How I process and scan film

Several people have e-mailed me recently, asking for information on the techniques I use to process and scan my film. Here are some of the details of my own particular “workflow”.

  1. Preparation. I develop B&W film in my kitchen, without a darkroom. In fact, I haven’t had a permanent darkroom since I was a teenager. Instead, I use a black cloth changing bag to manipulate the film (loading reels and bulk loaders) in complete darkness. I load the film onto stainless steel reels and then insert them into stainless steel tanks. Some of my reels and tanks are Nikor brand, but most are no-name versions. All were bought second-hand. I prefer stainless steel tanks and reels as I actually find them easier to load than plastic reels, and they use smaller volumes of chemistry per roll.
  2. Chemistry. Recently, the developers I am using most often are Instant MYTOL (“1+1” dilution) and Barry Thornton’s two-bath developer. Both are described elsewhere on this site (click on the links) and are favourites for their mix of convenience, quality, and economy. I occasionally use Rodinal for extra-slow films or in medium format (I find it too grainy for most 35mm film), and PC-TEA when the mood strikes. The stop bath is diluted Ilfostop, a weak citric acid solution, or just plain water. Fixer is Ilford Rapid Fix, diluted according to Ilford’s instructions. I do not use a hypo clearing agent. I use Photographer’s Formulary wetting agent.
  3. Processing. I develop my films mostly “by the book”, agitating with 2-3 inversions every minute. I aim to develop at 22C most of the time, but I do not do anything special to keep the temperature constant after the developer has ben mixed at the correct temperature. I do not adjust the stop bath or fixer temperature at any point, unless there are gross deviations from the developer temperature. I estimate fixing time by checking the clearing time for a piece of scrap film and tripling this value.
  4. Washing. I use Ilford’s wash method, which saves time and water. I do not use a hardening fixer (there is no need to), so wash times are kept short and hypo clearing agent is not required.
  5. Final rinse and drying. I dilute Photographer’s Formulary wetting agent in distilled water at the rate of about 10 drops per litre and soak the film for a minute or two. I then hang the film in a freshly steamed shower stall, using clothespins attached to a wire hanger suspended from the shower head.
  6. Filing. I cut the negatives and store them in Print-File sleeves. Each roll gets a serial number, such as 0716 (the 16th roll developed in 2007), and so each frame number has a unique frame, e.g. 0716-22 (frame 22 on roll 0716).
  7. Scanning. I use a Minolta Scan Dual II (a very old scanner, ca. 2001) for scanning 35mm film, and an Epson Perfection 4180 for scanning 120-format. I scan on the highest available resolution with the Minolta and at 1200 or 2400 dpi for the Epson. Both scanners are driven by Vuescan. B&W film always gets scanned as a 16-bit grayscale TIFF in “colour slide” mode, which preserves all the information on the negative. I have found no advantage to scanning in colour, or at higher resolutions on the 4180.
  8. Photoshop work-up. The scanned files are brought into Photoshop 7, “inverted” to create a positive, cropped as needed, and then trimmed with the Levels tool (black and white point adjustments) to fill the histogram completely with the available image values. This ensures that I get a clean white and clean black in the image. I often do a small Curves adjustment at this stage to make the positive look more realistic (this is a fault of the Invert tool, which does not provide a photographically realistic inversion of values). I then convert the image to 8-bit mode, make a duplicate layer and run the Polaroid Dust and Scratch Removal tool (followed by a manual dust clean-up).Until recently, the next stage of image processing was a Curves adjustment layer, followed by Unsharp Mask on the duplicate layer. However, I’ve recently taken to increasing edge contrast with an Unsharp Mask on the duplicate layer with settings 30% / 30 pixels / threshold 3-5. This gives the illusion of greater edge sharpness — restoring what’s lost in the scanning process — while avoiding “sharpened grain”. Sometimes I follow this sharpening step up with another Unsharp Mask at 100% / 1 pixel / threshold 0 and/or a slight Curves tweak on an adjustment layer.Darkroom-type manipulations I often use are Curves adjustment layers on masked parts of the image (to simulate local burning and dodging), edge burning (also using a Curves adjustment layer on the edge of the image), and image toning using the TLR B&W toning action set. I make liberal use of the Feather tool for layer masks to make the transitions seem more natural.
  9. File saving and archiving. Files get saved in full resolution as PSD files (with layers intact) and JPEGs (with layers collapsed). The shrinked JPEGs are what make it to my site, via Flickr.

I hope this description of my personal workflow helps whoever finds it. I look forward to your comments.