View Full Version : What's the real color of negatives?!

Alessandro V.
11-Jan-2012, 03:56
Hello everybody!

I have a question that has been my nightmare for some weeks now and, personally, I cannot find an answer...

The question is, as you can imagine, what's the real color of a negative image?
The problem, I guess, arise as there is this orange mask that is different, from what I have understood, for all the different film and I guess it could also change upon how well you have developed the film.

Personally I have developed 32 4x5 negatives for a project I am carrying on and, even if I I checked the temperature and times like never before during the developing of the films itself (with a Jobo CCP-2) when I scan it (Epson V750 plus Silverfast 8 calibrated with IT8) I get slightly different colors for each sheet of film. I don't understand if it is a problem of the film or a problem of the software...
This is driving me crazy...

Sometimes I read some topics where people debate on which should be the colors for some films and which should be not but the question I always ask myself is:
- 1 when you printed the negatives traditionally the final color of the print was not influenced by the printing process and materials?
- 2 Shouldn't we therefore accept different looks for the very same piece of film scanned in different ways?

If I am wrong and there is a true set of colors for each type of film how can we know we have scanned it correctly?
For example, sometimes, if I am not 100% sure about the scan of a B&W piece of film I scan it as a positive image and the I reverse it setting the white point on the markers on the film and the black one on the lateral stripes. But for negatives how do you do this? I've only ended up with very bad images when trying to apply this method to color negatives.

Thank you very much for your help!


PS: As I guess the topic might lead to some very complicated discussions, and I am not a color technician, I would really appreciate if everybody could keep a simple vocaboulary or, at least, explain the meaning of the super difficult words used.
Thank you!

Mark Barendt
11-Jan-2012, 04:27
Hi Alessandro

I do fine tune for each negative. Global adjustment only gets me through proofing.

What have found with digital is that it's never as simple as it seems it should be. :eek:

If you really want to learn the ins and outs of scanning and printing the link below is to a course available online and I've taken courses from Taz, he's good.

Lynda.com is great, you just pay by the month and get access to all their courses. When i was doing digital hot and heavy I had a subscription there for a year and a half I think, took lots of courses and it was worth every minute and every penny.


11-Jan-2012, 07:15
what kind of monitor and card are you using? sounds like your monitor has a automatic lightness adjust. some monitors when they change brightness they change color balance... VGA windows might be the culprit

Walter Foscari
11-Jan-2012, 07:33
Welcome to the world of digital color negs. If you're using a CPP with fresh C41 chemistry your development is probably fine. It's just the nature of color negs where the colors are inverted and compressed in such a narrow range. Correctly extracting those color with a scan is just not that easy.
Personally, for my scanning I rent an Imacon and gave up on trying to invert with the native software. Now I just save the raw scan (.fff files) import into PS and do all my work there. There are many tricks that can get you started (auto color, greypoint presets etc.) ultimately though it takes work and experience. Make sure you have a calibrated monitor, get a good PS book, and start practicing. After a will be amazed at how good you get.


Brian C. Miller
11-Jan-2012, 08:50
(Epson V750 plus Silverfast 8 calibrated with IT8) I get slightly different colors for each sheet of film.

Did you photograph the IT8 target with your negative film, process it in your Jobo, and then do the calibration with that target? What you might try is photograph the IT8 target a couple of times, and put that target in with two different batches. See if the results suddenly snap into line, as you may have a batch-to-batch problem instead of negative-to-negative problem.

Also, have you checked the CPP-2's temperature with a separate thermometer? I found that my CPP-2 is just slightly off.

Alessandro V.
11-Jan-2012, 11:27
Hello everybody and thank you for the answers!

Let's go in order:
Mark - thank you! I saw some video from Lynda before but I've never seen this one about scanning. I'll give it a try!

photobymike - I have personally color calibrated the monitor before starting the whole process of scanning. The automatic light adjustment is switched off and I've corrected the luminance of the monitor as well. I have a Mac Book Air, I guess it's not the best for this type of jobs but it's all I have... :-)

Walter - yes the chemistry was super fresh and I have used it just to develop the 4x5 sheets I am talking about. No other films.

Brian - I have a Silverfast IT8 4x5 (transparency) target made by kodak and I've used that for the calibration. I did not photograph and processed anything. Sorry but I did not understand the batches stuff... :-)
And, yes, I do check the temperature of my CPP-2 processor:
I have a digital termometer and two traditional ones. I've set everything so that the water that "hit" the rotating tank was 38.00 C° and the chemicals in the bottles a bit warmer (when you take them away from the processor to pour the content in the tank you loose temperature). And to be even more sure I've developed all the negatives during the same session without switching the Jobo CPP-2 off and then rewarming everything another time.
Going back to the IT8 target... what's the purpose of taking a picture of the IT8 target and then process it and scan it? I guess it's only to see if you are consistent with the development or not right? It's not to calibrate the scanner.
I thought about taking a picture of the IT8 wand then scan everything to trace the curves for that particular film BUT what's the point of shooting film if then I color correct everything to look like the real stuff? I would shoot digital then...or am I missing something?

Thank you very much for the answers!

Anyway, from a more general point of view, talking about colors, I still did not understand if the is ONE true negative or there might be different interpretation...
If there is only one, how can you know if you got it right or not once it's scanned?

Ben Syverson
11-Jan-2012, 12:04
(snip) I would shoot digital then...or am I missing something?
Alessandro, I think you are missing something. Either that or I don't understand what you're asking.

If what you want is the most accurate color representation, then you need to use and understand calibration targets. You're right that digital is a bit easier since it's already in the ballpark.

If you just want a nice image, then shoot film and don't over think it. As far as I'm concerned, there is no "right" interpretation of a color negative. Even RA4 (photochemical C-print paper) alters the characteristic curve in a way which is not strictly accurate.

Brian C. Miller
11-Jan-2012, 12:18
The purpose to photographing an IT8 target is to establish a specific color profile for an image path. My target is printed, so I photograph the target, process the film, scan it, and then I create a color profile for that path of film to scanner to file. If I used a digital camera, I would photograph the target with the digital camera, and then create the color profile from the resulting file for all images from that particular digital camera.

For troubleshooting your situation, I would first start with one negative with the IT8 target in a processing batch, and see if all of the negatives in that batch were correct for their color. If all of the negatives are good for the batch, do it again with the next batch, and compare the two IT8 targets. They should match each other.

Of course, this presumes that all of the negatives were shot in roughly the same sort of light. When I bought a used Gossen meter, a color meter was included. The meter really showed me just how wildly color light can vary.

As for the "ONE true negative," yes, it does exist. It was handed to George Eastman and the Lumière brothers, not long after Moses received the Ten Commandments. It is kept in the Chauvet caves in France, protected by the Knights of the Holy Silver, and the Lone Ranger. The uninitiated must pass several trials before they see it, starting with getting past Tiny Tim and Jerry Lewis. Another of the trials is the Internet Troll at the cafe, and that's also brutal. Everybody else just mail orders a copy from Germany.

gary mulder
11-Jan-2012, 14:53
I still did not understand if the is ONE true negative or there might be different interpretation...

Sorry no. The negative will differ according to the color temperature of the light in which it was taken. Developing with c-41 is pretty consistent. If you do not over use the chemicals. Personally I use one liter developer for 24 sheets 4x5, one shot. (6 in 250 ml )
Remember chemicals are cheap compared to film.
I have a Imacon but never got it really right with color neg. Maybe I am to much a darkroom man. :rolleyes:

Bruce Watson
12-Jan-2012, 07:37
...what's the real color of a negative image?

There's not one. And you can't force one to exist no matter how much you demand it. Sorry.

The orange mask serves many functions, one of which is color correction. That orange mask is one of the reasons that negative films have more accurate color than transparency films (don't believe me? Fine. Go to APUG and ask PhotoEngineer, a retired film design engineer from Kodak. That's where I got my information on this). Clearly, since the colors in each scene vary, the color of the orange mask also varies. Like snowflakes, no two are ever exactly alike.

You can't create an ICC profile for a scanner scanning negative film. It's undefined. The orange mask, for one thing. The much much larger variation in density range from frame to frame for another.

There are a lot of reasons to use negative films over tranny films. I personally never use tranny films for anything, and haven't for most of a decade. But you do have to treat every frame individually, in scanning just like in the darkroom.

Stop fighting it. Learn to love the individual nature of it. Your attitude will improve, and your image quality will also improve. Been there and done that.

Daniel Moore
12-Jan-2012, 19:44
The halls still reverberate from my spanking newness regarding scanning best practices, however, I have spent countless hours learning color management - colorspaces, gamuts, profiles, the whole crazy bag of digital demands. I can say now that C F Systems ColorPerfect (http://www.c-f-systems.com/Plug-ins.html)for negative scans has been the fastest and most satisfying route I've tried. You'll go cross-eyed reading the yeas and nays on the program and it's earlier incarnations colorneg/negpos, but a trial version is available and I suggest you use it to see i you can help quickly come to terms with negative film scanning. It's a daunting interface, I'll admit, but I find I only use a couple settings to arrive at the desired output. Most importantly, I find I arrive at the most attractive color right out of the gate and have saved a ton of tweaking and second guessing.

Ben Syverson
12-Jan-2012, 19:50
Daniel is right to put the emphasis on attractive color vs "accurate" color.

100% color accuracy is a holy grail that only fools chase, and you know what they say about fools and their money...

Robert Jonathan
13-Jan-2012, 04:40
There are a lot of reasons to use negative films over tranny films.

Can you tell me those reasons? (I'm serious. Not trying to be a smartass).

I'm still a bit new to LF (shooting for a few years), but the reason I ask is because I've been only shooting Provia 100F and E100G, not only because I can show off my results easier (and I like the films sharpness and color), but because it seemed for a few years, everyone who shot film and printed digitally were shooting chromes, not negs.

Also, whenever I see a scan of negative film compared to chrome film, the negs are grainy and littered with color noise (which I can remove easily, I know), while chromes are smooth and clean, and usually sharper with more detail.

So why do I now see people gobbling up Ektar and Portra, compared to what I've seen in the past years, where people were just shooting chromes? Or have I been incorrectly judging the types of films people have been shooting?

Ben Syverson
13-Jan-2012, 09:26
In the past, chromes were favored because they were sharper and less grainy than negatives.

Over the past 5-10 years, negative film has caught up. Ektar's incredibly fine grain can go head-to-head with the best chromes these days.

Negative films are much nicer to work with, because of their incredibly long response curve. Highlights that would be blown out to pure base (no information) on reversal still have plenty of information in a negative. There's just so much more latitude.

Have you ever tried to shoot slide film under mixed lighting? It can be a real pain to filter it correctly. By contrast, negative film can be far more effectively color corrected in printing/scanning.

Those are a couple important reasons.

Tyler Boley
13-Jan-2012, 10:52
My memory is that chromes were favored for commercial work as they were separated or scanned more readily than neg, which would require printing then reflective scanning. We also proofed on polaroid to make sure our lighting ratios would fit on chromes. Sometimes hi end fashion work was done on negs then printed and scanned, if a softer look was desired. But for fine art I believe negs have always dominated, particularly in large format- Stephen Shore, Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, countless others... of course there are exceptions.

Bruce Watson
13-Jan-2012, 12:59
Can you tell me those reasons?

You can search this forum for a bit and find out lots, and get many more opinions beyond just mine. But for what it's worth...

The biggie for me is much bigger dynamic range. You can shoot negative film in direct light while still maintaining visual detail in both shadows and highlights. I've captured 11 stops or more without any artifacts (such as color shifting) that I can find.

Another biggie is color accuracy. Of course, the films are color balanced for a specific set of conditions (typically some version of "daylight", but daylight varies like crazy outside the studio) so for absolute color accuracy you'll have to be in the studio or be really lucky in the field. So perhaps I should say relative color accuracy (maintaining the relationships between colors). Some people I should note find this to be bad. And at that point you get into the "accurate" vs. "looks good" argument. I'm not going there.

Negative films tend to have lower density ranges than trannies which makes them somewhat easier to scan. They also tend to be less saturated which also makes them easier to scan.

From a technical standpoint (and there's not much reason to care about this in LF and bigger, but you did ask), modern color negative films are actually a bit sharper, and a bit finer grained than their tranny cousins. Note I said "modern" because this has not always been the case.

Before you scream about graininess, let me just say that trannies often look less grainy. This is because graininess follows density. And the dense parts of a tranny are the shadows, where the graininess is harder to see, while in a negative it's in the highlights were it's easy to see. But the RMS graininess ratings show that with similar ISO films, negative film is a bit less grainy these days.

That said, I've got a few really large prints from 5x4 160Portra (one generation back from the current version). Printed on a smooth canvas to 150 x 93 cm. Big honking print. It looks grainless to me, and hundreds of people have seen it now and made comments without a single negative comment about graininess, one way or the other. But many asked about the sharpness. And I'm a minimalist when it comes to Photoshop -- no denoise program, minimal capture sharpening only. I could do more but it begins to look unnatural to me so I don't.

That's my list off the top of my head. But none of this may matter to you. And that's OK too. Film choice is just another tool after all.