How to get the right colors from negative films

Kodak Ektar 100 colors, Hasselblad 500c/m and Distagon 50mm f/4

Scanning color negatives is the Holy Grail of the film lover.

The scanning part, per se, is no different that the one you have to carry with any other film, color or black and white. The tricky part comes when you try to obtain natural, or at the very least, pleasant colors from that piece of films covered in a bright orange mask.

A bit of help may come from some new kind of negative film, like the Rollei Digibase, that does not make use of such orange mask; but you will still have an hard time sorting out how to get an usable picture if you don’t know a few tricks.

I will assume here that you have had your negatives processed by a lab, or that you followed my previous posts on how to develop & scan them at home – that you can find here:


Best film scanner: Canon 5D Mark II vs Drum scanner vs Epson v700

How to scan films using a digital camera

How to develop color negatives in C-41, the easy way


Now you have your film neatly cut in strips and scanned. It’s time for a trip into Photoshop!

Open your freshly scanned image and invert it: CTRL + I on Windows, CMD + I on Mac. It will look something like this:

before image

Don’t panic. Now it is time to use one of the most powerful tools of Photoshop: the curves. They look scary, but are not that difficult to understand, really. Basically at the bottom you have a couple of arrows: these set black and white point. And then you can manipulate the curve, pulling and dragging around, to your heart’s content until the image looks good.

Here is like I do it: first choose one of the colors from the drop down menu on the top part of the curve panel. We well start with red. Drag the left bottom arrow keeping pressed the ALT (Windows) / OPT (Mac) button. You will notice that the image goes away, replaced by a monochromatic version, but that at some point details starts to appear. Those details are actually areas of blocked out shadows or burnt highlights, so we will stop just a fraction before something starts to show up.

Repeat the process, always keeping ALT / OPT pressed, for the right arrow and then for the green and the blue colors.

At this point the image starts to look pretty good, but a fair bet is that the colors are still quite a bit off, with some heavy color cast.

Photoshop CS6 curves

To remove it just switch to the opposite color in the drop down menu (if the color cast is red go for blue and vice-versa) and manipulate the actual curve keeping an eye on the image. Try to not overcomplicate things. Often one control point, like you can see in the blue curve, is enough.

I find that rarely, if ever, I have to recur to more than two points. The second one is mostly just for the sake of cleaning a bit the shadows, that often tend to have some kind of blue cast for “environmental reasons”, because of the light that bathed the scene, or a green cast when you shoot under a tree in spring or summer.

Something like the image at the beginning of this post is what you will get. Quite a difference from the blue mess we started with!

P.s.: you will notice that the leaves in this image tends to go from green-ish to yellow-ish tonalities more or less from the bottom to the top part. This has nothing to do with processing: it matches the scene, or in other words it is exactly like this particular tree was.