Dec 5, 2012

My Digital Shoebox, Pt. 2: Film

Fishing Girl (restored) by Brandon Buck (brandonthebuck)) on
Mom fishing, circa 1956.

A few weeks ago, my grandfather passed away, so my family has been working on handling his estate and personal items, which of course includes a lifetime of photographs. For the memorial, my mother handed me a shoebox of some prints and slides she came across that she wanted me to scan and project on the wall during the ceremony. The family thought I did so well with this that they handed me all of the remaining slides they've found, and asked me to scan and share them all.

This is something that's interested me for some time (preservation and restoration are subjects I've covered here before), and it's something I always thought I'd pursue as a long-time hobby- collecting and restoring old photographs. Of course, this is one such service photography stores around the country are continuing to offer, which is excellent for most people, but I wanted to get a good understanding of what exactly it would take to get a good digital file out of these old keepsakes.

I'd want the image to be as high-quality as possible, so I can essentially just archive it safely and store it somewhere without wanting to re-scan the image, as well as be able to treat the scanned file in the same way I treat my digital photos. The way I treat my digital photos, of course, is by saving them all as Adobe Digital Negatives (DNG's), which I can play around with without degrading their quality ("lossless"), which not only includes changing colors, but changing exposure levels and performing lens adjustments after the fact. I know I may not be able to do quite as much modification as my digital stills, but if we spent so many decades making digital photography parallel film, than I should be able to make my film parallel my digital workflow.

I'm still only into the first hundred slides because the process is tedious and my system is buggy, so I have to take care of things one at a time. But I want to say right off the bat that Kodachrome deserves as much praise as it's ever been given- some of these slides are over 60 years old and the color retention is absolutely incredible.

Kids watching TV by Brandon Buck (brandonthebuck)) on
Kids watching TV, May 1961. Kodachrome, unrestored

This picture of my aunt and uncles is over 50 years old, and the color representation looks flawless. And I doubt this slide was kept in any better care than the shot below, taken on Ektachrome.

Lunch on the mountain by Brandon Buck (brandonthebuck)) on
Lunch on the mountain, circa 1956. Ektachrome, unrestored

The green layer of emulsion is almost completely disintegrated, leaving the red and blue layers behind (I thought blue would be the first to go because it's on the "weaker" end of the visual spectrum), to the point that it's almost beyond restoration.

Lunch on the mountain (restored) by Brandon Buck (brandonthebuck)) on
Lunch on the mountain, circa 1956. Ektachrome, restored

This was a quick pass at just modifying the colors in the scanned sample, beyond this point I'd have to add color into the picture to bring it back to normal.

From what I see as far as the equipment goes, there's not much available that's affordable and easy. I'm using a flatbed scanner with a light adapter built in (a Epson Perfection 4490 that was previously my other grandfather's, no doubt top-of-the-line at the time he purchased it for the exact same endeavor). You could buy this unit for a couple of hundred bucks, but a dedicated film/slide scanner runs in the thousands. Fundamentally I'm not quite sure what would be the difference- controlled light blasts through the film onto the sensor. The difference with the flatbed is you've got a giant pane of glass that can't possibly be in good condition if you use it to regularly scan papers or solid objects- any scratch in the glass reveals itself in your scanned image. Additionally, placing a cardboard-bound slide introduces spacial distance between the film and the glass surface to be scanned, so there's doubt whether the scanner is properly "focused" on the slide. And there's only one light source that I can't figure out how to calibrate, nor do I even know if it's truly "white" light and I'm getting a good representation of all three color channels.

On the plus side, the scanner does include an infrared light in addition to the regular light. Infrared light completely passes through film emulsion, meaning if dust or specs are on the filmstrip, they will be "seen" by the infrared light, and the emulsion will pass through- this allows us to know the difference between grain or specs that are supposed to be a part of the image.

Now in terms of the actual files being created, I was disappointed to find that although I can directly scan straight into Photoshop, I'm not able to control the settings of the scan as much as I'd like- I'd have to bring it in as a jpeg, tiff, or pdf file. However, I'm not alone in this disappointment, and some people have created third-party software that allows you more control of your scanner. With Vuescan, I'm able to
1) Create a DNG file (technically a DNG wrapper to a TIFF file),
2) Utilize the infrared channel.
Additionally, Vuescan is able to do multiple scans of your pictures at varying exposures, so you'd be able to create an image with HDR-like range- change the exposure after the fact, or at least retain the image detail that's lost in the highlights or shadows. Unfortunately this feature doesn't come without a bug, which I'm not sure where the error lies, in that the multiple exposures aren't perfectly aligned, so the entire picture comes out blurry.

Girl on carnival horse by Brandon Buck (brandonthebuck)) on
Girl on carnival horse, circa 1956. Kodachrome, unrestored

Researching the matter further, scanning via flatbed or dedicated film scanner is also not ideal. True experts perform a process called "wet-gate scanning," which is soaking the film in a chemical solution as the film is scanned. This utilizes light refraction to fill-in small scratches to the plastic, as well as makes the scan appear sharper and more vibrant. This is standard for medium-format photography and feature-film restoration, but no machine is available in the consumer or even pro-sumer level that does this. And it's not even possible for cardboard-bound slides- you'd have to remove the cardboard casing around each picture, and then after the scan you'd be left with an individual frame that you'd either have to re-case or store loosely in a slide holder.

I did come across one process a lot of hobbyists have done to handle the bulk of limitations of scanning, and that's by creating a special casing in front of their DSLR camera lens to hold the slide or negative and take a digital still shot of the film. This way they'll have a camera raw file of the picture at a low file size (each of my scans are coming in at around 250MB a piece, as opposed to the 20MB my Canon Rebel T3i creates), and be able to go through pics much faster than the flatbed process (and much, much, MUCH cheaper).

As you can see, I'm not the only one with this problem, and the solution is a lot more complex, in my opinion, than what's being offered on the market. Truth be told, I haven't checked in with my local camera shop to see if they're offering solutions that affordably meet the challenges I'm facing. Maybe the tech is sure to evolve to this point, and there's simply been a lack of market demand. I'm sure this is going to turn around very quickly as most of the world will start finding themselves coming across this exact problem- billions of photographs that aren't as accessible or secure as the rest of our library. Especially as the last generation of film-shooters are going to leave behind lifetimes of memories for the next generation to sort through.

Gunning Grandpa by Brandon Buck (brandonthebuck)) on
Gunning Grandpa, circa 1951. Kodachrome, unrestored