drum scans: my workflow & service of choice

Although I capture all of my images on film (8×10, 4×5, 6×17), they all must be scanned to produce a print. This is because all modern color output is done via digital based printers. Although inkjet prints are very good, I prefer traditional light sensitive photo “papers.” I place the word papers in quotes because my medium of choice is actually a plastic base — FujiFlex Crystal Archive. This is important when framing large prints.

Digital prints allow greater consistency than analog.  The ability to produce very large images is an added plus. By capturing the original image on film, I retain the analog character of film. I love the way film grain looks in print. It adds authenticity to the print, and gives the appearance that there is more detail hidden behind the grain.

The first step to my film/digital workflow is a proper exposure. When shooting slide film, a proper exposure is absolutely necessary. If your shadows are too dark, there is no way to recover that information. Likewise, if your exposure is too bright, the highlights will be lost. Contrary to popular belief, I’ve found that slide film has a very impressive latitude in the highlights. A digital camera will clip the highlights quite easily, but film is far more graceful.

With digital, we are taught to expose to the right of the histogram. The same thing applies to slide film. If I expose the image as bright as possible (but not overexposed), I will capture both the shadows and the highlights. Upon scanning the film, I can easily tone down the highlights.

Now let’s say I have a  transparency that is properly exposed. The next step is a quality drum scan. I emphasize the word quality.

Unlike a flatbed scan where the film is placed on a piece of glass, and backlit, a drum scan is far more precise. The film is fluid mounted to a transparent cylinder, which spins as the film is scanned pixel by pixel. It is a very time intensive process, but the resulting tonality is stunning. If shadow detail is visible when viewing a transparency on a light table, a drum scan will resolve it. When the scan is complete, the image is meticulously cleaned to ensure it is free of dust. My scans are often around 2GB (365 Megapixels), so these files are enormous.

It is important to know that a drum scan is only as good as the operator. As with most things in life, consistency is important. All of my drum scans have been done by one company — and to be more specific, one individual. In early 2009, I was preparing for a large show here in San Diego. I needed a half dozen 4×5 transparencies scanned, so I researched various scanning services.

Now you’re probably wondering who this person is. His name is James Beck, and here’s his website: Independent Separation Inc.

I fully recommend his drum scans. If your film is well exposed, and properly focused, you’ll be very happy with the results. I guarantee it.

When I receive my scans in the mail, I just do a few minor tweaks for color and contrast. A quality drum scan will give a safety cushion of tonality in the shadows and highlights. This means that the shadows might seem a bit bright,and the highlights a bit dark. This is headroom for you to tweak the file to perfection.  You can choose how dark to make your shadows, and how bright to make your highlights. With the curves adjustment, I am able to set the contrast, and fine tune the color.

If you are considering a drum scan, please visit James’ website for more information. If you are a first time customer, just mention my name, and you’ll save 10% off your first order.

I have included some 100% crops of the image.  See if you can find where I cropped them from on the full shot. This was shot on 8×10 Velvia 100. All I did was a curves adjustment to get rid of the slight purple cast, then darken the shadows just a hair.


1:1 crop of a cactus (click to enlarge)

1:1 Crop of river shore 3,000 feet below, and over a mile away (click to enlarge)

1:1 crop of cliff texture (click to enlarge)

4 Responses to “drum scans: my workflow & service of choice”

  1. Andreas Resch Says:

    Thanks for yet another very informative post, Ben. I’m glad you mentioned that film is great in the brighter tones as I found myself rather underexposing film than getting it too bright. I might “expose to the right” a bit more in the future.
    Drum Scanning is expensive here in Austria (like $140 per sheet). Instead I send my 4×5 slides to Germany and have it scanned on a Flextight X5. The results are good enough for me and it costs a mere $10 per sheet which makes a great difference.

    Take care,

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I did the same thing when I started shooting transparencies. I heard so much about how the highlights are so fragile that I tended toward underexposure. When I’ve spoken with other photographers, they too have suggested underexposing to make the color more rich. I tried that for a while, but found that I was losing my shadows. Since then, I’ve decided to expose as bright as I can. I’ve been amazed at how much detail I can hold in the highlights. Unlike digital where your highlights will abruptly transition to pure white, you will see some nice tonality on film. In particular, the highlight slider of the shadow & highlight tool does a good job pulling this detail out with little effort.

      On the note of drum scans, I do pay quite a bit for my scans, but I also scan my film at (seemingly) ridiculous sizes. I want to be covered for any possible print size.

  2. Mike Boudreaux Says:

    Really enjoying all the content lately, Ben. I’m definitely looking forward to reading your impressions of the Ektar 100. I’ve heard that the Color Neg films are much more difficult to scan, but have an incredible latitude. I really enjoy your technical articles, and would definitely like to see more tips about working with scans. I know this blog must be a ton of work, but I do enjoy the heck out of it and I’m always looking forward to reading what you have to say.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Mike! I was hoping to post my Ektar/Velvia comparison already, but it has been placed on the back burner because I’m getting ready for a big show at the end of this month. It’s definitely true that Ektar will show better tonality, but like you mentioned, it is more difficult to scan. In the post, I’ll address my thoughts on the reciprocity failure numbers. I’m not quite sure what to think until I really sit down and study the film to see what worked and what didn’t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: