I’m certainly not an authority on either film or digital technology, but over the past few years I’ve stumbled upon a photographic workflow that, for me, takes the best of both worlds and puts it in a single process. The workflow I use is one that is only possible with the newest innovations in computer manipulation as well as many techniques as old as film itself.
In the most basic of terms, I start out with a film capture, develop the film, scan the film, then use the digital file as the basis of my image, which I then refine and develop in Photoshop. This process allows me to get organic grain and use awesome film gear, yet still have the flexibility in post that digital affords.
It’s nothing new or all that innovative, but I thought I’d share the details of my workflow since it’s an increasingly common one these days. I’ve worked out some kinks and maybe you’ll find some interesting morsel of information to help you on your way.
STEP ONE: FILM CAPTURE
What’s great about this method is that you can use any film format you like as long as you have the appropriate scanner. Personally, I use instant films, 35mm, and a smattering of medium format.
There are a million great books on how to use a film camera, so I’m not going to bother going over anything about how to take a good film photo. However, if you’re going to go down this route, the better your original snap is, the better material you’ll have for later. You can salvage an under or overexposed image sometimes, but you’ll have to make compromises. Obviously, your choice of film will have a huge impact on how easy it will be to expose correctly.
If you’re going to be using Polaroid or Impossible Project films, make sure you protect your photos as soon as you take them. Both can leak chemicals and should be kept out of sunlight for the first few hours of development. I have a specific pocket in my Think Tank bag just for exposed Polaroids.
In traditional film workflows it is important to decide if you are going to shoot black and white or color. With this workflow, you can always shoot color and just convert it to black and white when it’s in the digital stage, but I’ve found that when I use black and white film I take better black and white photos, and vice versa with color.
STEP TWO: DEVELOP THE FILM
If you’re shooting Polaroid or some other type of instant film, the second after you press down the shutter your photo is already developing. The process will continue for a few minutes, then stabilize a bit, and then continue developing for days, if not weeks. Different films will do different things, which I cover in detail in my reviews of individual instant film types.
If you’re shooting 35mm or medium format, go ahead and get your roll developed. Personally I don’t bother with developing my own film, but if you have the time and resources, go for it! Because I’m cheap, I drop off my 35mm color print film at Walgreens or Costco (the best deal of the two). The person working behind the counter doesn’t care too much about your film, so expect scratches, dust, and fingerprints on your negatives. This can be a big deal, because that negative is what we’re going to be scanning. Make sure you clarify you don’t want prints, because they cost a lot of money and usually look like garbage.
If you’re shooting that’s not 35mm color negative or just want your pictures properly cared for, specialty photo shops are your best bet. When I was in Indiana I used Jack’s Camera Shop; now I use Phoenix Imaging in Chicago. I’ve always been happy with the service I received at both, but it certainly costs more than Costco or Walgreens.
(2016 update: since I wrote this article several years ago, both Costco and Walgreens have shut down their film processing programs. Pretty much the only options left are mailers and dedicated film development houses.)
Every place you get your film developed at will give you the option of getting digital scans. Be warned, they’re almost always hideous. I sometimes get my 35mm scanned if it’s cheap just so I have an easy way to preview images. The scanners Walgreens and Costco use are low resolution and have weird auto color/contrast correction that will often destroy your image. Some photo shops offer high resolution scans, which are very good, but also incredibly expensive. It’s cheaper in the long run to just invest in your own scanner if you have the money. However, it’s much more convenient (and expensive) to just let a high end scanning facility handle it for you.
Once you have the raw material ready, be it negatives, slides, or instant photos, you’re ready to move on to the next step!
STEP THREE: SCAN THE FILM
Scanner technology is weird. Flatbeds have gotten better and cheaper, but dedicated 35mm and medium format scanners have been pretty much left for dead. This is the step that has caused me the most headache perfecting over the years, but I’m pretty happy with my current setup.
For Polaroid and other instant photos, I use a dedicated flatbed scanner. Avoid scanner/printer combos, as the scanner is usually fairly low quality in those machines. I started out using an old giant Epson scanner in a library basement with decent results, but now I have my own CanoScan 9000F that I use. The CanoScan 9000F is cheap, fast, and very good, so if you’re scanning Polaroids I highly recommend it. I’ve also heard many great things from other film shooters about Epson flatbeds.
Make sure your Polaroid photo is clean, with no dust on the front and no chemical paste leaking out the back before placing it in the scanner. If your scanner lid isn’t heavy, put some weight on the top so that the photo is completely flattened. If not, then the glossy cover can create some weird color banding.
(2016 update: I’ve reviewed the Impossible Project scan adapter and highly recommend it for Polaroids if you can get your hands on it.)
When using unstable Impossible Project films, you’re probably going to want to scan the film at least twice. Scan your photo once as soon as you get done shooting (especially if you like how it looks), since it will almost certainly continue changing and developing as the days go by. I usually do my ‘final scan’ about two days after exposure. This is when colors show the most contrast, immediate defects are minimized, and long term humidity damage hasn’t yet set in. When I’m using humidity damage effects to my advantage, I’ll rescan again weeks and even months after exposure.
I’ve experimented with several different types of scanning software on different operating systems, but the best seems to the free image capture program built into Mac OS. It’s simple and doesn’t create any weird digital artifacts. I set my settings for 2400 dpi resolution TIFF files with billions of colors. Be warned, this creates MASSIVE files. My quad core Windows gaming PC can barely keep up with them, and my Mac struggles to even load one of the files. If you’re on a slower machine, 1200 dpi will probably be enough quality and won’t make your processor beg for mercy.
I also use my CanoScan 9000F for my medium format jobs. 120 negatives are so huge that I can easily get enough quality even with an affordable flatbed. The CanoScan scans though glass, and as a result, it’s not all that sharp and will blur the grain together. Because medium format is gigantic, this isn’t a big deal. However, with 35mm optimal results will only come from a dedicated film scanner.
In my opinion Nikon made the absolute best film scanners. The key word there is made. Unfortunately, Nikon decided they don’t need to make them anymore, driving the demand up for the few used ones surviving in the wild. Current generation Nikon Coolscan 5000 and 9000s will run you thousands upon thousands of dollars, so I went the slightly cheaper route by getting a Nikon Coolscan V. It makes huge, awesome quality scans that are almost too sharp by some standards. I would avoid the Nikon Coolscan IV and below, as they’re too old to be any use.
The technology in the Nikon Coolscan V is still top notch, but the software for it is stuck back in 2002. You’re going to need Windows XP and Nikon’s dedicated scanning program, which you can conveniently download from their support site for free. VueScan works as well, but I like Nikon’s dedicated program better. I installed an ancient copy of Windows XP professional through boot camp on my Mac just to use this scanner, but I’ve heard that newer Windows 32 bit systems can still operate the scanner in compatibility mode if you’re particularly computer-savy, but I haven’t tested it myself. Sorry Mac OS X users, unless you have Tiger running somewhere, you’re out of luck.
There’s way too much involved in this step to jam into this article, so mosey on over to my Coolscan V guide and review for more information about using this particular piece of machinery.
Once you’ve gotten your raw scan, don’t freak out if it looks nothing like you expected. Colors might be doing weird things if you used color negatives, or maybe your Polaroid looks all washed out. All that can be fixed in the next step…
STEP FOUR: DEVELOP DIGITALLY
What’s great about using the super high resolution scans one can get from the CanoScan 9000F and Nikon Coolscan V is that they give you tremendous amount of creative freedom in post. If you want to increase brightness by several stops, have right at it. Instead of gross digital grain and artifacts, you’ll just highlight the film grain that’s already there. Film grain is the entire reason to bother with this workflow, so if you’re working to hide it or use an anti-grain filter, you’re kind of missing the whole point. Digital capture might be more up your alley.
Most of the time I do try to get rid of distracting dust, and believe me, there will be a lot of it. If you use cheapo development like I do, you’ll also have scratches to contend with. There are automated dust removal systems built into both Canon and Nikon’s scanning software, but since I don’t trust the machines, I remove these defects manually. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can use clone stamp tools in Lightroom and Photoshop CS4 and before. Personally, I much prefer the miraculous healing tool in Photoshop CS5 and newer. It mimics the grain around it fairly well and, best of all, is super fast. Either way, be cautious not to make weird smear marks or discolored areas that make it obvious something was changed.
After the dust is removed, have at it. With Polaroid photos, I usually try to get the image to look like the actual image in real life. This usually involves slightly heightening colors, contrast and restoring the blacks. I also prefer to crop out the white border around the Polaroid image as to focus on the actual picture itself rather than the medium. In film I change everything and anything until I get something I like; I don’t have any set rules.
Whew, that’s about it! From here on out it’s up to you.
Most of what you see in my photo galleries goes through this process. I would never recommend this workflow for anybody in a hurry or on a tight budget, but I find it to be quite a bit of fun. Take your time and you’ll be surprised at what you can create. It all comes down to the image you want to communicate and how you want to say it. Scanners, cameras, film, lights and flashes are all just tools to help make your vision a reality.