What if you had a scanning solution for color negative and black and white film that enabled you to scan and convert a whole roll of 35mm film in less than 15 minutes and all that in next to pro-lab scan quality – at home?
To do such things one must have a Frontier Minilab standing in their living room, right? Although a fantastic concept, very few have such a machine at home and well, neither do I. There is, however, a relatively new solution out there that may allow those of us who scan, or want to scan color negatives at home and produce lab-quality results. It’s called Negative Lab Pro and is nothing less than a revolution – at least in my humble opinion.
Negative Lab Pro is a simple to use plugin for Adobe Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC Classic, allowing you to work within your existing archives without adding yet another application to your workflow.
It seems that “what if…?” above is actually achievable, so what now? Here’s what I cover:
Table of contents
What is Negative Lab Pro?
Negative Lab Pro (NLP) is a Lightroom plugin to create accurate and visually stunning color negative conversion in an all-RAW Lightroom workflow. NLP produces very good color conversions and it produces them very fast – almost one-click fast. If that wasn’t enough, NLP is also able to batch process as many negatives as you want, either with fully automated settings, half-manual settings or with user-defined settings based on a predefined scene.
Right now, NLP is designed to work with RAW reproductions of negatives digitized with your camera of choice, VUEscan RAW DNG files, as well as other types of linear scans from drum scanners for example..
At the time of publication, the plugin had its v2 release less than 24 hours ago. This article is based on NLP v2.
Future plans, according to NLP’s founder Nathan Johnson include: specific scanner calibrations for Epson, Canon and Nikon devices, further custom settings, engine improvements and better compatibility.
Developing my “scanning” workflow
To demonstrate an easy scanning workflow using Negative Lab Pro, let me first tell you a tale of my previous workflow: let’s call it the “never-ending story of my ordeal with a not so perfect Photoshop Plugin called ColorPerfect”.
I’ve always wanted to digitize my film at home: because if I develop my film myself, I should be able to scan by myself, too. My early goal was to establish an easily reproducible “in-house” scanning workflow that delivered good quality at least for small prints and digital presentation and digital archiving. My personal requirement was to be able to process uncut rolls of 120 and 135 films in a timely manner, so Epson Flatbed Scanners were a dead end from the beginning. The same applied for models like the Kodak Pakon 135, because it obviously can scan only 135 formats.
Ultimately, I decided to make digital reproductions of my negatives using a Canon 5D Mk2 DSLR with Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro lens mounted onto a repro-stand. To hold the negatives in place I use a Kaiser negative carrier for 135 formats and a Lomography Digitaliza mask for 120 formats. The negatives are illuminated by a Kaiser Slimlite Plano 95CRI LED 5000K lightpad.
Focusing is not an issue because the camera’s autofocus is accurate enough to pick up grain from Portra 800, most 400-speed black and white films and other higher speed film. With the lens’ aperture stopped-down, grain is picked up even with fine grain films like Kodak Portra 160 and even Kodak Ektar 100.
Note: the process of scanning/digitising film remains the same with both my previous (ColorPerfect) and current (NLP) workflows.
Upon importing the images into Lightroom my initial plan was to convert the images using curve adjustments. This works pretty reliably for black and white images, but is next to impossible for color negatives, at least if you put the necessary investment of time into account.
This confronted me with the challenge of how to convert my color negatives. At the time, NLP did not yet exist, which is why I didn’t initially use it. After a while, I realized there was no way to keep the workflow completely inside of Lightroom. I moved over to Photoshop but nonetheless, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice Lightroom’s folders and image organization, so I began to use a dual-program workflow as follows:
After importing the files from my tethered camera into Lightroom, I dialled down the exposure -2 stops, to normalize my in-camera overexposure, applied basic color noise reduction and lens corrections.
Then I exported the negatives into Photoshop (CTRL+E). At first, I used a free negative conversion Action for Photoshop, provided by iamthejeff.com (no longer available as of writing). The action produced conversions, but not very accurate and reproducible ones. Quite a lot had to be edited back in Lightroom in order to achieve a pleasant color – provided the negatives were exposed correctly. Over- or underexposed negatives were too big of a challenge for the action.
After a while, and lots of research about this method of scanning, I came across a Photoshop plugin called ColorPerfect, which promised accurate and reproducible scans. Don’t get me wrong, the plugin is not bad, the opposite in fact. The plugin is worth its €80 price tag, as it offers an overwhelming level of control over the negative conversion.
That control, however, is one of ColorPerfect’s biggest problems. It is simply overwhelming, thus, producing a great result takes time and requires quite a steep learning curve. It is also unfortunately not very consistent. To put salty icing on the cake, the plugin was not developed with “camera scanning” in mind and works best with scans from dedicated film scanners.
Here are a few examples from my previous workflow with Color Perfect not too bad on the face of things. We’ll be coming back to these later, so pay close attention…
As time passed and I slowly grew tired of ColorPerfect, not only because achieving good looking conversions was a finicky and tedious process but because ColorPerfect seemed to be incapable of dealing with increased highlight density. The resulting scans were too often a mess with blown highlights last seen from the sensors of mid-2000s digital cameras. The beautiful and natural gradients of density rendition of color negative film were replaced by pure digital white blown out areas with hard and pixelated borders.
In fact, I grew so sick of using ColorPerfect that I began to reduce the amount of CN film I was shooting to avoid having to convert the negatives and that’s where my ColorPerfect story ends…almost.
The end of ColorPerfect
When I went to Malta in fall 2018 I decided to take lots of color film with me, even if that meant processing the negatives with CP or giving them to a lab for scanning. I just couldn’t bring myself to limit myself to only black and white film.
I took three rolls of Kodak Ektar 100 and bought two more in Valetta in a little backroom photo lab/store called Darkroom Malta (definitely visit this store and have a nice conversation with Alan, the owner). Add to that: three rolls of Kodak Portra 160, one roll of Agfa CT100, one roll of 1996 expired Fuji Sensia 100, one roll of Fuji PRo400H, two rolls of Kodak Ultramax 400,one roll of Kodak Portra 400, five rolls of Kodak Tri-X 400 and about 15 rolls of self-confectioned and perforated Fuji Super HR microfilm. You get the idea, I was shooting a lot of film.
Worse, I had a lot of Ektar 100. It’s one of my most favorite color stocks but having to scan and process ~180 frames with ColorPerfect seemed like an afternoon spent in the 7th circle of hell. ColorPerfect and Ektar is basically like Holy Water and the devil – not a very pleasant match.
When I returned from my trip and was finished with processing my film, I dreadingly looked towards scanning it. After having struggled with the first five frames or so of Ektar, I gave up.
That’s when, in a final frustrated attempt to find some better way to process my film, I googled “color negative conversion lightroom” and to my surprise, a new result came to my attention, the 3rd in line, to be precise.
I clicked the link because I had not seen this search result before – and believe me, I had Googled this phrase countless times before. Upon entering the site, I saw that this seemed to be a Lightroom plugin and the site even provided a free demo version, which I immediately tried.
Kodak Ektar 100 converted with ColorPerfect (left). Not really faithful. Ektar 100 converted with Negative Lab Pro (right). Much more accurate and faithful rendition of the scene.
I was stunned.
Suddenly, my dreaded Ektar scans seemed to be a one-click cakewalk. After fiddling around with the demo version a bit, I decided to give it a go and paid the heavy price tag of $99 for the plugin. I have not once regretted this purchase.
Working with Negative Lab Pro
One of the best things about Negative Lab Pro (NLP) is the plugin ́s support. The founder and developer, Nathan Johnson – NLP is a one man show – provides excellent support, usually replies quite fast and listens to the community for recommendations about future features of the plugin. Additionally, there is a growing Facebook group and a dedicated Forum for community-based support.
Back to the actual plugin and upon importing my scanned negatives into Lightroom, I click on the NLP button (or use the keyboard shortcut), click on “Convert Negative”, play with easily adjustable sliders a few seconds and have a finished, good looking conversion. It’s that easy.
If I feel the need to do further adjustments aka digital trickery in Lightroom, NLP gives me an option also to save the file as a TIFF directly in Lightroom for further processing.
Here’s a quick side by side comparison of Color Perfect vs Negative Lab Pro with Kodak Ektar 100 in 135 Format, converted with the edges of the Kaiser Negative carrier used for holding the film in place.
Here’s another one, again with 135 Ektar 100, a film that is notoriously difficult to convert:
As mentioned before, Color Perfect has considerable issues with Ektar 100 while NLP works like a charm. Really, it does. My color workflow has never been easier. Here´s a closer look on the Plugin´s interface:
After opening the plugin in Lightroom CC Classic the initial “Convert” dialogue will open. In this menu, you can define how NLP should interpret the negative. The options include specific scanner color emulations like Noritsu and Fuji Frontier scanners and a presaturation menu that defines how saturated the final conversion will be.
After having selected the pre-conversion specifications the conversion starts by the press of the “Apply” button and NLP will begin to analyze the image to give out the best conversion it can.
Then, after about 3-5 seconds, the negative will turn into a positive and a new “Edit” dialogue will open, giving the user a plethora of different control sliders for brightness and contrast, whites and blacks, lights and shadows, but also 10 different options for color balance, that again can be separated into mids, shadows and highlight adjustments if need be.
Generally, NLP comes with its own set of color profiles for Lightroom, which enable it to convert the negatives so easily in the first place. Using NLP is virtually foolproof, and that is meant as a predicate I wouldn’t label things with all too often in context of analog photography. Additionally, everything done in NLP is 100% non-destructive and can be reset or adjusted afterwards, if necessary.
To make matters even better, NLP not only works for color negatives but also for black and white negatives as well.
For converting a black and white image with NLP, you follow the same steps as you would with color negatives, just select “B+W” in the color model dropdown menu and hit “Apply”. With B+W you don’t need to worry about color saturation for obvious reasons.
Converting black and white negatives in NLP is more consistent and faster than fiddling around with inverting tone curves and is a lot more comfortable, to begin with.
Another incredibly useful feature of NLP is its ability to facilitate batch conversions of both black and white and color negatives. To convert multiple images, simply select the negatives you want to have converted and press “Convert x Negatives”, instead of “Apply”. NLP will then, depending on how many negatives you wish to convert take a few minutes to convert everything – for the 34 black and white images below, NLP took about 3 minutes to finish everything.
The same principles apply for color negative film, of course.
Quick tip: To avoid dust and dirt on your negatives, I recommend using a Kinetronics / ILFORD / Tetenal Antistatic cloth to wipe your negatives before scanning. Since I started using such a cloth, dust has been reduced by about 80%.
Negative Lab Pro results vs ColorPerfect
Remember that first gallery of color negatives processed in ColorPerfect earlier? Here’s each frame in a side-by-side re-processed in NLP. CP images are on the left, NLP on the right. Click/tap to expand and left/right to switch.
Seeing the ColorPerfect-processed images in the first gallery above may have left you feeling, “these are acceptable”. I hope that seeing the difference side-by-side here has helped change your mind about that.
The differences range from subtle to slap-you-in-the-face huge. Colour rendition is incredibly accurate – the two examples of brickwork and stone especially. Skin tones are much more natural, colour cast is reduced/eliminated and the images are much more consistent.
If you are looking for a better or easier way to convert color and black and white negatives at home, you should try Negative Lab Pro. The demo is free and allows for 12 unwatermarked, full resolution conversions before asking you to put your money down.
To conclude my brief introduction to Negative Lab Pro, here is a quick glance of the underlying methodology, in order to provide an unbiased basis for judgement: All negatives were re-scanned under identical conditions for this article. The conversions are a starting point and show what both plugins can deliver if one is not interested in investing too much time in every single conversion. Not more than 45s were invested in every conversion.
More Negative Lab Pro examples follow:
One of the best things about NLP is the plugin’s support. Nathan provides excellent support, usually replies quite fast and listens to the community for recommendations about future features of the plugin. Additionally, there is a growing Facebook group and a dedicated Forum for community-based support.
I feel the need to clarify that I’m in no way affiliated with NLP or Nathan Johnson. My opinion about NLP is purely based on my own experience. I paid the full $99 and must say that the plugin is worth every cent. A few months have passed since I bought v1.2 of NLP and in the meantime it has been updated to v2 – at no additional cost – and many features users have asked for have been integrated. Overall, the software’s conversion mechanisms have been overhauled and work even better and are more reliable than before.
As always, thank you very much for reading!
P.S. Should you feel the urge to view more images from Malta, converted with NLP, head to my portfolio and view the gallery with further selected photographs.
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