Converting Negative Film to Digital Media

For Christmas this year I stole all of my family’s VHS tapes, negative film, and developed pictures to digitize as gifts. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Here’s how I processed all of the negatives and photographs.

I found the Epson V550 appealing due to it’s low price and ability to scan negative film. It features Digital ICE, the ability to inspect negatives for physical scratches or damage and help remove them from the final image. I have written up a short review of it here.

I used VueScan for the scanning software. I liked the added configuration and options presented with the 3rd party software instead of the included Epson scanning software.

Negatives

I decided on 3200 DPI and 24 bit RGB for the scanned negatives. This resulted in files around 16-20 MB. I originally tried 4800 DPI and 48 bit RGB, but the resulting files were over 100 MB. I used Digital ICE, a feature built into the V550, to repair film damaged by scratches. I scanned the film into raw TIFF files for futher processing. Research I read online stated Photoshop’s color correction abilities surpassed Vuescan’s, so both the “Filter” and “Color” settings were disabled in VueScan. I used VueScan’s ability to automatically crop 35mm film which functioned as a good precursor for me to fine tune the cropping when each slide was previewed instead of starting blank each time. I used the “Batch List” functionality to quickly tell VueScan which negatives I wanted to process and which to ignore.

Scanning

1. I cleaned the negatives of dust/dirt using an air blower and lint free cloth. I checked the scan bed between each scan to clear any dust or dirt that had accumulated. Since negatives are so compact, even tiny pieces of dust can show up as large lines on the scanned image.

3. I placed the emulsion side of film down towards scanner (or the direction of the capture device). The emulsion side is usually the concave side of the film. It is the “non shiny” side of the film also.

4. I clicked Preview to get a rough draft the slides with VueScan. VueScan offers the ability to increase the dynamic range of the scanned image by “locking exposure”, or telling VueScan what the blackest black is on a particular strip of film. Temporarily selecting an area between the exposures and clicking “Lock Exposure” in the options set VueScan to the proper level (for me anywhere from 1.0 to 3.0). This action helps balance the histogram of the resulting image. Not doing this resulted in some pictures being too black or white. Each roll of film has a different exposure values, so I performed this whenever I started on a new roll of film.

lockExposure

5. I would then decide which images I wanted to capture and add them to the “batch list” text box in VueScan. I manually cropped each exposure before the final scan, ensuring the resulting image would have no black bars. I found this step to be very important when correcting the colors in Photoshop and Lightroom. Leaving borders in the picture affected the histogram, skewing Photoshop’s results.

6. If any particular image was damaged by scratches the Digital ICE functionality was enabled on that individual image. The image was scanned with an infrared light to detect the scratches and VueScan repaired the image with the infrared result. Doing this took about twice the amount of time to scan the image to a file.

7. I set VueScan to automatically save scans to a temporary folder. I scanned all of my negatives into this folder with VueScan automatically incrementing the file names.

Processing

After the scanning was complete I needed to correct the colors, contrast, and tone of the images, as well as invert them (from negative to positive) and flip them horizontally due to imaging from the “back side” of the film. To accomplish this quickly I created a Photoshop action to automatically execute these steps. I then used Photoshop’s batch functionality to open each image in the temporary folder, process it according to the action commands, and then overwrite the original negative image with the corrected positive automatically.

Photographs

I used 600 DPI and 24 bit RGB for the photographs. The same reasoning applied as the negatives. Due to the volume of images being processed the file size was a limiting factor. I originally used an Epson V37, but I found the white panel on the lid did not press the images down fully onto the scan bed due to lacking foam around the perimeter.

Scanning

Scanning multiple pictures in at the same time saved a lot of overhead compared to individually, even though scanning one image in would result in a better initial crop. I found scanning 4 pictures in at a time worked best, allowing each picture to be aligned at each corner of the scan bed while also leaving enough white space between images for cropping later. I simply placed each set of images on the bed, then closed the cover and scanned the page. To save time I scanned the entire bed so I would not need to preview each set to make sure all of the pictures were in the capture area. After his process was finished I had hundreds of files with 4 images in each corner of them. Each scanned file needed to be separated into 4 separate images, though doing this by hand for 5 minutes caused weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Separating Scans

Manually cropping the vast number of images was in need of automation. I tried using Photoshop’s built in “Separate and Crop” functionality, but it was spotty at best with most images not being separated correctly. When the images were successfully separated I still needed to individually save each of the resulting images individually, including naming them uniquely. I found a Gimp plugin that accurately separates each image from a folder of scans. The plugin would constantly crash Gimp every 10 minutes or so unfortunately, but I could not find an alternative that would batch the images reliably. When the plugin would fail I would re-launch the program and start at the last successfully processed image. The plugin would occasionally create 5 or 6 files instead of 4, with the “extras” being a smaller portion of one of the 4 actual images. I never had an issue with the plugin cropping into the actual image though. I created a new fork of the plugin which include the ability to set the DPI of the image instead of defaulting to 600 DPI.

Lightroom Processing

Once all of the negatives and photographs were processed into digital copies they were imported into Lightroom. I used Lightroom to tag people in each of the images for fast searching in the future. I used information present on the front and back of images to help tag people, dates, and locations for the images. I organized the pictures based on year and then by event they were captured at. For the photographs that didn’t have any accompanying data I relied on family and friends to get generate time frames of certain events to get the photographs in rough chronological order.

I used the “auto tune” feature for initial processing of the images. I found that the results worked well enough for a starting point of additional manual changes. I cropped out any remaining black/white bars from scanning and also fixed composition on some of the pictures. I boosted sharpness and clarity settings across the board, as well as vibrance and saturation. I found most of the scanned images were lacking in all of these areas. Scanning pictures from analog to digital will always result in loss of data, Lightroom helped to artificially bring some of it back.

Some images were heavily damaged from previous improper handling or storage. Some images were in worn out scrap books from the 1960’s and 1970’s with glue stains on them. For simple dust or blemish removal I used Lightroom’s spot removal tool. The more heavily damaged photos were sent to Photoshop for advanced repair. I was surprised with the amount of restoration I could accomplish with the basic tools of both programs.

After everything was finished I had over 2,000 images from one family, and another 800 from another family, scanned in and digitally preserved. The images are stored on a RAID0 configuration, as well as an offsite backup (relative’s house). Including all of the time spent with trial and error I spent around 40 hours scanning and processing all of the memories. I am very thankful my family switched to digital over the past few decades:).

Alternatives

Online services like ScanMyPhotos.com offer to scan all your pictures for modest prices compared to the amount spent on a scanner and the time involved with scanning and processing. I enjoyed the time I spent digitizing my photographs but others might not as much. Most services will charge additional for higher resolution scans, but if time is limited and the funds are available, having someone else deal with all of this would be a worthy investment!

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