Colour Negative Film Scanning 101
So you want to scan negative film? Well, it’s not too hard to be happy if you don’t look too far. I spent my first several years just using the “negative” mode on Nikon Scan with my Nikon Coolscan 9000ED and I was very happy. Nikon Scan does a very good and artistically satisfying job, in my opinion. It is all well and good until you want some control over the process. Let’s say, you don’t like the clipping point where your brights get cut off. Let’s say you end up with a colour cast in the shadows or across the whole image. Let’s say the shadows are crushed. What can you do? Well, nothing, my friend. Nothing unless you take over.
OK, let’s start off with the basics. How do you get a good scan on “negative” mode with Nikon Scan? I’m showing screenshots from my Mac but the PC version will be the same.
Set Nikon Colour Management on and set the minimum possible clipping values as shown. You will also want to set autoexposure:
Now you need to set “negative” as the film type:
You can use the thumbnails button to show thumbnails of all the frames so it is easier to choose which ones to scan. After a while, though, you will get to know which frame is where in the holder.
Hit scan and you should get a really rather nice rendering of the frame right out of the box. If you are happy with this then your life will be simple!
The white border you see is the portion of the holder that was scanned. It all clips to white. The bit of black on the lefthand side is a portion of the film base which, as you would expect, has been inverted to near black.
Good looking little guy, huh? I was always happy with the good results from this process. The problem was where the automatic processing didn’t work out so well and gave me colour casts or the above-mentioned clipping and black crushing.
Let’s look at that result a little more closely:
The highlight on the guy’s helmet is clipped. It doesn’t look bad but it might limit what you can do in post to this…
Let’s look at the histogram. On the face of it, not too bad. But we will see in a minute the implications of what you see here:
No large scale clipping to be seen but notice the way the full range of tones is covered. This is not representative of the scene where there is actually a small portion of highlight that is MUCH brighter than everything else.
So what choices do we have?
The Bad and The Ugly
OK. So we need to take control if we want control. We will need to change some settings:
Nikon Colour Management off, Gamma 1.0, Autoexposure off
When you change things in the Preferences pane they don’t take effect until the next run so quit Nikon Scan. Then run it again. Then set the film type to “positive” film.
Now we will need to set the exposure for each colour channel to maximise the information from the scanner. Beware of setting the exposure so that you achieve 255 on clear areas of film. If you look closely, you will see that areas of pure tone still have some “grain” in them. You want a bit of wiggle room. Aim for 200-230 for unexposed film on each channel.
Now there is a bit of a trick to Nikon Scan. It loves to autoexpose even when you have turned autoexposure off. If you do a preview, it will autoexpose and you will not get the values you think you have set. In fact, if you even generate thumbnails (for 35mm) it will autoexpose. Weirdly, thumbnails can be generated with the medium format holder without a problem. Anyway, proceed in the following way:
1. Guess at a value for R, G and B
2. Set oversampling to 1x, fine mode to off, and a low resolution like 1000dpi
3. Hit scan on one frame. It will open right there in Nikon Scan and you can see the RGB values by hovering over the picture. Based on what you see, close the picture without saving, tweak the values and repeat.
Here is a sequence I went through to find the base value for some Fuji Superia 200 (the film this picture was shot on):
Yes, it is trial and error. However, when you find good values you can save them and reuse them:
In Nikon Scan, the settings you change are only for that particular frame. If you want the same settings for all frames you need to do a little dance:
1. Set User Settings
2. Quit (yes, quit) Nikon Scan
3. Run Nikon Scan. The settings you set will now be the default for all frames. It sounds a little weird but is actually quite handy once you get used to it.
OK. Now you can scan as many frames as you want from this roll (or, if the processing is the same, any other roll of the same make of film). They will all come out with a good exposure but, of course, they are all still negative! What next?