Scanning B&W negatives is a lot easier than you might have thought. You’ll need a decent scanner that has the ability to scan film. Some flatbed scanners are equipped for negative scanning, but a dedicated film scanner is best. I use a Minolta Scan Dual III. It looks like a shoebox with a slot in the front and takes a strip of up to 6 negatives in a plastic holder.
To get the best quality scan from a B&W negative, you must lie to the scanner. You’d think selecting B&W negative from the scanning software menu would be the correct choice. It’s not. Choose B&W positive instead.
When you scan as a negative, the software makes all the adjustments internally and the results are OK, but not optimal. When you scan a negative as a positive, the scanner just scans and you’ll end up with a negative image like the image above when you open your photo editor. That’s OK because it’s easy to turn this into a positive image.
Picture Window Pro (PWP), the editor I use, has a transformation labeled “negative” that will flip your image from negative to positive. The GIMP does the same thing with the invert function. The positive image will be way too light most times. This is because a positive scan is linear and doesn’t adjust the mid-tones or gamma. It’s best this way because you can adjust these tones yourself and get better results.
PWP has a specific tool for adjusting the gamma. I set the input gamma for 1 and adjust to a value between 1.4 and 2.2 depending on the image. I do this by eye, tweaking the values until I’m happy with the tones in the preview window. The screen shot above was taken from Gimp. You adjust the gamma here by moving the middle slider (input values under the histogram) to the right. The initial value is 1.0. You will end up with something in the neighborhood of 0.45. The best way to make the adjustment is to ignore the numbers and rely on your eye. When you are happy with the preview, accept it and go on to the next step.
This is the image adjusted for gamma. The mid-tones look good, but the photo is flat and muddy. It lacks contrast because there are no blacks or whites in the image — yet.
Film has a characteristic “S” curve. The bottom of the curve defines the black or shadows and the top defines the white or highlight tones. When you open the curves function (Brightness Curve in PWP or simply Curves in the Gimp) the muddy image will show a straight line on a 45 degree diagonal. Choose a control point on the curve near the bottom for the shadows and another near the top for the highlights. Pull the bottom point down and the top point up. Again, use your eye to judge when the curve is right. This screen shot from PWP shows the actual “S” curve that produced the image below.
Don’t be afraid to play a bit. It’s how you learn. Now look how the image has come to life because the curve has taken the flat image and given it the contrast all good B&W photos need. If you’ve never used curves in your editor, you’re missing out on a powerful tool that will transform your images. You won’t have to make radical changes in the curve to see dramatic results. Be conservative and play around until you are happy with the image.
Here’s the final version. I cleaned up a few spots using the spot tool and the clone tool in PWP. All good photo editors will have a clone tool. Then I sharpened the image. It didn’t take long at all, maybe 5 or ten minutes total. It’s easy once you get the hang of it.
My explanation of mid-tones and gamma is oversimplified, but that’s deliberate. You don’t need to worry about terms and numbers when you know how to tweak your B&W images. Use your eye and judgment and play. You’ll get great results in no time.
PS – I’ve added another, follow up tutorial “How to Scan B&W Negatives: 16 bit Linear” that gives you another good option for scanning B&W.