The Case For "Flat" Scans

Why you shouldn't get your highlights blown out

By Negative Lab


Paris by David Dufeal



Scanning negatives is completely subjective; it's by far the most creative variable of your photographic process that you have entrusted to your local film lab. Herein, we will do everything we can to illuminate the scanning process for you and share some of our philosophy on why we do things a little bit differently here at Negative.

What happens when your film gets scanned

As you may have heard, the scanning tech in some ways imitates the role of a darkroom printer, albeit using a computer and working in daylight. We take your beloved negatives, place them in a negative carrier on the scanner, shine light through them, add color corrections, and send them off to become beautiful JPEG or TIFF files on our Mac here at Negative. Delivering scans feels a bit like working in Santa’s toyshop, complete with the satisfaction of getting to see our clients celebrate something they knew they had ordered, but didn’t see in person until they woke up to find it under the tree! Therein lies the magic and beauty of being a film shooter. We really value this at Negative Lab, as we’re all photographers here and were at one point on the receiving end of the mystical transaction that takes place between photographer & photo lab. And we know that getting bad scans is like getting an ugly sweater on Christmas morning—a present that wasn't even on your wish list!

It quickly becomes clear that the scanning tech is carrying an enormous responsibility in producing your “look” as a photographer, just as your darkroom printer would have in the past. Why should a professional photographer trust their film to a lab that is mass-producing film scans? As a professional, you are by nature more discerning and demanding than the hobbyist, and you deserve to have a relationship with the folks who are doing some of the creative heavy-lifting with your photography. At Negative Lab, 99% of what comes through our lab is scanned by the same tech and 100% of it is overseen and QC’d (quality-controlled) by the same tech. This means that as long as your process as a shooter is consistent, you’re guaranteed to get consistent scans from us!


A good scan is a starting point

If you’ve ever sent the same negatives to multiple labs you’ll quickly realize just how subjective the scanning process is. Great studies have been done on this that can be found with a quick Google search for "film lab comparison." This is why we like to say that a good scan is a starting point; a starting point for small tweaks in post, and hopefully a starting point for a great print. It’s worth noting that additional small edits are usually required to produce a good print. This is important because a scan should not be the final resting place for your images. The scan is your photo’s penultimate iteration—the last is always print. 

Enter “flat” scans. A flat scan gives you a better starting point by ensuring that you have as much shadow and highlight detail as the Fuji Frontier SP3000 allows. There is something magical about the Frontier, and while it will never retain highlights and shadows like a Noritsu, it lands in a perfect middle ground that we believe is why the Frontier is so known and loved in the lab community.

At Negative, we’re running our Frontier scanner a bit differently than the biggest labs. This simply enables us to have full creative control over the look of your scan. We dial in all color corrections by hand for every image—we don’t use any automated scanner corrections. Don’t all the good labs color correct by hand? Sort of, but the Frontier is a minilab scanner, and like most minilab scanners (Noritsu included), it was never designed to be used standalone. Minilab scanners were built for speed and were originally made to be connected directly to printers, but have been hacked to allow for standalone operation. We just took the hack a little further and are doing our own thing with the way we run our Frontier! This is thanks to a lot of experimentation on our part and also the legacy of Mammum Film Lab.


How we feel about “light & airy”

Quite frankly, we don’t recommend it. Trends come and go, but your highlights endure forever. That is, if you get flat scans! The light & airy look, by nature, limits you in the future because your highlights are blown out. You ask, I thought it was almost impossible to blow out the highlights on film? This is true for the negative. But in-scanner, it’s absolutely possible! We hate to take away some of the magic, but a film scanner is just a big digital camera or digital enlarger. There’s a sensor in the scanner that can clip just like those DSLR sensors that we all know and love (or don’t love).

Most photographers—even film shooters—are digitally archiving their work these days. If you ever wanted to reprint something without the highlights blown out, you’d have to get the image rescanned! This is part of a larger conversation about editing scans—best addressed in a future post—but we always recommend our clients at Negative to err on the side of flat scans. Blow out the highlights in post if you so desire! But don’t ask for blown highlights in scanner—we promise, you’ll regret it.

We’ve done a lot of side-by-side comparisons of density corrections in-scanner vs. in-post, and we believe that if you remain within a certain degree of correction, the differences are almost indistinguishable.


"Flat" scan —  Photo by Brumley and Wells


Highlights blown ("Light & Airy") —  Photo by Brumley and Wells


In conclusion

We are more than happy to accommodate the "light and airy" aesthetic. We understand and see the beauty in it. We just want you to be happy in 10 years when you revisit your scans.

Always remember that a good scan is a starting point! And blown highlights leave you with a truncated starting point. ☗