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I recently shot and developed my first roll of film, Ilford FP4 in Ilfosol 3.

I "scanned" my negatives with my digital camera and self-made light box, following various online tutorials.

Then I followed this tutorial to edit my raw files.

What I wonder, now, is rather what the point of shooting film is when people have to edit the negatives in hindsight. Am I wrong in thinking that by having to make a positive out of the raw image of a negative, by having to apply contrast and changes to highlights etc, the original characteristics of the film I chose are being distorted?

What is a professional way of turning developed negatives into digital files to keep the original characteristics of the film?

Edit: Please note that I'm not looking for ways to outsource the scanning nor do I wish to purchase a film scanner. I merely would like to know how other people go about the actual process of making a positive out of the negative. If a professional lab uses a scanner, for example, what do they do with the files the scanner delivers?

  • It's worth pointing out that this is what people have always done: when I make a print from a negative I'm adjusting the contrast by picking how hard I want to print, and also mucking around with highlights & shadows &c during the exposure, and then perhaps later during processing of the print. – user82065 Mar 7 at 11:58
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What I wonder, now, is rather what the point of shooting film is when people have to edit the negatives in hindsight. Am I wrong in thinking that by having to make a positive out of the raw image of a negative, by having to apply contrast and changes to highlights etc, the original characteristics of the film I chose are being distorted?

I think you have a few misconceptions about film. Color reversal film, aka slide film, can be displayed by projecting its image. This is essentially displaying the truest form of the captured image per the film.

Black and white and color negative, on the other hand, need to be turned from negative to positive via printing. I've less experience with printing color negs, but a solid amount of black and white, so I'm going to focus there.

When printing, you can dodge and burn to decrease/increase local area exposure. You can swap contrast filters to adjust the contrast of the image as a while or use with dodge/burn techniques to adjust contrast in local areas. You can stack negatives. In fact, most of what you'd call "photoshopping" is a toolset inspired by darkroom techniques.

Let's also not forget that printing paper has a shorter range or latitude than film, and film less than the world. So, you've compressed the world into the film and compressed the film into the paper - creating a representation of the world that lacks in both the total range of brightness and detail of the world.

Understanding that, we choose film and developing processes that will support the ability to gain the envisioned print. The negative isn't the endgame - the print is - and the negative is simply a step to getting there.

The characteristics you talk about boil down to grain structure and the ability of that film to represent the scene such that you can create the print. Changes to contrast, highlights, shadows, exposure, etc. are all par for the course. This isn't changing the character of your film - this is exploiting it for its ultimate purpose.

Whether you do this in a dark room or via scanning and on a computer is neither here nor there. Point is, your 135 FP4/Ilfosol, no matter the processing, will never look like my 120 Delta3200/Rodinal. Even with all that processing, the film and development still matters - it leaves its mark on the image because it was the image, for a time.

What is a professional way of turning developed negatives into digital files to keep the original characteristics of the film?

Simple: Scan them. Learn to scan such that you get the best range from your negative. Make sure that your highlights are not blown nor shadows too dark. That's the best you can do for that step.

  • Thank you. People who "scan" their negatives by photographing them often use as an argument that the raw file they get gives them greater power over the negative than the image yielded by a conventional scanner. Would you agree with that? – Wottensprels Mar 5 at 16:45
  • @Sprottenwels there are too many variables there to simply agree or disagree. The lens and camera, lightbox setup, whole rig setup (are you perfectly perpendicular to the film?), compare to a film scanner, or a flatbed, or a drum? Again, too many variables. I've seen great results from both rigs and scanners though. – Hueco Mar 5 at 16:49
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    I do not believe that a raw image of a scanned negative inherently is better than the tiff from a scanner. RAW is designed to hold sensor data about a scene so as to provide flexibility later on. When shooting a negative, this extra flex really isn't necessary, nor does it add value. It doesn't hurt either. – Hueco Mar 5 at 16:51
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Edit 2: In response to your updated question (and comment): While I am providing options for outsourcing, it seems your original question was framed around 1. why one would shoot film if so much effort to digitize was involved / the potential for losing essential film characteristics, and then 2. what the best methods for digitization are.

Now that you've clarified you are actually looking for advice on how to do it yourself, I'd echo the others: a flatbed scanner at home would be my first recommendation. Good ones commonly include mounts for your negatives and processing software which will handle conversion to positive for you. Other methods, to me, involve too much guesswork. But I personally don't find scanning rewarding compared to shooting, developing, and printing, which is why I usually let experts handle digitization. They'll give better results than anything I'm going to do at home.

Edit 1: In reading the above I realized I didn't specifically address your questions about preserving the film's characteristics when converting to digital. So just to be clear, your instincts are correct that it will be very difficult to preserve those characteristics using the method you described. Again, Richard Photo Lab prides itself on being absolutely perfect. And again, having had my film processed and scanned by both (as well as processing my own film and sending in just for scans to both), I think Precision is basically just as good (just won't do as much bespoke work), but cheaper. Both labs put out results that are true to the original film. They both use a Noritsu scanner (super high quality, way too expensive for the average person to own), though Richard also optionally uses a Frontier, which has its own cult following.

First, I would certainly recommend that rather than using a digital camera and light box, you either have your film professionally scanned (Richard Photo Lab is well-respected in the film community and very high quality, but I have had great results with Precision Camera, which is substantially less expensive) or purchase a scanner to do it yourself (results will not be as perfect). I usually send my film to Precision. Plus with them, if you're a member of the Rangefinder Forum, they'll develop free when you order scans (I joined just to get that perk). The images come back as ultra-high resolution and the tones are impeccable. I almost never need to do any editing aside from downsampling for web display when desired.

Second, in terms of reasons to shoot film:

A lot of people will say the difference does come down to look, and that digital just can't replicate the beauty of film. Film looks amazing right of the gate, but I tend to disagree about the ability of digital to replicate. Plugins for Lightroom like VSCO will replicate specific brands of film pretty convincingly.

Personally, I shoot film because:

  • It forces me to slow down. Knowing I only have 36 exposures (or roughly half that on 120 film) means I have to take time to think carefully about every shot, and my composition must be spot on. I can't just snap, snap, snap, and figure one will come out right, or I'll burn through film in no time.
  • I like being more physically involved in the art. I spend so much time on a computer already. Why add more time when I could be engaged in the full experience of handling the film, developing it, caring for it, and - when I have time - hand making prints with an enlarger? By the time I'm done I almost feel an emotional connection to the physical film and prints. Can't say I've ever felt that about a memory card or hard drive. We are physical beings, after all. Some may disagree on this point, but I find the physical component of art to be profoundly important.
  • And finally, as touched on before, not having to edit photos after they're scanned, because the film makes them look great to begin with, is a big perk and means less time in on-computer "post-processing."

I hope this was helpful. And I hope you go out and shoot more film, and enjoy it!

  • Thanks for your input. I appreciate your tips, but I have to say that you're not really answering my question but rather provide options to outsource the operation. I dont want to do that, much for reasons you stated above. I want to handle the complete process by myself, to be more involved with my work. I'll edit my question to make this clearer. – Wottensprels Mar 5 at 15:32
  • @Sprottenwels I'm worried I still haven't addressed your question. Do you actually care about digitization specifically or just what the best method to getting to a physical print from film is? – virgilcaine Mar 6 at 16:56

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