How to Scan and Edit Film Without Changing Its Look

9 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

The opaque nature of scanning software is making some people think there’s no useful difference between film stocks other than their grain size. After all, what’s stopping you from editing your Portra 160 to look like Kodak Ektar or Tri-X in Photoshop?

Besides, scanning software automatically processes negatives, changing their “look” — maybe to the point of lost recognition.

Knowing this can make comparing films and digesting film reviews seem like a confusing, futile pursuit.

This guide will show you a few proven ways to preserve your film’s colours and saturation during the scanning process.

What can alter your film’s “look”?

Realize that the notion that photography ends at the moment of capture is rather “new,” is a modern reactionary attitude to what is sometimes perceived as the inauthentic/immaterial nature of digital photography — it is not a return to traditional ways of doing things: post-production has always been a thing, it’s just that it used to done in the dark room.


Most photographers’ queries about minimizing edits and preserving the film’s “look” are met with a non-answer. Some say it shouldn’t even be attempted: “all negatives must be altered via conversion to positives, and their colours/contrast must be interpreted.” Others point to the numerous alterations an image must go through as it’s converted from a negative to a positive:

1) Your scanner’s lamp, optics, sensor, and driver will affect the negative’s colours/contrast.

2) Your computer’s operating system and graphics card will use colour calibration algorithms that are not consistent across devices.

3) Your display calibration, type, settings, and ambient light will strongly affect the colour temperature, fidelity, saturation, and contrast.

4) Depending on how your image is stored, various compression algorithms will change the colours and the fidelity of your photographs.

5) Printer type, settings, and paper — if printing digitally — plus the chemicals, temperature, water impurities, and filter choices if printing in a darkroom.

6) And finally, your edits.

A Daguerreotype of Joseph Story — a controversial US supreme cort judge.

These inevitable alterations aren’t new. Photographers have always had to deal with #5 and, for the most part, #1 in a darkroom or by a minilab machine. Although, that’s not universally true:

Daguerreotypes, images produced using the first commercially available photographic process, are metal plate positives that can be framed and considered a finished product.

But we don’t have to look that far back: modern slide films, such as Fujichrome Velvia 50, yield pictures with all the properties of a final photograph. You could frame and hang your slides, though doing so isn’t as practical as with digital or print slide enlargements.

When it comes to negative film, there are indeed numerous obstacles to extracting images with minimal influence or distortions along the way. Still, this type of quest isn’t new: just ask an audiophile about all the expensive ways sound is amplified with minimal noise or a scientist looking to get the clearest picture from an instrument. Of course, not all changes to the signal are “noise.” My point is that minimizing the changes to colour and contrast during the scanning process is possible.