How to Request Film Scan Preferences

Example of the same image scanned with three different color preferences

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Okay, that idiom is a little dark, but the point still stands—there is more than one way to scan photographic film!

It’s amazing how much variation you can get from the limited controls of a film scanner. That’s why adding your scan preferences to your film order is vital if you need to narrow down the particular “look” of your film photography.

There’s more to it than just saying “warmer” or “brighter”, though. We are dealing with subjective terms that mean different things to different people; maybe you think “warmer” means more yellow, but someone else thinks “warmer” means more red.

Specificity matters when requesting your preferences!

First, you need to know what parameters of an image you can even request preferences for (because not all characteristics can be controlled well by a scanning machine).

The first is density of the overall image, or lightness/darkness. We call it density because it refers to how transparent or opaque the physical negative is.

Another thing that can be controlled in the scanning process is color balance. But don’t confuse this with controlling specific color channels!

Film scanners do not have the same capabilities to adjust images as photo editors like Lightroom and Photoshop, so the scanning technician is pretty limited in their controls and is governed by “the physics of color”.

A graphic displaying how colors are balanced

What does that mean?

When working with RGB colors (as opposed to physical ink, which is the CMYK color space), opposite hues have an interdependent balance. Yellow depends on blue, red depends on cyan, and magenta depends on green—and to decrease the appearance of one color, we must increase the color it is dependent on.

There is no masking or selective color in the scanning process, so these changes in color balance occur across the entire image.

Graphic example of how scanners must work within the “Physics of Color”

A fake tan and a red-faced barfly in one shot? The film scanning technician has to work within the physics of color to get the best results for both skin tones.

What other things do we have very little or just plain poor control over in the scanning process?

One is saturation. Making colors more intense/vibrant within the film scanner is very tricky. This is mainly because adjusting saturation in the film scanner can make other adjustments, like density and color balance, get really funky. All of a sudden whites look pink or blue, colors get blocky and smooth gradients are lost, etc.

The other is contrast—not to be confused with density (which is the overall lightness or darkness of an image). Contrast is the range of difference between lights and darks. Shadows darken at a faster rate than highlights do, and shifting contrast can be wonky sometimes.

Ultimately, Richard wants you to get the very best version of your image, and trying to adjust saturation and contrast within the scanning process is not the way to do it. Both should be controlled by YOU while you are shooting film, or refined in post-production with the digital images.

So, now that you know a bit more about scanner controls, you know that…

Scan preference equation

When you are considering the look you like, remember to think of how it applies to skin tone. If there is a person in your shot, typically they are the subject of the photo, which is why Richard Photo Lab always focuses on the appearance of skin tone when scanning film.

Let’s take a look at some real-world examples of how different density requests affect the same image:

An example of scanning for shadow detail and scanning for highlight detail

Image by Erika Parker

There is a ton of information stored in a properly exposed film negative. The lab can scan to show off more details in the shadowy areas or more detail in the highlight areas. Compare the two images above!

Note that the one scanned for shadow details holds a lot of detail in the back-lit bride and more contrast in the foreground. The version scanned for highlights has more textures and patterns shown in the walls and window. Perceptually, it feels like this is an adjustment in contrast—but that is really an inherited result of the highlights and the shadows shifting at different rates as we adjust the levels of lightness/darkness.

Another example of the difference in an image scanned for shadow detail and highlight detail

Image by Kayla Barker

Try not to get confused by the terms shadow and highlight when thinking of these requests—it's tough because scanning for shadow details actually produces a lighter image, and vice versa.

Don't forget, when requesting to scan for highlight details or shadow details, you must include the word "details". Scanning for highlight/shadows is different than scanning for highlight/shadow details.

When it comes to color, there's more to it than warm versus cool! For more precise results, you can also tell us the color you want your images to lean towards. Look at the scans below:

You can also send the lab reference images that act as "color targets" for the lab. But remember: 1) only send 2-3 images maximum so we aren't receiving contradictory color targets, and 2) these are only targets that we aim to get close to; we can't match the colors exactly because we are still limited by what's captured on your film negative.

But wait, there’s more!
If you want to take this one step further, you can request to use a pre-existing color profile...

What is a color profile? It’s a set of visual guidelines and references that we build personally with a photographer, getting into the nitty gritty of their shooting techniques and fine tuning their style of imagery.

But remember that “borrowing” a pre-existing profile does not guarantee your images will look exactly the same as that photographer’s work. That’s because, hey, they are working with different types of film, lighting conditions, camera settings, eyes, and a myriad of other variables than you. These profiles can be more tuned in to the minutiae of a “look” than density and color preferences alone.

Once you've been able to experiment with different scan preferences and pre-existing color profiles to define the look you love, you should really go through the process of creating your own personal, in-depth color profile as part of our Color PAC service!

So, how do you indicate your scan preferences on an order?

First head to Richard Photo Lab’s Online Film Ordering to start your order! Select "Developing & Custom Scans—then you can choose your color preferences and upload reference images, or you can opt to use a color profile.

Start Your Film Order
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