There's something absolutely wonderful about holding a piece of film fresh out of processing. The feeling of accomplishment, that indescribable rush of holding something you created in your fingers makes the difficulty of dealing with the medium worthwhile. However, once you're done processing the film, the next phase begins. Scanning can be, to put it lightly, a royal pain. From dust-spotting to tweaking color and levels, there are challenges that must be addressed. This is how I do it!
Firstly, I want to be clear that this is not intended to be the end all and be all how-to for scanning C-41 film. This is simply a method that works for me. I've been asked by commenters in multiple posts to show how I do my scanning, so here it is! Your mileage may vary, but at the very least, I hope to show that there's not too much to be afraid of. Definitely check out the accompanying video to see me scan and work on a 4x5 portrait in near real time. Skip to about three minutes in if you just want to see the scanning portion.
Two Common Misconceptions About Shooting Color Film
When I started shooting color film, like most of us do, I did a lot of image searching. I checked out a bunch of really awesome photos on Flickr, 500px, and other image collection sites, and my mind was blown. I just loved the colors that these folks were getting! There was something very rich and organic about them that I really wanted to add to my work. But stop right there! There are few things you should know about when it comes to getting those colors and tones.
There's No Magic Bullet
I thought that once I laid my film on the scanner, I could tell my software what the film type was, throw everything on auto, and voila, I'd have picture-perfect scans. Um, no. The reason that most of the work you see online has that wonderful color rendition is because it's being sent to professional labs where professional scanning personnel who are trained to color-correct bring out the best in those scans. They have gotten it down to a science! When we scan at home, there's usually not a magic button press to get it right. You are going to need to tweak your images. Even awesome scanning software like Silverfast or Vuescan will usually require some tweaking to get the image where you want it.
My $800 Flatbed Scanner Can Produce Super Sharp Images
Ok, yes and no. I use an Epson V700 (replaced now by the V800), and while it is a wonderful scanner, no flatbed scanner is going to fully realize the sharpness of film. Period. I don't care if you're using fancy holders or shooting with 35mm or 4x5; it just isn't going to happen. You need to sharpen your images. I typically use high pass sharpening, but I know a lot of people still use unsharp mask or smart sharpening in Photoshop. I'll leave that up to you as it is personal preference, and in the end, it really isn't that important as long as you're not going overboard.
The Quick and Dirty
I'm going to use Epson Scan to do my color work as it comes with Epson scanners for free. Essentially, there are three steps in Epson Scan to get your image most of the way to where it needs to be. First off, make sure you're in Professional Mode, 48-Bit Color, and the highest native resolution your scanner is capable of. For most decently spec'd flatbed scanners, that's between 2,400 and 3,200 DPI. The film I edited was a sheet of 4x5 Kodak Portra 400.
1. Turn off All the Auto Settings
Seriously. Turn them off. No sharpening, no color correction, turn down auto exposure under configuration. Don't let your scanner software make decisions for you. For the most part, it will get them wrong.
2. Tweak the Levels Globally, Then in the Color Channels
Under the histogram button, there will be sliders to adjust your levels in RGB and then the color channels individually. First, adjust the sliders' endpoints for shadows and highlights to reflect where there is actual data in the histogram. Like so:
3. Output the File, Move to Lightroom!
After you adjust all of the levels, the image should look a lot better, but probably still not quite to where you want it. I find that the tools in Epson Scan are not quite flexible enough for my needs, so from here, I scan the film and move into our old pal, Lightroom (Or Camera Raw if you're one of those people.) Output to TIFF so that you preserve data and Lightroom can read the file.
Lightroom Play Time!
Once you're in Lightroom, the steps you take are going to vary greatly depending on where the image is in your eyes. It's a lot like dealing with a digital raw file at this point. How much contrast do you want? Is the image too blue? Adjust it! Add some vignette. Boost your shadows. Boost your blacks. Clarity is always fun (in moderation). Only you can decide what to do here. In the video, I show the steps I took on my image, but they will certainly be different for yours. After you're done tweaking, just output to Photoshop for your preferred sharpening method and dust-spotting. Then you're done!
When you get it down, you can color-correct a scan in just a few minutes. Do any of you have a preferred method? What about those without Epson scanners? Let the community know!
Special thanks to Ryan Chrys for stepping in as a model for this shoot!