Otherwise known as the “Hybrid Technique”. Processing film digitally happens after scanning—either via a dedicated flatbed or DSLR camera rig. This article covers my technique developed from over 2 years of using ColorPerfect. I prefer using a flatbed film scanner rather than a camera to digitize negatives. This writing covers my workflow of digitally processing negatives at the date it was published.
ColorPerfect, a German program, is quite difficult to understand. I believe it was programmed with color professionals in mind. The interface is counter-intuitive and the speed of the plugin itself is quite slow. With that said, I have yet to come across a better piece of stand-alone software dedicated to digitally processing film negatives. It simply gives outstanding results from only a few clicks. The colors are very lifelike and only require a few adjustments in Photoshop afterwords. Fortunately, you do not need to understand most of the program to get the results I do—but you will need advanced Photoshop skills, however.
The basic workflow that I will detail below is: Scanning > ColorPerfect > Photoshop > Lightroom. I rarely use Lightroom as it was intended (as a photo manipulator). I prefer to use Photoshop for everything involving photo editing. Lightroom for me is basically a photo viewer and photo exporter (for social media). Lightroom is fantastic for converting your photos to be seen on the web. The program streamlines the process of reducing a huge .tiff or .psd file down to a very small jpg.
- The most important component in this technique is Photoshop
- Lightroom is not necessary; but it is nice to have
- ColorPerfect along with a film scanner will be needed
- 3rd party scanning software is highly recommended—I suggest VueScan
- Knowledge of monitor calibration & profiling will improve your color
SCANNING — Is were it all begins. Spending a few hundred will buy a nice entry level Epson scanner. I learned off the Epson V600. It’s an excellent and cheap scanner that will accept 35mm & 120 negs. I recommend purchasing VueScan software because it is far better then the stock software included with scanners. Outputting your scans as linear .tiff files is very important in this workflow. A linear negative scan has zero software adjustments applied to the photo. You want linear because it provides the cleanest scan for ColorPerfect to work from. Think of a linear scan like a RAW file from your digital camera. As an aside; stock scanning software probably won’t be able to output linear files anyway.
I have included screenshots below from tabs inside VueScan. The ‘film’ profile that came with your own scanner after installing should be selected where you see ICC profiles in the ‘Color’ tab. My Epson V600 came with a Reflective & Film profile. These color profiles tell software and your monitor how to interpret color. Click each image below to enlarge.
ASSIGNING FILM PROFILE — Before we begin ColorPerfect open your linear .tiff image in Photoshop. Go to Edit > Assign Profile. Find your scanner’s film profile in the list. Select it. You’ll instantly see the results of color being properly applied to your negative. You’re doing things right when the neg will be brighter and more luminous.
Before & after applying the scanner’s film profile in Photoshop
COLORPERFECT— As mentioned earlier, this software is hard to understand, however, I know of no other stand-alone software that can do the same thing. Maybe 15% of the program is used in this method. After the neg has the correct color profile applied you will then open ColorPerfect located in the filters tab in Photoshop. Step 1–Adjusting Exposure: one advantage of film is that it can capture all of the scene without clipping highlights. By turning down the exposure a few notches we can preserve the highest of highlights. In this particular photo the brightest area is the man’s grey shirt. By moving the ‘Black’ slider down the highlight is retained. Note: ‘Black’ in ColorPerfect should be thought of as exposure.
Step 2–Assigning Film Stock Preset: The many different “presets” of films included in ColorPerfect will help get the unique look of the film you shot with. In this case, I shot a roll of Kodak Ektar. In the lower-left corner find Kodak > Ektar 100.
Step 3–Decreasing Gamma: This step is incredibly important later while fine tuning in Photoshop. Gamma is always at 1.00 except during this step. By lowering the gamma most of the way we will be able to easily see all the blacks that contain no color information. Our goal is to decrease the blackness in these dark areas so they’re not clipped. Step 4–Decreasing Black Point: By the way, ‘BP’ in ColorPerfect is short for Black Point. You’ll finish this step by lowering the BP slider down ever-so-slightly until you see no more clipped shadow areas. The pitch-black areas contain color information–but we need to lower the black point until we see almost no clipped blacks. Click each thumbnail below for the sequence of steps 3 & 4. Gamma of 1.00 should be typed back in after the BP adjustment. After these steps press ‘OK’ Your negative that was converted to a positive will now be saved as ColorPerfect closes. The actual manipulation of the colors will now happen through Photoshop.
Step 5–Photoshop: To newcomers reading this it may seem that this process is rather involved. In actuality it is not. With practice I can easily scan, process, edit and clean a medium format photo of dust in about 30-45min. A medium format negative is VERY big. A 35mm neg takes far less time compared to a 120 neg. Much of the time spent is from cleaning the dust and scratches in Photoshop. There are a few ways to clean dust and scratches in Photoshop. Either by using the Clone Tool or by Quick-Masking select areas and going the Filter > Noise > Dust & Scratches route.
Dust removal using Quick Masking and Dust & Scratch Photoshop filter
PERFECTING COLOR: This Fake HDR technique is at the heart of fine tuning the color in Photoshop. By watching the linked video you’ll see how I adjust highlight and shadow areas in each photo. In doing so, I bring back the proper exposure and shadow blackness by selecting all of the shadow and all of the highlights in separate layers in Photoshop. Basically what happens is that a single layer of black and a single layer of white is created with a mask imbedded in each. Then, by going Image > Apply Image… and like magic (and a few extra steps I’ve purposely left out) all the highlights and shadows are independently selected in their own layers. Please watch the video yourself to figure out the technique. It would be extremely confusing if I tried to write down the individual steps. It’s not all that difficult to learn when applying your knowledge.
I typically create ‘Levels’ or a ‘Selective Color’ layer from the shadows and a ‘Exposure’ layer from the highlights. What I then do with these adjustment layers is increase exposure and add rich black back into the shadows. By using this workflow all the delicate highlight and shadow areas will never be clipped of their important colors. Rich and fantastic looking film photographs can be had by learning these steps. Remember, it only takes about 30-45 minutes to completely convert a 120 neg into a photograph… This technique only needs your dedication.
The complete and final image… a film photograph!
POST SCRIPT: This technique utilizes a cheaper alternative than buying expensive scanning software that has film negative conversion built in. Silverfast offers a software suite that contains programs for color professionals. Silverfast can easily run $500. The workflow covered here using VueScan, ColorPerfect & Photoshop is much cheaper—especially if you are looking to get into film and would rather not spend too much.