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black & white film        prepare negatives for the web

Wolfgang Bleier
Austria, Autumn 2009

I still remember my euphoria of working the first time in the darkroom in the early eighties. It was the time when I got hands on experience in developing black & white film and enlarged my first photographic prints. Being in control of the entire process from taking a photograph to watching the print develop in the solution was an amazing experience. Although these days digital photography has pretty much replaced chemical development, processing film and photographic paper in the darkroom is still the choice for committed photographers.

Enlarging black & white film on photographic paper can be highly creative work. After taking photographs and developing the negatives it is the completion of what we consider our personal work of art, which can take an image to absolute perfection. But still, as fine and artistic our photographic prints may be, to make them seen by other people is quite another matter. Only few non-professional photographers have the privilege to exhibit their photographic prints in art galleries. The Internet, nowadays accessible to billions of people, is a real blessing for those who want to make their photographs public. For many non-professional photographers it is the showroom to present their photographs to beholders from around the globe.

Glacier Les Diablerets (Switzerland, 1985), Nikon F3HP, Nikkor Ai-S 50mm f/1.4

Seen from this point of view, the preparation of film or prints with good technique for the presentation in the Internet became almost as important as enlarging negatives on photographic prints. Here is a short step-by-step description how I usually scan black & white negatives and prepare them in Photoshop for presentation in the web. It may not be the most sophisticated technique, but in most cases it produces pretty good results with reasonable effort.


  • It is good advice to scan negatives with high resolution. The quality of a high resolution scan that is subsequently downscaled to a size suitable for presentation on a webpage has better quality than a negative scanned straight with low resolution. Depending on your scanner, scan a 35 mm negative with a resolution between 2700 dpi and 4000 dpi.
  • If provided in your scanner software, switch off Digital ICE image enhancement (scratch/dust removal), as it works neither with black & white nor with Kodachrome films.
  • Set the scanner to a bit-depth of 12, 14 or 16 bit mono mode, or to the maximum digitization your scanner is rated.
  • Change the scan settings of your scanner software as little as necessary, except adjust the curves for tonal adjustment according to your preferences.
  • Make the scan and save it in TIF format with LZW compression to save the image with a minimum of losses in quality.

Editing in Photoshop

Although I consider myself somewhat of a purist who prefers photographs that look natural, I am not against post editing in image software such as Photoshop. Quite to the contrary, post editing in image software is inevitable part of processing film in a scanner.

  • Remove from your scan any scratches or dust, for example with the brush tool.
  • Crop the image if necessary. I crop my images in the 35 mm roll film format (24 mm x 36 mm), wich is an aspect ratio of 3:2 or 2:3, unless I need a very wide panorama or a slim portrait format.
  • In "levels/curves" set the tonal levels according to the relevant spectrum of the image. See the 3 little pointers below the histogram. Slide the right/white pointer to the left until it hits the first pixels in the histogram, then do the same thing with the left/black one, slide it toward the center of the histogram until it lines up with the first pixels. Make desired adjustments with the pointer in the center.
  • As you do in the darkroom for prints, test and set the image to optimum brightness and contrast.
  • Should you prefer a more warm or cold tone, set the image to RGB mode and change the image's grey tones.
  • Now reduce the size of the image to fit on the website. For my photo gallery I produce images with 660 pixels at the long side of the image, for other webpages (with my templates in mind) I usually keep images below the limit of 600 pixels at the long side of the image including a frame, if any. The image above has 572 x 396 pixels including the frame.
    Do this with the "image size" action by reducing in several steps for better quality, for example by 50% reduction each step. For the last reduction set the exact pixels to give the image its final size.
  • Scanned and reduced images loose sharpness. To sharpen the image use the "unsharp mask" operation also in several (3 to 5) steps, as the scan was reduced in several steps.
    The settings I normally use in "unsharp mask" are:
    sharpness 122%
    radius 0,2 pixel
    threshold 0 steps
    To effectively sharpen the image repeat the "unsharp mask" operation 3 to 5 times.

Making a frame (in Photoshop)

  • For a white frame, set the image background color to black, or dark grey.
  • Increase width and height of the canvas size by 2 pixels to get a thin dark frame.
  • Then change the image background color to white, and increase again height and width of the canvas, for example by 30 or 50 pixels, according to your preference.
  • Now change the image background color again to black or dark grey, and increase width and height of the canvas by another 2 pixels to get an outer thin dark frame.
  • The image has now a bright digital passe-partout.

  • For a dark frame, set the image background color to white.
  • Increase width and height of the canvas size by 4 pixels to get a thin white frame.
  • Then change the image background color to dark grey or black, and increase again height and width of the canvas, for example by 30 or 50 pixels, according to your preference.
  • The image has now a dark digital passe-partout.

The above steps explain the principles how to make a digital passe-partout, but of course you will want to create your personal design. On principle I keep a passe-partout simple in order to give emphasis to the photograph. Should you intend to present a photograph on your webpage in reduced scale smaller than the actual image size, remember that due to an equally wide passe-partout also the aspect ratio of the image file will change (except for square image format, of course) and needs to be recalculated in order to write the new, correct image size (including passe-partout) the into the HTML code.

Save for the web

  • The image with the final size including the frame must be saved now for the web.
  • Save the image in optimized JPG format in the File-menu (Save for Web). On the follwing display use the slider to control the image quality in order that the file will not exceed a size in the range of 150 to 200 kB. With such size losses in quality are acceptable, and download times not too long.

Q19 mall

Creative light (Vienna 2009) Leica M7, Elmarit-M 24mm asph. f/2.8

A personal note about post-editing

Although I consider myself somewhat of a purist who prefers photographs that look natural, I am not against post editing in image software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. As my work in the darkroom also includes papers of different grades, cropping, masking and varying exposure, or placing emphasis on grain and other techniques that allow more control over the final prints, post editing by using image software is the way to complete scans of negatives or images from a digital camera. As every picture has an element of choice, whether coincidental or not, I think there is nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, I assume most people crave the same outcome: a photograph that looks realistic. Like so many things in life, beauty as well as the aesthetics of photographs will always be subject to the eye of the beholder.

Till then ...

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