Since diving back into film photography again early this year, I’ve run into a strange debate over whether you should or shouldn’t edit your scans.

To be perfectly honest, I think this is all rather silly, and while I don’t edit my scans to the same degree others might, the idea is to walk away with an image that you’re happy with.

Some might argue that you are corrupting the character of the film by editing your scans.

Frankly, I believe the people making this argument simply don’t understand how images are made in the darkroom and are burdened by the belief that everything should happen in the camera.

In this post, I explore the process by which color film is printed and why you should edit your film scans.

A negative is not a finished image

Why you should edit your film scans

When you process a roll of C-41 film, say Portra 400, the film goes through a series of baths that go something like this: develop, wash, fix, wash, dry. There are some processes that add or remove wash steps, and some that will add a reagent step, but for the most part, this is how color negative films are developed.

For many, including myself, this is where the darkroom process ends, and a scanner is used to convert each frame into a digital image.

And this is where I think much of the confusion comes from. The fact is a negative isn’t a finished image. It’s an intermediary step.

Making a positive

Why you should edit your film scans

While there are several ways to turn a negative into a final print, the way I learned to do it is a process called wet printing.

This involves projecting light through the negative on to a sheet of photosensitive paper. Once exposed, the paper goes through a development process very similar to the one used to develop the film.

Photographers can enact edits in the darkroom by controlling the amount of light projected through the enlarger, the quality of light, and how long the photo paper is exposed. On color film enlargers there is even greater control. Photographers can adjust the color balance of the image by applying cyan, magenta, and yellow filters to various degrees.

Digital conveniences

The process I’ve just described is a time consuming and, in the case of color printmaking, a highly technical one that requires years of practice. For this reason, very few labs to my knowledge offer true enlargement-based wet printing services anymore.

Instead, many labs will produce prints digitally. This process involves scanning the negatives and converting them into a positive image. During the scanning process, color corrections are made either by a technician or automatically by a computer.

Once the scan has been made, a print can be produced using the traditional wet printing process or on an inkjet printer.

The YouTuber NegativeFeedback does a nice job of explaining the process if you’d like to learn more about how prints are made.

Scanning is inconsistent

One thing that’s important to understand about scanning is it’s inconsistent. If you have a roll of film developed and scanned, and then decide you want to have a higher-resolution scan made, you may be surprised to discover the images look completely different.

This is because when labs produce scans as part of development, they are using an automated film scanner. For high-resolution scans, labs will almost always use a flatbed scanner or in some cases a drum scanner that has to be manually calibrated.

In fact scanning your images on a flatbed, whether by a technician at the lab or by you at home, is not that different from the control a photographer has when making a color print in the darkroom. And depending on the software being used, you might even have more control.

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How I edit my film scans

There are a lot of ways to edit your film scans. Search YouTube and you’re bound to find dozens of videos on the subject. And while some take a heavy-handed approach in an attempt to replicate a certain look, I prefer a lighter touch.

I make all of my edits using Lightroom and Photoshop in three simple steps.

1. Set the White Balance (Lightroom)

Illustration of white balance correction
In the first image, the white balance in this frame captured on Kodak Portra 160 has a green cast. The second image shows the corrected image which is much closer to the actual lighting.

I like to start every edit by looking at all of the images on the roll to see if the color temperature is off for some or all the photos. In many cases, the color temperature is off by the same amount in all of the photos making the correction quick and easy to apply.

However, in some cases, it is necessary to tweak each photo. I find when adjusting the white balance of my images, a little nudge toward the warmer or cooler tones is all that’s required.

Correcting the color temperature on scans can, however, be tricky, especially on JPEGs. There is only so much data to push and pull in a JPEG. If the white balance is completely off, you may need to have the frame rescanned.

2. Adjust the exposure (Lightroom)

Portrait demonstrating exposure correction
In this portrait captured on FujiFilm C200, the scan is improved considerably by boosting the exposure by just 1/3 of a stop.

Next, I go through each of the photos and adjust the exposure. Typically, I’ll push or pull the exposure by up to half a stop to get the image dialed in.

While I may use the highlights and shadow sliders in Lightroom occasionally, I tend to avoid using them when editing JPEG images or scans. But, these sliders can help in a pinch if you don’t go crazy.

Depending on how the scanner sets the black point, darker regions can also come out looking a little grey. Thankfully, dragging the black point slider in Lightroom to the left a few notches, typically does the trick.

3. Corrections (Photoshop)

Occasionally, you’ll discover dust or residue from the development process has made its way into your scan. A bit of time with the healing brush in Photoshop can quickly do away with these flaws.

Not every scan comes out free of dust, debris or residue from the development process. To clean this up, I’ll pull the image into Photoshop and use the healing brush to meticulous clean up any flaws.

I don’t have to do this for every image, but it has certainly saved a few bad scans.

You can do this is Lightroom, but for some reason, I find that photoshop does a little bit better job.

Optional: Crop and straighten (Lightroom)

Finally, I’ll crop and straighten my images to improve the composition or cut out distractions. These crops tend to be pretty minor though. At 8 megapixels, there isn’t much resolution to begin with, but I’ve always felt that good composition will always win out over resolution.

There is no right or wrong way to do it

The last thing I want to mention is there is not a right or wrong way to edit your film scans. Film is a starting point — and color negative film is a pretty good one.

If you need to completely transform your image to recreate the vision in your head, that’s what it takes. It’s really no different than starting with a digital image.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:

  • Do you shoot film today?
  • What’s your favorite film stock?
  • Do you scan and edit your negatives?

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