Black & White Film Scanning Tutorial


I see a lot of images on the web that are scans from black and white negatives, and most of them look flat and dead.

Film scanners are designed primarily for scanning color transparencies, which have a much greater density range than a black and white negative. A full range of tones on a color slide will include areas of totally clear film and areas of almost opaque black. A full range of tones on a BW negative will include some areas of clear or near clear film in the deepest blacks, but the brightest whites in a properly exposed and developed negative will not be near as dense as the blacks in a slide.

For that reason, negatives will always scan in very flat looking. It seems that most photographers just accept the flat, lifeless, dull image that the raw scan provides. Some think that it is how its supposed to be, others know how a black and white image should look, and they conclude that scanning sucks and that it is incapable of quality rendering. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Film scans need to be edited in Photoshop or whatever software you like to increase the contrast to normal, like a proper black and white image should have. My examples below show a few of my photographs with the unedited scan and the final edited version so that you can see just how much needs to be done. Most photographers use WAY too little contrast in thier scanned black and white images.

In addition to this tutorial, I also have a Film Scanning Demonstration video on YouTube.


Screenshot of Vuescan with a prescan of a negative waiting to be cropped


My Scan Settings:

I use a Nikon LS-8000ED scanner with Vuescan software. The information that I give below should work perfectly for any Nikon Scanner, and should be pretty close with other film scanners. I use Vuescan, rather than Nikon's scanner software, because Nikon stopped supporting Nikon Scan years ago. It tends to be unstable on later versions of PowerPC OS-X and Windows, and may not work at all on the Intel Macs. My instructions below are for the Professional Version of Vuescan, using the advanced control set. Vuescan's Mac and Windows versions are identical, so these settings work on either OS.


Screenshots of Vuescan showing all of the settings for black and white negative scanning

Vuescan is a very powerful program with a lot of settings. The controls are divided into several tabs. These are the settings that I use for scanning black and white negatives. I use Nikon's rotating glass carrier FH-869GR for all of my negatives.

Click on the thumbnail to the left to see the settings in a larger image in a new window.


Explaining the settings:

I want to explain why I use some of the settings that may not be self-explanatory.

-Media Set this to BW Negative. You can use the transparency setting, but the scan will look like a negative, and will need inverted in Photoshop. It'll also be even flatter looking, but that is sometimes useful when scanning very contrasty images.

-16 bit gray Scanning BW negatives in a color mode just increases file size and does not increase tonal range or quality, no matter what anyone tries to tell you. Scanning at 16 bit is vitally important. don't even consider scanning as 8 bit. A 16 bit scan can take more curves and levels adjustments without losing quality than you can do with an 8 bit file. Since BW negatives scan in flat, you need this ability. File sizes are bigger; IT IS WORTH IT.

-Batch Scanning: This allows scanning more than one image at a time. See my Vuescan Batch Scanning Tutorial for directions.

-Preview resolution: Set this to 677dpi. The software makes the preview large enough to see on your screen. It doesn't need to be high resolution, so scanning for screen resolution makes the preview scan faster. The Prescan is just needed so you can set the cropping of the scan.

-Scan Resolution: Whatever your scanner's highest is. My Nikon does 4000dpi. Don't scan lower thinking you'll make smaller prints. You'll regret this deeply when you decide to make a larger print and have to rescan and redo ALL your post-processing, dodging and burning, retouching, etc.

-Auto Focus: Always (if you scanner offers this...flatbeds don't usually). On the Nikon scanners, you can choose a pont on the image for the autofocus mechanism to lock on to. This should be a detailed area, not a flat tone. If you use autofocus only on the prescan, it may focus on an area without much texture and reduce image sharpness in the final scan.

-Fine Mode: If you use a Nikon scanner use this. Some Nikon scanners, such as the LS-8000ED, have a bug that produces banding in the final scan. Fine mode increases scan time a bit, but eliminates the banding. I don't think this is needed for the last generation Nikon scanners, like the 9000ED and 5000ED.

-Multisampling: Don't bother with multisampling, it does nothing for BW negs. Use it for slides; it improves dark tone noise in dense slides.

-Filters: Infrared cleaning does not work for traditional black and white negs; the metallic silver in them interferes with it. Using it may give weird tonality. It DOES work perfectly well on C-41 black and white films, like Ilford XP-2 and Kodak 400CN, so you can use it on them. It also works fine for C-41 color films and E-6 slides.

-White and Black Points: Set white point and black point both at 0% to avoid clipping of highlights and shadows.

-Leave Curves and Brightness settings at default

-Output Colorspace: For color scanning, you have a choice of output colorspaces, like sRGB and Adobe RGB(1998). We're scanning in greyscale, so choose Gray.

-Film Type: Vuescan has presets for a number of color films, and for color these settings do make a difference. For black and white negatives, there are only presets for the three Tmax Films (there are also settings for C-41 BW films). I have not seen a real difference between them and usually leave it at Tmax 400.

-Printed size: Scan Size, 100%. You'll get a file the size of the negative (about 1x1.5 inch for a 35mm neg) at whatever resolution you scanned at. More on this later.

-File Type: TIFF, not raw or Jpeg! The RAW files don't give any advantage in BW work and a JPEG is 8bit only, and we need 16 bit images to do final adjustments on later.

-Tiff compression: None. TIFF Compression is lossless, meaning quality is not reduced, unlike JPEG, which does lose data to reduce size. However, TIFF Compression does not save much file size and makes the file open and save slower.

-Tiff File Type: 16 bit Gray. For all the reasons mentioned above. You've noticed we had to choose Greyscale three times and 16 bit twice! I'd make this easier if I wrote the software.

-Leave the other settings at default


The Final Scan:

A screenshot of Vuescan software with a final scan showing in the window.


As you can see in the screenshot above, the final full resolution scan is quite flat looking. Lets open it in Photoshop and fix that.


A screenshot of the Image Size dialogue box in Photoshop CS4
Click the image to see a large version of the Image Size settings.


After opening the scan in Photoshop, we see that it is small. According to the rulers, it is about 1x1.5 inch! Open the Image Size dialogue box under the IMAGE menu. It shows the image to be 1.416 inches by 0.944 inch at 4000 dpi. We don't print at 4000 dpi, and we don't need a tiny image. What we need to do is set it at 360 dpi, but without resampling the image. We don't want to change the number of pixels in the picture, just the DPI setting so we can see how big the file is at normal print resolution. Epson printers work at 360 dpi, so thats what we'll set the file at.


Screenshot of the Image Size dialogue in Photoshop showing how to reset the picture resolution
Click the image to see a large version of the Image Size settings.


Uncheck the RESAMPLE IMAGE box and enter 360 in the Resolution field. The Width and Height will change! This does not change the number of pixels in the image, there is no interpolation or reduction of detail. Now we see that the picture is 10.489 inch by 15.731 inch at 360dpi.


Contrast Correction:

We've set the image size, but it is still flat and lifeless. By applying some curves adjustments (it often takes more than one to fine tune it), we can make that lifeless image life-like.


Screenshot of Photoshop CS4 with a black and white image that has been contrast corrected with curves adustments.


More Examples:

A raw scan from a Nikon LS-8000 scanner, scanned as a transparency

I scanned this black and white negative as a transparency so the original negative can be seen.


A raw scan from a Nikon LS-8000 scanner, converted to a positive image

This is the raw scan inverted in Photoshop to a positive image. Note how flat and lifeless it looks. If I had scanned it using the BW Neg mode, it would still be too flat, but not quite as much as this example. This is Fuji Neopan 1600 at EI-640, developed in D-76 1+1


A raw scan from a Nikon LS-8000 scanner, after curves adjustments in photoshop

The finished image after applying three curves adjustment layers.



Another scan right from the scanner. This is Kodak Tmax 400-2 at EI-320 developed normally in Tmax Developer 1+7



The file after some curves adjustment layers. This is my son pouring his root beer at a restaurant.


Yet another straight scan. Kodak Tmax 3200 film at EI-1600, developed in Tmax Developer 1+4.


Finished image after curves adjustments. This is from The Doll House.


Straight scan from Fuji Neopan 1600, EI-1600, developed in Tmax Developer.


A raw scan from a Nikon LS-8000 scanner, after curves adjustments in photoshop

The final edited image. This is my son.





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©2022 Christopher Crawford