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I'm mostly a film-and-paper photographer: I take pictures, process the film and then make prints in the darkroom. The end-product of what I do is very definitely a bit of paper.

But I'd like to be able to show representations of these prints digitally (ie on the internet...). I'd be interested in knowing what the best way to do this is, and also how it's done professionally. I am specifically interested in digital representations of the print: things that will be displayed on a screen, not on producing physical copies of it on paper.

Obviously such a representation can never be exact – there's no way of representing things like texture of the paper surface on a screen for instance – but I want to be able to produce digital representations of my work ('my work' being 'prints') which will give people the best idea I can of what the physical object looks like.

There are three obvious approaches:

  • scan the neg (I can do this) and then process the digital copy of it in such a way that it looks like the print I would have made;
  • take a very careful photograph of the print, controlling white-balance and so on (so I get a good representation of the paper colour), and use that as the image;
  • scan the print with a flatbed scanner (this is a variation on the previous approach, really).

The first of these is both hard and unappealing: it requires me to do a lot of work I'm not very interested in to reproduce what I already do in the darkroom, and also may or may not do a good job of representing what the print actually looks like.

The second I can do, and it should be reasonably easy. Keeping the prints flat is the hard bit, but I can mat them if need be.

I can't currently do the third, but I could buy a flatbed scanner if it's clearly the best approach.

I'd be interested in knowing two things.

  • What other people do who have the same problem but don't have access to the resources that, for instance, museums &c have?
  • How this is done professionally – if museums or galleries, say, want to produce web pages with good images of physical prints, how do they do this?

I appreciate that a lot of the appearance of things is down to screen calibration: I specifically don't want to address that problem: rather I'm interested in how I could make a digital representation of a print which has the best chance of being displayed well on a properly calibrated screen.

  • If printing on paper is part of the creative process rather than a technical step (e.g. you apply techniques such as dodge/burn), then scanning the negative would not be representative of the end product. – Pete Oct 17 at 12:58
  • @Pete: yes, it is. And what I'd do with scanned negs is to try to reproduce that process so the end result looks as like the print as I can make it (that's what I meant by 'a lot of work I'm not very interested in': mucking around in Photoshop or whatever). Sorry I should have made that clearer. – user82065 Oct 17 at 13:08
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    Possible duplicate of How to most accurately print a physical picture? – Michael C Oct 18 at 7:30
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    @tfb In a sense, a digital file can never contain exactly the same information as an analog print. But when the source of a print is a digital image file, the analog print can also not contain any more (meaningful) information than is contained in the digital file. This question more or less states that the digital file should be as accurate a representation as possible of the original print, which is the same assumption made in the suggested duplicate. – Michael C Oct 20 at 8:51
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    @tfb I don't understand why you seem to be so resistant to the idea that what you are asking here appears to have already been asked and answered within this community. If the creators of the SE network did not desire to mark duplicate questions as such they would not have created the mechanism to do so as a core function of the way the SE networks operate. – Michael C Oct 20 at 23:24
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Considering that you put a significant amount of work in at the darkroom printing stage then scanning the print is the best way to go. However this can be done either by yourself using a your own scanner or by sending the originals to a company that will scan them to professional standard. The second option I would only use if the images were to be reproduced in a published book. A lot of this depends on what the digitized images will be used for - reproduction in a published book, your website, social media sharing, archival purposes. If the digitized images are only ever going to be viewed on a monitor (ie. they won't be reprinted) then you only need low resolution scans of the original print. A decent flatbed scanner should easily do the job and it shouldn't cost that much.

Personally I would scan the originals myself except for those few images that will be published in print form in which case I would consider using the services of a company to do the scanning for me.

  • So, in particular, do you think scanning is preferable to taking a careful picture (I mean, it is taking a picture, but I mean taking a picture with a good digital camera as opposed to with a scanner...)? That's a good answer if so. – user82065 Oct 17 at 13:09
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    Yes I definitely think scanning is preferable. A decent high quality camera will still have to face the difficulties of uneven lighting across the paper and also difficulty in producing consistent results with your different prints. – John Hawthorne Oct 17 at 14:25
  • Thanks. Unfortunately I've realised that this poses another problem as many of my prints are 12x16. I'll ask that as another question. – user82065 Oct 17 at 15:14
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    Be aware though, that many flatbed scanners don't work well with structured paper surfaces (matte, satin, silk). You may have to print on glossy PE paper for that to work. – jarnbjo Oct 18 at 0:06
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I recommend the second alternative, with some conditions.

I expect your prints to be often larger than A4, and a flatbed this size takes a lot of space, costs money, ...

If you have a wall available, place a vertical flat support on it, buy a piece of "museum glass" (it is basically invisible, no significant reflections, very thin, ...) and place the print between the two.

You can use a good dSLR to take the photo.

A square metre of museum glass costs about 350 Euro, which is about the same as a A3 flatbed scanner, which is smaller.

I'm not sure about flatbed, but the solution I propose allows you to take photos with zero visible reflections.

  • I'd like to be able to accept this and the scanning one! – user82065 Oct 18 at 11:12
  • @tfb You asked a question to get an answer that solves your problem... Are your prints up to A3? accept the other one. Are your prints above A3? then the other answer is good but doesn't solve the problem, so choose mine! :) – FarO Oct 18 at 11:41
  • Well, this is complicated. Yes, many are. But I very often (and perhaps always: I need to check) make smaller prints as preparation for final prints so I don't burn so much paper, and the image area of those is smaller than A4 even (9.5x12 paper, but image area is ~7x10.5 for 35mm). And a good A4 scanner is cheaper than a good DSLR which I don't own. So, as I said, it's complicated. – user82065 Oct 18 at 12:00
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The way major museums and institutions such as the Smithsonian do it is with a large format camera using a digital scan back under very controlled lighting.

enter image description here

Such a setup combines the strengths of flatbed scanners while scanning at very high resolutions and cameras that give greater control over the lighting used.

More details about such a setup and how it is used can be found at this answer to:

How to most accurately print a physical picture?

If the end goal is a digital image file, then the last step (printing the digital image file at whatever size/quality desired) need not be done.

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    This is an interesting answer in the sense of 'if I had huge funds I could do this', so thank you. Unfortunately I don't have unbounded funds... – user82065 Oct 18 at 11:10
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    @tfb Youdid ask, "What's the right way?' rather than "What's the most cost effective way?" ;-) – Michael C Oct 18 at 20:36
  • Yes, sorry, I meant 'right for someone without unlimited means': if I had unlimited means I'd just pay someone to do it and would not be asking. – user82065 Oct 19 at 8:04
  • Well, you did include in your question, "How this is done professionally – if museums or galleries, say, want to produce web pages with good images of physical prints, how do they do this?" – Michael C Oct 20 at 8:49
  • Depending on how exactly many images you want to digitize, just paying someone to do it might be the most cost effective method. – Michael C Oct 20 at 8:54
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For your purposes, scanning the print makes sense, as @John Hawthorne explains. However, photographers looking to create a digital archive of their film photography should always work with the negative or slide. The original has far more information on it than the print can capture, and a good high resolution scanner will preserve more of the lost detail (though still not as much as in the original).

Excellent information on this is available from the Library of Congress, like Personal Digital Archiving: The Basics of Scanning.

  • Yes, completely agree, and this is a useful pointer: thank you. In so far as I want to make an archive (I often scheme to burn all my negs before I die...) it would be of physical negs I think. – user82065 Oct 18 at 18:39

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