Last week, I was using Photoshop to spot dust off a scanned negative with my boyfriend sitting beside me. After watching for a while, he asked me how I feel about digitally editing images shot on film.
Having the perspective of someone without a photography background can be so valuable. I never thought to ask myself this question in the past. If I love film for its look and its materiality, why alter it digitally?
To give you an example of the types of changes I make, here’s one of my originals. I scanned this one in as a TIFF using my university’s Hasselblad Flextight X1. It lacks a preset for Kodak Ektar 100, which I’ve been using exclusively for my current project, so I choose RGB negative then edit later.
I consider most of the edits I do adjustments and enhancements. They are never serious manipulations that alter the content of my images (though I did remove a bird in this one).
In Camera Raw, I performed lens corrections so the architecture would be perfectly straight, cropped, adjusted levels, sharpened, and color corrected. Then I opened the image in Photoshop where I used the spot healing brush to remove dust and did some more minor levels adjustments to avoid clipping the highlights.
Still, my biggest qualm when I’m scanning and editing my own negatives is that I can’t be sure my adjustments, especially color corrections, are true to how Ektar might be intended to look.
Even from a professional lab, the look of a single image can vary. In this Tweet, @Afsoneh shows how different her scan and print looked coming from the same lab.
In a way, these disparities can be disappointing. I choose to buy Ektar supposedly for its vibrant colors similarly to how I would buy Portra for its skin tones or Tri-X for its contrast but I know my compensation in Photoshop may look nothing like Kodak intended. When I upload an image to Twitter or Instagram and tag it “Ektar”, it can feel like false advertising.
At the same time, sticking to a particular look is not important to my work. In fact, there is no way to adjust negatives perfectly because there is no exact recommendation. An Ektar preset, which my software lacked, would get me close but would only be a starting point. And even then, I would adjust in Photoshop after scanning.
After thinking about how I use Photoshop to edit scanned negatives — especially in terms of color — I realize that what really matters is that I achieve my desired aesthetic in the end. The art of creating images is all about the artist’s intention.