Many film photographers are familiar with the Photoshop PlugIn ColorPerfect – it is an excellent way to produce quality prints from colour negatives. Not so well known is ColorPerfect’s ability to produce high quality monochrome images that look very much like wet darkroom prints using an additional feature within Colour Perfect, Virtual Grades.
Generally speaking images from film scans often do not look the same as wet darkrooms, and in my opinion, that can be a good thing for some images. However, for other images I like the look of wet darkroom prints- it’s a very subjective thing.
So how is this process different from the normal process- scan and edit in either Lightroom or Photoshop?
It starts with the scanning – the negative must be scanned as a RAW file, not a JPEG or TIFF and as far as I am aware, a RAW scan can only be done in Vuescan. A brief outline of this process is detailed below using a 4 by 5 black and white negative I shot this week of St Barnabas Church of England Church at Oberon NSW.
The original negative , shot on the new Atomic X 4 by 5 sheet film , was a little too dense as it has been slightly overdeveloped ( processing times are still under test for this new film- I used Kodak X Tol 1:1 for 8.5 minutes at 20% c. I had placed the front of the church (around the door) in Zone 6 but failed to notice that the dynamic range of this image was great enough to be processed using N minus 1 development to curtail highlight blowouts.
The idea was to produce a totally linear scan with no adjustment to the gamma value of 1.00 and the image saved as a negative RAW file. I scanned the negative on my Epson V700 in Vuescan this way- It looked like this –
I then took the file into the host application Photoshop and under the Filter drop down menu selected ColorPerfect .I didn’t invert the image in Photoshop as ColorPerfect inverts the negative using totally different algorithms to Photoshop. You then have access to Virtual Grades with a choice of 00, 00½, 0, 0½, 1, 1½, 2, 2½, 3, 3½, 4, 4½ grades. Grade 2 has a gamma of 0.62 and is similar to Grade 2 paper (normal) in the wet darkroom.
Here’s how ColorPerfect describes the process-
In the wet darkroom you would alter a black and white print’s gamma value by choosing between different paper grades to print your image on. Virtual Grades in ColorNeg will act similarly to actual paper grades in the darkroom. When working with graded black and white photographic paper the utilization of a grade that is too low would result in a dull print. This means that depending on exposure such a print would either contain no tonal values that are anywhere close to a pure white or anywhere close to a deep black. On top of that the mid tones would not be ideally distributed. Virtual Grades have an impact on contrast and on the mid tones without influencing highlights or deep shadows. When switching between different Virtual Grades you can be certain that no more clipping occurs at either end of the tonal range than was the case with the previously selected grade.
I had used Virtual Grades before but never from a RAW file so my first attempt was much better from working with TIFF negatives. Grade 2 would have been a little harsh so I selected Grade 1 and made some minor adjustments, then taking the image back into Photoshop where I cropped it, cloned out some unwanted man-made objects and applied some low opacity Reverse Overlay masking. For some time, I had been working on toning that is close to warm toned wet darkroom paper so I applied this to the final image.
This final image has a natural softness to it (some of which is due to the excellent tonal range of Atomic X film).It could have been better as some sky highlights are close to being blown out. To address this, I could have double processed the negative, once for the sky and another for the church and blended it in Photoshop.
By comparison, I processed the same negative using Epson software outputting it as a positive TIFF and editing in Photoshop.I should mention I scanned the negative twice, once for the sky and the second time for the church In spite of this ,to me, the image doesn’t have the depth of the Color Perfect Image and doesn’t look like the scene I visualised when I was taking the photograph.
To test how much the processing influenced the results, I “scanned” the negative on a digital camera making sure the gamma was neutral and no highlight or shadows were clipped. I took the desaturated negative image in ColorPerfect and repeated the same process as the first image.
The result was quite similar to the Vuescan RAW image ,not quite as good but to me much better than the Epson scan/Photoshop result.
Anyone interested in this alternative approach to scanning black and white negatives should look at the ColorPerfect Website and this video