Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Say "No" to the Scans (But "Yes" to the Prints!) Part One: Can the Scan

I have made a big decision regarding my film photography workflow, and I would like to share it with you. From now on, I will not be scanning my black and white negatives. Instead, I only will be scanning darkroom prints of my negatives (this article concerns my black and white photography only. I will continue to scan my color negative film as I have done since I returned to shooting film in the spring of 2017). In the next few paragraphs, I will explain how I came to this decision, why I think it will serve me better, and what my new workflow will look like going forward.
Hometown Brew (darkroom print scan)

Oh, the Irony . . .

Post Office Eagle (darkroom print scan)
Before I begin, however, I want to recognize the irony of this decision, as it was the ability to scan negatives into positives (using my Epson Perfection V500 Photo flatbed scanner) that was a major factor in my returning to film photography, along with the ability to develop my own film at home, especially color negative film. At the time, I was so excited by the prospects of existing in a digital world and still being able to shoot film, and I was content with that blended workflow. In fact, the more skills I learned, such as dust control and getting my scanner to scan two six-frame film strips without stopping while both naming the images and saving them in a specified folder, the more the workflow satisfied me. But now that's all changed, and here's why.

When Did I Know . . . ?

Superior Pilsen (darkroom print scan)
Thanks to invaluable advice I have received from mentors coupled with practice and persistence, I have started making darkroom prints of which I am quite proud. And one of the things I liked most about them was . . . they look much better than most of my negative scans. Sometimes the scanner gave my negatives more grain, and sometimes the contrast was more or less what I thought should be. My darkroom prints tended to  look more like I envisioned when I snapped the shutter. Admitedly, my lack of digital editing skills is responsible for this disparity, but nothing I have ever done with a photography on a computer has ever made me feel like how I feel when I see my finished darkroom print. So recently, when I was asked by the owner of my local community darkroom (Safelight District Community Darkroom in Chattanooga, Tennessee) if I would contribute two photographs for a local arts website, I mindlessly found the negative scans and looked at them with great disappointment. They did not represent the "final say" that my actual prints do. In fact, the scans, like the development of the negatives, were done at home and did not represent Safelight District either. In the end, I decided to try scanning the prints, and the results blew me away. The scans looks much better and much more like the prints. It was then that I realized that I had "outgrown" my previous workflow.
Reflections on Clouds (darkroom 

A Change for the Better . . .

So why will scanning my prints rather than my negatives serve me better? I think the best way to answer that question is with a series of statements:

1.  I have come to understand that the print is the full and final expression of my photography in every way, including and especially quality.

2.  My return to film photography was not motivated by a desire to improve my digital photo editing skills.

3.  I am not compelled to print or even share every frame of a roll, so there is no need to scan the whole roll.

4.  I am very interested in improving my ability to read negatives and not depend on the crutch of negative scans to form a vision of the final image.

5.  I am feeling less compelled to "share" my photographs online, but I love getting my prints into the hands of people, even for free (but I also love selling them, of course.)

6.  While not a terribly nostalgic person, I believe that I am more greatly understanding and appreciating what it was to be a photographer before the digital age.

A New (Old) Workflow . . .

1.  Develop the film either at home or at the darkroom.

2.  Make a contact sheet of the roll.*

3.  Use the contact sheet to choose what frames to print.

4.  Choose which prints (if any) to scan for the purpose of sharing online.

* but not the way you might think.

Making Contact . . .

The main component of the above workflow is the contact sheet, which is made by laying strips of negatives on top of a sheet of analog photo paper and exposing the paper to light.** However, photographic paper is expensive, so I have come up with a digital solution that allows me to make contact sheets that I can take with me on my iPad or even iPhone and not waste paper. In part two of Say "No" to the Scans (But "Yes" to the Prints!), I will break down my contact sheet workflow that, I believe, will make me much more efficient and effective in the darkroom.


  1. I don't blame you - these scans are terrific. I'm envious.

  2. With enough practice you may learn how to read the negatives, at least B&W ones- I never could color, so that you dont even feel the need for contact prints!