There’s been a large amount of chatter on some of the analogue photography Facebook groups recently about whether or not it’s cheating to use software to tweak your film photos to look how you want them to. Personally – as someone who uses Lightroom as part of my workflow – I find the whole conversation absurd. It’s my process, they are my photos, I know how I want them to look, so why shouldn’t I achieve that outcome by whatever means I see fit?
The fact is though, whilst I have learned to have this confidence in myself and my processes, I see many other people online who haven’t, and in some cases are questioning their approach just because they’re being told it’s somehow less valid by a minority of detractors.
For a long time, I was actually quite hesitant to talk about some of this stuff on here. I do think I lacked the confidence in my approach to feel like I could stand by it as valid. But now that’s changed, I am confident and happy in my processes. Of course, as I say, there are plenty of people out there who aren’t so confident. There are also a few people who seem to be very closed minded when it comes to different approaches to shooting film. These two factors are how these conversations on social media seem to start. Either someone will come forward questioning the validity of an approach through their own humility, or worse, someone will start questioning other people’s approaches though their own hubris. Both result in the same conversations.
I’d guess the conversations about the validity of using digital software within broader analogue processes have been around for as long as the concept of digitising film has – it’s just one of those conversations that never finds a conclusion. One half of the community seems to think that software manipulation is distorting the true nature of the film, with the other half making the argument that there are so many potential distortions within any workflow, software manipulation either doesn’t matter, or in fact can help bring out the true nature of the film.
Personally, I take the latter point of view. Unless you are exposing perfectly, shooting a lens that’s completely neutral in its colour transmission, you are highly skilled at developing colour film, and are also more than competent at colour printing; there’s a hell of a lot of room for error even before you enter the digital domain.
And when you do enter the digital domain, you’ve got the colour science of the scanner and scanning software to contend with, alongside any colour profiling issues that are specific to individual films and potential issues with the orange base of colour film to correct. In short, it’s a minefield, which is why it’s a subject I have long been quite hesitant to dip into.
As I’ve alluded to, I think a lot of that hesitation comes from a place of concern that there are holes in my own workflow that perhaps mean I’m not quite getting the most out of the films I shoot. More recently though, I’ve begun to feel like I’m plugging those holes, reducing the variables, and finding more consistency in my results.
I have also quite recently come to the conclusion that my workflow is probably similar to quite a few other people’s out there, so the results I get should be reasonably representative of what a lot of other people can and do achieve themselves following similar paths. As such I hope, at very least, that me coming out of the workflow-closet as a fully signed up prescriber to the software-route to good results, might actually be of some use, or perhaps even reassure people that this sort of approach is ok – despite what some people out there seem to think.
That said, I feel I should emphasise here, I’m not trying to prescribe this route to end results, I’m just highlighting it as my personal process, the key to good results is not doing what I do, it’s finding and learning a path that works for you, both in terms of the processes, but also how it fits into your lifestyle – a point I will come back to in a moment.
My colour workflow
I’ve talked about my 35mm workflow a bit before here, though that was in relation to black and white film rather than colour. To be honest, the process is fairly similar, though – at least these days – I have a slightly more on-the-ball approach to exposure when it comes to colour film. As I talk about in the previous post, I find black and white film to be a little more forgiving, but now I’m scanning myself, I’ve found it to be highly beneficial to expose colour film more precisely if I want good colours – especially when trying new films.
For those who haven’t read that previous post, my workflow (once the film is exposed) first involves sending the roll of film away to be developed. I shoot a little less than a roll of film a week, on average, so the cost is palatable and the volume too low to home-develop without wasting lots of chemicals. I’m also too lazy, and worry about my abilities to continue to get good results if I start home developing colour. I’m not ruling it out long term – it’s just not something I do at the moment.
The benefit of sending my film to a lab is that I get pretty consistent results, and so I know where I stand when it comes to my scanning process. I’ve chosen a lab, and for a long time have stuck with them. As I talked about in my previous post about my black and white workflow, the benefit of picking a lab and sticking with them is in the fact that you’re essentially – at least as much as possible – removing a variable, or perhaps even series of variables. I use AG photo lab currently, and as far as I know they have always used the same chemicals and keep them nice and fresh. I’ve had a tour of the lab, and seen how they work, so have a good amount of faith in their ability to return my colour negs to me in a consistent manner.
When it comes to scanning, I’m lucky enough to have a Noritsu LS1100 scanner to play with. Unfortunately, I’m also too lazy to set it up as well as some people do. As such, apart from some tweaks to the density correction control, the most I do in the scan is adjust the contrast to create slightly flatter .tiff file scans.
Depending on the subject matter and lighting conditions, I tend to apply the same scanning setting to all the frames to start with. As I go through the frames I might then apply further contrast adjustments if I’m scanning particularly high-contrast scenes, or frames taken in low light conditions. I also turn off the sharpening, as I find sharpening in post to be more effective.
Exposing correctly gives me good negatives that rarely require much if any need to tweak the colour channels in the scan – this is great, but unfortunately, despite all its positive traits, I find the output from the Noritsu to have a slightly yellow/orange cast which I believe to be a remanent of the orange base.
To remove this, I pull the scans into Lightroom and tinker slightly with the white balance, colour channels and camera calibration. Each colour film I shoot has a starting-point preset that I’ve created that I apply to the whole roll. This starting point also includes some basic contrast adjustments to counteract most of the flatness that I created in the scan. I do it this way round as scanning flatter pulls more detail out of the negative for me to play with in post. As we all know, I’m sure, contrast is easier to add than it is to take away. This is especially beneficial when it comes to scanning frames taken of high contrast scenes.
The above comparison is a flat scan I did to give me plenty to work with in Lightroom vs. the final image
Once I’ve pulled the images in to Lightroom and applied my base adjustments to the whole set, I then go through the shots and pick the ones I want to keep. Once selected I then do a further run through the chosen images making a few subtle tweaks to any images that need a bit more work. Once I’m happy, I output them and share them on the internet.
Now I must admit, I’m rarely completely 100% happy with the results. It feels like there’s always someone out there who’s getting sharper, higher quality scans with better colour than I am. But whilst I always feel I have room to improve, I know my results are pretty good, and are pretty accurate to what the film should look like. I also enjoy the process: I get to shoot film (which I enjoy for all the reasons many of us do), I outsource the messy bit, then deal with the bit where I get to impart my creative desires onto the end results in a way that suits me and my lifestyle. How can anything about this possibly be cheating?
The ranty bit
The answer is, at least in my opinion, it isn’t cheating – it’s just one of many ways to do it. It also happens to be the way I do it. I have the utmost respect for those out there who have the patience and skills to shoot, develop and produce images with greater skill, experience and with different methods to me; of course I do… I might, in time, even learn some of those skills and gain the greater knowledge required to improve my output or change my approach. But, what I am doing now suits me, and more importantly, when I look back at some of my scans from as little as six months ago, I can see improvements in my results, so I know I must be doing something right – at very least, I’m learning…
And the point is, I’m learning in my way, and tapping into the knowledge I already have, combining it with information I find reading around online to improve. I’ve been learning like this for years too – both in terms of my analogue and fully digital photography. The reality is, there’s no magic bullet to perfect results – Lightroom doesn’t come with a “fix my scan” switch. And without experience, it can lead you down a garden path to some pretty bloody dodgy results. I’ve had to learn to “see” colours, understand how white balance works, how the camera calibration sliders impact on the results, and how to harness it all together to get the results closer and closer to how I want them to be.
I don’t have any experience in a darkroom printing from colour negs to tap into. The skill set I tap into is based in Lightroom – a piece of software I’ve been using in its various versions since v.2 about 12 years ago. I’ve spent a lot of time working out how to make this software work for me, how to harness it to improve my photography. There’s a lot of man hours in all those years that I’ve dedicated to learning this software, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to tap into those skills? Why are those skills regarded by some as cheating, when other skill sets aren’t?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the nature of analogue photography as a pursuit with many more traditional methods. Those who detract from methods like mine likely lack the knowledge to understand what goes into them – just as I lack the knowledge and the skills that they have. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, what’s new is seen as less valid than what’s old, so processes like mine get judged negatively by comparison to more traditional darkroom methods.
Of course, actually, just because certain processes are judged negatively by some, doesn’t mean they any less valid. In fact – or at least in my opinion – the only person who has the right to judge a process as valid or otherwise is the person partaking in that process. After all, we’re all different, all like different things, all have different personality traits that lead to slightly different reasons for doing things. As such our appreciation for what works for us as individuals, is bound to be different from person to person.
Ultimately, my advice is this: If you feel like you’re cheating, or somehow taking a shortcut, the first thing I would do is ask yourself why you feel like that? Is it because some knobby-know-it-all on Facebook said it’s cheating, or is it because you’re not finding what you’re doing personally satisfying?
If it’s the former, I suggest you ignore them and carry on doing what makes you happy. If it’s the latter, then maybe you need to change things up a bit – maybe it’s time to learn something new or different as part of your personal journey to finding what does make you happy and gets you the results you want.
After all, finding the process that makes you the happiest whilst also resulting in images that are how you want them to look, has to be the end goal! Else really, what would be the point in taking part?
“I enjoy photography because it makes me sad and I hate the outcome” said no one ever!
Some thoughts about my black & white process can be found here