding a large white border.

Conclusion

None of this is overly sophisticated and of course it only relates to black and white and not colour negatives. I do occasionally use colour and for what it’s worth use Lightroom and Negative Lab Pro for my conversions but that’s out of the scope of this post. In fact, I use it so rarely I wouldn’t be so bold as to write about how I use it!

My specific reasons for digitising negatives, to give me something to post to social media, informed all of my choices from the start to the finish of this process. Yours should too. I share my images with like-minded folk on Twitter and often use a film image for my picture-a-day challenge on Flickr. But that is usually the limit of my expectations for these files. If my reasons change then I will of course be re-evaluating the current process in the light of any revised requirements.

Finally, I did mention that I occasionally have a digital print made and recently I had a 24×12 inch metallic print made from a 35mm negative from the Horizon S3 Pro. The negative had been scanned using the method described here and was processed in ACR and PS again using the approach described here. I didn’t do much in Photoshop apart from add the large white border and rather than sharpen in ACR I did sharpen it in PS too. Framed, and on my wall, it looks fabulous.

Now framed and hung on my wall

I hope that these notes are of some interest/use to you the reader. I’m always happy to share my workflow and experiences and when I do eventually sit down to work out the optimal exposure for the digital copies I will be sure to post my thoughts here. Don’t hold your breath though as this is working at the moment – for me!

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