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Learning Lab

The Ideal Digital Photographer's Workflow, Part 4

Steps for Working Optimally with Scanning

by Ken Milburn, author of Digital Photography: Expert Techniques

Editor's note: Ken Milburn continues his quest to create ideal (and least destructive) workflows for people working in digital photography. This installment brings this series to a close, but if you missed any of the first three articles in this series, you'll find links and descriptions at the end of this piece. Whether you are new to digital photography or a seasoned pro, the tips and suggestions presented in this series will help improve your productivity in all aspects of your shooting -- from preparation to final product. As Ken suggested in part one, print out these tips and tack them on the wall where you develop your photos; next to your digital camera, they may become the handiest tools you own.

This article details how to get the most out of the time you spend converting your film library to digital. If you’re like most of us, you’ve shot thousands of pictures that pretty much document your life (or career, if you’re a pro). You’ve probably realized that film fades and scratches over time. So you’ve decided that the sooner you digitize those images, the sooner you will have ensured that they will not deteriorate any further.

This article is not about scanning for pre-press, making a quick scan in order to email a film picture to a friend, or scanning for any purpose other than to find the most efficient way to get the most picture information from your slides and negatives when you convert them to digital. For that reason, this article intentionally ignores some scanning features and commands that might prove useful when your application calls for the most immediately satisfying results, rather than for acquiring a digital negative that will give you the most options for the highest-quality interpretation of the digital image.

Note: Even if you do scan every negative and slide you’ve ever taken, don’t even think about throwing the film away. It is still valuable as backup, should a fire or theft obliterate your digital files. Furthermore, the technology of scanning may be twice as good in two years as it is now.

1. Pick the Right Scanner

Be forewarned that scanning takes time. It can take several minutes (four minutes is actually pretty fast, though some Nikon Coolscan models can scan a 4000 DPI image in one minute) to scan a single slide. If you have 1,000 slides, that’s 4,000 minutes, not including the amount of time it takes to mount the film in the scanner and to make adjustments in the scanner software before clicking OK to scan. Add at least another 4,000 minutes for all of that. That’s about three and a half weeks of work, given a 40-hour work week.

You can speed up scanning by scanning at lower resolution than the scanner is capable of, but then you’ll have to re-scan the same slide if you ever need to scan it at higher resolution. So always pick the fastest scanner with the highest resolution (at least 4,000 DPI) that you can afford.

Note: When you’re preparing to scan slides, make sure you skip the slides you know perfectly well you’ll never use. Scanning those slides not only wastes your time, but uses valuable hard drive space and makes it harder to find the slides you really do want to use. Of course, the same is true of your digital camera files.

Second, you want to capture as much image information as you can in your scan. In order to do that, you ideally want a scanner with the following features:

  1. A D-max of at least 3.6 (you’ll find the D-Max in the scanner specs)
  2. Resolution of at least 4,000 DPI for 35mm film
  3. Bit depth of at least 36 (48 would be better)
  4. Very little shadow noise (if all other specs are the same, significantly lower prices can indicate cheaper circuits, which usually indicates more noise)
  5. Software that features a histogram (see "Scanning for Maximum Image Data," below)
  6. Scanning without banding or other mechanical problems (read several hands-on reviews to determine if this is the case)

Third, get a scanner that will do batch scanning of at least six frames at a time. A few scanners will even scan a whole roll of 36-exposure film at a time. If the scanner does it right, you can pre-scan the preview frames all at once to get thumbnails. You can then make individual settings (including “delete” or “don’t scan") for each frame or slide, and then push a button and let the scanner do all the work while you either go out for dinner or use another computer to do something more productive.

2. Organize Your Files into "Job" Categories

Before you start scanning, physically organize your files into “job” categories. Physically separate the film into boxes and envelopes in this order:

Client/Event/Subject, Date, Job/Shoot Description

So professional photos might be organized something like this:


And a private or non-client photo folder label might look like this:


You are organizing your film in this way because it will be most efficient (for a variety of reasons) to scan job categories in sequence. The two most important reasons why this is so are: 1) settings are most likely to be similar for larger numbers of frames, so once you have the settings for one frame, you can simply apply them to many others in the same shoot; and 2) it is easier to keep track of the organization of your files when you archive them and when you place them on your computer and start processing them, especially since I’m going to show you an editing workflow that demands organization.

3. Calibrate Your Whole Scanning System

There is only one way you can be assured that you’ve captured all of the data your film has to offer. That is to work with a system that uses a calibrated monitor and scanner.

You probably know that it’s important to calibrate your monitor, but you should calibrate your scanner, as well. Calibration is a complex topic, and there are already several good books on the subject. One of the most respected is Real World Color Management, by Bruce Fraser, Fred Bunting, and Chris Murphy.

For purposes of this article, suffice it to say that you should use a colorimeter, such as the ColorVision Spyder (arguably the best compromise between price, accuracy, and ease of use), to calibrate the monitor, scan a Kodak color chart slide, and adjust the settings until what you see in the scan when you open it in Photoshop comes as close as possible to matching the colors you see in the original color chart.

Calibrating your scanner may be a bit tougher, but at the very least, do this: go into the scanner software and set it to scan a RAW file. If your scanner doesn’t have that feature, scan for the type of film that the test chart is shot on, probably Ektachrome 200. (Your scanner manufacturer should supply you with a slide that is a standard test chart; see Figure 1. The test chart will contain color charts of several ranges of primary colors and a gray scale chart.) Preview the scan and use the histogram, color, and curves features to make what you see on your monitor looks, as much as possible, like the original slide. Some scanners won’t let you remove the slide from the holder while the preview is still on screen. If that's the case, you may have to do this several times while you use your memory to compare the screen picture to the image on the slide. When you’ve come as close as possible to seeing the same image values on screen as you see in the slide, save the settings as your scanning defaults.

Figure 1. A typical color test chart

Once you’re calibrated your scanner, you’re going to scan all of the images at the highest possible resolution and in 16-bit mode. Do not try to make the scan look perfect. The idea here is to capture as much information as possible. Later, there will be any number of ways to use Photoshop in 16-bit mode to make the picture look as satisfactory as possible.

4. Use a Scanner That Has Digital ICE Technology Built In

Related Reading

Digital Photography: Expert Techniques
Professional Tips for Using Photoshop & Related Tools to Enhance Your Digital Photographs
By Ken Milburn

Digital ICE is a Kodak technology that is licensed to only certain scanner manufacturers (Kodak, Nikon, Minolta, BenQ, Umax, Durst, and Pacific Imaging). Digital ICE is currently the best way to automatically remove dust and scratches from the film surface. It does this by reading the image only from the protective coating that covers both sides of film. Since these surfaces aren’t light sensitive, the only image read by Digital ICE is that of dust and scratches. The scanner software then subtracts the dust and scratches image from the photo image and automatically fills in the blanks. Other software and filters for removing dust and scratches may be better than nothing, but will do the job (at least in part) by slightly blurring the image. Of course, if you already own a scanner and are reluctant to spend the money to replace it, you will at least want a feature in the scanner software that removes dust and scratches in the old-fashioned way. Otherwise, you’ll have to retouch them all by hand. Even if you’re using Photoshop’s healing brush to do that (after you’ve done your scanning), you’re going to spend 15 minutes to 30 minutes per image doing it.

By the way, for large image defects, the Photoshop 7+ healing brush is a godsend if you don’t have Digital ICE. You can use your dust-and-scratches routine, either in the scanner software or in your image editor, to remove the small stuff with minimal cost in sharpness. Then all you have left to do it to use the healing brush to remove the few big defects that are left over.

5. Orient Your Film Properly in the Scanner

If you’re loading film strips, make sure the carrier doesn’t cramp or pinch the film, causing it to buckle. Make sure you place the film in the carrier so that the emulsion (duller) side of the film is closest to the scanning lens. Most scanner software (and all image-editing software) lets you easily flip and rotate the image, but doing so will compromise image quality, because the scanner has to “read” through thick layers of gelatin to record the image in the film emulsion. On top of that, the software has to rearrange all of the pixels in the image, which may result in errors. Finally, scanning time is increased because the scanning software has to calculate the “flip and flop” interpolation.

Finally, never crop your frame in the scanner software. If you do, and a given job or exhibit frame requires different cropping, you will have to physically search for the film and re-scan it.

6. Collect As Much Data from the Film As Possible

You don’t want to start by making a different scan for every purpose. Instead, make one scan that captures as wide a dynamic range as possible, preferably at the right color balance.

If your scanner will let you, scan everything in 16-bit RAW format to start. RAW files contain every bit of data that the scanner’s sensors have recorded, without regard to compensation settings (such as white balance, or controls that alter contrast and brightness). You can then save these files to 16-bit TIF format that can be opened and adjusted in Photoshop for exactly the tonal range, color balance, and regional contrast (curves) you want to keep in the final image.

When it comes to using the scanner software, you should scan in the scanner’s highest bit mode (usually 36-bit). Since you’ve already calibrated the scanner, you shouldn’t do much with the scanner software to change the way the image looks. That is, don’t try to correct for color balance, sharpness, saturation, or to do curve adjustments that adjust the contrast of various ranges of color. You will be able to do a much better job of that in Photoshop and you don’t want to risk throwing out any data that might prove useful later.

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