Matching Film Scans and Digital Photos
I am what you would call a hybrid photographer. Like many other Mastin Labs users, I like to shoot a combination of film and digital. As a professional in the fashion and commercial world, I shoot film whenever I can, but shooting digital has become a necessity. Let’s face it; digital photography delivers some big advantages in terms of cost and convenience. Film is timeless, and digital gives me peace of mind. This sense of security is the number one reason I shoot hybrid.
Shooting a mixture of film and digital presented a unique challenge at first; I wrestled with creating photos that were consistent across both formats. Over the past few years, I’ve finally discovered the best ways to make my film and digital images match one another without ripping my hair out during the editing process.
The first step to taking consistent photos is (always) to get your settings right in-camera; this sets you up for success and will make the editing process much easier. T
Film and digital react differently to how they capture light. Negative film can be overexposed several stops and still not blow out the highlights, but if you underexpose it, you’ll risk ending up with muddy shadows. Digital photography is the exact opposite. Modern digital cameras can recover several stops from underexposure, but overexpose too much and you’ll never recover blown highlights. If your exposure is way off with either film or digital, no amount of editing or presets will get you good results. But metering every shot is not always possible in the moment, so when I don’t have time to meter carefully, I err on the safe side.
“As a general rule of thumb, when in doubt: Overexpose film, underexpose digital.” - Jon Duenas
That said, it’s important to be careful not to overdo it. Even though film does well with overexposure, try to expose it as correctly as possible. I shoot primarily with Kodak Portra. Portra films (especially Portra 400) have a tendency to turn everything (especially highlights) red when it’s overexposed too much. If you’re just shooting film, this is less of an issue since most film labs will simply correct for this in the scanner.
Mastin Labs Portra film presets are modeled after the clean highlights you get from not overexposing, so if you overexpose when attempting to match the film to digital, you may have some inconsistencies.
Kodak Portra 400 on the left, metered for shadows at ISO 320, Mastin Labs with no tweaks on the right. By Jon Duenas, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset
The best way to avoid inconsistencies is to meter correctly for your subject and the type of film you’re using; for Portra 400, this means shooting close to box speed. Portra 160 is a little more forgiving, even with underexposure. Fuji 400H can better handle overexposure than it can underexposure. If you’re really unsure and are willing to experiment (and waste some film) in order to get it right, try bracketing your exposure by shooting a frame over and another under what you’re meter reading tells you.
Use a Similar Lens and Settings
Some people like to mix things up and use different camera setups (formats, lenses, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with this, except that it can make it harder to match digital to film. Shooting similar focal lengths and a similar depth of field can make matching much more of a seamless process.
For example, shooting a Pentax 67 with 105mm f2.4 wide open won’t look the same as shooting with a Canon 17-55mm kit lens, both in terms of depth of field and image quality. Some lenses affect color and contrast as well. If exact matching is the number one priority, I suggest using the same exact lens. I often use a Canon EOS film camera alongside a Canon full-frame digital camera since both cameras can use the same lenses.
By Jon Duenas, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset
Edit and Compare in Lightroom
After uploading my images and culling my series down, I create a new collection in Lightroom with both film and digital files that let me custom sort so that the film shots are displayed alongside their corresponding digitals. Then, I quickly refine my images, which isn’t always necessary if I’ve communicated with my film lab about my style and preferences and they do a good job with the scans. When everything is ready, I begin the process of matching my film scans to digital images using the Mastin Labs presets.
When matching film and digital, I highly suggest using the “Reference View” tool in Lightroom to help you get a perfect match. To compare images side by side, follow the steps below.
- Click the digital file you want to edit in the Develop module.
- Click Shift+R, or click the “Reference View” icon on the bottom left.
- Find the thumbnail of the film photo you want to reference below.
- Click and drag the film photo into the empty space on the left.
By following the steps I outlined above, you can now edit your digital image while viewing your film photo. You can reference your film photo while you fine tune your digital edit to help you get an exact match.
By Jon Duenas, edited with preset Portra 400
I’ve found the newest update to Mastin Labs incredibly helpful for matching my white balance in post. Most of the time, all I have to do is:
- Click the film preset that matches the film I shot
- Click the white balance preset that most closely resembles the light I shot in.
- Tweak my exposure and white balance to match the film scan.
90% of the time, that’s all I need to do.
This percentage begs the question, “Jon, what’s the other 10%?” Well, sometimes it helps to use the tone profiles to adjust your shadows and highlights, lens correction to fix any vignette and/or distortion, and grain presets to soften the look of an image and give it a true film look.
But what if the colors seem off? What if no amount of adjusting white balance seems to work?
If you’re stuck in an editing hole and you can’t seem to dig your way out of it, this is likely due to not exposing the film correctly. As I said before, if you underexpose your film, you can lose detail in the shadows and you can make your colors turn to mud. If you overexposure too much, you may end up with color shift, most commonly, red or pink highlights.
If you discover pink highlights on your film and you need to match your digital images, you can use the split tone feature in Lightroom. Add red to the highlights with moderate saturation, tweak the balance, and then adjust your white balance to compensate. Also, sometimes cyan in the shadows helps a little too. You can also try adding cyan to your highlights on the film scan to counter the red highlights, but since film scans are jpeg images, they’re much less flexible than a digital RAW file, so your flexibility may vary.
Learn When Close Enough is Enough
If, like me, you find yourself still frustrated without a perfect match (I tend to be an obsessive perfectionist at times), my advice is to know that at some point you should say, “Eh, close enough.” Most people won’t view your photos with a critical eye, and won’t notice slight differences or subtle color variations. Editing should be a matter of matching your images as close as you can and to create a gallery that, above all else, feels the same photo-to-photo. My philosophy with editing is that the editing of an image should be close enough so that it’s simply not a distraction from your viewer’s appreciation of the content and message.
My hope is that if you’re primarily a digital photographer, you’ll try your hand at shooting film and feel confident using my tips to help you achieve consistency. If you’re a hybrid photographer, I hope my tips will help you streamline your image matching process.