Film scanning checklist

12 things you should do before, during, and after you scan film

If you've been weaned on 35mm SLRs, as I have, you probably have a large (and aging) collection of 35mm slides and negatives socked away in a (hopefully archival) storage box or closet. And if you've read Jerry O'Neill's recent article, "Chromes to Pixels," you already know how important it is to digitize those images for safekeeping. The option that will give you the most control over your images and the best image quality is to scan each image with a film scanner.

There are specific things you should do whenever you scan film to get the best image onto your computer as efficiently as possible. I've broken them down into 12 steps. Follow this procedure with each image you scan and you'll be satisfied with the results.

Blow, baby, blow: Just like in the darkroom, use compressed air, such as Dust Off Plus (right) to blow dust and hair off slides and negatives before scanning.

Before scanning

1. Have the right software. I recommend Photoshop Elements 3 or higher.

2. Blow dust off your film. You'd be surprised how much hair and dust will accumulate, even on film that's been stored in seemingly hermetically sealed conditions. Use Dust-Off or similar compressed air product and blast the front and back of the slide or neg before loading it into the scanner.

During scanning

1. Check the preview: Most scanners can make a quick preview scan of your film which takes a few seconds compared to the full-resolution scan.

2. Adjust the historgram: The image may look too dark or light on screen. The histogram will likely have an area on either side where there is no jagged line indicating light on the image. To make the image lighter, slide the right arrow to the left until you start seeing jagged lines. To make it darker, slide the left arrow right.

3. Set image size: Make sure your full-resolution isn't too large or too small. If you're making an 8x10 print from your scan, you don't need a 25MB, 5400x3560 pixel file, but you will need one that's larger than 1MB. Check your scanner interface and change pixel width as needed.

Histogram lesson: Does your pre-scan image look too dark or light? You can adjust the levels on the histogram (or "curves") to achieve correct exposure. The dotted vertical line shows where inactive signal area was clipped. This little change lightened the image quite a bit.

Did someone cough up a hairball on this shot? This slide was full of dust, hair, you name it--the image you see here is what I got after I used Dust-Off! But I got rid of any dust remaining after the scan in less than five minutes by using Photoshop Elements 3's amazingly effective Healing tool.

After scanning

1. Name the image: when it's first scanned into your computer, your image has no name. Save it, and at the same time choose the image format; the best is .PSD (Photoshop) if you're using that software, so you can take full advantage of all the layer options.

2. Crop: When a slide or strip of film is scanned, a bit of the border will show, and usually it isn't even. In Photoshop (or an equivalent program) use your crop tool to get rid of the border. Photoshop Elements 3 and later lets you maintain the desired aspect ratio by modifying the crop tool.

3. Check focus: Most printers will produce a good, sharp image, but some slide may have curled with age. Make sure corner sharpness is sufficient. Check your manual if you are having focus problems to determine how to fix focus.

4. Adjust color, contrast and brightness: Try using the auto adjustments; they often work fine. The exceptions? If there is a dominant color, or if the photo is intentionally contrasty or brighter/darker than normal. Try the adjustments first, and if they don't work, make the adjustments manually.

5. Heal imperfections: No matter how much effort you put into cleaning a film image before scanning, there's almost always going to be some dust or hair on it. I've found the fastest way to remove dust is via Photoshop's Healing tool--the main reason why I recommend Photoshop Elements 3 or higher. Simply select the healing tool, adjust brush width, enlarge the image so you can see the dust, then (preferably using a stylus and graphics tablet) go through the image and select the spots. Make sure they're completely enclosed in the selected area. The software does the rest--moments after you've selected the spot, it simply disappears.

6. If all else fails, clone: Sometimes the healing tool won't work--especially if the hair or dust is over a transitional area of the image, where contrasting colors or shades meet. That's where the clone tool might work better. Try the Healing tool first, but if it gives you strange results, clone away!

7. Store your images somewhere safe: You don't want to lose all of your hard work, so back up your images, early and often! An external hard drive will hold an entire computer's worth of info, but might crash on occasion. DVD-R disks hold around 5MB, but they're more stable and you may already have a DVD writer built into your computer!

You may add other steps to these--for instance, you may want to increase color saturation, or clone out distracting elements, but these are optional, and you can do this later on. But the above steps will give you a perfectly usable basic image, with no gimmics.

As you go through your old slides and decide which ones to scan, you may rediscover some hidden treasures, as I have. Once they're digital, you can print your images easily (remember how hard it used to be to make a color print from a slide?) on an inkjet printer or through an online processing service such as Adorama PIX. You can send low-res versions to friends on email or post them on a personal web site. In other words, once you have a scanner, everything you can do with your digital-camera images, you can now also do with your slides and negs!

Now this is cat's meow: After healing away the dust, cropping out the slide holder border, and fixing overall brightness and contrast, this nearly 30-year-old, slightly overexposed image looks better than ever! I photographed these kittens at a pet photography class that I took in 1976, taught by legendary animal photographer Walter Chandoah, at the Germain School of Photography in New York. (Walter's pet photos appeared everywhere--including cans of Purina cat food.) During this class, I realized I could never be a pet photographer: I was (and still am) allergic to shedding critters--no matter how cute they are!

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