How to Digitize a Film Archive with Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw

Digitizing an archive of film images can be a time-consuming process. Instead of opening hundreds of individual scans in Photoshop, things will go much faster if you use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw with Adobe Bridge. Their streamlined workflows and ability to edit TIFF and JPEG files can accelerate the process of importing, editing, and organizing incoming scans.

This article assumes that you have some experience using Lightroom 4 or Adobe Camera Raw 7. What you’ve learned editing digital camera images in these applications will help you with film scans too.

Figure 1: You can quickly convert the film negatives on the left into digital image assets on the right, with the help of Lightroom or Camera Raw.

The Strategy

Large scanning projects can be slow going because scanning software can be awkward to work with, and it takes a lot of time to hand-correct hundreds of scans individually in Photoshop. You can usually work faster by using the tools in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw that are designed to process whole shoots in bulk. That’s why this workflow aims to minimize the time you spend working in your scanning software or in Photoshop, instead doing as much as makes sense in Lightroom and Camera Raw.

Once the images are in good shape on your computer, you can identify images of high value (such as those you want to use commercially or enlarge for gallery display), and process just those more carefully in Photoshop using advanced but more time-consuming methods than the ones I cover here.

Keep in mind that the goal here is not to produce finished files straight out of the scanner, but instead to scan the images in a less-processed form that makes it easy for you to work quickly in Lightroom or Camera Raw. Don’t be too concerned if images look unfinished during the scanning steps.

Clean the Film

Removing dust or dirt from film before you scan will save you hours of retouching time later. Film scratches easily, so clean it gently and carefully. Start by using compressed air or swipe lightly with a very clean cloth. Don’t apply water or whatever cleaning chemicals you have around the house; to remove stains or fingerprints use a product specifically made for film cleaning such as PEC-12.

If you’re using a flatbed scanner with a film adapter, make sure the glass is clean. You may want to wear a pair of cotton gloves to avoid adding fingerprints to the film or the scanner glass.

Set Up Automatic Folder Watching

In your scanning software, set it up to save all scans to a specific folder on your drive. I like to use a “holding area” folder where new scans are evaluated; for this article I’ll name that the “Scans to Process” folder. You can set up Lightroom and Adobe Bridge to automatically pick up every file your scanning software saves. Setting up each program works slightly differently.

For Lightroom, set up its Auto Import feature (choose File > Auto Import > Auto Import Settings). Set the Watched Folder to an empty folder that you don’t use to store anything else; I’ll name this the “Incoming Scans” folder. When you’ve done all that, enable Auto Import. From now on, when Lightroom sees a new image in the “Incoming Scans” folder it moves it into another destination folder (which I’ll set to my “Scans to Process” folder), and also adds that image to the current Lightroom catalog.

Figure 2: Use the Auto Import Settings dialog box in Lightroom to control how new scans are automatically imported into your Lightroom catalog.

If you want to use Bridge and Camera Raw instead, setting up Bridge is much easier. Just navigate the current Bridge window so that it’s viewing the folder you set up in your scanning software; new scans will appear in the Content pane.

After you’ve worked through your film scans in the Scans to Process folder, you can move them to their final destination in your film archive.

Figure 3: If you’re using Bridge, navigate the Bridge window to the folder where new scans will be saved. You’ll concentrate on the Content and Preview panels.

Set Up Your Scanning Software

Use a scanner that has film scanning capability built in. I use a scanner that digitizes only film, but it’s more common to have a general-purpose flatbed scanner that comes with adapters that securely hold different types of film and filmstrips in place and a way to light film from behind.

Figure 4: A four-frame strip of color negative film loaded into a film adapter for a flatbed scanner.

Your scanning software must know how to interpret film; this is especially important if you’re scanning negatives that need to be inverted to positive. Converting negative to positive isn’t as simple as using the Invert command in Photoshop in part because of variations in the color of the film base. Instead, if your scanner has a negative-to-positive option, turn it on because it will typically give you a good starting point for further correction.

If for some reason you’re not happy with the software that came with your scanner, see if other software can run it. I use VueScan; another option is SilverFast. Both are quite competent and support film scanning across a wide range of scanner models.

Scanning in bulk means you’ll want to apply default settings that produce great files for editing and output, so let’s take a look at those settings.

Set the Resolution

You may have heard image resolution guidelines that say 300 ppi is great for print and 72 dpi is great for the screen. Those are output resolutions, but scanning is a type of input. Because the input size of the film image is usually much smaller than the final output size of the film, you’ll need different numbers.

For example, if you want to be able to make an 8×12-inch print from a 35mm negative at 300 ppi, you don’t scan the tiny negative at 300 ppi because the image has to be enlarged. You first work out the pixel dimensions you’ll need for the print (output): 8 inches times 300 ppi equals 2400 pixels, and 12 inches times 300 ppi equals 3600 pixels, which give you pixel dimensions of 2400 x 3600 pixels. Then you work out what scanning (input) resolution you need to produce each of the pixel dimensions you want from the film size; for example, 3600 pixels divided by the 1.42-inch long side of a 35mm negative works out to 2535 ppi. You’d then choose the next highest setting in the scanning software as the input resolution, and that will give you at least 300 dpi for the final output size.

Figure 5: If you don’t have a calculator or spreadsheet handy, type into Google to calculate input resolution.

You may not have to do these calculations yourself. Some scanning software lets you enter the output resolution and your final output size, and then the software figures out the correct input resolution for the scan.

While you might be tempted to just set the scanner at its highest resolution, be aware that capturing unnecessary resolution makes each scan take up more storage space and require more RAM, CPU power, and time when editing, which also makes your scannin
g project take a lot longer. Also, don’t set a resolution higher than the maximum optical resolution of the scanner; resolutions above that simply interpolate existing pixels.

Set the Bit Depth

Bit depth describes how many tones or colors an image pixel can contain, in bits per pixel. While 8 bits per pixel is a standard bit depth for print or screen images, scan your film at 16 bits per pixel to better preserve tone and color quality when editing. It’s a lot like the workflow with digital cameras, which typically capture raw images at 12 to 16 bits per channel. You work with them in software such as Lightroom which edits at 16 bits per channel, and then you export final images for print or screen at 8 bits per channel. (16 bits per channel may be labeled 48-bit when referring to all three RGB channels together.)

Choose a File Format

Because we’re creating scans as a starting point for editing (not final images), you want to save scans to a file format that maintains image quality as you edit. TIFF is a good choice because (unlike JPEG) it preserves all of the original scan quality, just about all scanning software can save it, and nearly all image editors can open it. In addition, the editing software I focus on in this article—Lightroom and Camera Raw—can edit TIFF files.

Some scanning software can save scans in a format it calls “raw,” which is not the same as camera raw. Scans are pre-processed into RGB mode under certain technical assumptions, unlike camera raw files which are completely unprocessed. While scans cannot give you every editing advantage of camera raw files, the way we’ll scan will give us some of those benefits.

Set the Color Profile

If your scanning software gives you the option to save scans using a specific color space with an embedded color profile, use that option and choose a standard color profile such as ProPhoto RGB, Adobe RGB, or sRGB, in that order as available. Embedding the profile helps Lightroom or Camera Raw interpret image colors consistently.

Set Up File Naming

Your scanning software will probably let you set up a filename template before you start scanning. Digital cameras name files automatically, but for scans you need to come up with a consistent way to uniquely name each new file. You can use a system like year_roll_frame (for example, 2013_56_34.tif). The reason you might avoid naming files using dates alone is that you may not be able to remember or determine what time, day, month, or even year when some film frames were taken.

Set up the Scanning Software

To let the powerful tools in Lightroom or Camera Raw correct the images, we don’t want to get bogged down making detailed corrections in the scanning software. Instead, we’re going to scan the film only with the few corrections that are best done at the scanner, and leave the rest to Lightroom and Camera Raw.

Select Options to Use at Scan Time

Set the options covered in the previous section, such as resolution, and consider setting the following options that are typically better addressed at scan time:

Exposure. I’m talking about overall exposure, not about setting the black point and white point. In many scanners auto-exposure will be fine, but verify this use the clipping indicators in your scanning software; if it doesn’t have that feature use the histogram instead. Aim for including the entire range of tones in the scan so that highlights and shadows aren’t clipped to lose detail.

Figure 6: The blue clipping indicator in the scanning software shows areas where shadows clip to black. In this case the clipped shadow areas are acceptable because they represent an interior through windows. The blue along the left is the empty space between filmstrip frames.

While we’re typically trained to bring in the black point and white point to optimize contrast, for this workflow don’t pull them in when scanning. The extra room helps the Auto White Balance and Auto Tone features be more effective in Lightroom or Camera Raw.

Figure 7: Setting white balance and contrast for this color negative film image in Lightroom and Camera Raw should go quickly because this histogram indicates that all tones are included and not clipped at the ends.

Negative conversion. As I mentioned earlier, set your scanning software to convert negatives so that they’re already positive when they get to Lightroom or Camera Raw.

Defect removal. Many scanners can detect dust or scratches on the film and then repair them in the saved scan. If your film has physical damage, turning on this feature can significantly reduce the amount of retouching you have to do. Because physical defects are typically detected with the help of an additional scanner pass using infrared light, removing dust and scratches later from saved scans with software doesn’t work as well. There are advanced workflows that let you perform hardware-based defect removal long after the scan, but they’re outside the scope of this article.

Figure 8: Defect removal options in VueScan.

Color restoration. Some scanning software can restore color that’s faded and shifted due to age and bad film processing. Start with this option off, but if you later find that color damage makes it hard to correct scans quickly in Lightroom or Camera Raw, try rescanning those frames with color restoration turned on.

Grain reduction. You might first try scanning without using grain reduction; fine grain can be reduced using noise reduction in Lightroom and Camera Raw. If the level of grain turns out to be objectionable you might re-scan those frames with this option turned on. But don’t turn it up so high that details turn to mush.

Scanning for Lightroom or Camera Raw

To leave the bulk of image processing to Lightroom or Camera Raw, there are more settings you won’t have to adjust at the scanner even though this may seem counterintuitive at first. Turn off automatic image correction, and don’t worry about color balance, brightness, contrast, the tone curve, bringing in the black point and white point, sharpening, rotation, or precise aesthetic cropping. You’ll be able to apply these corrections much faster in Lightroom or Camera Raw.

At this point you should be ready to feed film into the scanner and get going. Use your scanning software’s Preview feature to verify settings before committing to a final saved scan.

Figure 9: This four-frame filmstrip is being scanned and converted to positive during a preview pass in the scanning software. It has a green cast, but don’t worry about that yet.

Check the Scans As You Go

As each frame is scanned and saved, it should appear in Lightroom or Bridge if you set up folder watching earlier. This is convenient because you can see how things are going without repeatedly opening files.

Figure 10: Scans from a filmstrip appearing over time in Bridge.

In Lightroom, press the Z key to toggle between thumbnail view and Loupe (1:1) magnification. In Bridge, click an image in the Preview panel to inspect it with a loupe, or press the spacebar to open the selected image in a full-screen view that you can z
oom with the +/- keys or by clicking. In both programs, pressing the left arrow or right arrow keys moves through the images even when magnified.

Remember that the scans don’t have to look final; expect them to look flat and unsaturated.

Figure 11: Toggle the Loupe view in Lightroom by pressing Z.

Figure 12: In Bridge, click an image in the Preview panel to bring up the Loupe.

Make Corrections in Lightroom or Camera Raw

You can start editing while the scanner continues digitizing in the background. Select a scan in the Scans to Process folder in Lightroom or Bridge. In Lightroom, switch to the Develop module (press D). If you’re using Bridge, choose File > Open in Camera Raw. As with a digital camera file, in either application start at the top of the Basic panel by adjusting White Balance and work your way down. I talk about these controls in more detail in my CreativePro article review of Lightroom 4.

Figure 13: This old image is getting into shape after applying Auto white balance and less than a minute of Develop adjustments in Lightroom, though the Tint could be nudged a little more away from green.

Applying a Tone Curve

After the initial adjustment pass, the scan may look OK but not quite dense enough; areas may look noisy and splotchy no matter what you do in the Basic panel. This particular issue is more about the distribution of tones rather than actual image noise or grain, and you can fix this in the Tone Curve panel:

  1. Make sure the Tone Curve panel is in Point Curve mode. In Lightroom you toggle this setting by clicking the icon at the bottom left corner of the Tone Curve panel; in Camera Raw click the Point tab.
  2. In Lightroom, select the Targeted Adjustment Tool (TAT) at the top left corner of the Tone Curve panel.
  3. Look for a splotchy area in the transition from midtone to shadow, and position the mouse over that area.
  4. In Lightroom drag the TAT downward from that area until the tones appear to even out; in Camera Raw Command-click (OS X) or Ctrl-click (Windows) that area and then press the down arrow key until the tones appear to even out. The image will darken, especially in the shadows, but the overall tonal quality should now look a lot more like a print from that film frame.

Figure 14: Adjust the Tone Curve to distribute tones more smoothly for some film scans.

Reducing Grain

Seen close up, the amount of grain in film scans can seem a bit shocking if you’ve been editing files from recent digital cameras. It’s easy to be tempted to smooth out every last grain, but that tends to destroy detail. It turns out that our eyes are a lot more sensitive to color noise than luminance noise, and fortunately Lightroom and Camera Raw let you reduce these different types of noise separately.

In Lightroom or Camera Raw, go to the Detail panel and first increase the Color value in the Noise Reduction section starting at a low value such as 10. As the color noise goes away the image should look much more acceptable, especially with skin tones.

Now you can adjust Luminance noise reduction. As you balance Sharpening with Luminance noise reduction, keep in mind that letting a little grain maintain some “bite” in a film image can increase its believability, compared to obliterating fine details with the grain.

Figure 15: A little Color Noise Reduction goes a long way with grainy film scans; luminance-based grain is not nearly as objectionable.

In the Sharpening panel you can create a mask that helps keep sharpening from accentuating existing grain in broad areas like skin, by dragging the Masking slider to the right. Option-dragging (OS X) or Alt-dragging (Windows) that slider lets you preview the mask.

Figure 16: Use the Masking feature to restrict Sharpening to edges and details.

More Fast Fixes

We’re working in Lightroom or Camera Raw not just for the great noise reduction and masked sharpening, but also to take advantage of options such as Shadows, Highlights, Clarity, and Post-Crop Vignette that are easier and faster to use in Lightroom or Camera Raw than their equivalents in Photoshop. If you notice that there’s a color cast only in the shadows, you can address that using the Split Toning panel.

Apply Common Changes to Many Images

Here’s one of the biggest opportunities to save time. You’ve got one scan in great shape, but you scanned a whole roll or more. Luckily, you won’t have to go through all of the steps above for the rest of the images. There’s a good chance the rest of the scans from the same roll need essentially the same corrections, and you can apply those corrections instantly to any number of other images by using the powerful synchronization features in Lightroom and Camera Raw.

For Lightroom:

  1. Select the images you want to correct in bulk, then click the image you’ve already corrected to make it the source image for the sync. It will appear lighter than the others.
  2. Click the Sync button near the bottom right corner of the Develop module.
  3. Specify the settings you want to sync, and then click Synchronize.

Figure 17: To correct images in bulk, sync the Develop settings of one image and paste them onto any number of others as shown here in Lightroom. Then sit back and watch all the image thumbnails update before your eyes.

For Bridge and Camera Raw:

  1. In Bridge, select the images you want to correct in bulk and choose File > Open in Camera Raw.
  2. In Camera Raw, then click the image you’ve already corrected to make it the source image for the sync. An outline will appear around that image’s thumbnail.
  3. Click Select All to select the rest of the images you opened in Camera Raw.
  4. Click Synchronize, specify the settings you want to sync, and then click OK.
  5. Click Done.

The thumbnail images of the scans update as the settings you pasted are instantly applied to them. Being able to instantly synchronize adjustments across many scans in Lightroom or Camera Raw lets you edit in bulk far faster than if you used only Photoshop.

Make Image-Specific Fixes

Some images may need unique adjustments. Here you can take advantage of the Crop tool, Lens Correction panel (to compensate for perspective, lens distortions, and chromatic aberrations), the Graduated Filter and Adjustment Brush tools, and the Spot Removal and Red-Eye Correction tools.

Long scratches are a common problem with film scans, but this is one thing Lightroom and Camera Raw can’t address effectively. You’ll have to open the image in Photoshop, fix the scratches there with a tool such as the Healing Brush, save the image and return to Lightroom or Bridge. To open a selected image into Photoshop from the Lightroom Develop module, choose Photo > Edit In > Adobe Photoshop; for an image selected in
Bridge simply press Enter or Return.

Figure 18: The Lens Correction panel in Lightroom straightened out this image, in addition to the fixes applied in the Basic panel.

Make the Scans Easier to Find

The other big win with this workflow is being able to apply metadata en masse using the Keywording, Keyword List, and Metadata panels in the Library module in Lightroom, or in the Keywords and Metadata panels in Bridge. Metadata can include your copyright notice, rights usage, and contact information (often important for images you license and social media). Filling in the names of people and location information can be valuable for historical and family photos. In Lightroom you can use the Map module to geotag (assign precise location data to) your scans.

Just as you instantly synchronized develop settings across any number of selected images in Lightroom or Bridge, you can sync metadata. It’s a little easier in Lightroom where you can choose Metadata > Copy Metadata/Paste Metadata. In Bridge you have to create metadata templates first (which you can also do in Lightroom).

Export final copies

Lightroom and Camera Raw save your edits as metadata attached to the image, not by altering the image’s pixels. This means your changes may not be visible if you view these TIFF files in non-Adobe software. If you’re happy with your changes and want to make them permanent, export final versions of them.

  1. Select the images you want to export.
  2. In Lightroom, click the Export button in the Library module. If you’re using Bridge, choose File > Open in Camera Raw, click the Select All button, then click the Save Images button.
  3. Set up the export settings to preserve all of the current file attributes (size, resolution, format, metadata, and so on). Set the destination folder to a different folder than the one where the current files reside; for example, you can make the destination the final folder you want archive them.
  4. In Lightroom click Export, or in Camera Raw click Save.

Share and Enjoy

After efficiently processing hundreds of film scans, you can turn your rediscovered film images into digital photos you can now hang on the wall and share on the web. You only have to see the archives of historical imagery from past decades filling websites such as Flickr, or the “Scanning Around with Gene” series on CreativePro.com, to appreciate the value of bringing your own film archive back into the light.

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Posted on: April 10, 2013

Conrad Chavez

Conrad Chavez writes books, articles, and training materials with a focus on digital imaging using Adobe Creative Cloud tools. He is the author of books such as Real World Adobe Photoshop CS5 for Photographers, and is a photographer. You can find out more about Conrad at his website, conradchavez.com.

3 Comments on How to Digitize a Film Archive with Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw

  1. Thanks for this effort.’CreativePro’ should be commended for adding this article up front to this issue. All of us have no doubt grappled with this problem from the time we first used digital images. Having a current and thoroughly argued viewpoint on this is valuable. While I have done a great deal of this kind of thing on office and home scanners I was always grateful to a Virginia-based imaging outfit that supplemented my efforts for years, creating DVDs that were very manageable and useable and can today be easily transferred to cloud storage for use as needed. This service had a good sense of what to do, producing five scans per film image, ranging from a thumbnail through a mini up to a result that produced a respectable 8 x 10 print. For an extra charge per film image they would produce a scan suitable for printing a gallery respectable photograph. Again thanks.

  2. I found a box of negatives at my mom’s that probably start around 1915. I can’t scan the negatives with my Epson 4180 photo scanner because they’re too large. Are there adaptors available that will hold 2.5 x 4″ negatives? It will be quite costly to have them all scanned by a professional.

  3. Does that company still exist, and if so, can you supply the name?

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