Scanning B&W negatives for C-41 process


Back in analog times most people were shooting B&W films. They are still very popular nowadays but you may have problem getting them developed if you don’t do it yourself. There is solution however – B&W films for C-41 process. You can easily develop them any in photo lab which still accepts color negatives (and there are still lots of those even in small cities).

Some time ago I’ve shot one roll of Kodak BW400CN to see what it can deliver. If you are working in digital darkroom the final effect depends much on how well scanner will do its work. In this article I’ll show you results of scanning same frame few different ways. At first we obviously will choose “B&W negative” scan settings. It will produce something like this:

Looks good, doesn’t it? But hey, it was supposed to be B&W film so why there is cyan color cast all over the image? Yeah, you’re right, B&W for C-41 have the same well known orange mask that color negatives do. Lets convert this image to real B&W and apply auto levels correction.

Note: I’ll not do manual corrections here. We all know that to get best results one need to correct each image manually. This article is about what we can get straight from the scanner as source for further post processing. I’ve used auto levels to show what we can get with just two mouse clicks.

Image looks much better now. Good contrast, fairly good shadows (but some details are lost), highlights looks a bit blown-out but still acceptable.

Lets try other scanning method. Our negative shares same orange mask with color ones so maybe scanning it with “Color negative” profile will give better results?

Cyan color cast is almost gone (but not entirely). Deep shadows seem a bit worse than on previous scan and contrast is way lower. Lets convert this image to B&W and apply auto levels correction to see how it compares to previous results.

Well, image still looks flat. Check highlights – they were so much better on previous scan giving image a punch and here they are more grayish and look dull, blending with darker parts. It definitely isn’t a good choice to scan B&W for C-41 as color negative.

How about scanning as positive? It is well known that scanning B&W film as positive and then inverting them in post process can give better results than scanning as B&W negative. From what I’ve read on the net we should get better contrast and better dynamic range – definitely worth a try.

Here it is – orange mask mentioned above. You really don’t want to invert your image right now. You’ll get severe cyan cast which is hard to remove if you want to keep good contrast.

There are few ways to get rid of orange mask, but they’re all ment for color negatives. With B&W we don’t need to care about colors being as close to real ones as possible and we can go with simpliest solution. Just be sure to crop your frame to get rid of orange borders and apply auto levels to get nice B&W negative. If you’ll leave borders you’ll get dull, low contrast image after inverting. Now do B&W conversion too to get rid of any colors left and it should look like this:

All we need to do now is to invert image.

Result isn’t as good as I was hoping for. We indeed got much better dynamic range – we can see whats beneath the train and white on wheels isn’t blown out as bad as on previous scans, but overall look is again little flat and too bright.

Here is one more way to try, but only available to owners of Nikon scanners. Enable Digital ROC while scanning. Just set it to lowest value and perform scan. It doesn’t matter which profile you will choose – B&W negative, color negative or positive – you’ll get same result.

Conclusion: scanning as B&W negative seems best way if you want good contrast and acceptable dynamic range. Scanning as positive, getting rid of orange mask and inverting is the way to go if dynamic range is most important thing.

Technical details: shot was taken with Minolta XD-7, Kodak BW400CN film at ISO 400, Minolta Rokkor 24/2.8 lens. Scanned with Nikon Coolscan V ED using Nikon Scan software with digital ICE enabled. Output was 16 bit TIFF resized for web and saved as JPEG.