Scanning Monochrome Film: The Basics

OK, here’s the secret: there’s no secret.

When it comes to putting black-and-white film on a scanner, there’s no voodoo involved. It’s just physics. Simple physics that are refreshing after wresting the grizzly bear that is C41 colour film. Shooting photons through an emulsion and catching them on the backside is precisely what’s on the menu here. The only metric we’re dealing with is density, after all.

A caveat: I operate machinery in various pockets of the past, as well as right here in the future. I’m a pragmatist at heart, and when something feels right I stop asking questions and go with it.

  • I use a TLR from the early 50’s, with all the charms and frustration that entails.
  • I use fresh film exclusively. Guesswork in figuring out how many stops to give a mystery roll from the 1980’s makes things harder. I like predictable results. Especially if you’re starting out, make things as easy as possible. Expose well on fresh film.
  • I use an Epson Perfection 3200 Pro flatbed scanner than I bought second hand ten years ago for $40. If it’s not broken, why fix it?
  • I use a modern Apple MacBook with an SSD, 8Gb of Ram and the latest MacOS Sierra. I connect my quaint scanner via USB.
  • I use Photoshop Elements 14 for basic corrections after scanning. I bought this software because it’s not cloud- or subscription-based.
  • I use the latest iteration of Hamrick’s Vuescan software. It does a hundred things I don’t use, but it’s decent for what I use it to do. My preference is EpsonScan, alas MacOS Sierra doesn’t want to find the old 3200 via EpsonScan anymore.

So there’s the dance card out of the way. So let’s move on to my list of personal biases and idiosyncrasies.

  • Each craftsperson is going to be different. That’s the nature of dealing with physical media. The trick is how we interpret the film to show our version of the scene. There’s little difference between scanning and wet printing insofar as bringing our version of a scene to life.
  • Treating your film well and keeping it organized is an integral part of remaining sane as a photographer. Keep your film organized by date, shoot, job or however works best for you. But keep your film organized.
  • Dust can be tamed with a $10 anti-static cloth and some mise-en-place. Spot-correcting dust after scanning can be all but eliminated by properly looking after your space. Take out your film only when you plan to scan, wipe gently with the cloth, scan and replace in the Print-File or similar.
Tidy
Tidy

So as you can see, I try and keep the process simple. There’s no high-dollar clean-space needed for this calibre of work. My scanning is for personal purposes, but the results have been efficient enough to print a 645 negative to A1 size.

Here’s where things get a little hairy. This always causes pearl-clutching. See, I scan directly on the platen whenever possible. I dry my film slowly and store it flat, which means my film usually has no curl. I always enable autofocus while scanning to ensure the scanner is dialled in to the right level, and off I go. Only the corkscrew film gets put under a slice of AR glass, but there’s a possibility you’ll get Newtons Rings if you don’t hold your tongue just right. Anti-static cloth can help here to some extent as well.

So, how does the system get set up? Again, I keep things as simple as possible. The INPUT tab shows a basic setup for scanning B&W film. Note the following:

  • I scan negatives as B&W Negatives, into a 16-Bit Gray colourspace.
  • I let the scanner decide the sharpest RGB Channel to compile the Grey from.
  • Preview resolution can be lower, since I’m lining up a manual crop on the platen.
  • This shows 3200 DPI resolution for the final scan, but often I lower it to 800 DPI for work to be shown on the web. If we’ll be downsampling anyway, then letting Twitter or Flickr massacre it on upload, why bother keeping gigs of high-res images you’ll never print. If you DO intend to print, the more dots the better.
  • Auto Focus for me is “always”. The extra seconds per scan are worth it to me, even for the low-res preview. This is taking the place of my light table and loupe, after all.
  • Samples are up for debate. The theory here is that more samples will allow the scanner to expose separately for highlights and shadow areas. This makes the scanner go through the process of scanning twice (of more at your request) with no discernible differences.
Input Tab
Input Tab

The CROP tab always remains at manual, because I don’t use factory holders.

The FILTER tab shows everything disabled. I prefer a scan as raw as possible. Letting the program make decisions for me goes against the ethos of shooting film for me. Sharpening and grain reduction should be at your discretion, not that your scanner program.

FILTER
FILTER

The COLOR tab (missing “U” notwithstanding) is where things can take a turn. The settings shown on the image below represent a flat and easy scan, with next to no alterations in the scanner driver.

These are basic settings, with the High and Low Curve at defaults. Leaving the film Vendor, Brand and Type settings at generic defaults avoids a Film Emulation situation that would alter your process and take you out of the decision making.

COLOR
COLOR

So let’s plunk a negative on the glass and see what happens.

Showtime
Showtime

After doing a quick preview to see what’s on the glass, I’ve put my crop box over the image I’d like to scan. Clicking into the SCAN section on the right side of the screen shows me the whole frame at 400 DPI.

SCAN
SCAN
Histogram
Histogram

A couple things here to note:

  • I’ve opened up the IMAGE drop-down in the toobar and enabled the GRAPH BW function. This will show us on a chart the distribution of tones in the image. This will allow you to ensure that all the tones represented on the emulsion are getting recognized. This will also make your scan look flat or low-contrast, and that’s a good thing for our purposes.
  • I’ve intentionally cropped out the film edges for the sake of this blog. Adding a bunch of dark values to the Histogram would confuse the issue when getting started. You can see from the Histogram that there is no clipping of the light or the dark end of the spectrum. If something gets left out or altered, that will be our choice to make.

Now, into Elements for a quick once-over. I always check the Levels to make sure the histogram is making contact with the limits at both ends, as well as apply some Unsharp Mask since we’ve digitized the image in a lossy way.

Levels
Levels
USM
USM

N.B.: Sharpening is easy to overdo, and doesn’t take well to resizing after the fact. Try and sharpen only when your image is at the size of consumption and all other changes have been made.

Final Image
Final Image

The image I’ve chosen as an example isn’t going to win any awards, I admit. I chose this image because it is well exposed, shows a sharply defined pattern and the building was actually middle grey. These steps will apply to any image you can throw at your scanner.

My method probably isn’t the best, the most efficient, or the highest resolution. It does let me share consistently and effectively with my friends online, as well as scale up to impressive prints on demand. Hopefully this goes to show that there’s no magic in scanning B&W, and you don’t need $15K worth of equipment to share your images on Twitter or hang your work on the walls.

Paul
Paul
Pub
Pub

I find the biggest thing people miss when starting to home scan is realism. Not every image needs to have HDR style tonal range or Instagram style shadows that look like wet newsprint. Each and every image can hold a full range of tonal scale and it’s a matter of the photographer taking control over the process to see the most out of the negative. Every monochrome image on this site has been scanned using the simple steps above and I’m proud of the results. I’m not up to my knees in awards and recognition, but I can say it’s an honest interpretation of the world around me.

And I think that’s what we’re all striving for at the end of the day.

Beach
Beach
Chaise
Chaise

4 Replies to “Scanning Monochrome Film: The Basics”

  1. Nice one Matt. So very much what I was looking for. I don’t get how exactly you got that done in that time(!?) but it is great. Assumed you would have a fancier scanner with such great results. Few things I’ll tweak I think in my process in light of this. Thanks again for sharing!

    1. No worries, sir. Just takes words and some illustrations to make the point. Having simple equipment is never a barrier to making meaningful work. I hope this has helped in some way, thought it’s far from a definitive process. Be well!

  2. Nice write-up! I really need to shoot some more B&W, the pain of scanning C41 colour makes me envious of this workflow.

    I always thought the “samples” in Vuescan had to do with reducing scanner noise, rather than bracketing exposure (if I can put it that way)? Or am I getting it confused with “passes?” Vuescan is often confusing.

    1. Multi-exposure passes theoretically reduce noise by finding the edges of grain in both light and dark areas separately. I agree that Vuescan is far more feature rich than is practical for most users. That’s why I liked EpsonScan so much. Though once things are (finally) set with Vuescan, you just save a preset and roll.

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