WORK IN PROGRESS - Introduction
This is a comprehensive guide intended to be read by a compentent digital photographer curious about the world of analog film photography in the present day. I decided to write this to distill all my own learning into a single place. It is a living document, hence its place on github.
Except for my camera and lenses, I use only the currently available technology. All equipment you read about here can be easily found at good prices. All techniques presented here are also documented elsewhere on the internet. There is nothing particularly revolutionary or novel here, just solid, practical advice that will help you avoid making mistakes and get you working in what I consider to be the ‘right’ way from the start.
Those seeking purity and predictability from their workflow should remain fully digital. For those accepting the challenge, a very satifying and unique experience lies ahead. Analog photography is many things to many people. There is the exciting lomography movement, large and medium format cameras, homemade gear, collectables and oddities to explore. This guide is for 35mm photographers, although many of the techniques will apply to all analog photography that produces a negative. Many analog photographers like myself simply want the best regular digital image we can achieve from the finest negatives we can create. Before we get started proper, to be fair to you the reader, I must set some expectations upfront…
You will not go analog it because it is easier.
Let me be clear straight off. If you can afford a full frame digital camera and have no interest in the analog process, then you you don’t need to read this. You will get a greater number of better quality images at a cheaper price (in the long run) more quickly. Everything about this workflow is more challenging, time consuming and lower quality than digital. Although you may hear arguments to the contrary, I can assure you that even a second hand Sony A7 will far outperform any 35mm film camera in terms of quality and usability. You will go analog because you are fascinated by the process, love the vintage cameras, enjoy handling the film and want to join a passionate community. You are probably also a bit of a tinkerer at heart.
There are a lot of things to think about and problems to solve.
This guide documents my own workflow, but you will find that many people use many different methods and techniques throughout the process. There is no one right or best way to do things. You must find a way through these challenges that works for you. Where are you going to store your chemistry? Where will you develop your film? Where will you scan your negatives?
As well as the physical aspects of analog photography, the film, the developing etc, there are also digital considerations. A digital camera produces a ready-to-use image for you, and records all the technical details about the image without you doing anything. This is not the case with analog film photography. The camera records nothing of the lens, aperture, ISO, location or even the date and time of the photo. I will provide solutions for these problems, and more.
The images you get will not be as ‘good’ as from a digital camera.
You may read online that film is still competing with digital in resolution, colour, dynamic range or whatever. Don’t believe it. It is true that some very slow medium format films shot with a professional Hasselblad camera, developed with expensive chemistry and under the scrutiny of a top class drum scanner will yield exceptional results. This is not that gig. This workflow is for cost effective analog film photography in the present day at the highest quality that is reasonably achievable. I have read that about 14 megapixels is as much as you can expect from regular 400 ISO film.
It is impossible to be fully analog on a digital internet
Do you intend to work entirely in the analog world, using enlargers to produce photographic prints and never scanning your negatives? If you do then I will be the first to say that I’m impressed! I’m afraid this guide does not cover the use of enlargers as unfortunately I am unlikely to ever use one. My goal is to digitise images to share with the photographic community on the internet. I do however think that the creation of limited-run enlargements from a film negative is a true art form.
The final digital images you create are an unavoidable synergy of your film negative and your scanning equipment. There is no way to avoid that fact. There is also nothing wrong in that. Remember that you will always have your negatives and you can go back to rescan the best in a higher quality or even try an enlarger at some point in the future. This text shows you how to get good results and retain control over the digital process.
How to contribute
If you would like to edit this document, then simply submit a pull requests with your edits are Feel free to fork, rewrites and republish elsewhere but please credit me if you do with a link to my flickr page. If you would like to ask me a question, make criticism or offer suggestions, then please raise an issue on github. Thanks for reading!
Your camera and film
“Considerations, influences and reality”
The choice of camera is important. You need to use a camera and lens that you love and really want to use. We already said that we are not doing analog film photography because it is better than digital. Therefore there must be some other reason for taking it up. For some, it is the desire to use a classic Leica rangefinder which offers both a razor sharp image and amazing heritage. For others it is lomography - unpredictable and artistic results from humble equipment. For me personally, it was the quest for shallow depth of field on a budget. To that end, I found that the long discontinued Olympus OM system offered the best choice of cheap, professional cameras and lenses to help me achieve that.
Prior to developing the film, there are only a few significant factors which affect the quality of your negative. The lens, the exposure, your choice of shutter speed, aperture and the film itself. Being one of these core factors, your choice of film is very important and will have a significant (but not total) influence on your resulting digital image. Some things to consider when choosing a film…
- Is it affordable?
- Is it readily available?
- Do you want to be part of a community of people using the same film and talking about it?
- Can it be processed using standard chemistry?
- Does it dry and stay flat?
- Does it scan well?
- Does it produce long lasting negatives that do not damage easily?
- Can it be pushed or pulled (i.e. increase or reduce ISO rating)?
- Watch out for ‘remjet’ on movie films adapted for digital use.
In a hybrid analog/digital workflow such as this, there are effectively three development phases. The chemistry, the scanning and the digital ‘darkroom’ software. The digital darkroom process can correct and adjust the image very significantly. This means that (in a digital world) the actual film itself cannot have 100% impact in the resulting digital image. It is a combination of all three with proportions unknown.
It is therefore very hard to meaningfully evaluate and choose a film based on reviews on the internet. When you see a converted digital image of a negative on the internet, what do you know about it? There is likely much talk about the chemistry and process, but little about the scanning process and any digital development of the images. How much of what you see is the original film?
Increasing the quality of the second and third stages will increase the influence of the film in the final digital image. So if you increase the quality of your scanning and strive to keep your digital darkroom processing as transparent as possible, then you will ensure that the true nature of the film shows through as much as possible.
In reaility, such high quality scanning is hard to achieve. For example, in my setup, I believe that the digital noise from my scanning camera, a little Olympus XZ-1, is more than the film grain. This is both hard to prove and hard to improve, although there are some ways to do this which I discuss later.
Your digital darkroom will compensate a long way for difficulties in your negative that would be insurmountable with an classic enlarger. This is an important point. Digital development and correction are really the same thing. Negative poorly exposed? Adjust the levels. Not enough contrast in your negative? Steepen the tone curve. Colours wrong? Adjust the colour balance. In practice what this means is don’t worry too much about your choice of film. You can choose it with your heart or your wallet and get results that are 95% the same whatever film you choose!
Achieving faithful results in the digital darkroom is hard. What is the base tone curve? To produce in-camera JPGs, all digital cameras have a different tone curve that is a big factor in their ‘look’. If you do colour, then what is the correct white balance? How to calibrate? What about dynamic range, contrast and sharpness? In practice, there is no one true ‘pure’ setting that simply passes-through your negative into the digital world. If you are a purist, then don’t let this disappoint you, this is the exciting part!
Working in the digital darkroom is a genuine way to impart your own creative input into the final digital image. Working much like the full analog specialist with an enlarger, the digital darkroom user must ‘develop’ their negative into an aethetically satisfying image. Think of Ansel Adams burning and dodging with his enlarger. You are no different, except you are digital at that point. For me, consistency is key. I believe and developing your own ‘look’ is an important way that photographers differentiate themselves. I offer some suggestions later on.
Development Hardware and Chemistry
“Choices, practicalities and preparations”
The Development Chemistry
Fortunately, there is still a lot of choice of film development chemistry available to purchase from new. Both classic B&W and C41 colour chemistry kits are readily available. The process I describe in tis series applies to black and white processing only. In an appendix I offer an interesting approach to C-41 development, based on the work of intrepid amateurs on the internet.
From a quality point of view, I believe that the development chemistry plays a minor role in the overall process. I don’t think it makes a lot of difference. In my opinion, your digital scanning method has far more influence over the end result than your choice of developer.
As regards handling, liquids are much easier to deal with than powders. They are easier to measure and easier to keep in one place without spilling.
Thinking about costs, there are two developers that are much more economical than the others. Kodak HC-110 and Ilford Ilfotec HC. These highly concentrated liquid developers are very similar to each other. They are both diluted 1:31 to make a fresh one-use dev solution. With careful storage, a 1L bottle of either will develop over 100 rolls of 35mm film for you.
When choosing your developer, you should also be aware of the community around it. Some developers such as Rodinal have a large following and there is much discussion about them on the internet. Some film and developer combinations, such as Kodak Tri-X and Rodinal are very popular. If you want the potential extra community involvement, then you should consider this and research accordingly.
The Development Hardware
There are various kits to purchase, but let me tell you what you really need. This is the same for black and white as it is for colour. The chemistry and process is different but the hardware is the same. It is quite a lot of stuff. You need the following…
- A film developing tank.
- A film changing bag.
- Three HDPE bottles to store reusable chemistry in. Ideally these should be opaque but don’t spend too much, since you can wrap them in electrical tape.
- Three 1 litre measuring jugs. These should be easy to pour accurately with no spillage.
- 5 litre bottle of distilled water.
- Two 2 or 3 litre plastic pitchers to hold tap water.
- Two 2 litre lemonade bottles, emptied, clean an filled with tap water. Leave these to warm up to room temperature and store them somewhere dark. You will use them during development.
- An accurate liquid thermometer. Accurate to 0.1oC.
- A reliable timer.
- A funnel to help you pour out liquid from your developing tank into your HDPE bottles for reuse. You will also use this funnel when first mixing up the reusable chemicals.
- A pair of scissors with rounded ends (kids craft scissors are ideal).
- A ‘church key’ style bottle opener. This is for emergency use only (I explain later!), you can do without this.
- An argon welding gas canister. This is your secret weapon to keep your chemistry fresh. It is a long lasting, cheaper and more readily available alternative to Tetenal Protectan. Make sure to get 100% argon gas and not Argon/CO2 mix. If you are not comfortable using this then just buy the Protectan instead.
- A cheap regulator and air hose for the above welding gas. The hose should be long enough to allow you to easily pipe gas into your HDPE bottles.
- A 100ml empty brown glass bottle (kids medicine bottle is perfect). This needs to be thoroughly cleaned.
- A 10ml needle-less syringe.
- Two film negative hanging clips.
- A microfibre cloth for drying the negatives. Don’t use this cloth for anything else.
- A pair of lint free white cotton gloves. These are for handling the film and resulting negatives.
A note about the argon gas
You will read in various places here that I put argon gas into my bottles to help keep the chemistry fresh. I suggest you do the same. The process is quite simple. With the hose to my ear, I turn the regulator until I can hear the gas coming out. I then put the end of the hose 1 inch or so into the open bottle to allow the gas in. I then wait about 5 seconds before I cap the bottle and turn off the gas. Argon is heavier than air so will sink to the liquid surface and protect the chemical while in storage. Remember to turn off the gas when you are done. Although not toxic (argon makes up approx 1% of the air you breath) it is an asphyxiant and could theoretically suffocate you if you were to inadvertently leave it on in an enclosed space. If you are in any doubt about your ability to turn it off, then do not use it. Use Tetenal Protectan or a air blower spray instead (which are actually a butane mix of some sort). I use the argon welding gas myself because it is cheaper, should last longer and I suspect is more effective too.
Preparing your Development Hardware
More than likely, your HDPE bottles are translucent. The chemistry is not light sensitive itself, but light will degrade everything over time. I do have to store my bottles in a location that has a small amount of light that gets in. I therefore prefer to black out my bottles by wrapping them completely in electrical tape. This is much cheaper than buying special purpose dark bottles.
For black and white processing, make up three waterproof labels ‘STOPBATH’, ‘FIXER’ and ‘WETTING’ and affix these to each of your three 1 litre HDPE bottles. I use a tape-based labeller. Once attached to the bottle, I wrap it once round with clear tape. The reason we don’t need one for the developer is that we don’t reuse it, so it does not need a bottle to be stored in.
For C41 two-bath colour processing you should label your bottles ‘C41 DEVELOPER’, ‘C41 BLIX’ and ‘C41 STABILIZER’. Colour chemistry is NOT compatible with black and white, so do not attempt in any way to mix either the chemicals or the process.
You also need to label your measuring jugs. The three labels should be ‘STOPBATH’, ‘FIXER’ and ‘DEV’. You will use these to hold the chemicals before you pour them into the developing tank. It is much easier to pour from a measuring jug than the bottle without spillage. You don’t really want stopbath and fixer slopping about because you tried to pour from the bottle directly. Note that I do pour the wetting agent in directly from the bottle, since that is a harmless solution, like washing up liquid. That’s why I don’t have a jug for it.
Needless to say, labelling your jugs and bottles is absolutely essential so you don’t confuse them and ruin your films.
Negative Scanning Hardware
“Entering the digital world”
The negative storage
You need something better than an old shoebox to put your negatives. There are various options. At the time of writing one can purchase for less than £20, 100 sheets of Hama branded ring-bind-able storage paper that holds 7 rows of 6 frame wide cut 35mm negatives. Each sheet is enough for one roll. Unfortunately, the sheets are wider than an A4 binder and will not fit in a box file. Where, then to put the sheets? I was able to find a 4 D-ring A3 landscape binder that I cut down to the correct size. This is one of the many areas of film photography where improvisation is necessary and better than the alternatives.
Scanning Hardware Choices
Digitising your negatives presents perhaps the hardest challenge in this entire process. It is surprisingly difficult to get the best quality scans and there are trade offs you may not be aware of. Remember that this is an analog process and imperfections are inevitable. Strive to do the best you can with the time and equipment you have. You can always come back and re-digitise your best photos in the future.
|Flatbed scanner (e.g. Epson V700)||1. These seem to be popular with people
2. You can use this for other things too
|1. Large and will require a desk
2. Requires a computer and special software
3. Slow scanning speed
|Dedicated negative scanner (e.g. Pluestek 8200i)||1. Significantly smaller than a flatbed
2. Good quality
3. Can do things like dust and scratch correction
|1. Can only scan 35mm negatives
2. Requires a computer and special software
3. Slow scanning speed
4. Not compatible with linux
|Dedicated camera scanner (e.g. QPIX 14Mp)||1. Cheap although getting more expensive for some reason
2. Very quick to use
3. Does not require a computer
4. Some can run on batteries
|1. Will not give you RAW output
2. Hard to keep the lens and plate clean
3. Lowest quality option
|Digital camera with macro lens (e.g. Olympus XZ-1)||1. Very quick to use
2. Great quality output
3. Can give you RAW
4. Does not require a computer
|1. Requires extensive research to find something suitable
2. Can be challenging to use consistently
3. Expensive unless you buy second hand
4. Can lead to image artifacts due to lens reflections
4. Requires a glass LED light box or tube negative holder
In my opinion, the flatbed scanner is a poor choice. Unless you happen to already have one, I wouldn’t consider purchasing a new one for the primary purpose of scanning your negatives. Reading the reviews, the image quality isn’t really that good.
A dedicated negative scanner is better, but is very slow and still requires a computer. I believe that these will the best quality. From what I have read, scanning a single frame at high quality can take three minutes. Unfortunately, as a linux user, these are not an option for me. I have not found one that will work with linux. I would be interested in these if they simply had an SD card slot and saved a generic RAW format, such as DNG and operated without a computer. Sadly for me, they do not appear to be evolving in that direction.
The dedicated camera-based scanners look like a block or mini tower. They have a small digital camera at one end and a backlit area at the other. You load up the negatives into a plastic tray and pass them through a slot. They simply take a photo of your negative. They tend to be of low quality but, surprisingly can produce good results quickly and easily. Unfortunately, these all appear to be ‘consumer grade’ and not aimed at the enthusiast. Were they to also support a generic RAW format such as DNG and offered better optics then I might be able to recommend them.
For some reason they are getting more expensive. One would have thought that there would be a healthy supply on the second hand market as people scan in historic negatives and then sell the unwanted scanner. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case and their price appears to now rival second hand digital cameras. Unless you can get a very good deal or are attracted by the convenience, then they too are a poor choice.
There does seem to be a good supply of very old negative scanning equipment. From what I have read, I would suggest avoiding these. You are very unlikely to be able to get it working firstly because of a lack of software, and secondly because of a lack of hardware (SCSI, anyone?).
In my opinion the best choice is undoubtedly a ‘proper’ digital camera with macro lens. Once found and adapted appropriately, these can produce outstanding results. Personally, I use an Olympus XZ-1 with a filter tube attached. A cokin filter ring with watercolour paper on the front makes a perfect adaptation for 35mm film scanning. When rested upon the negative placed on an A4 size glass LED lightbox, the negative exactly fills the frame. This is fortuitous. I did not plan this. I happened to have an XZ-1 from my digital photography days and after much research, I discovered it fit the bill perfectly. It offers RAW format and scans a negative in an instant, and does this without requiring a computer. This is perfect for me.
The internet offers various examples of how to adapt a digital camera to scan your negatives. They vary from lab-grade scientific rigs with DSLRs to cardboard tubes stuck on the end of a cheap camera with slots cut for your negatives. There is no one right way to do this and if you want to go with this idea, you are going to have to design something that works for you.
Lomography offer a little lightbox that helps you scan your negatives with your phone. This would be an excellent choice for someone who wants quick results online or maybe doesn’t even have a computer.
In my opinion, which is based on nothing but study, a secondhand Sony NEX 3 with a SEL30M35 macro lens represents the best price/performance ratio available today, assuming it can be adapted appropriately to take photos of negatives from a light source. Your scanning camera should support RAW format to allow the most control in your darkroom software. The advice I offer later about digital processing assumes that you have RAW files.
Choosing Your Digital Darkroom
“Approach, philosophy and options”
Linux and Darktable
I decided a few years ago to use only free software, preferring open source where possible. This includes running Linux as my main operating system. Of course, you do not have to run linux, but if you do run Windows, then you may struggle to run my digital darkroom app of choice, Darktable. There is no official Windows build available at the time of writing. You may therefore prefer to use RawTherapee instead, as a good and open source equivalent. Unfortunately, I cannot offer any advice on its use, although I have tried it. It appears to offer more than darktable in the way of ‘scientific’ image adjustment, but feels harder to use and less practical in the real world, especially dealing with images in bulk. LightZone is another top-grade alternative but I am yet to try it.
All I can say that darktable is a truly amazing piece of software and fits naturally and beautifully into my workflow, almost as if the designers use it in the same way that I do. There is very little compromise. I do wish that it had the ability to edit exif tags as that would allow me to remove a step from my workflow, but everyting else about it is perfect.
The Wider Choices
If you have purchased a dedicated film scanner of some sort, then you may not need to worry about darkroom software. The hardware and proprietary software will do their thing and you will get what you are given, more than likely as a JPG or maybe a TIFF file. There is no problem with that if you are happy with the results. Of course you may wish to digitally process the file further. If you do, then there is a wider variety of software that you can consider using, since you don’t have a RAW file.
If you have decided on a digital camera to scan your negatives, then there is more work to do. Your scan will be less processed, so you will need to spend time inverting and correcting them to make good digital images. This is actually a blessing in disguise. The RAW images from your camera are arguably closer to the true negative and can be processed any way you like. Avoiding the various hardware and software corrections present in dedicated equipment can be a good thing for various reasons.
Approached the right way, this can be the most satisfying phase of the entire process. Without doubt, B&W negatives are much easier to digitally process than colour negatives. Colour film has only a single colour balance. Colour correction therefore is a large part of dealing with your negatives. Having RAW images is more important for colour negatives than it is for B&W. I use darktable and I provide styles in this project to get you started quickly should you chose to use it too.
|Darktable||Linux, Mac OS||I use this and I find it fits my workflow perfectly. Surprisingly, there is no windows version available.|
|RawTherapee||Linux, Mac OS, Windows||Looks like a more powerful piece of software for image processing and supports styles/batches, but appears to lack some of the end-to-end workflow features I use, such as local copies.|
|LightZone||Linux, Mac OS, Windows||Supports styles and batch edits like Darktable. Download directly from github or install via linux repo|
The Analog Photographer
“Advice, experience and expectations”
Wearing it all
Modern digital photographers have an easy life onthe front line. A Sony RX100 is a modern masterpiece that will fit in your pocket and take fabulous photos by just pointing and shooting. Same goes for modern phones, which have unquestionably great cameras with sharp, wide and sometimes even fast lenses. Moving to a 35mm camera can be similar if you want it to be. An Olympus XA is a classic pocketable rangefinder camera that will take great photos on film with its 35mm prime lens. However, the more likely choice of SLR and a few lens is certainly more to carry about than a pocket camera.
So how to carry your gear with minimum impact? The advice I give here works for me. You need to adapt to your needs and find a system that works for you. Personally, I like to travel very light. My camera is on a wide and comfortable neck cloth neck strap. I have a cheap generic neoprene cover for it both for travelling and for use if it rains. This is the velcro, gray wrap around type. The medium size fits my Olympus OM-2n very well, even with a modest size zoom lens. I will wear a pair of cargo trousers (or shorts). These allow me to store films and filters in the various pockets.
I will also carry one or two lenses in cheap neoprene pockets hanging from caribiners wrapped around my belt, on my right hand side. This allows me to quicky switch lenses while keeping them safe enough. We’re not talking about expensive specialist lenses here, this is cheap (but high quality) vintage gear that we want to actually use. I find this works perfectly for me and I can avoid a backpack or shoulder bag completely. While wearing it, I can secure the camera a little further when not in use by putting an arm through the neck strap. Doing this effectively turns it into a cross-body shoulder strap. I can then push the camera a little towards my back. it is then safely out of the way and will not swing around when I move.
Take the photos
If only it were that simple… just take the photos! What could possibly go wrong! Ha! I’m here to tell you that even the simple task of pressing the shutter button is significantly harder when you are using old analog film cameras than using even the most basic of digital cameras. Pressing the shutter with a limited roll of film is very different from a digital camera. That’s one of the reasons I got into film photography and boy, it is harder than I thought.
In the Olympus OM system, the standard lens is a 50mm f1.8, also known as a ‘nifty fifty’. Compared to any compact camera or even APS DLSR kit lens this is worlds apart from a depth-of-field perspective. Much, much thinner. It even works well as a portrait lens. There is a also good supply of 135mm F2.8 lenses at a good price (~£20-£30). When shooting at F2.8, these 135mm lenses give a truly razor thin depth of field. I have several rtrait photos where I have focused using the split prism on the ear, only to find that the eyes and nose are unacceptably out of focus. Focusing is thus important, non-trivial and hard.
Secondly, a zoom lens is a big distraction. It is hard enough to focus correctly without the added confusion of a variable focus length thrown in the mix. My advice for starting out in this adventure is to stick to primes until you have manual focus nailed. Do it with the standard nifty fifty at F1.8 on demand before considering a zoom lens. Longer focal lengths have a shallower depth of field and thus demand a more accurate focus. Hone your craft with simple tools before moving on to more difficult challenges.
I have shot over thirty rolls and only now do I feel comfortable using a modest 28-80mm F3.5-4.5 zoom lens. Leave the wide aperture zoom to the digital autofocus world. Your negatives, your neck and your children will all thank you. If you do decide to venture out with a large amount of glass, then please take a lens hood and a lot of patience.
Black and white
Comments to follow…
Store the film
When you have shot a roll of film, don’t just wind it all up immediately onto the spool. There is a simple technique that will make your life easier when working in the changing bag. In my extensive study of film photography, I only read about this trick once. When you try it yourself, you will never take a film out of your camera any other way.
The trick is to leave a little bit of film leader exposed on the roll when you wind it up. Don’t completely wind the film up into the spool. Instead, pay attention to your camera when you are winding your film up. While winding it up, you will feel and hear it detach from the spool. That is when you need to stop. It is easy to feel this point. Once you wind up a few films, you will know approximately how many turns your camera needs to wind the film up off the spool. Once you feel it clunk off, wind it another quarter turn then open your camera. Fold the last 5mm of film back on itself then hand-wind the rest of the film into the canister. (photo).
Doing this will make your life so much easier. You will see why when you read about loading your tank. po
Loading the Development Tank
“Keeping calm and carrying on in the bag”
For many people, loading the reels in the changing bag is the most uncertain step. A seemingly complex and high-risk task with almost no instruction. “Just load the film onto the reels”. Hmm. The first thing to do is to get familiar with the reel itself. Know how to open it and close it. Do it several times. You will want to be comfortable opening it when you have developed your film and want to take it out of the reel. Hold the reel vertically, with the two discs in each hand and the little ball bearings at the top. To open the reel you hold the left hand reel still and twist the right hand reel upwards until it clicks open. You will feel some resistance. Push through it and it will click open. To close it, just do the reverse.
You should practice assembling and disassembling the entire tank, down to half reels, several times to make sure you are completely comfortable with it. Remember that you are going to assemble it with your precious film in, in complete darkness, in the changing bag. Get good at it upfront.
If you have followed my advice in the above section about storing your film and left a little bit of film leader sticking out of the canister, then the task of actually loading your undeveloped film onto the reel is easy. The initial ‘priming’ of the film onto the reel can be done in daylight, outside of the bag…
- Pull the film leader out about as much as if you were loading it into your camera again.
- Cut the leader off so the film is full width at your cut point. Cut off the minimum amount needed.
- Start feeding it into the reel just as the internet videos have already shown you.
- Once you have got the film a few sprockets beyond the ball bearing, stop. Don’t expose more film that you did while loading the camera - you should not need to. It is now ready to go into the bag.
Make sure you put the following into the bag BEFORE you zip it up and start work…
- ALL parts of the tank, except for the agitation stick, if you have one. Don’t forget the spindle top-clip if you have one too.
- Your round-nose craft scissors. Don’t use pointy ones as you could easily damage your film.
- Your church key bottle opener. This is only to be used in an emergency if, for some reason, you lose the film leader back into the canister. This is very unlikely indeed.
- Your white, lint free cotton gloves. Again, these will only be needed if you have serious problems while loading the reel and need to handle the film.
- Your film reels, with film ‘primed’ onto the reels as explained above.
Once all that is in the bag, zip it up and start work. Make sure you let the bag take in enough air as you put your arms in. This will give you a little more room to work in. Winding the reels is easy. Simply hold the reel with the film canister at the bottom (photo). The left hand stays still and the thumb touches the top of the canister. The right hand turns the reel forwards and backwards. The thumb of the left hand keeps the film canister still while the right hand pulls the film out and onto the reel. Done correctly, it is very easy to load the reel without touching the film at all.
When the film canister is at the end, you will feel resistance, so stop winding the film on. Use your scissors to cut the film off as closely to the canister as possible. Once cut, do three more windings of the reel with your right hand. This will ensure the film is fully loaded onto the reel and also help when separating the reel after development. Put the reel on the tank spindle and wind the next reel if you have a second film. I always do two films at a time, since this halves the overall time you spend doing development.
When the second reel is done and loaded onto the spindle, remember to put the little top clip on to the spindle if your tank has one. Also make sure nothing is in the bottom of the tank (such as an empty film canister). Then simply put your loaded spindle into your tank and fasten the lid tight. Be careful to not cross the threads. The tank is plastic, so be gentle with it and affix the lid as it is intended to be done.
If you have problems loading the film then you will have to try and asses what has gone wrong and perhaps try to fix blind, in the bag. Let’s say it gets stuck and will not advance onto the reel any further. Your first option is to open the reels and rewind the film back into the canister. You can then try again. Before starting the second wind, you could also try rounding the leading edge corners with your scissors to help it travel around the reel more easily.
The worst case is if the reel comes apart and spills the film after you have cut the canister off. If that should ever happen, then I suggest you put on your white gloves that you have put into the bag, close the reel, find the leading film edge and try again.
It is possible to take your arms out of the bag without exposing your film to light. To get into the changing bag, your arms pass through two elastic rings. You can take one hand out of one ring and then use your other hand inside the bag to press down on this first ring to block out light and to allow you to withdraw your first hand. You can then do similar with the other hand. Note that if your arms are out of the bag then the elastic rings are not closed and probably letting light in. You can put a book on top to help keep the light out. I offer no guarantees on this. I have done this before successfully without exposing the film to light. Work calmly, patiently and accurately and you should never need to attempt it.
Mixing the Chemicals
“Handling, best practice and not drinking it”
There are two stages of chemical mixing. The first stage is done to make the reuseable chemistry, specifically the stopbath, the fixer and the wetting agent. In the second stage you need to make up fresh developer just prior to use. The below instructions apply to black and white processing. There is a paragraph at the end of this chapter that discusses colour chemicals.
You can mix this up well in advance of developing your first film. In your ‘STOPBATH’ and ‘FIXER’ measuring jugs mix up each chemical three with distilled water to the appropriate concentrations and then transfer them one at a time to the similarly labelled bottle using your funnel. Make sure you clean the funnel between uses.
For the wetting agent, I simply add one teaspoon of the chemical to my labelled 1 litre bottle and then fill to the top with distilled water. This is close enough to the perfect mix as makes no odds. I believe a similar amount of washing up liquid can also be used instead, but I’ve never tried it. I would suggest trying to find a simple, unfragranced version if you would like to try it. I buy a bulk Ilford kit, so I effectively get the wetting agent quite cheap.
With proper storage, these chemicals can be reused many times. In my experience, I find that (with argon storage) the fixer starts to runs out after about about 16 films, which is 8 sessions of 2 films each. This is less than Ilford state in their guides. Be aware of this. Your fixer is running out if your negatives come out slightly cloudy and a little more purple than before. This was the first sign to me that my reusable chemistry needed to be renewed, so watch out for it.
The stopbath appears to last longer, but I replace it at the same time. I believe the Ilfostop changes colour when it starts to run out, but I have never seen this myself.
As it happens, the stopbath isn’t a critical part of the process. You can just wash the film in water for a few minutes to stop development. However, using a stopbath is supposed to bring a quicker and more uniform halt to the dev process and extend the life of the fixer. I have always used it myself, since purchasing a full ‘kit’ of chemistry is more cost effective than individual bottles. Also, I want to follow the full and standard Ilford process before going ‘off piste’, if I ever decide to do so.
If you have chosen to use a high-concentrate developer as I have, then you will need to mix up a fresh batch each time. Do this after you have loaded your tank and are ready to develop. This is true for most developers. Below, I describe my process for using Ilford Ilfotec HC, although the advice applies equaly to any high concentrate ‘syrup’, such as Kodak HC-110.
The Ilfotec HC guide tells you to make up a ‘working solution’. It tells you that mixing direct from the concentrated ‘syrup’ is hard. I disagree with this advice. There is a way of working that allows you to keep your concentrate fresh while still mixing up directly each time.
You should have a 100ml brown glass bottle, the sort that kids medicine comes in. As stated earlier, this needs to be completely clean. You need to fill this little bottle from the big bottle of concentrated developer. Be careful while doing this. Wear rubber gloves and work over a sink. Ideally use a larger plastic syringe with a short hose on the end. Once you have filled your little bottle you will draw from it to make up your one-shot developer. This leaves your big bottle untouched on the shelf most of the time. Top it off with argon for long term storage.
You do not need distilled water for the developer. Before you begin mixing a dev solution, you do need a pitcher of tap water at 20oC. I like to keep two 2 litre bottles of tapwater stored in a dark place in my house. This means I always have water at about 20oC ready to use whenever I need it. Alternatively you can adjust the temperature of your tapwater using boiling or chilled water from your fridge as required. It doesn’t have to be exactly 20oC. Within 0.5oC is good enough for me.
Get your measuring jug labelled ‘DEV’ and make sure it is clean. Using your little syringe, draw out a full 10ml and empty into the ‘DEV’ measuring jug. Do the same again, to get 20ml of concentrated developer in your jug. Fill up your jug to 650ml using the water in your pitcher at 20oC. This is your 1:31 dev mix. Now you can ‘wash out’ your little syringe you used to draw the concentrate using this dev mix in the jug. Stir your dev mix thoroughly with a metal spoon or fork.
Please note that you should mix up your developer only after loading your films in the tank. if you were to mix the dev before loading the tank, then there is a chance that developer solution could get onto the films accidentally, either from a surface or your hands. This will of course spoil your negatives.
C41 Colour chemicals
I have sucessfully processed Fuji C200 colour films using the Tetenal C41 ‘colortec’ two bath kit. Mix all the chemicals according to the manufacturer instructions and store them in dedicated bottles. All the colour chemistry is reusable many times. You may read online that the C41 colour chemistry is ‘nasty’. This might be true. However, in my experience using both, the black and white fixer has the worst smell.
Developing Your Film
“You don’t have to have a lab coat”
You are still not quite ready to start developing! First, think ahead to where you are going to hang the films to dry. You need somewhere with at least 1.5m clearance from the ground that you can hang your negative clips from. When the films come out of the tank after development, make sure you know where they are going to go. I use a pair of metal kebab skewers pushed under stuff on top of a wardrobe. This gives me two rings on which I can hang the two negatives clips that result from developing two rolls of film in one go. It pays to think ahead at this stage.
Secondly, are your premixed reusable chemicals in bottle at approximately the right temperature? I store mine in a place that is well below room temperature during the winter. I move them to somewhere that is at room temperature several hours before I start developing and leave them there for a few hours. This allows them to get up the the right temperature. Room temperature is good enough. Only the dev solution needs to be at a more accurate temperature. The stopbath and fixer can be +/- 5oC of your dev solution.
The black and white process
The development process is simply a series of liquids poured into your dev tank at timed intervals, and replaced with other liquids until done. These intervals are short and once you are ready, the entire process is over in less than 20 minutes. Assemble everything you need in one place…
- Your three pre-mixed 1 litre HDPE chemical bottles (stopbath, fixer, wetting).
- Your three measuring jugs, stopbath, fixer and dev. The dev jug will already have your one-shot developer solution ready to use.
- The timer.
- The funnel. Make sure it is clean.
- The negative hanging clips.
- Your development tank loaded with films you are going to develop now.
Pour the stopbath and fixer from their bottles into their jugs. You should now have all three jugs filled with the correct chemicals ready to use immediately. Leave the bottles for stopbath and fixer nearby, as you will be refilling them from the tank shortly. I put my funnel in the mouth of the stopbath bottle in preparation, since that is when it is first used.
There are many articles and videos on the internet that show you how to perform the actual dev process. I will just provide a brief yet complete guide here. This process is a standard black and white development process and is the same for most readily available chemistry.
- Wash the films - Fill your loaded tank up with pitcher water and put the lid on. Gently invert four times and leave for 1 min. While waiting, set your timer to the required dev time. When time is up, pour water away down the sink.
- Developer - Fill the tank with your dev solution from your ‘DEV’ measuring jug and then immediately start your timer and put the lid on. Gently invert the tank four times, then tap it a few times on your surface to dislodge any bubbles, then wait for 1 min. Once every further minute, do the same four inversions and tap until your timer goes off. When the timer goes off, pour the dev away and immediately go to the next step without delay.
- Stopbath - Immediately after you empty your tank of dev, pour in the stopbath from the ‘STOPBATH’ measuring jug and put the lid on. Invert the tank once and tap it. Set 4 minutes onto your timer, but don’t start it. Without waiting, pour the stopbath back into its bottle using the funnel. This was a short step. Now go to the next step.
- Fixer - Fill the tank with the fixer from your ‘FIXER’ measuring jug. Put the lid on and start your timer. Same inversion process as dev: Do four inversions and tap once a minute until your timer goes off. While waiting, rinse out your funnel. When time is up, pour the fixer back into its bottle using your funnel. Go to the next step.
- Wash - You will do a three stage wash known as the ‘Ilford Archival Wash’. Fill the tank with pitcher water and invert 5 times. Empty and refill. 10 inversions. Empty and refill. 20 inversions. Don’t skip this washing process. It is important that you get all the fixer out of the film to ensure the negatives will last a long time without degrading. Empty the third wash water out and go to the next step.
- Wetting - Pour in your wetting solution from your bottle marked ‘WETTING’. There is no need to invert or wait here. Simply rinse your funnel and then pour the wetting solution back into its bottle.
After the wetting agent, that’s it, your films are developed! You can open the dev tank and have a look. This is always the exciting part, no matter how many film you develop! Has it worked? Any great photos? It is much more satisfying than simply copying files off a digital camera memory card. Here you have a real little picture, captured by the magic of silver and chemistry.
The C41 colour process
I owe my successful colour processing to the R&D done by intrepid film photography explorers and published here, here and here. Without this stand development process, I would not have felt confident enough to try it. Although it takes longer, this stand development process is easier to do than regular black and white processing. I only show the process for a two-bath kit such as Tetenal C41 ‘Colortec’.
Before starting this process is is important that your chemistry is at the same temperature as your room. If you keep your chemistry in a colder place such as a garage, be sure to move them to your intended development location a few hours before your start to allow them to equalize in temperature to your room. 20oC give or take 2oC is ideal.
- Soak the films - Fill the tank with room temperature water. Invert four times and tap it a few times on our surface to dislodge any bubbles. Let it stand for 3 mins. When time is up, pour water away down the sink. You may notice some discolouration in the water. This is normal.
- Developer - Fill the tank with your developer. There is no need to measure accurately. Just make sure the tank is full up. Agitate gently for 1 minute. Tap to dislodge bubbles. Leave for 45 minutes. When time is up pour the developer back into the appropriate bottle. Do NOT discard as you would for one-shot black and white.
- Wash - You will do a three stage wash known as the ‘Ilford Archival Wash’. Fill the tank with pitcher water and invert 5 times. Empty and refill. 10 inversions. Empty and refill. 20 inversions. Empty the third wash water out and go to the next step.
- Blix - Fill the tank with your blix. There is no need to measure accurately. Just make sure the tank is full up. Agitate gently for 1 minute. Tap to dislodge bubbles. Leave for 60 minutes. When time is up pour the blix back into the appropriate bottle.
- Wash again - Do another archival wash. Fill the tank with pitcher water and invert 5 times. Empty and refill. 10 inversions. Empty and refill. 20 inversions. Empty the third wash water out and go to the next step.
- Stabilizer - Fill the tank with your stabilizer. There is no need to measure accurately. Just make sure the tank is full up. Tap to dislodge bubbles. Leave for 1 minute. When time is up pour the stabilizer back into the appropriate bottle.
After the stabilizer, you are done and the films can be removed. This unofficial stand development process for colour is so effective and easy that I wonder why the manufacturers of these C41 kits don’t research it more and formalise into an official process. Surely they would sell a lot more kits were they to do so.
Dry the negatives
Before you take the film out of the reel, make sure you have your negative hanging clips nearby and your hanging area where the film will dry is ready to receive it.
To take the film out of the reels, simply hold the reel with your hand in the same place as you did when loading it. This time, twist it onto its side, so that your right hand is on the bottom. Twist your right hand clockwise, keeping your left still. This is similar to how you loaded the film. Push past the end stop. The reel will click open. Carefully separate the two halves of the reel. The film will want to straighten out, but don’t let it until you have put the left part of the reel down and have got hold of the outside leading edge of the negatives. When you have it, you can pull the edge upwards away from the reel and simultaneously pull the reel downwards.
Find the non-black end of the negative strip and hang it on the clips. Try not to damage the sprockets or touch the negatives. Holding it by the clip and the edges of the film, take it to your hanging place and hang it up.
If you have black and white films, you are now going to wipe the excess water off your negatives using using your microfibre cloth. This cloth must be absolutely clean. Gently wrap it around your neative stip at the top so that it covers both sides. With gentle pressure, pull it slowly all the way down the strip to remove the excess water. Do this again with the cloth folded a different way to get dry sides on the negatives. This is enough.
Now fold over the black end of the film strip at the bottom and clip your weight onto it. This will help stop it curling while it is drying. Leave the film to dry overnight. Don’t attempt to cut and store wet negatives. They are more delicate when wet and easily damaged.
Once done, remember to clean everything up. Wash your tank, measuring jugs, funnel and anything else that was involved in the process. I don’t use any soap or washing up liquid for this, I just rinse with tap water and wipe with a dedicated microfibre cloth (not the one used for drying negatives, of course).
Scanning Your Negatives
“Nothing like a Museum Restoration”
Cut and flatten the negatives
So now we start to enter the second half of the process, in which you scan the negatives and digitise them. You need to find somewhere soft where you can safely place the long uncut negative strip down and proceed to cut it. A bed or a sofa is ideal. Get a sheet of negative storage paper for each film you have and a pair of scissors. Make sure you have the strip face up and start from the beginning of the film. You will see frame numbers on the film. Use these to get the strip in the correct orientation. Cut six frames per cut, strating from the first image and put them into the storage paper immediately, to keep them safe.
You may be thinking that a craft knife, cutting mat and cork backed metal ruler would give you a more accurate cut, and you would be right. However, do be careful not to scratch your negatives if you decide to do it that way.
At the end of the strip, you may have up to one frame of unexposed film. Leave it on as it can be useful for white balancing and digital negative inversion.
Once the strip is safely cut up and in the storage paper, place it on a flat, clean surface and put a heavy hardback book on it. If this is your first time developing film, you will naturally be wanting to digitise them as soon as possible so you can have a look. However, I advise storing them for 24 hours first under a large heavy book to fully flatten them. If you don’t do this, you are likely to have trouble getting the negatives flat for a scan, especially if you are following my advice and digitising them with a digital camera.
Digitization - Scaning the negatives
Now you need to use your choice of scanning hardware to digitise your negatives. Here, I will present only my method, which is to use a digital camera. Before you start this process, you will need to prepare you digital camera settings. I suggest the following:
- Turn RAW on. You will use the RAW images later on. RAW+JPG is a good choice too.
- Turn off image stabilization. This is not needed and may reduce quality.
- Optimise the image size. I set it to maximum, which is 4:3 and crop later to the 3:2 ration of 35mm film.
- Change exposure and focus to wide area/entire frame. Do not set it to spot.
- Enable the macro mode.
- Set the aperture to the sharpest for your lens. In practice, this will mean a smaller, but not too small aperture. If you don’t know, use f8.
- Set the white balance.
- Also make sure the lens and body of the camera is clean.
Note that white balance does not really matter since you will be using RAW images. However, I do a sample-based in-camera white balance using a blank frame. This makes it easier and more enjoyable to view the negatives with the camera during the process. If you have your camera set to RAW+JPG the you will get better JPGs from your camera. If your camera can’t do a manual white balance then set it to coldest for B&W and warmest for colour negatives.
My own modest scanning camera, an Olympus XZ-1, offers a custom preset via a physical control dial. This is very handy to have setup as a scanning preset. When I want to take a contact sheet photo, I simply switch back to aperture-priority on the dial and take a more normal photo (i.e. not in super macro mode).
Now assemble your equipment in one place where you will do the scanning.
- Your glass A4 LED lightbox.
- Your adapted digital camera with settings adjusted as above.
- The sheet of negatives you are going to scan.
- Lint free white cotton gloves, absolutely clean. I work with just one gloved hand.
The scanning process is exactly as you would expect it to be. Working with one six frame negative strip at a time, simply wipe it and the lightbox surface clean with your gloved hand, place it in the centre of the light box, place your adapted scanning camera over the frame, centre it and take the photo. Move to the next frame and carry on. Try to keep the image centred in the same place each time. This will make cropping easier during processing.
Note that it is very easy to get dust in the photo and very hard to completely avoid it. Since we are not going to be working in a lab grade clean room, you just have to do your best to have clean negatives for the photo. We will remove some imperfections in the digital darkroom step.
I do not put the negatives immediately back into the storage sheet when scanned. Instead, I leave them on my light box, out of the way of the centre where I do the scanning. Once I have done them all, I rearrange them into a ‘contact sheet’ photo in the correct numerical frame order and then I take a photo of it.
Store the scans
When you have scanned all your negatives and taken a contact sheet photo, you can put them back into their storage sheet and file away to your folder. Make sure you file them in ascending numerical frame order, from top to bottom. This should be the same order that you took of the contact sheet. The general advice is to store them in the dark. To keep your negative album dark, you can fit a flap of thick cloth on the front such that it folds over the top when on a shelf (photo).
Once your digital darkroom work is completed, you can print out the processed contact sheet photo you took and use it to make a nice cover in the storage album. Just pop it into a standard clear document sleeve and put it in front of the correct negative sleeve in your storage album. This makes it nicer to look through and much easier to find a photo that you may want to rescan in the future. If you have filed them in the same position as your contact sheet, then the negative is in the same relative position on the sheet.
Now that your negatives have been safely stored, you can get on with the challenge of digital storage, processing and ultimately publishing your photos. The primary destination for my photos is my network attached storage (NAS) device. Many of you are likely to have one. If you don’t then you can still follow my advice regarding folder structure and ignore the parts about copying files locally on the laptop in darktable.
My preferred folder structure is simple and looks like the below. I’m not saying you have to do it like this. You just need to work consistently and be able to find what you want quickly. if you start just dumping them about with no plan hoping to do it properly later, then I’m willing to bet that you never will. Do it properly from the beginning. Design a folder structure that works for you.
Copy all the digital scans up to the correct directly, including the contact sheet photo. if you have RAW+JPG, copy them both. Darktable can be set to ignore JPGs, which we will do later.
In The Digital Darkroom
“Working effectively and quickly in Darktable”
Import and local copy
Once you have Darktable up and running, the next thing to do is to import the folders that contain your negatives scans. This is a simply process of importing a folder. You will notice a little checkbox about ‘ignore JPG files’, which you should check if you want to use your RAW images.
If you stored your scans on your NAS at home and wish to process them on a laptop away from home then there is a fantastic feature to support this in Darktable. It offers the ability to ‘copy images locally’. As it says, this creates local copies of the master folders and will keep the masters automatically in sync with all your changes whenever your laptop is reconnected to your home network.
When you are done with editing, simply select the ‘resync local copy’ option for the images. I do most of my digital processing during my commute on a train with my laptop. This feature is invaluable to me and I strongly recommend you use it if you will be working in the same way.
If you use this local copy feature and Darktable hangs during startup, it may be because linux is struggling to find your network drives. To cleanly mount and unmount your network, simply use these commands. Once the connection is removed or re-added as appropriate, then restart Darktable and it will work again.
To remove a connection when on the move:
sudo umount -l /media/yourNasName
To re-add a conection when you return home:
sudo mount -a
Process the scans
Now for another fun part of the process. This is where you will see your negative scans turned into real digital images. Before you ask, I am afraid there is no one size fits all magic button you can press to get everything to always look its best. You will need to spend some time designing presets in Darktable that get you 90% of the way there and then manually adjust per-image until you are happy. I have provided copies of my Darktable presets that I use on every batch.
Summarizing the active modules for my presets:
- levels - This ‘normalised’ the images, effectively making the darkest pixel black, the lightest white and scales everything in between. This expands the dynamic range to using all brightness levels and increases contrast without making the image look unnatural. You will not need to adjust this from its ‘automatic’ setting. I find that a very low black level is good for reducing shadow noise in very dark areas. You can disable this and use the tone cure entirely, but I prefer to use both as the ‘automatic’ levels correction once or twice. I don’t use any other modules.setting allows a more generic curve to be used, making for a better preset.
- tone curve - Allow you to adjust the brightness of each pixel based on its current brightness. A straight line low to high has no effect. The S-curve makes dark pixels darker and light ones lighter, reducing the dynamic range and increasing contrast giving a ‘punchier’ image. Many striking high-contrast images have had a strong tone curve applied.
- monochrome - Removes the tint to B&W negatives. The colour adjustment that is available will not have any effect here.
- local contrast - I used this to give some images a little more ‘punch’. It is optional and the purist will not like it.
- crop and rotate - Used to strip off the sprockets from the scanand give a borderless image. If you managed to keep all your scans centred in the same way, then a single crop preset will work nicely for all. Note that when you rotate an image to get it portrait, Darktable does not properly rotate your crop. Bug report 11566 seems to cover this problem. To work around this, I have another preset to rotate and crop the image to portrait.
- orientation - Used to rotate the image to portrait if needed.
- lens correction - This is very helpful and allows you to simply select your camera to remove known lens distortions and vingetting. If you are using a close macro setting, you will need this if your camera does not offer effective automatic correction, since distortion at macro distances is high. Simply choose your camera, focal length and f-stop and the module should make the best corrections with no further input.
- spot removeal - It is very hard to keep your negatives completely clean while scanning. Use this to remove dust marks that are inadvertently part of your scan.
- invert - This is a very useful module that lets you select a blank part of your negatives and automatically ‘invert’ the image based on that. Essential with colour negatives. This does most of the work of colour correction for you.
Those modules are the ones I use to prepare my images for publication. With the exception of the tone curve, the above modules don’t impart an artistic effect to your image. The tone curve is an interresting one. It can have a dramatic effect if overused but is necessary. What curve gives the most ‘natural’ image? Impossible to say! There isn’t a right answer so you will need to experiment and find your preference.
Regarding other modules, I have on occasion used the perspective correction module once or twice. This should be forgivable by the purist, since it replicates to a certain extent what large format lens shifting can achieve.
Notice that I do not use the denoise option. My little Olympus XZ-1 scanning camera is quite noisy, even at ISO 100. Use the darktable denoise and both digital noise and film grain disappear. The grain and noise are thus sadly inseperable as far as I can tell. I intend to try median blending to see if it produces better results. However, I expect that in reality the film grain and my digital noise are pretty close in terms of noise floor. Using a scanning camera with a larger sensor is probably the answer.
Add a list of presets here
“More fiddly than it should be”
Export the scans
Once you are happy with your images then you should export them all from Darktable. I leave the defaults as they are and choose JPG with a quality setting of 75. This will produce files of around 1Mb each in a subdirectory of your main film roll folder called ‘darktable_exported’.
Why quality 75? Various articles on the internet suggest that there is little benefit to going higher. You will end up with significantly larger files for no perceptual increase in quality. If you have a very smooth image in which JPG artifacts become visible, then both analog film and JPG are poor choices in the first place. If you are more comfortable with a higher quality setting, then of course use it. Do your own research to find out more.
If you created local copies in darktable (perhaps to support remote laptop working as I do) then you can now remove them if you wish. You will not be doing any more work on them unless you wish to reprocess in the future.
Update the EXIF tags
We now come to perhaps the trickiest part of the process. Your exported JPGs will retain the EXIF metadata from the camera that took the photos. Unfortunately, that is not your analog film camera, that is your digital scanning camera! You must now remove all traces of that metadata and replace it with your own to show the film camera that you used. You may think that this is an optional step. However, if you do not do this, then popular photo sharing websites will report that your scanning camera took the photo. This may also prevent you from sharing your photos in certain groups that insist on correct EXIF metadata.
Note that you may not need to do this if you are not using a digital camera to scan. If you are using dedicated scanning hardware, then the EXIF may already be written in some way via your software. I can’t advise any further as I don’t have such equipment, but I do suggest you see if you can pre-configure your EXIF data somehow in any scanning software you are using to represent your analog film camera.
I find that the easiest way to rewrite EXIF metadata is to use a command line tool called exiftool. This is a powerful utility and it can be hard for novices to comprehend. Once understood, the resulting commands are actually quite simple and can be reused. I give you the command that I use below to rewrite the EXIF metadata on all images in the current directory as per the given parameters. Make sure to run this in your ‘darktable_exported’ directory.
exiftool -all= -overwrite\_original -Make=Olympus -Model=OM-2n -ISO=400 *.jpg
-all=removes all EXIF metadata written by your scanning camera. You don’t want any of this on your resulting image.
-overwrite\_originaltells it to not bother creating a backup. We don’t need the backup as we are operating on JPGs exported from darktable. You can always export again if you need to.
-Make=Olympus -Model=OM-2n -ISO=400a list of EXIF tags to add to the JPG for your analog camera and film speed. These will show up on many photo sharing websites.
*.jpgtells exiftool to operate on all JPG files in the current directory, which should be the appropriate ‘darktable_exported’ directory.
Sadly, there does not seem to be any standard EXIF tag for film type. Nevertheless, you may wish to use more fields. For example, there is a lens field in which you could report the lens you used. I don’t personally do this. I often take two lens out on photo shoots and I can’t always remember which one was used for each photo.
Publish, Backup and Share
“Keep it safe, make it known”
Publish to the web
You now have internet ready versions of your analog film photos. It has been quite a long process, but you can be proud of what you have done. Time to share it with the world. I use flickr which offers some great ways to share photos, showcase your best work and connect with people all over the world. I upload whole rolls at a time and put them into their own album. For the album title, I start with the date and then the place I went to. If I took more than one roll that day, I add ‘roll 1’ at the end as appropriate.
I do not rename the files or add a comment. There are too many of them and I don’t have the time. Maybe at some point in the future, who knows. When I do wish to share a photo in a flickr group, then I add a comment similar to the following:
Olympus OM-2n, Zuiko 50mm f1.8, Ilford Delta 400 in Ilfotec HC 1:31, 20°C, 7:30min (400ASA), Scanned with Olympus XZ-1, processed with Darktable.
Having a comment like this helps people who are interested in film photograph to understand your process. As you know from reading this, I use a standard Ilford process so there are no surprises to my information. If you become more adventurous then this information becomes more interesting to people. You may also wish to catalog and share your ‘dev recipes’ as they tend to be called on sites such as filmdev.org.
Backup to your cloud
Unless you have already made additional backups, then you will only have one master copy of your negative scans and their processing. Whilst your exported images my be safely uploaded to flickr or similar website, what about your master copies? You should purchase and use an good cloud storage solution. I use pCloud myself, since it is compatible with linux, integrates with the file manager for seamless use and offers good storage at a cheap price.
Darktable is a non-destructive editor, meaning it does not alter your original RAW scans. It stores all your edits in a XMP file in the same directory as your RAW scans. This file is a history of all your active modules and actions. Darktable u every time. This is very powerful and makes backing everything up, inclses this to ‘replay’ these actions to a RAW scan to get you back to where you were from the RAW scanuding the complete history of your processing actions alongside the RAW scans and exports. I expect this is a standard technique and related software such as RawTherapee will almost certainly do similar.
Share the best images
The final step to help make the photographic community aware of your great photos is to post them into an interest group on flickr. You should start by searching for groups directly related to the film camera you use, the film you use and even the dev chemistry. I post into the … groups.
There are alternatives to flickr groups of course, such as instagram hashtags. A brief search on the internet and you will surely know nore than I do about sharing your photographs!
Advanced -> Lens Correction
“Probably not necessary”
Your scanning camera will introduce distortion into your scans, especially if you are using a close macro setting, just as I do. Darktable has a large database of cameras and lens and yours will likely be on it. These corrections come from the lensfun project, which Darktable depends on.
My XZ-1 was indeed available as a built in correction. However, I found that the correction for super macro mode was not sufficiently strong. Unfortunately, it is not possible to simply tweak the settings in Darktable. Instead, one must make a manual edit in the lensfun database file. This file can be found on your linux computer at
/usr/share/lensfun. In there, you will find a file that contains your camera and lens (if removable). As long as you can find it, you can add an extra entry if you need to. What, then are the numbers that you need to add?
You can perform a semi-automatic lens calibration by using the hugin software, which comes with a lens calibration tool that helps you create a correction that can be entered into your local lensfun database. You first need to take a photograph of an image that has clear horizontal and vertical lines in it. provide a good target This photograph should be taken at the focal length and aperature that you intend to scan your negatives at. You can simply display the image on your computer screen and then take the photo. Use a tripod and ensure that the horizontal and vertical lines in the image are indeed horitonzal and vertical with respect to the image boundaries. Once taken, transfer the image to your computer.
You then use Hugin to correct this image. After you install Hugin, you will have a ‘Hugin Calibrate Lens’ item in your menu. Launch this program or just type
calibrate_lens_gui into a terminal prompt. To do the correction, try this…
review this process
- Add the image with the ‘Add’ button.
- Enter the focal length. You can enter one less than the lowest value present in your lensfun database for the camera/lens you are calibrating.
- Tweak the options and preview until the lines are nicely detected.
- Click the ‘Optimise’ button to generate the correction numbers
- Preview the corrected image to see if it looks good. Tweak again until you are happy.
- Edit the lensfun database you wish to add the new entry to.
- Copy the closest ‘distortion’ entry, set the focal length and enter the numbers for a, b and c as you see them in the Hugin calibration tool.
- Update the ‘focal’ entry min and max values as required to cater for your new row.
- Save the file and restart Darktable.
You can search around for more help with this process, for example, here.
Advanced -> Median Blending
“If only this was easier”
Digital noise can affect individual pixels in random ways. If we were to take two photos of a scene they would be affected by the noise in subtly different ways. The effect is however, always the same. That is, to report an incorrect luminance value +/- a given amount over a bell curve distribution. Take enough photos of the exact same scene and eventually the majority of them will have the ‘correct’ value for the pixel. Because the noise is distributed over a a bell curve, this will be the median value. An image comprised of the ‘median’ value for the pixel for a stack of images of the same scene is called median blending.
This is a fascinating technique that is used for various reasons from reducing noise in astrophotography to removing moving objects from a static scene (a moving object will not be present in most images of the collection, so the pixels from it will not be the ‘median’ value). It works on a stack of images of the same scene. It requires that the images are exactly aligned, either with a tripod or software such as Hugin. The median blending process compares the same pixel location across all images. It ranks them from low to high luminosity. It then chooses the ‘median’ pixel to use in the final image. And so on for every pixel. This has the effect of averaging out the image to the middle value. Assuming there are enough images in the collection, this middle value will be the one least affected by noise, since it will be in the middle of the bell curve.
Why might this be useful for negative scanning? Our situation fills the brief. Using our digital scanning camera we can take lots images of the negative, all exactly aligned simply by pressing the shutter multiple times for one negative, or using a burst mode. In theory, you can then do median blending on the image stack by running the following command from the imagemagick toolkit…
convert OUT_PREFIX* -evaluate-sequence median OUTPUT.jpg
However, in practice there are complications…
- Imagemagick cannot write RAW format. Therefore median blending needs to be done on post-processed, exported JPGs.
- You must ensure the output JPGs are as identical as possible. They must differ only in noise, nothing else. You may therefore want to set your scanning camera to fixed exposure and replace any automatic adjustments in Darktable (such as the one in the ‘levels’ module) with hardcoded equivalents.
- It will produce a huge amount of extra data. Using my XZ-1, a roll of 36 exposures requires about 500Mb for a single shot per frame. Multiply that by the number of images you want in the stack and it quickly becomes a lot more data.
- It takes a long time and a lot of CPU to blend each file. You will be surprised and disappointed at just how long it takes and how hot your computer gets. This is a problem if you work largely on battery as I do.
There is not much written about this surprisingly simple technique. Nor does it appear to have made it in-camera yet, which is really where it needs to be in my opinion. I believe there are some phone camera apps that have the feature built in, so hopefully it will become more readily available. Personally, I think median blending is worth doing individually, on the best of your images that you want to print in large format or maybe even enter into a competition.
Advanced -> Colour Correction
“In a nutshell, it’s hard”
Digitally processing colour negatives to get an accurate colour reproduction is hard. Early problems that you will encounter are the obvious orange cast to the negatives and also the fixed white balance of film. There is also the problem of ‘what were the colours actually like when I took the photo?’. Furthermore, your scanning hardware and computer monitor will affect the colour in subtle ways. These things make getting realistic and ‘correct’ colours quite difficult.
The Darktable module ‘invert’ goes a long way towards getting accurate colours. It will remove the orange cast and correctly invert the negative image. You can then simply use the ‘white balance’ module to automatically adjust the image. Once this is done you are likely to be happy with your image, which will retain all influences on the colour throughout the process, including the influence of the film and your scanning camera. If that’s what you want, then you’re done with colour correction. However, if you would like to get your colours closer to reality and wish to reduce the influence of the various factors on the colour, then read on.
The ‘proper’ colour calibration process is about making sure that colours on your monitor and on your printer are as accurate to the inputs as possible and do not introduce any alteration. After proper calibration, the colours you see on your monitor will match the colours of your printout. The equipment needed to do this is expensive. Just the reference colour targets alone can cost a lot. Is it worth doing?
Let’s think what can influence the colour…
- The film you use, which will have a fixed white balance.
- Changing ISO will change the colour (pushed or pulled).
- Your lens will affect the colour slightly.
- The development process will never be exactly identical, even when done at a lab.
- Your scanning camera.
- Your computer monitor.
- Your digital darkroom processing.
- Your own perception!
- Other peoples monitors who are looking at your photos.
So even with proper colour calibration in place, there are factors beyond your control that prevent a fully automated process. Colour calibration does not control factors beyond the monitor and printer. You still have to get the colours ‘right’ somehow from your negative scan. This is the challenge I am attempting to solve here. My process complements ‘proper’ colour calibration and addresses the upstream variations in the analog process.
This process will compensate for the effect of everything, including your monitor. If it is not properly calibrated (mine isn’t) then it will also be corrected, meaning that your colours will be out in relation to how far out your monitor is. I don’t worry about this. I find it hard to get to a point where the accuracy of the monitor might play a large part in the colour variation. If you are worried about this, then you can still do a full calibration before starting this process. It will just make it more accurate.
In the process below, we take a photo of a calibration chart as displayed on your computer monitor. These calibration charts are very expensive to buy. If you have one, then you may want to take a photo of it instead. The problem with this approach is that you then don’t have a reference to match against. You will have to eyeball what you see on the screen and try to get it to match your physical chart as you see it. This is harder. I leave it to your discretion.
- Download a good macbeth colour chart from the internet.
- Display the macbeth image full screen on your monitor.
- Turn your monitor up to full brightness.
- Darken the room you are in.
- Put your camera on a tripod and set it up to take a photo of your colour chart being displayed by your computer.
- Starting from the lowest ISO, take a photo at each setting you want to calibrate for. For my fuji C200 film, I use 200, 400, 800 and 1600.
- Develop, scan and load into Darktable.
- Use the ‘colour checker lut’ module to adjust the target colours to match the source image as best you can. There is a ‘darktable-chart’ utility that promises to do this automatically. Unfortunately, I could not get it to work.
- Save the resulting style in Darktable so you can reuse in the future with similar film/iso combinations.
This should improve your colour accuracy a lot. This process is still necessary even if you have properly calibrated your monitor. White balance is still a consideration, since the white balance of film is fixed. You will need to adjust for at least daylight vs indoors. You can do this with the white balance module. First, choose a representative image for each situation you want a white balance style for. You then use the white balance module in darktable to ‘auto’ balance the frame, excluding borders. This is good enough for me with just two styles, indoor and outdoor.
“But what about the colours of the film?” I hear you say. Unfortunately, this process corrects the colours in the film too, reducing their influence and getting them closer to real life. This may not be what you want. If that is your goal, then just using the ‘invert’ module in Darktable might be what you really want to do.
Advanced -> Bracketed HDR
“Sorry, but it is disappointing at first glance”
Darktable has the ability to merge together an arbitrary number of images into a final HDR image in DNG format. This is first class support, via a ‘Create HDR’ button in the ‘selected images’ section on the lighttable view. However, there is little documentation about how it does it. Given the chatter online about various algorithms and comparisons, one might have thought that the Darktable team would be keen to share their HDR strategy or even offer some options. As it stands now, that is not the case, and this option is undocumented by anyones standards.
There are no options and no information about what it is actually doing. Nevertheless, given that my XZ-1 has exposure bracketing, this is an interesting proposition. In theory, it should allow us to capture more shadow and highlight detail by providing a series of exposure bracketed images and letting Darktable choose the best bits from each image.
To try this out, simply set your scanning camera to take multiple exposures at the widest ranges possible. I get three images at -1, 0 and +1 EV. Import them into darktable as normal, select them all and then use the ‘create HDR’ button in the ‘selected image(s)’ section on the right hand side. This will give you an additional image in DNG format. You can then process that as normal, although you may need to tweak your style.
I have tried this out on a couple of rolls of film. With a critical eye, I think that the single image, non-HDR scans are better! Examples below. The HDR seems to be noisier and I could not easily discern any extra details in the shadows or highlights. From what I read online, I understand that 35mm film has higher dynamic range than digital, certainly one would expect it to be higher than a modest digital scanning camera such as an Olympus XZ-1. If this is true, then this bracketed HDR should produce improved results.
Of course, your mileage may vary and maybe you can make it work well for you. The Darktable documentation mentions Luminous HDR so that is another option to try. I must try it myself by way of comparison!