My Film+Digital Hybrid Workflow

Someone emailed recently asking about my film+digital “hybrid” workflow. While replying, I realized that I’d never written a soup-to-nuts post about this, describing the whole process from beginning to end. I can imagine eyes glazing over out there in blog-reader land; but hey, it’s a slow news day, so read on, if you dare. Obviously, I claim no superiority of my methods and habits over yours; and if you can suggest something to make my workflow faster, easier, or better (preferably all three), I’m all ears.

So, here goes:

1. In a large lightproof Fuji film-changing tent, I load the film onto the appropriate Jobo reel. (All film, from 35mm to 4×5, goes onto a reel in the Jobo way of doing things. Jobo reels are essentially the same as the Paterson-type plastic reels that many of you have used to hand-process roll film in small tanks; they’re simply larger in diameter.) The reels then go into the cylindrical Jobo tank, which goes into the ATL-1500 processor’s water-bath well.

2. I select the correct processing cycle—most often “C-41 Three Bath”; fill the processor’s chemistry bottles—developer, bleach, and fixer, in that order, for C-41;  fill the water bath with tempered water; press the start button, and find something more interesting or obnoxious (like this post) to work on. I listen for the very faint whistle from the Jobo announcing that processing is finished. (Faint whistles often don’t get heard in our house, as they emanate from the far corner of the basement, and must compete for attention against kids, a dog, and media of all kinds blaring away.) For C-41, this takes about 25 minutes or so. I can do up to 6 rolls of 120 or 12 4×5 sheets in a single batch, using up to about 750mL each of the three chemistry steps. It’s all one-shot; nothing is reused.

3. I pop the Jobo tank’s lid, add a couple of drops of PhotoFlo concentrate for each roll in the tank, and fill it with tempered water (I’ve seen reticulation before; it ain’t pretty.)  It sits there for a minute or two in this solution, which is essentially a surfactant that counters water’s annoying tendency to cling tenaciously to itself and to any surface it contacts, forming droplets. Removing the rolls from their reels, I attach clips to both ends of each roll, and seesaw the roll a few times through the PhotoFlo water in the tank to make sure all water just sheets off the film. Knock-wood, I’ve had few problems with water spots.

I’m big on temperature control. It’s key to producing consistent results, and is probably the most frequently overlooked or disregarded step in processing film. In addition to having 10-micron filters on both cold and hot supply lines, my homemade water panel has a Hass Intellifaucet microprocessor-controlled water mixing valve. Best darkroom investment I ever made, aside from the Jobo. (The Jobo heats solutions to their proper temperature, but relies on a tempered water supply for the water bath and for the film’s rinse/wash water.)

4. I hang the rolls or sheets to dry in my MacGuyver’ed film dryer, consisting of an old Premier film-dryer head (filters, heats, and blows air) and a zippered plastic clothes-storage bag—the kind shaped like a long rectangular box, that you put over those out-of-season clothes in your closet to keep off dust. 45 minutes usually does it. I leave the dried film in this relatively-dust-free environment until I’m ready to work further with it.

5. When I’m ready to start scanning, I remove the rolls from the dryer, cut them into strips, and sleeve the strips in Archival Methods Side Lock sleeves. In the past I’ve used Print File pages, but the sleeves are easier to handle and make more sense when you shoot several different 120/220 image formats like I do. I wear white cloth gloves when handling film, to keep skin oil off the negatives. Sounds, and looks, pompous; but it’d be a damn shame, having worked so hard to make a decent image, to plant a big greasy thumbprint dead center in a keeper image.

5. I fire up the Hasselblad (formerly Imacon) 646, load the appropriate negative holder for the format I’m scanning (6×6, 6×7, or 4×5 are all I shoot), launch Imacon’s proprietary FlexColor software, and prescan. In a few seconds, I have a low-res scan of the image in question. I adjust its edge crop, and check to see that black and white points encompass the image’s entire tonal range. I apply no contrast curve (gamma = 1), color correction, noise/grain reduction, or sharpening in the scanner software. My scanning workflow is designed to capture all the information that the film possesses with only minimal adjustment; everything else I do in post-processing.

6. I hit “scan” again, and in a couple minutes or less, I have a high-res TIFF ready to import into post-processing software. I generally scan 6×6 and 6×7 images at 16 bits and 1000-1600 ppi, producing a 25-50 MB file from a medium-format negative. If I’m fairly certain an image is destined for greater things, I can go up to 3200 ppi from medium format, and up to 2040 ppi from 4×5. At 300 ppi output resolution, this translates into 24 inch prints with no uprezzing. Only once have I needed to print larger than the 17 inch paper my Epson 3800 printer can handle, however; and I had more than enough pixels to do the job.

7. I repeat steps 5 and 6 for each image on the roll, excepting those that with deal-breaking technical flaws that are obvious in the pre-scan. This, friends, is the tedious part of scanning. It takes a lot of human-user intervention, even with a relatively sophisticated scanner like the Hasselblad. Flatbeds and dedicated prosumer film scanners, and even more so the Imacons and drum scanners, are optimized more to crank out high quality individual images than to scan through an entire roll rapidly and automatically. For that you’d need something like a Fuji Frontier and the skills to operate it. As partial compensation for this tedium, I try to achieve some efficiency of operations by working on steps in parallel. So while the next film frame is being scanned, I begin work on the ones I’ve already scanned. So often, I find that steps 5 and 6 are interleaved with steps 8 and beyond:

8. I import the new TIFF into either Lightroom (LR) or, increasingly, Aperture (AP). I apply basic metadata (contact info, copyright labeling, general image info) during the import. I also, via import presets, apply capture sharpening, a “medium” contrast curve, “clarity” (midtone contrast adjustment), and auto-exposure (LR) to the image. This gets me in the ballpark for most of my images.  If I have done my job in-camera, there’s often little more to do after import than this.

Note that capture sharpening and output sharpening are distinctly different processes. The former is required for all digital images, whether native digital capture or scanned film, to restore sharpness lost in the process of creating the digital image. The latter is done just before final output to optimize the image’s appearance for a specific output medium: screen, matte print, glossy print, etc.

9. I quickly look at all the images I’ve scanned and imported, and decide which ones are keepers deserving further work; only those get additional editing effort. My process for this is pretty loose; good ones get marked with a flag or a star or something similar. I don’t have a complex rating system of stars or colors. The keepers get closer scrutiny, and further adjustments to all the image parameters I ball-parked with presets during import. Mostly, that means fine-tuning black and white points, white balance, contrast, sharpening, and dust spotting. I rarely find the need to go to Photoshop for pixel editing, except for complex dust removal that can’t be handled by the rudimentary  spotting tools in LR and AP; or for more complex regional image corrections that require masking beyond LR/AP’s capabilities. I don’t do much of that, either; I’m pretty film-centric and in general tend to accept, and work with, whatever the camera produces, flaws and all.

That’s mostly it. Once the files are edited and corrected, they’re ready to be output where needed: low-res JPEGs for emailing; higher-quality JPEG’s for blog/website/Flickr posting; or the highest-quality images at 360 ppi for printing. Other than adjusting output sharpening for the intended destination medium, I do no further image correction at this stage.

So what are my points of pain, the places that really slow me down or frustrate me?

1. Processing? Not so much. The Jobo really makes it easy. Loading Jobo reels is mostly pain free, as long as the film and reels are totally dry, and my arms inside the stuffy changing tent aren’t hot enough to steam up the interior of the tent and condense moisture onto the reels. (This has happened to me in the summer, and it’s damn near impossible to load a moist Jobo reel.) And I’d like to be able to reuse the costly and increasingly scarce C-41 bleach solution, but finding the necessary attachment to do this with the Jobo isn’t worth the cost and trouble.

2. Scanning? This is where it hurts. I have to scan each image, keeper or not, in order to decide whether it is a keeper. It would be far better just to examine each negative on a light table with a loupe, but I find this considerably more difficult to do through the orange mask of a color negative. In contrast, it’s trivially simple to eyeball positive transparencies, but I don’t shoot those. And I’ve yet to devise a satisfactory digital replacement for the old analog “contact sheet.” Remember those? You plopped your strips of negatives onto a piece of photo paper in the darkroom, flattened them with a glass cover, and made a contact print of the lot of them. You could then loupe the print to figure out which images you wanted to spend time enlarging, dodging, burning, etc.

It seems like I should be able to do this with my flatbed scanner, but I’ve not been happy with my previous attempts. The problems are both practical and technical; where am I going to put yet another large desktop input device, within cable range of my CPU tower? And in order to be able to see anything in the digital contact sheet, I have to scan an 8×10-sized area (encompassing a full roll’s strips placed on the scanner platen) at fairly high resolution, resulting in a huge file. 600ppi won’t do it; it needs to be at least double that resolution in order to evaluate an image as well as I could via loupe and analog contact sheet. I have a faster, RAM-chocked computer now, so I should drag out the flatbed, find some place to put it, and give it another go. It would sure speed things up not to have to laboriously scan every stinkin’ film frame.

3. Dust? Of course. It’s just as painful in the digital realm as in the analog realm, though digital methods of extirpation are easier to use. Luckily, the Hasselblad scanner is glassless, so I only have the film’s two surfaces to clean, and no Newton rings to worry about. But I still do a lot of dust spotting in AP, LR, or PS. As I mentioned above, I keep the film in a dust-free environment until I’m ready to scan, and handle it carefully. I also use a Kinetronics anti-static brush to whisk each negative before scanning. Supposedly, the more you whisk, the more you “wick away” the static electricity that attracts dust to the film surfaces, and this comports with my nonsystematic observations. But it could be voodoo; I’m not completely convinced these brushes work, just as I wasn’t convinced about the now-discontinued StaticMaster brushes. Remember those? They neutralized static electricity via an alpha-emitting polonium insert I constantly had to replace.

Comments and suggestions welcomed.


4 thoughts on “My Film+Digital Hybrid Workflow

  1. Hey Michael,

    I find a 600 dpi scan of my sleeved 67 negs (contact sheet effectively) is plenty to see if it’s worth doing a better scan of a given individual negative.

    Every now and then I get nostalgic for doing E6 by hand, and think about getting set up for C41. Is chemical disposal straight forward in your area?



    1. I’m going to revisit this whole contact-sheet issue, as soon as I finish getting my office reorganized, and find a place atop my desk for the flatbed. Next to the Imacon, 2 monitors, a ScanSnap, a Dymo label printer, a Drobo, a stapler, and a telephone.

      Chemical disposal–into the wastewater stream. The volumes are so low, and dilutions so high, that no one cares around here unless you’re a commercial operator.


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