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 Scanning Software File Options

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.

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Posted on: April 10, 2013

Conrad Chavez

Conrad Chavez writes about digital photography and Adobe Creative Cloud workflows. He is the author or co-author of many books including Adobe Photoshop CC Classroom in a Book (2017 release), and is also a photographer. You can find out more about Conrad at his website, conradchavez.com.

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