In 1841, the first images we would consider photographs came into existence by a man call Talbot. In under 5 years, one of his colleagues had successfully manipulated an image to remove people before printing. Specialist machines were created to help editors retouch negatives, including small vibrating plates beneath the negative to smooth out any ink that had been applied to hide mistakes. Around this time the dodging and burning techniques appeared in the darkroom, helping us create depth and contrast in our images. When someone tells me “Only modern day photographers use Photoshop”, it irks me somewhat, enough to recount the brief history of editing. My point through this is to say that every classic image you’ve seen, every gallery piece of a famous photograph have all been edited. One of the most basic photoshop processes for negatives is something called “spotting”. We’ll have a look at that in a second, but first a little bit of housekeeping on how to store your negatives properly.
Flat negatives are happy negatives.
I’m not going to teach you how to suck eggs if you do this already, but it is so very important to keep your negatives stone flat after processing. Using filing systems and specialist sleeves for film will keep your negatives in a flat, undamaged and acid-free environment. I have a folder for my medium formats, and a big box for all my 35mm negatives (seen below the folder). Water will damage and curl your negatives, as well as leaving mineral deposits on them, which will show up on the scans. Treat each negative like tissue paper, even the slightest mishandling will cause damage.
Clear sleeving is typically used for positive film like Fujifilm Provia and Velvia, so you can see through the sleeving to the images. I have a clear sleeve here to show you how flat they should be kept – if you note on the bottom row of the negs, along the top long side of the negative strip there are white semi-circle marks on it. Those are marks caused by hand developing – and will show up in negatives (which you’ll see later).
Colour negatives come in smaller sleeves, in frosted plastic. Most high street labs will be happy to roll off a good reem of this for you for free, as it’s very inexpensive. The medium format sleeving is much pricer to buy for the store though, so they might not be so willing to donate them to you. Again, its most important to keep your negatives dead flat. I fold my 35mm negatives sleeves flat on top of one another and then tape it down, write the name of the model, date and location on the sleeving in permanent pen, then store away wedged between other negatives in a box. If you can score yourself some old cotton gloves from the high street lab too, this will help you with handling your negatives when they’re out the sleeving. Those fingerprints will 100% show up on your scans!
The basics of spotting negatives.
Once you’ve had your negatives scanned, you’ll end up with JPEGs, or if you’re lucky, TIFF files. Either way, anything you do to them will be destructive in post-processing. This means there’s no flexibility like in RAW files, and anything you do will have a degrading effect to the image, so edit wisely. I typically bring my files up in LightRoom and then export them into Photoshop directly by right clicking and choosing “Edit In”.
Once in Photoshop, search for “grid” in the Help tab, and it’ll give you the shortcut to the “Guides, Grids & Slices” tab. We’re going to overlay a simple grid on top of the picture to help us make sense of where we’ve edited. I keep the Grid colour bright and contrasting what I’m working on, and a grid line every 25%. This gives me 16 grid segments (in my case they’re squares as my file is a square format).
Identifying problem areas.
If you read above, I mentioned about those little semi-circles of white on the edges of my black and white negative. These are caused by the sprocket ball bearings on the developing tank that grab the film and pull it into the spiral for developing. Even though there’s a little bit of spare negative on either side of the picture for avoiding this, sometimes these marks do make their way into your pictures and need to be edited out. You can see on the right side (indicated with arrows) how these pinch marks appear on the negatives. Simple enough to edit out, but you sometimes have to consider how this might affect your image and shoot accordingly with a little bit of extra space. Even the best photo labs can’t fully prevent these developing anomalies. I’ve also circled some of the most prominent dust marks on the picture, when viewed at 25%. These will have to be removed for definite, as will be seen from a distance and even on internet resolution pictures. You’ll find that the dust is most prominent on dark parts of the picture, or where the contrast is highest.
Zooming in until a square fills the screen, I’ve highlighted even more of the dust that needs taking out. You can use your favourite method to remove the marks, I personally use the healing tool, on a blank new layer. This gives me the ability to undo any mistakes and keep the file size low. Work your way through the squares from left to right, top to bottom, editing all the marks, spots and dust particles out the picture before moving on to the next square. This process will only take about 20 minutes from start to finish, and will eliminate all scanning dust and marks. Compress the layers to one and then save, and the file will jump back in to LightRoom.
Its worth noting that if your negatives were badly treated, coiled or improperly washed after developing, you’ll have a real tough time editing out those marks. Try re-washing your negatives with just water with a bit of washing up liquid and leave to dry hung above a sink to remove any dried mineral deposits.
Once back in LightRoom, I typically do basic highlight/shadow control, pressing “J” to bring up the histogram peaking and making sure nothing ends up blowing out. Film has an immense ability to retain dynamic range in the shadows, far more than digital cameras, as long as you know how to bring out the best in your pictures. Do not be afraid to spot and clean your negatives, it’s a process that’s been done since photography began. I wouldn’t even class this as “editing” a picture per se – this is cleaning the parts of the picture that happened after you took it, which is nothing to do with how the picture was envisaged. It’s easier to keep a clean negative then edit a dirty one, but the whole process only takes a few minutes and is well worth your time. You can of course go back and apply dodge and burn techniques before saving it to LightRoom, creating a masterpiece on film.
Jon Sparkman is a fine art photographer from the UK using film cameras, interesting lighting and bright colours in his images. Follow him on Instagram @sparkman_uk and see more work at www.sparkman.co.uk.