Scanning Tips (with EPSON and VueScan Software)

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We want to get an image directly from the scanner, which comes as close as possible to the final print. We want to avoid performing lots of digital adjustments in our image editing tool, like Photoshop.

The image below illustrates the “analog” quality of an image that has been properly exposed, developed by inspection, and scanned in a simple, straightforward manner. Minimal manipulation in Photoshop was required.

To see more images like this, click here
Scan of 5×7 negative. Ilford FP4+ film, developed in Pyrocat HD, February 2010

Don’t tell the Photoshop sales and training community, but the more digital “corrections” we make to an image, the more artificial it tends to look. If you are working towards a more manufactured and glamorous look, you might want to skip over this article. Our goal here, is to reveal the natural beauty we have already captured on film.

The Sample Image

Above is a negative, made on 5×7 inch Ilford FP4+ film, and developed in Pyrocat HD. The subject is a pair of pink roses, in overcast light. It’s not the greatest photo in the world, but it makes a good demonstration, because the tones are fairly close and subdued.

If a scan is good, the image should convey subtle nuances of shading. Or as Fred Picker used to say… “It should feel like light”. In a picture like this, a faithful and delicate rendering of the subject is the photograph.

The actual negative is rather soft in appearance: as the histogram shows, the tonal scale occupies no more than 40{d4e6fabf8da02c89293759be6c8202c78433121553e67b711ceafa582bd64e7a} of the scanner range. That’s fine.

Epson Scanner Preview – Too Harsh!

The default Epson Preview settings have made the image appear quite harsh: the Input high values have been clipped, and appear pure white – like chalk. Meanwhile, the overall Output has been constrained on both ends of the tonal scale: instead of 0-255, our image contains only 10-200. Now let’s see how to make things look much nicer.

Correct the Epson Histogram Before Scanning

We have corrected the default Output settings. They now go from 0 to 255. We have adjusted the Input settings so that the dark values on the left side, are just dark enough to render the black film edge as black – but no darker. The right-side setting is light enough to show the high values naturally, without any clipping or unnatural loss of texture. (These roses were pink. We don’t want them to look bleached out). Finally, we adjust the middle setting (Gamma) to taste.

VueScan Preview – Too Harsh!

The default VueScan Preview settings have made the image appear quite harsh: the White Point setting of 1 and the default Curve low and Curve high settings, have clipped the low and high tonal values. Light gray tones appear pure white – like chalk. The dark tones have been forced to pure black. Adding to the problem, the default B/W vendorB/W brand, and B/W type have been chosen. Heavens! Now let’s see how to make things look much nicer.

Correct the VueScan Settings Before Scanning

It’s important with VueScan to not choose any of the film pre-sets, because they result in automatic curve adjustments over which we have no control. Therefore, choose GENERIC as the B/W Vendor. Choose COLOR as the B/W Brand.

Because we want to get a straight scan from VueScan, we need to adjust the Curve low and Curve high settings to 0, or as low as they can go. Having these settings at Zero, will ensure that the extremes of the density curve are not clipped unless we want them.

We have lightened the image a little, by increasing the Brightness level to 1.06. It’s just enough to let the image feel like natural light.

Now We’re Ready to Scan

The Preview feature has let us adjust the scanning settings, so our scan will get us as close as possible to a faithful rendition of this negative.

We set the scanner to give us a 16-bit greyscale TIFF file. Unlike JPEG (which is “lossy”), the TIFF format results in no loss of visual information. (TIFF stands for Tagged Indexed File Format. JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group.) For color negatives and slides, use 16-bit color – also known as 48-bit color, because each of the Red, Green, and Blue channels, get 16 bits.

After the Scan

In our editing tool (Photoshop) the image looks pleasing and natural. To tone the image with a warm but subtle color, we apply a non-destructive Color Fill Layer according to taste.

Against a white background, the image feels different than when against the black background of the scanner software. Depending on our choice of matting and frame, we may decide to adjust the tones of this photograph a bit further.

Finally, we save the file in the Photoshop PSD format, which uses a lossless compression algorithm. The file is smaller than the original TIFF, but no quality is lost. To post this image on the internet, we can always make a JPG file later (8-bit only), but our working file is in PSD format, at full 16-bit resolution. We can also keep the original TIFF if we like.


We have managed to get an image that feels like soft natural light, right out of the scanner. Very few further adjustments will be needed in Photoshop – and that’s for the best – since every digital adjustment distorts the image in one way or another, even the so-called “non-destructive” adjustments.

To preserve the natural “Analog” quality of the original negative, we scanned the image in 16-bit monochrome, and saved it in a lossless file format. The 16-bit format gives us 65,536 shades of grey to play with, to reduce any banding, clipping, or other digital artifacts which may arise if we make further adjustments.

But Wait: The Green Channel is Sharpest !

To get the sharpest scan of a B&W; negative, we scan in 48-bit color, but use only the Green channel. We save the data from that channel, as a 16-bit Grayscale image, and toss away the rest. Using the Green Channel Only.

Best Focus: Above the Glass ???

Epson flatbed scanners are configured for best focus, just above the glass. To get the best image out of the scanner, you need to raise the film up by a small amount.

To get the most out of the Epson scanner, you can make your own holder, or simply use a Variable Height Mounting Station BetterScanning. It lets you place the film exactly in the plane of focus. It keeps a space between your film and the scanner glass, and uses special Anti-Newton’s Ring glass.

For a personal sample of how the BetterScanning holder improves focus over Epson’s holders, see my before and after images here. For Better Scanning’s comparison samples, click here.

Another Summary

I take the position that it’s best to get things right, as early as possible, rather than “down-stream” in the process.

In other words, skip subjects that don’t look beautiful. That’s 99{d4e6fabf8da02c89293759be6c8202c78433121553e67b711ceafa582bd64e7a} of the issue. For the remaining 1{d4e6fabf8da02c89293759be6c8202c78433121553e67b711ceafa582bd64e7a}, expose the photo as well as possible, and develop accordingly, adjusting the negative with expansion and contraction. Development by inspection with an Infra Red viewing device takes this even further, and makes it easy.

In the scanning phase, you have your last big chance to get things perfect, if they aren’t already. This is where you make the transition to digital, and if you want to keep things looking as analog as possible, it should be your last major tonal correction.

After that, you can use a tool like Photoshop to make small corrections, but it’s best to minimize them, or your images will look like they come from a slick commercial magazine.

Which Scanning Resolution ?

We choose the scanning resolution, depending on how much we plan to enlarge the original.

To get good quality, we need to print at 300 dpi (dots per inch) minimum. At that level, people can stick their nose close to the print and not see any dots, and the image will appear critically sharp. Some people can see more that 300 dots. Laser printers for offices, work at 600 dots, because letters appear ragged at 300 dpi.

However, photographs are not printed text – pure black over pure white. High-end publications print images with a “300-line screen”, because at normal reading distance, 300 dpi is as much as people can discern in a photograph.

If we scan at 300 spi (samples per inch), we can make a print at the same size as the original. If we scan at 600 spi, we can make a print which is twice the size of the original. If we scan at 1200 spi, we can make a print which is 3 times the size… etc.

Let’s say we have a medium format negative which after cropping, is 2×2 inches. We want to make a 10×10 inch print. That means we plan to enlarge by a factor of 5. In that case, we need to scan at a minimum of 300 x 5, or 1500 spi.

Let’s say we have a 4×5 slide, and we want to make a 12×15 inch print. That means we plan to enlarge by a factor of 3. In that case, we need to scan at a minimum of 300 x 3, or 900 spi.

Let’s say we have an 8×10 negative. We want to make an 8×10 inch print. That means we don’t plan to enlarge at all. In that case, we can scan at a minimum of 300 x 1, or 300 spi.

If you feel that 300 dpi is too close to the minimum, scan at a higher resolution. It’s up to you. Depending on the image, you may not be able to see the difference.

Epson Printers

While Canon and HP printers work with multiples of 300 dpi, Epson printers work best in multiples of 360 dpi. So if you plan to enlarge 5 times and print at 360 dpi, you will want to scan at 5 x 360, or 1800 spi. If you plan to send 720 dpi to the printer, then you need to scan 5 x 720 or 3600 spi.

… and then there’s Sharpening

There are many ways to sharpen an image. Large books have been written on the subject. Here’s a simple method that really works well for monochrome as well as color. Read Sharpening Dark and Light Layers Separately for a quick and effective method for sharpening images.

Best Practices

For your serious work, it’s probably a good idea to scan at a higher resolution than you need. You can always down-size the image to print at whatever size you like. The only problem with this approach, is that you end up with large files, which are expensive to store. Nowadays, you can purchase an affordable external hard-drive. It’s safer than leaving them on the computer itself, which is more subject to failure and accidental deletions in the long-run.

RBG files are 3 X the size of Grayscale images, so if you want to save room on your hard drive, don’t save your monochrome images in RGB. Just save them in 16-bit B&W.; When it’s time to print, you can always convert to RBG and add a Color Fill layer for toning purposes. You can save the toning layer in your Guide File image (see below).

Be sure to read You Don’t Need a Super Computer

More Information

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Holder Adjustment