Scanning Software Matters

This is a quick comparison of how VueScan and Epson Scan produce high quality images from negative film. I’m not a scanning or film services vendor; I’m just a film user who tries to get the most from his tools, and believes this information may be helpful to others who feel the same.


You’ve gone to all the trouble to set the right exposure and composition in your film camera. You’ve been really careful developing the film. Now it comes time to scan the negatives, and it could all fall apart unless you know the ins and outs of your scanner software.

But that’s all automatic, isn’t it??  Isn’t all scanning software the same?

I admit it’s a rhetorical question. Of course they’re not the same, in some of the most important aspects, including the ability to fully manage the scanner and make it do what you need  it to do: Get all the detail possible from the negative without clipping (or dumping) the shadows and without clipping the highlights.

Well, you say, if the exposure is perfect and the development is perfect, won’t any scanning software accomplish the same thing? And my reply is… theoretically. But anytime you deviate (intentionally or unintentionally) from the ideal situation, such as pulling or pushing film, or departing from normal development time or temperature (or developer formulation), or missing the exposure reading by a 1/2 stop or so because of an aging light meter, then all bets are off. So you need a scanning software program that can direct the scanner to ‘record’ all the grains of silver in as many situations as possible. Or, you can continue throwing useful negatives away based on imperfect scans.

If you think about all the images (and/or negatives) you’ve trashed because the shadows were dumped or the highlights clipped once scanned, it might be time to question your scanning software and how you’re using it.

But first, you’ll need to trust that most modern scanners are highly capable machines. My 10 year old Epson V700 (rated at DMax 4.0) can easily record tonal differences between film base + fog (FB+F)(0% Luminance, L) and an adjacent shadow luminance of 0.1% L. It can record differences in the highlights contained WITHIN the brightest specular highlight, recording separate tones on a negative within a specular highlight of 100% L at the center and 99.7% L from a peripheral area of the same specular highlight. The dynamic range of my V700 easily records metered values from 2EV (I’ve got a bit of flare in my Sekonic meter) and >18 EV, and it’s all captured on my negatives and, most importantly, in my scanned images.

Of course, such fine differentiation won’t matter in a print except to create smooth tonal transitions and discernible shadow and highlight textures, which are important to fine art prints of large size. If your scanner (or how you’re using it) can’t differentiate very fine differences (which are actually delicate transitions) in film densities on the negative, no amount of processing and/or printing expertise will overcome that shortfall.

Let’s compare scans from VueScan® and Epson Scan®.

I know lots of photographers who use film. I know none (except myself) who use VueScan (from  Most if not all of them use Epson Scan that came with their scanner.

Before I get into this, let me say that I’m not associated with VueScan nor Epson in any way. What I share here is only from the perspective of a user, okay?

My strong preference is for VueScan because of its much greater capability to direct the V700 (or many other scanners) to read negatives having vastly different levels of density, contrast, color, and grain structure. I’ll cover some of those capabilities below.

I have rarely used Epson Scan. I think it’s grossly simplistic and constraining to users who want to get the most from their negatives. And even though its User Manual doesn’t even cover any of its so-called advanced adjustments for levels or curves, I’ve experimented enough with them to feel okay about sharing my experiences with Epson Scan.

On the contrary, I’ve used ViewScan for years, and have scanned several hundreds of negatives, both B&W and color. Its User Manual is thorough, and it needs to be because of the comprehensive range of settings available for a great number of scanner models. I’ve already covered my basic approach to getting the most from my negatives in this article, so I won’t go into them again. Regardless, my approach is merely a starting point and you’ll want to experiment and develop your own workflow.

For this article, I’ll use a single negative having an extreme range of subject brightness (EV -5 to +6, not including specular highlight reading). I scanned the same negative using both VueScan and Epson Scan, each optimized to record as much of the density range in the negative as possible.

The scene is test scene I use routinely to quality check my workflow. I’m lucky to have a pure white van. When  I open the rear doors on a sunny day, I get a composition having a full scale of brightness ranges, from the deep shadows within the van to the bright highlights (including specular highlights) on the exterior. I exposed TMY rated at 400 by metering the passenger seat up front and placing that EV on -2 (i.e., Zone 3). The brightest reflections from the white paint, not including the linear and specular highlights fell on EV +6 (i.e., Zone XI) using my Sekonic 758. Of course, the specular highlights, if I were to try to measure them specifically, would likely fall around EV +9 or above (or Zone 14).

Below is a picture of the scene and the negative made from it. The luminance range was extreme: from fine shadows in the cargo area of the van to very high and specular highlights on the sunlit areas of white paint. The goal in exposure, development, and scanning is to retain every bit of density range above the film base + fog into useable information for processing the negative, without clipping!

Test Image having wide range of subject brightness and dynamic range
Test Image
Test negative
Test negative (TMY rated at 400 ASA, developed in Gainer’s PC at 100%, 75 deg F, 6 min)

Ok, it’s a difficult negative due to the extreme density ranges, but let’s compare the optimized scans using VueScan and Epson Scan to see if there are significant differences in the image produced.

VueScan Record

Epson Scan Record


Shadow Detail Results

Shadow detail (1:1) from VueScan scan. Blue areas indicate clipped shadows created by selectively setting black point to allow direct comparison. Inset shows area of original image.
Shadow detail (1:1) from EpsonScan scan. Blue areas indicate clipped shadows created by selectively setting black point. Inset shows area of original image.


Even though the levels and histogram settings for both scanning software was intentional to avoid clipping black and white points, this was much more difficult using Epson Scan due to its user interface (or perhaps my inexperience with Epson Scan). Regardless of the fact that I had to adjust levels in LR6 to make a comparison to the VueScan image, it was clear that Epson Scan compressed shadow detail, even to the point of losing details below Zone IV.  While the histogram for the VueScan image was nicely evenly spread out, the histogram for the EpsonScan image pushed nearly all shadow densities to the left.

The effect of this was particularly obvious in the 1:1 details of the same shadow area on the negative. Compared to the VueScan image, the tones of the passenger seat back and much of dashboard became completely featureless. Note these values weren’t clipped, merely compressed, by Epson Scan.

Both Epson Scan and VueScan treated highlights about the same. VueScan treated the highlights with slightly less aliasing of the grain clumps, creating more pleasing transitions across highlight tones.

Wrapping Up

If I were a photographer tied to Epson Scan as my sole tool to convert negatives into digital images, I probably would have thrown the test image described in this article in the trash after scanning it. Even after adjusting levels and curves to get the most information from the negative, Epson Scan’s inability to record shadow densities gave poor results. Where my light meter differentiated relative exposure values (rEV) between 0 (Zone V) and -3 (Zone 2), Epson Scan dumped Zone V to Zone IV and compressed Zones III, II, and I all into about Zone I (no discernible detail). This is a subjective conclusion more than objective.

Being confronted with the Epson Scan result, a smart photographer would go back to his ISO and film development workflow to try to get better separation of the shadows by shooting at less than film box speed and tweaking development time to compress highlight densities to avoid clipping. Sound familiar?

It’s possible that so many photographers recommend shooting film at 1-2 stops less than box film speed is because of scanning failures more than shooting failures. Without being able to fully control the scanner, via the right software, you’re left with settings and electronic algorithms developed by engineers, not photographers, and they develop them based on rather ideal shooting/developing scenarios that are actually quite rare in practice.

I used this extremely challenging scene to learn more about the differences in scanning between VueScan and Epson Scan scanning software. The negative was perfectly exposed and developed. The scan using VueScan was fairly straightforward and required very little adjustment to my normal scanning workflow. It gave me a image having useable information from Zone 1(L*=4.4) to Zone X (L*=100). The negative itself did not challenge the capacity of the scanner to record this wide range of densities (i.e., no clipping low or high).

This direct comparison between VueScan and Epson Scan indicated a couple things. First, the two software programs do not read or record the same negative equally, even after optimizing the levels pre-scan. Second, built-in settings are locked from the user in Epson Scan. Unlike Epson Scan, VueScan permits directing the scanner to adjust Exposure, RGB Gains, Film base colors, and Image color to tailor the scanning process to any individual negative. This flexibility is a great enabler when scanning any challenging negative.

The most obvious explanation for the difference between EpsonScan and VueScan might be their use of a different gamma correction built into the software, but I think it goes way beyond that. I’m working on a Mac and routinely rely on the native Mac gamma setting of 2.2.  Adjusting the VueScan curve in LR to represent a decreased gamma created a histogram much like the Epson Scan histogram. However, adjusting the Epson Scan curve in LR to mimic the VueScan histogram was not possible. The lost detail in the deepest shadows was still missing, and the shadow contrast too severe. It might be that an adequate correction before scanning in Epson Scan could give better results.

I’ll leave you with this:  Get to know your scanning software; scanning software matters. If your current program doesn’t let you manually adjust settings like Exposure, Levels, Curves, RGB Gains, FB+F color, and Image color, try VueScan or other program that does. Modern scanners are highly capable machines, but if you’re tied to an engineer’s guess as to what you actually need, you may not be getting everything you paid for, or that you need.


The Psychology and Aesthetics of a Toned Monochrome Print

Color affects our emotions. Whole volumes have been written describing these effects, and how artists and advertisers use color to best induce specific emotions. Color also has profound effects on the perceived depth of any two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world.

To make the point, look at the three squares below. Which color, blue or red, seems ‘closer’ to you? This example is a good way to show how our eyes play tricks on us when it comes to color alone. If you see the red square appear to be in front of the blue squares, that is the typical response.  There is a biological explanation for this effect, but the result is that “warm (e.g., red) colors project” and “cool (e.g., blue) colors recede.”


How does this relate to the psychology of B&W (so called, “monochrome”) prints?

I’ve been creating B&W prints for years, but the truth is, I don’t really care for “black and white” prints. I much prefer “purple and white” or “eggplant and white,” and for some subjects, “brown and white.”

The 20th Century masters of landscape photography touted the physical and emotional effects of toning their B&W prints. There were dozens of techniques and materials used to impart colors selectively to silver gelatin prints. Among the most widely used was a selenium chloride solution. Depending on the paper and developer used to print the image, bathing the print in a weak solution of selenium chloride for a few minutes materially changed the color of the print to what Ansel Adams called an “eggplant” color, most noticeable in the darker shadow areas.

I loved the aesthetic effect selenium toning had on my prints, so it became a standard part of my darkroom workflow, and now continues in my hybrid workflow.

What was that effect?

Take a look at the two images below. The first is a straight “monochrome” depiction of Blackwater Falls in West Virginia. It’s a beautiful image, full of light and excitement and depth. These characteristics are imparted solely by the subjects, which are entirely shades of neutral gray (you may see color, but it’s because your monitor is not neutral–most are not). This depiction represents what comes out of the standard B&W developer or when you convert an image to B&W in a digital workflow.

Now look at the second image. It was given a treatment that selectively toned the shadow areas as if the print was toned in my darkroom method for selenium toning. The mid tones and shadow areas now have this deep purple (so called “eggplant”) tone.

Blackwater Falls at Full Force

Blackwater Falls at Full Force
“Blackwater Falls at Full Force” – Limited edition archival pigment print, up to 40×32 inches


There are many other tones besides the ‘eggplant’ of selenium toner that artists can choose to use. For some images, I like a warmer tone that mimics Kodak Brown Toner I used to use on wet prints made in the darkroom. Brown toner is very effective in giving a more nostalgic aesthetic to some subjects, such as those in my Virginia Grist Project and other old architectural subjects, like “Dappled Shadows” below.

example of a warm-toned print
“Dappled Shadows on a Store Front” – warmer brown tones gives a nostalgic aesthetic to old architectural subjects.

How do you feel about the two different presentations? If the second image appears to have more depth in the shadows, it’s because the cooler purple color appears to recede behind the screen surface; the comparatively warmer whites appear to be in front of the shadows. This therefore tends to push the highlights in the water forward and causes the trees and other shadows to fall back into the image, much like the red and blue squares above, creating a greater sense of depth in the image.  Depth in a two-dimensional picture encourages the viewer to want to engage in the picture, something all visual artists want from our audience.

There is also an emotional aspect to the image I think is important. Hues in the purple range are known to induce a sense of calm and creativity, of wonder and exploration. Purple is a very emotional color to most humans.  The toned image of this enormous waterfall therefore creates an internal conflict that is very subtle, but still there. First, you stand before this potentially dangerous, powerful, noisy waterfall that most of us react to with a bit of anxiety, red flags goes up in your consciousness: beware!  But surrounding the waterfall on all aspects is this calming tone that encourages exploration of the shoreline, the trees, the flowers and rocks along the river’s banks. This is a conceptual contrast, and one I think adds drama and excitement in the toned print that isn’t so apparent in the untoned print.

I always tone my B&W prints, varying between a cooler (more bluish) to a warmer (more reddish) selenium tone, depending on the subject of the photograph. It’s always a very subtle tone, not even as much as I’ve shown you in the second image above, which I exaggerated for purposes of this article.

If you make B&W prints (or even web images), experiment with toning to emphasize the feelings you want to compel in viewers. There is a infinite number of possibilities.  In Lightroom, use the Split Toning feature to do this. For the toned image above, I set the Highlight toning saturation to 0 and the Shadow saturation to 9, hue 354. I set Balance to +50, favoring toning to the shadows.

To my heart, monochrome images should be way more than black and white!

Do you already tone your B&W images? What are your experiences? Let me hear your thoughts.




Do I Need To Drum Scan My Negatives?

Out of the Sack by J Riley Stewart
Out of the Sack

Photographers who scan film will eventually ask themselves whether it’s worth the cost to get a drum scan of their negatives. Let’s discuss how drum scanning compares to flatbed scanning to learn when you might need the extra quality provided by that mystical drum scanner.

I’ve used film as my image recording tool since the early 1980s. I once printed the images in a wet darkroom on sensitized paper, but have since moved to scanning the negatives and using the resulting digital images to modify and make prints using inkjet printers. This is called the hybrid workflow, and most film users use it today, partially or totally.

Resolution and acuity are two very common ways to assess technical quality of photographic images. Resolution refers to how much subject detail is retained in the image or print. Acuity refers to the sharpness of fine edges and lines.

I own and use both the Epson V700 flatbed scanner and the Howtek 4500 drum scanner. I’ve made thousands of scans from each, so I think I’m qualified to help you answer “Do I need a drum scan?”

My needs for scanning will likely differ from yours. I like to make large high resolution prints. I’ve sold hundreds of such prints, and many up to 32×40 inches in size from medium- and large-format negatives. My experience with 35mm negatives isn’t vast, but I’ve scanned perhaps hundreds of them for evaluation or printing.

Large size prints demand the highest level of scanning resolution. Any lapse in quality will utterly destroy the feeling of a print needing a high sense of texture or subject clarity. But how much resolution is enough? Can you get by with a more affordable, small flatbed scanner or do you need to drum scan your negatives?

I’m going to show you a real life test that will illustrate the difference in resolving power of a drum scanner and a modern Epson V700 flatbed scanner. I’m using a 4×5 negative, but you can reasonably extrapolate my findings to any size negative.

The image below “Out of the Sack” is from my “Afterglow” project. The same 4×5 negative was scanned two ways: (1) Epson V700, undermount, wet mount technique, 4000 dpi using VueScan™ and (2) Howtek™ 4500 drum scanner at 4000 ppi and a 6 micron aperture using DPL™ software. Both resulting scans produced negatives in the 320 MP range, which means printing them at 300 dpi makes a print around 60 x 48 inches.

The small white rectangle represents an approximate 2″ wide section of the large 60 x 48″ print. We’re going to look at this section in detail to compare the V700 to the Howtek scan.

Rectangle shows area of interest for comparing V700 flatbed and Howtek 4500 drum scans.
11 inch wide section of the 60×48″ print, showing the delicate fine details and textures in the burlap fringe around the area of interest.

Remember the 2″ wide area of interest is a very small section of the 60×48″ print, but is still large enough to elicit a sense of fine texture and detail in someone viewing the photograph on a wall.. But in a 30×24 ” print, the area of interest would be 1″ wide, and in a 15 x 12 ” print, 0.5″ wide. And at some smaller print size, you’d need a loupe to see those same details and texture.

This is important, because any difference in quality between the two scans will be diminished merely because of the size of the print, regardless of viewing distance. As the print gets smaller, the relative significance of any small section of the print also diminishes. So if you routinely print no larger than say, 16×20 inches, the conclusions I draw from this experiment will have far less importance than I draw from the large reference photograph.

Let’s see how the V700 and Howtek compare in a real-world scenario.

The images below are 1:1 depictions of the small rectangle in the image above (i.e., the area of interest). On the left is the drum scan (Howtek 4500) and on the right is the flatbed (Epson V700). Neither image has been sharpened. Which is “better?”

First, there are differences between the drum scan and the unsharpened flatbed scan. Resolving power of the Epson V700 is very, very close to that of the Howtek 4500. Almost every element (lines, shapes, tones) in the image can be found in both scans. To assess resolution I like to look at lines that create a “V” pattern (or intersectional angles) and at parallel lines that create a line of shadow between them. You can see that almost 95% of such patterns appear in both, in both highlight tones and shadow tones. There are only a small number of very insignificant angles and inter-line shadows that can’t be found in the V700 scan. This indicates that resolving power in the V700 is very close to the Howtek drum scanner.

Second, the main difference between the drum scan and the flatbed scan appears to be due to the higher acuity possible in the drum scanner. All edges are just a bit sharper on the drum scan, giving the appearance of higher resolution, but in fact it is not. Acuity can be best enhanced by sharpening the image (but remember, excessive sharpening can also degrade resolution).

The next image permits side-by-side comparison between the unsharpened drum scan (Howtek 4500) and the V700 scanned image slightly sharpened in Lightroom. Which is “better?”

Indeed, a slight degree of sharpening to the V700 scan improves, but does not equal, the acuity of the drum scan. But it comes really, really close. The settings I used to sharpen the V700 image in Lightroom were Amt 91, Radius 2.0, Detail 33, and Masking 94. This is a small degree of sharpening on a 320 MP image.

What do these comparisons tell us?

My results are not inconsistent with those reported by others. They did the same thing (perhaps not as definitively as I have) showing the differences in image quality between a highly magnified portion of a image when scanned with a flatbed scanner and with a drum scanner. The drum scanner always looks ‘better’ than the flatbed scanner.

I’ve gone one step beyond and showed that the V700 appears to resolve details almost as well as the Howtek 4500 drum scanner, but the V700 suffers a bit in obtaining the same level of acuity. Luckily, minor lapses in acuity can be nearly corrected by careful sharpening.

So, let’s put all this in context again. We began with a scan of a 4×5 ” negative that would produce a 60 x 48 ” print when printed at 300 dpi. 300 dpi is above the 240 dpi below which most healthy human eyes begin to detect a loss of resolution. I showed that the V700 (using my undermount wetmount workflow using Vuescan can resolve nearly all the detail resolved by the Howtek, but that minor sharpening of the V700 image is required to produce nearly all the acuity provided in the unsharpened Howtek scan. This is actually pretty remarkable.

Is the difference between the Howtek and V700 acuity important enough to warrant the extra cost of a drum scan? To answer that, you’d need to ask:

  • Could your eyes detect the difference I’ve shown if you were to closely inspect a 2″ wide section of a 60 x 48 ” print and say “..that’s not as good as it could be.” You’d not have the benefit of having a drum scanned print as a comparator as we’ve done here. So I’d hazard a guess that most would not be able to detect that small difference.
  • Do you routinely produce prints that are over 12x linear enlargements of your negatives, as used in this example? If so, you may need to eake out every bit of resolution and acuity that only a drum scanner can provide. Having said that, I’ve created many exquisite, fine prints to 40 x 32 ” from 120 size negatives, a linear enlargement factor of around 15x.
  • Do you produce high-quality negatives having sharp subjects? If sharpness (i.e., resolution + acuity) isn’t a consideration in your final prints, then it won’t matter during scanning either.
  • Do you know how to get the most out of your flatbed scanner? I’ve written several articles about scanning with the Epson V700 to maximize image quality as well as several other articles about the Craft of Photography. You may enjoy reading them.

So, do you need to drum scan your negatives?

The short answer is “it depends on the size of the negative and the size of the prints to be made from that negative.” For most of us shooting 35mm film and printing to not larger than 16×20 inches, a high quality, 4000 ppi scan from a modern flatbed scanner could make an exceptional print. But you’ll need every bit of scanning power to make a quality print larger than 16 x 20 inches, and that may mean investing in a drum scan. This also assumes a perfectly sharp, full crop negative from which you take the scan, of course. Still, you will be limited in print size: even drum scanning will not likely get much beyond 18×24 inch fine print from perfect 35mm negative. If you want large fine prints, you need to start with large negatives.

Update 6/23/20:

Some of you have asked for a 35mm comparison as I’ve done above for a 4×5 negative.  I don’t have many as I rarely shoot 35mm, but I can offer one example. The first image is the complete 35mm frame showing an inset box, from which I then show a 1:1 view of a small pink bicycle on a roof top, first from a V700 Scan and then from a drum scan. Both were sized to 4000 dpi (~24mp) and under a wet mount protocol. Both images were sharpened optimally (and modestly). 

Full frame of a 35mm negative
Comparison of 35mm drum scan to flatbed scan
The left frame is a 1:1 view of a 24mp image scanned with the Epson V700 at 4000 dpi. The right is from the same negative, but scanned using the Howtek 4500 drum scanner.

You’ll probably agree that there are noticeable differences in both acuity and resolution comparing the flatbed with the drum scans in the 35mm format. Keep in mind this is approximately what you would see in an 18.5 x 13 inch full-frame print (printed at 300 dpi). The differences would be less detectable in smaller prints, to a point where you’d need a magnifying loupe to see them. 

End of Update

Since I have both my own drum scanner and a good flatbed scanner, which do I use for my final scans of my larger format negatives? Well, I tend to be a perfectionist and I know the drum scanner can get me closer to perfection, so I use my drum scanner for final production, especially for my larger prints for exhibition. But I have no qualms about relying on my Epson V700 for all pre-production proofs, book images, or anytime the expected print sizes are less than 40×32″ or so, depending on negative size..

Today’s modern flatbed scanners are really quite good once you’ve mastered their capabilities. The linear CCD sensors used in these printers will likely never compare exactly to the PMT sensors of the drum scanners of yesterday, but who knows? As the PMT machines become more rare, they may become completely obsolete. While we have them, they definitely have their place in creating the highest quality of images in large prints. For small prints, especially from larger negatives, the cost of getting a drum scan is probably not worth it.

All comments and questions welcomed.

J. Riley Stewart, copyright 2020.

What makes a photograph “original,” and why does it matter?

Example of provenance COA stamp on reverse of a J Riley Stewart limited edition print
Authentication establishes provenance to an original photograph.

Establishing provenance for fine art photography is just as important as provenance for paintings and other hand-crafted visual artworks. Let me tell you why and how to determine if a photographic print is original.

I recently read a story about a gallery customer who bought an Ansel Adams photograph on the cheap ($6). He was elated, believing it to be an original. But, when he later discovered it was merely a cheap reproduction from a calendar, he felt cheated. You can read about it here:   

This buyer isn’t the first–and he won’t be the last–to be confused about the definition of “original photograph.”  With a little bit of knowledge, and understanding the terms used to describe art originality, you will be a smarter collector.

It’s fairly easy to identify an original oil painting. You can actually see the paint on the canvas.  It’s not so easy to tell original watercolors or illustrations from their reproductions. Printing materials today are so good that, without advanced inspection, a reproduction of a watercolor or illustration can look very much like an original. 

Fortunately, when painters and illustrators sell printed copies of their artwork, they usually mark them as “reproduction.” Reproductions are made using a variety of mass printing processes, such as digital inkjet or lithographic printing.  Anytime you see contemporary wall art marked as a reproduction, you’re looking at a mechanically printed digital picture of the original handcrafted artwork, and there may have been thousands of copies made. Because of this, reproduction prints are much less expensive than the original artwork. 

Well, if digital prints of paintings are considered reproductions, why aren’t all prints considered reproductions? Aren’t modern inkjet photographic prints just copies of a digital image?   

It’s true that today the vast majority of photographic prints are created using mechanical printers. And the number of copies is virtually limitless with today’s printing capabilities. This situation makes defining “original photograph” much more useful today compared to the times when photographers made “copies” in very small numbers and when each print was hand made from an original piece of film. 

Uniqueness has never been a strict criterion for describing art as original. A painter or illustrator can create the same scene again and again, a songwriter can record the same song again and again, and a photographer can print her photograph again and again. Art need not be “one-of-a-kind” to be original.

There is, however, one attribute that all artwork must have to be universally recognized as original:  provenance. This includes all visual artistic media, even art photographs.

Provenance is a set of facts that inextricably link the physical object of art to its creator. Provenance describes the artwork explicitly, disclosing its title, the name of the artist, the date of creation, its medium, and its dimensions, at the very least.  The medium will indicate whether the artwork is an oil painting, a bronze statue, or a photograph. When you see provenance on a label or caption, you can be fairly confident that the physical object is authentic to the named artist. When you don’t see provenance, it either means the artist neglected to document his/her creation or that it’s a reproduction or a forgery, none of which is good for you as a collector.

Original photographs, i.e., those with provenance, carry another descriptor that isn’t as commonly used in handcrafted art: the copyright status at the time of creation. The creator of any artwork is always the first owner of the copyright. Copyright ownership is especially important to the provenance of original art produced through a printing process like photography, digital art, printmaking, stories, and songs, where copyright status is almost always cited in the provenance. 

Like paintings, the opposite of an original photograph is a forged photograph. Today it’s fairly easy to download someone else’s photograph from the web, run it though editing software, print, sign it, and then frame it for personal or commercial use. Clearly, when someone claims someone else’s photograph as their own, that photograph is not an original. It’s a forgery.  Of course, this violates the law, but it can and does happen. Should a buyer of a forgery expect to pay the same price as an original? Of course not. Do they?  Sometimes, but only when deceived or uninformed.

Here’s some of the most common ways to determine originality of an photographic print:

  • Original photographic prints will have provenance, including copyright information, typically documented on a Certificate of Authenticity (COA). The COA will be either attached to the photograph itself or in the hands of the gallerist selling the photograph. It should always convey with the photograph upon sale.
  • Know the photographer. Research his/her website, visit their gallery, and communicate with them. They will be happy to discuss a particular piece with you and substantiate it as their own, and tell you when it’s not. A part of being a professional art photographer is documenting provenance for each original work.
  • Read the label. If you see a photographic print labeled as a “reproduction,”  it typically means that the authoring photographer had very little to do with the printing, distribution, and selling of that photograph (either legally or illegally). Ansel Adams himself had nothing to do with the printing and sale of the 2013 calendar print mentioned in my lead paragraph, and the label correctly identified it as a “reproduction.”
  • Finally, give yourself permission to accept that if the photograph looks like it came from low quality printing like a book, poster, or calendar or is priced at $6.99, it is very likely a reproduction.

I take a rather rigid approach to provenance for my own work. My original prints all have a common description: I took the picture and own the copyright, I personally interpreted the scene/subject, I personally printed the photograph using techniques I deliberately chose, and then finished the photograph and documented its serial number in a limited edition. Each of my originals comes with a signed COA, either as an attachment or permanently stamped on the reverse of the print, that should follow the photograph forever.

More about how I manage my limited editions of fine art photographs.

If you collect artwork and care about potential resale value or collectible status, it’s smart to know when you’re collecting originals versus reproductions. You don’t want to pay original prices for reproductions, and if you ever choose to resell your collection, don’t expect someone else to have great interest in your reproductions.

Happy collecting!


See more J. Riley Stewart images.

Wet Mount Scanning: The Undermount – Overmount Dilemma

Lowcountry Cypress, J. Riley Stewart, High resolution 40×32″ fine art print.

Let’s talk about different ways to wet-mount negatives on a scanner for the best scanning results.

For years I’ve been scanning my 35mm, 120, and 4×5 negatives using a wet mount workflow, using either a drum scanner or an Epson V700. I made the move to wet mount on my V700 following testing that indicated a slight improvement in image resolution, a slight lessening of dust spots, and since I could wet mount sections of 120 size film easier than using the native MF carrier.  Plus, after a bit of practice, I realized that wet mounting was just as easy as anything else.

To wet mount on any scanner, you need a mounting base (i.e., platen), the negative, mounting fluid, and a clear cover sheet. I use Kami wet mount fluid and high grade mylar cover sheets, both from Aztek. The film lies on a rigid platen. Between the film and platen is applied a thin coat of mounting fluid. Over the film lies the cover sheet. Between the film and cover sheet is a thin coat of mounting fluid. This set up provides an optically correct path for the illumination light to pass through the negative to the sensor, with (ideally) no diffraction and reflection as it passes through the platen, mounting fluid, or mylar.

Since any disruption to the light path could affect resulting image quality, carrier system design (i.e., platen, fluid, and cover) must minimize their inherent bad effects on  image quality. Thus, it’s worth talking about undermounting vs overmounting on a flat bed scanner.

By far, the drum scanner does the best job, but that’s because drum scanners use adjustable apertures and photomultiplier tubes instead of CCD sensors to record the data from the negative. Like flatbed scanners, drum scanners use a carrier system of platen (usually made of acrylic), fluid, and mylar to hold the negative during the scan.

How you sequence the  light source->>sensor is fixed when using a drum scanner. The sequence is always source->platen->negative->mylar->sensor. 

When applied to a flatbed scanner, this same sequence is referred to as undermounting, i.e., the negative is illuminated by the light source after the light has passed through 1 pane of glass (i.e., the negative carrier glass or platen) then the negative, the mylar, and finally the scanner’s platen glass before reaching the sensor. 

But typically, most negative carriers adapted for wet mounting employ the overmounting sequence, i.e., source->mylar (or cover glass)->negative->carrier platen> scanner platen-> sensor.

For my own work, I’ve adapted my V700 to permit wet mounting as described here and typically use the undermount method.

Betterscanning(TM) offers a new wet mounting carrier for the Epson V7xx/V8xx scanners and claims that with under mounting  “.. sharpness can be improved compared to other methods.”

I was intrigued about the undermount vs overmount dilemma and its potential difference on resolution of the resulting image.  Theoretically, either overmounting or undermounting wouldn’t seem to affect resolution. The single largest factors on a scanner’s ability to record with precision is the size of the light source (which is fixed on a flatbed scanner) and light scatter (a collective term to account for diffraction and reflection of light) between its source and the sensor.

Whether you overmount or undermount, the potential light scatter is the same (i.e., 2 layers of glass, 2 layers of fluid, the negative, air spaces, and the mylar. Resolution should (theoretically) be the same. But it’s possible that undermounting might be better if the mylar has significantly less post-negative scatter of the data then the carrier platen.

I wondered how much difference this phenomenon would make on my own V700 (wet mount with Kami fluid; neg mounted to plate glass with a  mylar overlay), and film planes equal at focal distance of my scanner. I scanned part of the film mark from a sheet of TXP 320 both ways (VueScan) at 4800 ppi. This is a screen shot from a LR comparison of the two scans; 100% view; no sharpening. On the left is the overmount scan and on the right, the undermount scan. Conclusion: No appreciable difference in resolution. 

Undermounting may have other important benefits; perhaps to reduce chromatic aberrations, but it didn’t affect resolution in my short test. I’m still intrigued, tho, and will explore further.

Other possible reasons to explain a lack of difference between overmounting and undermounting might be that other factors are limiting resolution, regardless of the configuration of the carrier system.  In my case, that could include the quality of my carrier (a piece of window glass), and internal flare.

-Carrier platen: For years I used a plain piece of window glass as my carrier platen. Because of this study, I wanted to rule out its quality being a limiting factor in image resolution. So I bought the V700 platen assembly, which includes the platen glass and holder that screws into the scanner bottom (Epson Part #1432338 housing assy., upper (includes glass), then carefully removed the glass from the assembly and set the distance to the correct focal length of the V700 lens. I re-scanned several negatives using the new glass in an undermount configuration, and then compared the results between old and new carrier platens and between overmount and undermount techniques.

Conclusion:  The benefits of the new optical glass over the old window glass were subjectively insignificant. I could not compare overmounting and undermounting using the optical glass, but that comparison was already made using the window glass, and since the optical glass and window glass were the same, I would not expect any difference between the configurations using optical glass.

-Internal flare:  Some have suggested that internal system flare caused by extraneous light (from the illuminator) around the negative might affect data quality coming from the negative. It makes sense, and Betterscanning(TM)’s new system includes a mask to apply around the negative to reduce internal system flare.  I’ve tried in the past to mask negatives using my own device, but found that it made no difference in image quality.

I recommend you test your own system of wet mounting to see if undermounting, carrier platen quality, or masking makes a difference in your scans.

See more J. Riley Stewart images here.

Varnishing photographic prints as a way to present them distinctively

Varnishing photographic prints on paper is an alternative to showing them matted and placed under glass. There are many benefits to varnishing prints. Let’s go through them.

But first, if you want to get an idea of what we’re talking about, watch this video. There are many ways to varnish prints; this is the technique I use.

Whether printed in a wet darkroom or printed by inkjet, photographic prints require some form of protection to keep them clean and protected. In early days of albumen and platinum paper prints, the old timers would wax the surface and place the prints under a mat, which was then placed under glass.  Waxing prints is an art form in its own way: if you’ve ever tried it you know what I mean.

Today, matting and glazing remains the standard technique to protect and display photographic prints. But there’s a significant aesthetic and physical cost to this presentation.  First, there’s the reflection off the glass that you have to fight before you can actually enjoy the artwork beneath. Second, glass is heavy and adds a lot of weight to the framed artwork. Third, glass is breakable; it needs its own protection for safety sake. Fourth, glazing requires matting; both adds complexity and cost to framing artwork in the traditional way.

Varnishing prints is an excellent alternative to matting and glazing.  A varnished print can be mounted into an open frame without additional protection. The varnish is washable and sufficiently durable to environmental grime or other hazards like sneezes, dirty fingers, or accidental rubs and scrapes.  Compared to traditional presentations, a framed varnished print is much lighter in weight, has no breakable glass to worry about, and requires no matting. Framing a varnished print is much easier and less expensive than framing traditionally.

But these physical benefits of a varnished print are of less importance than the aesthetic benefits, in my opinion. Modern varnishes (which are actually acrylics) gives the surface a subtle semi-gloss sheen but it also deepens the blacks and enhances global contrast and color vibrancy.  I prefer the semi-gloss surface, but know that you can choose any degree of glossiness you prefer, from full matte to very shiny gloss depending on the actual varnish applied. Regardless, from an aesthetic perspective, varnishing enhances a sense of visual depth in the image and gives it a very distinctive and  ‘painterly’ luminism-like appearance. Viewing these prints is a very different experience than viewing traditional matted/glazed prints.


Example of a hand-varnished print surface

Print varnishes are available from several suppliers, but they all are acrylic-based, which are applied in liquid form but which dry to a hard, durable coating after minutes to hours. I use Breathing Color Glamour II Glossy diluted with distilled water (2:1 or so) and only on rag papers. I use BC’s 9″ foam roller approach, but have tried other rollers with a lot of success. (I gave up on ‘any ole roller’ approach after spending 6 months reworking my technique because my hardware store changed their supplier of the rollers I was using, to disastrous effect).

Varnishing is fairly simple to master, but like any other print treatment it may require experimentation and practice. I’ve worked out a method that’s fairly reliable that I’m sharing below.

If you want to try hand-varnishing your photographic prints, here are a few tips from my technique:

1. Use multiple thin coatings of diluted varnish. It helps extend tack time until you get the coating even. It helps sneak up on the degree of glossiness of Glossy varnish, as the amount of gloss is directly related to the amount of varnish applied. Multiple coatings help avoid little air bubbles that can ruin the surface. These bubbles will form regardless, but thicker coatings may trap them and never let them go. Three thin coats are much better than one thick one.

2.  I varnish under a dust tent (homemade) and varnish on a vertical surface. Most people varnish flat on a horizontal table. My table is stood up (it’s actually a 4×8′ sheet of plywood), and I tape the upper corners of the print to the table.  I do this to avoid room dust falling on the print during drying time. I vacuum the tent before each session.

3.  I use the hose from a HVLP spray painter and as soon as the varnish on the print starts to ‘settle’– I keep a steady stream of warm air circulating over it to speed drying time, which speeds the application of 3 coats significantly.  You can get by without the rapid drying, but you’ll need to wait until each coat dries before applying the next. The longer it stays “tacky,” the more risk there is that dust will settle on the surface (not good, as even minuscule dust particles that get embedded in the varnish will show up like tiny stars.)

4. Be sure to varnish all the way to the edge of the paper, even the white borders. If you don’t, the paper will dry unevenly and cause serious warps and wrinkles that extend into the image that are very difficult to flatten. Just saying….

There are alternatives to varnishing techniques, and I’ve tried most of them. Some recommend using a sprayer. Some roll varnishing with the print flat on a table. Others have elaborate spraying rooms that minimize dust and blow back. I settled on the techniques above because of the final surface appearance and minimal problems with dust and wasted varnish.

Like anything we do in making photographs, varnishing is as much an art as it is a science. A change to any one part of the workflow (size of print, supplier of the varnish, a change in application method, etc) requires a re-work of the technique until you get used to the change. Be prepared to waste some prints, especially if you get into large prints.

Hope this helps. Let me know how it goes.


See more J. Riley Stewart images here.

Unlocking Your Scanner to Get Great Scans from Film

B&W fine art image of the Nez Perce River in Yellowstone NP
“A Moment on the Nez Perce” by J Riley Stewart

Why Scan Film?

This tutorial covers how I manage my film scanning to get every bit of tonal information from a negative and avoid clipped shadows and highlights, which ensures I get great scans from my film images.

Scanning film is a necessary evil if you shoot using film cameras and want to convert the film image into digital format for proofing, sharing to the web, making a digital negative for alternative processes, or for inkjet printing. Scanning film requires a special machine (a transparency scanner) that passes light through the film and to the scanner’s sensor, and records minute differences in density and color at millions of sampling points on the film, and records those differences in a digital file.

For some images on film, we can relay on automatic settings in scanning software to adequately read and convert the film image to an acceptable digital image. But there will always be those film images that fail miserably during scanning; automatic settings and presets just can’t provide a digital image that we can process into a fine image for printing or sharing. For those film images, we need to learn how to force the scanner and scanner software to do the best job possible to get all the useful information from the film. 

Software can make a big difference in user experience. I’ve tried Epson Scan®, SilverFast®, and VueScan®. By far, I’ve found VueScan is the most flexible and effective, and what I say below relates to its use. VueScan, because it includes so many controls for so many scanners, can be frustrating to use sometimes, but if you follow my workflow, and refrain from experimenting too much, you’ll be okay (I think). Try VueScan® here: (I have no association with it). I have no doubt that if all your negatives (color or B&W) are perfectly exposed and developed, you won’t need the advanced tools built into VueScan (however, it will take care of those too) and so the basic scanning software like Epson Scan will work fine. But there are those times when things don’t go as planned, and you’re left with a great composition on a crappy negative. That’s when you need the tools and the skill to get every bit of useful information from the negative before you can make a great image. I’ve compared Epson Scan to VueScan in scanning B&W film here. Take a read if interested.

Take Home Points

  • Scanning film is a craft that requires learning, but folks, it’s not rocket science. You don’t need a degree in scanning to get the job done. 
  • Scanning film is a technical task. There is little usefulness for creativity during scanning.
  • Don’t ask too much of your scanner and scanning software: it’s only good for one thing, and that’s to get every bit of useful information from the film image as is possible.
  • There is no reason a properly exposed and developed negative can’t be scanned without clipping any shadow details or any delicate highlights, even specular highlights. But to scan some film images, you must know how to control the scanner and its software.

Unleashing the power of the film scanner

The image above (“A Moment On the Nez Perce River”) is an example from a scene having extreme dynamic range that can give automatic scanner settings the fits. Automatic scanner settings will often assume a perfectly exposed negative, perfectly developed negative, a ‘common’ film or type of film, a ‘common’ type of scene, and/or it assumes you want sharpening, dust removal, color balance, resolution, and any number of other assumptions. Perfect rarely happens in real life photography.

Scanning film is a technical task. There is little room for creativity, so don’t try to make it that. But, because it’s technical, realize that you must control the machine (i.e., the scanner and its software) to get the most out of it. Luckily, controlling the machine isn’t difficult if you use the right scanning software. Like any consumer machine, its controlling software has built-in defaults and automatic settings for folks who just want something fast. If you’re serious about getting great scans, you need to know to turn off all/most of the built-in presets.

Effective Scanning Workflow (VueScan®)

Initial settings:

  I scan the negative as a negative, both for color and B&W films. I sometimes deviate from this with color negatives I’m having issues with, but that’s not common.  Here’s my initial settings in VueScan using my Epson V700.

  Using these settings, click <Preview> and it will give a quick scan of the negative converted to a positive (like normal). Here’s what I’m scanning. It’s a Kodak Tri-X negative that’s been exposed through a Stouffer’s Step Wedge®. The step wedge has a minimum optical density at step 1 of 0.05 and a max density at step 31 of 3.05 in 1/3 stop increments. So it can mimic a scene having exactly 10 stops of luminance range.  Much of this is altered by negative development, which I won’t discuss here. The step wedge is merely a tool I’m using here to give you a standard ‘negative’ to talk about. Development of the negative can alter the actual densities from those 10 stops of light (i.e., by pushing or pulling exposure and development). But you’ll notice that while the darkest step (Step 31) is nearly black, the lightest step (Step 1) is far from pure white. The Epson V700 scanner has the latitude to record the 10 stops of density on film, and so does yours, probably.

Now the fun starts. We’ll set the scanner to capture every bit of information from a negative having 10 stops of density range (and more).  

This is a histogram VueScan produces using these initial settings. You can change this histogram (and the resulting image) remarkably by adjusting certain settings. I’ll show you.

  The initial histogram produced an image from 0% Luminance (L) to Zone VIII (82% L) above film-base + fog (FB+F). Shadows are on the left; highlights are on the right, just like a normal histogram. I count 27 separate peaks, including all tones that are combined within the largest peak at the far left of the histogram. So, I’ve lost 4-5 stops in the shadow areas of the step wedge negative. If I printed this image as scanned, it would clip the darkest 6 zones or so to black. That’s not good enough for me, and it’s important to know that we can get more information from the shadows than the initial scan provided.

You probably know that film development modifies the overall contrast of densities on the film. The measure of contrast is called the Contrast Index (CI). The more development you give a specific film, the greater its CI will be, normally from 0.4 (low contrast negative) to 0.8 (very contrasty) or so. Vuescan includes  several models (target film profiles), including many that enable matching of actual negative CI to model CI for B&W films. Go into the <COLOR> tab and you’ll see you can change the target film profile to several “model” renderings. The initial histogram above shows a <Generic Color Negative> model even tho I’m scanning a B&W step wedge. 

  You can experiment with varying film models under the <Color> tab. I like the Kodak TMAX 400 model as it allows me to select different contrast index (CI) levels so that I can better capture the shadows and highlights. Below is exactly the same scan, but using a different setting in the <COLOR> tab.

  You notice the left and right side of the range are now completely inside the extremes (levels) shown by the little red-green-blue triangles. You can stop here and be assured you’re getting every bit of data from the negative, with plenty of room to adjust levels and curves in post without clipping.

  If I do anything beyond this, it’s to set RGB Exposure (<Input> tab) to move the film FB+F peaks as far left as possible without clipping any important shadows. I want to eliminate FB+F as it has no useful information. In other words, during scanning I want to “expose to the left,” just the opposite of shooting a digital camera. Remember that when scanning a negative, digital noise (if any) will occur on the far left of the histogram, where negative densities are least. So don’t be too aggressive about this setting; don’t move your deepest important shadows too far to the left. When done right, you should still still the FB+F peak.

Setting RGB Exposure in VueScan is the one of the pre-scan settings  (i.e, machine settings) you can select on the Epson Vxx models. VueScan is the only software I’ve tried that is able to direct the scanner to slow the light emitter bar based on the RGB Exposure setting.  All other adjustments you make in software is performed on the image after scanning it, similar to PS or Lightroom does, which adjusts pixels and can cause artifacts. So there’s value in adjusting the RGB exposure to fit the negative.

The other important machine setting enabled by VueScan is the R-G-B analog gain controls that can become important when scanning color films. Film models will often presume specific R-G-B gain settings, so you need to check to see if those settings are causing your histogram to ‘dump’ tones.

Below is the exact same negative scanned using 20% more exposure so that the film base plus fog (FB+F) falls as near to the left as possible: That first little peak is FB+F.

  To recap, I’ve selected a film model that gets the shadows away from the left edge so I can clearly differentiate their peaks on the histogram, then I’ve increased RGB Exposure to ease them back to the left without clipping any important shadows (FB+F is not important).

  This is where I stop and hit <SCAN>. It’s the best I can do with this negative under any circumstances. Granted, I may need to optimize my exposure and development of TXP to get the deepest shadows away from the film base.

I’ll give another example of an Ilford FP4 negative exposed through the Step Wedge and given my standard development for FP4.

The first histogram results by scanning the film using a <GENERIC FILM> preset. Note how both the shadows (empty areas + Steps 1-3 on left of histogram) and the highlights (Steps 29-31 and blocked areas on right of histogram) are not well separated. In a final image or final print, this “automatic” scan would have clipped shadows and highlights. 

The next histogram is from the exact same negative, but the settings have been explicitly set to optimize the output image file to separate the various step wedge densities. In this scan, the RGB Exposure was set to 1.12 to move everything (all densities) to the left. Then I chose a film model having a contrast index (CI) of 0.70 to best match the actual CI of the negative. You’ll see now that every one of the 31 steps of the step wedge is discerned in the histogram, and can therefore be realized in a post-processed image or print. No important shadows nor any highlights will be clipped in the image.

I hope this was helpful, and I hope it doesn’t sound too complicated; it’s really not. It takes some time to learn the essentials of scanning negatives, but once you’ve invested in that time, you’re good to make great scans forever.

 I wrote a tutorial on how to easily convert your flatbed scanner to do wet mount scanning without buying special holders. I can perfectly wet mount 2 strips of 120 or 2 4×5 negatives using this technique in about 30 seconds. Here’s the tutorial:

Happy scanning!

Subscribe to my newsletter “Under the Darkcloth” here.


5 Helpful Gadgets for a Photography Darkroom

Darkroom:  a place where where analog photographers go to play. 

If you take pictures using film, you need at a minimum some dark place (or some apparatus) where the film can be safely transferred from its box into the camera (for sheet film) and some dark place where you can transfer the film from its carrier to the developing tank, or even to develop film and paper.

Anyone who has had a darkroom knows there are hundreds of tools required to produce one print. The obvious among them being developing equipment (beakers, bottles, chemicals, a scale, etc), a good sink, an enlarger, light stand, working tables, trays, tongs, thermometers, timers, etc, etc. Even novice film photographers know these essentials.

But there are a number of ‘tools’ that are very useful that nobody talks much about. Here’s my list of the top 5 hacks for getting things done as an analog photographer.

1. Stouffer Step Wedge 

Have you ever shot a roll of film and then after scanning, noticed that the shadows were all dumped or the highlights blocked up? Were the images more grainy than you expected?  The cause of such surprises may be because the film responded exactly as expected for the developer used to render the latent image, but you just didn’t realize it.

Shooting with film requires an understanding how your film(s) of choice behave upon exposure and then upon development. The choice of B&W film can not be divorced from the developer used to render the latent image. While it may be enticing to choose a film and then just pick a developer for that film based on someone else’s recommendation and then live with the results, is not something I’d ever recommend. We need to understand the tools of our craft.

The choices in B&W developers are great, especially if you make your own brew, which opens up a vast number of specific formulas, each having it’s own way of acting on that film. Some will provide full box speed while others will require 1/2 box speed (as an example). Some will produce fine grain while others more grain. Some will selectively restrain development in the highlights (compensating effect) while others will respond to exposure more linearly.  

The only way to understand how your film will behave in a specific developer is to test. You need to determine the speed of the film in your developer, the range of density over a 10+ stops of exposure (i.e., Zones 1-10), and you may want to explore pushing and pulling development to achieve certain effects under low or extreme lighting.

By far, the most useful tool I’ve found for doing these experiments is the Stouffer Step Wedge available from Stouffer Graphics.  And no, you don’t need a spectrophotomer to do this test, even if it gives you more precise data and calculations. I simply use Photoshop sampler tool to determine Luminance values from 0 – 100% for each wedge of the step exposed onto my film and developed in my developer. Percent luminance relates directly to Zone values from Zone 0 – Zone 10.

The benefits of using the step wedge to expose film for testing is consistency, because you’re going to expose several sheets / frames and you don’t want to rely on variations of  sun/clouds/shutter/aperture to confound things. The way you use it is to overlay the film with the step wedge, I use the 4×5 step wedge because I use 4×5 film, but it also comes in strips for testing roll film. Then cover the sandwich with a sheet of glass to keep them flat. Then I flash the sandwich with my speedlight to expose the film through the step wedge, then develop the exposed sheets/rolls of film at 3-4 different durations. You’ll need to experiment with how much power to set the speedlight, and you may need neutral masks to reduce it further (I use plain bond paper at the speedlight source).

The goal with exposing the sandwich is to get a density in the developed negative at section 31 on the step wedge very close to film base + fog (FB+F). A couple tries and you should be able to nail it. Once you have that reference set, simply measure luminance (L) for each step on an image using the Photoshop Info brush or Digital Color Meter (for example) and plot each reading. Here’s an example of the results from TXP developed in my developer of choice for various times, as an example.

To learn more about such characteristic curves using spectrophotometric equipment, see

Since I like open shadows and full scale negatives, this data tells me I should plan on developing TXP in this soup for 4.5 min for Normal development, and that if I need to pull development to N-1, then about 4 min should be close (i.e., a normal Zone 9 density will render as Zone 8). To determine an N+1 development, I would need to define the curve at 5.25 min or maybe even 6.4 min.

The point is, the Stouffer step wedge is a great tool if you want to know how your film(s) behave in certain developers, at certain times and temperatures, or certain processes. There are hundreds of conditions you might want to compare to really nail down the best way to get your film to behave under various taking conditions, or if you just want to know how consistent your own process is.

2. pH meter

If you mix chemicals, even if the chemicals are commercially packaged, a pH meter is an essential tool for your darkroom. I think I paid $15 for mine years ago, and I use it all the time without problems. The ATC brand shown comes with calibration buffers.

One of the earliest indicators of developer failures can be a fall of pH (i.e., becoming less alkaline). Oxidation of buffers or active agents often change the pH of the solution, and a small change can completely change the way the active ingredients behave with your film. I check pH of my home brew developer for every batch, and know that it should be 10.05 before use. Add to this a measurement of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), which indicates you’ve added the prescribed ingredients in the right amounts, and you should be good to go. In my standard brew, I know the stock solution should have 4335-4355 ppm TDS. The TDS meter came with my purchase of a Zero Water pitcher (see below).

3. Sodium Carbonate, Washing Soda

Once a mainstay in any darkroom, washing soda (100% Na Carbonate) is great not only for

regulating the pH of developers, but it also makes a great cleaner for trays, glassware, and even negatives. I keep an open container sitting on my darkroom sink and use it instead of dishwashing soap. It makes my glassware squeaky clean (that’s how I know it works.)

Washing soda used to be on every grocery story shelf, but today that’s not the case. You may need to order it from Walmart, or just about any store that sells cleaning supplies. Just google Arm & Hammer Washing Soda to see where you can get it.

4. Water filtration system with TDS meter

Chlorine- and metal-free water is a must have when preparing chemicals for developing film. For years I’ve bought gallon bottles of distilled water for this purpose, at about $1 per gallon. Too often I found myself wanting to develop film and not having enough distilled water on hand.

I recently bought a Zero Water® filtration system to keep me from having to run to the store when I needed distilled water. I estimated at $1 per gallon of distilled water, I could pay for this thing with the original filter, which in my area I estimate will filter up to 50 gallons of water. It comes with a Total Dissolved Solids meter, which I also use to monitor my developer solutions (see above). Three full filtrations will fill a gallon jug with 0 TDS water, so I won’t need it everyday.

5. Air Evacuator

Probably the most important tip of the list is a way to ensure the life span of oxygen-sensitive chemicals in the darkroom.

I bought this “wine bottle air evacuator’ at a kitchen store over 15 years ago for just a few dollars, and it’s seen a lot of use.

Anyone who works in a darkroom knows that oxygen in your chemicals is the enemy. It shortens the shelf life to sometimes a few days when oxygen is given the opportunity to dissolve into the chemical solutions; and it eagerly takes every opportunity to do just that.

“How to protect photographic chemistry from oxidation?” is a common question on photo threads among the analog community, and there are lots of ways to stabilize the activity of stored chemicals. I tried many of them: marbles, collapsible jugs, aliiqouting into smaller bottles which are kept full, etc, etc.  The wine bottle air evacuator is by far the easiest, cheapest, and most effective method I’ve ever used.

The only limitation, if you can call it that, is that the bottles used to store chemistry must fit the rubber caps intended for use with the evacuator (shown in picture). Luckily, brown and green bottles that wine comes in are perfect for the task. Yea, you have to buy wine to use this tool!  It happens in my house that we always have empty wine bottles, so that ain’t a problem.

So, how well does it work?  I went through a time when I was trying every film and paper developer known to man. I’d mix them up and use just a fraction of the supply, then store the bottles for months, then retry them again. Specifically, I’ve kept D76 stock solution for over a year in a sealed bottle using this evacuator; without any loss of activity. The vacuum stayed intact and the solution protected from oxidation. That’s a pretty good testament.

I’m a cheapskate typically, and have always balked at paying so much for the products offered to the photographic community. My darkroom and my field pack are full of things I’ve made myself using reengineered ideas and workarounds.

Hopefully, some of you finding this article will get some ideas about what might be helpful in your own craft.

Comments or questions welcomed.

DIY: Convert your flatbed scanner to a wet-mount workflow

Wet Mount Carrier on Epson V700
DIY Wet Mount Carrier on the Epson V700 Scanner

This article describes a simple, cheap, and effective way to convert any flat bed film scanner to implement a wet mount scanning workflow. While there are commercial wet mount assemblies you can buy, this approach is just as effective.

I’ve been shooting on film for nearly 47 years. In 2010, I mothballed my wet darkroom and began scanning my negatives instead. Using this workflow, I’ve created and sold hundreds of large-scale high fidelity prints from 35mm, 120, and 4×5 color and b&w negatives.

I believe that before you offer lessons to someone, you should establish credibility in the topic. I’ve scanned thousands of negatives over the past 10 years. I invite you to explore my portfolio of my best images by going to my online gallery.

Now the lesson on how to make your own DIY Wet Mount Negative Carrier.


  1. Wet mount workflow flattens the negative without causing Newton rings.
  2. Wet mounting negatives fixes them in place and prevents buckling/warping during a scan.
  3. Wet mount workflow reduces the problem of small dust particles and may eliminate water marks on negatives, making spotting less troublesome.
  4. Some wet-mount practitioners report greater resolution possible with wet mount scanning: Quite frankly, I haven’t seen that benefit.

Having used a drum scanner for months, I knew the benefits of wet mounting on scanning negatives. I also use an Epson V700 for everyday scanning. I’ve devised a method for converting the standard dry-scan workflow on the V700 to a wet mount that is very easy and works very well, and should work for any transparency-based flat bed scanner.

The Alternative in a nutshell:

1. Replace the manufacturer negative carrier with a piece of good window glass, acrylic sheet, or optical glass (preferred, but not critical). This will become your new carrier. 

2. Shim the new carrier so the surface where you mount your negative sits within the DOF of the scanner lens. On my Epson V700, that’s approximately 3mm or 1/8″ 

3. Wet-mount the negative on that surface for scanning and scan the negative as you normally do.


  1. A piece of optical glass (or thick acrylic, which is just as good or better) cut to fit the platen of the V700. This will become your new negative carrier. I used plain window glass for this purpose before, but have since purchased a plate of optical glass (Epson Part #1432338 housing assy., upper–you’ll need to remove the glass from the assembly, but it’s not difficult) and found minor improvements in resolution.
  2. Optical mylar sheets, 8×10 or best size to fit the platen and mounting glass. *(Mine is 8×10). Get them here: (also get Kami fluid, Kami tape there.)
  3. Thick tape, like masking tape, used for setting the height (shimming) of the new carrier.
  4. Optional: Thin tape that resists the fluid used to wet mount. TESA or Kami tape work well. This tape holds the mylar sheet to the carrier while wet mounting the negative(s).
  5. Fluid specifically for wet-mounting negatives, e.g., Kami fluid (or, some recommend lighter fluid, but I’ve never tried that). Kami fluid may seem expensive, but it goes a very long way if you are frugal with its use. (A very little goes a long way).

The following schematic shows what you are building (i.e., the new carrier) to mount your negatives. The distance between the Carrier Platen and the Scanner Platen is set using shims made from heavy masking tape. Regardless if you overmount or undermount, the distance between the Scanner Platen and the Negative has to be fixed and has to be within the depth of field (DOF) of the scanner lens.

Example of overmounting (relative to Carrier Platen):

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 1.09.49 PM

Or undermounting..


  1. Clean the glass (i.e., the new carrier) with Windex or any glass cleaner.
  2. Tape the edges of the new DIY carrier to protect accidental damage to scanner platen during use. Apply one width of masking tape to each long side of the glass, both top and bottom. In the image below, I’ve used 1″ blue masking tape on both surfaces of the glass.  Include extension tabs at all four corners to provide a way to lift the glass as you work with it (these tabs become safety handles.) Never apply tape to the “home” edge (the edge that goes to the top of the scanner platen) as this may interfere with the scanner calibration area.
  3. Determine the height that the upper surface (if overmounting) or lower surface (if undermounting) of the carrier must be raised above the scanner platen to achieve critical focus. See: Or, simply measure the height of the film plane lip on your manufacturer’s carrier, assuming that it’s optimal.
  4. Set the height of the carrier: First, decide if you are going to use the Overmount or Undermount method, as the thickness of the glass carrier will dictate how much height adjustment is needed.
  5. a. If using Overmounting method: Using thick masking tape, apply as many layers as you need to the bottom of the carrier glass plate–at each corner– until the distance determined in step 3 above is reached. All four corners get exactly the same number of layers of tape. You will mount negatives to the upper surface of the glass (so called overmounting), so this has to be in critical focus of the Epson V700 or your own scanner. Shown below is one corner after several layers of yellow masking tape have been applied. Not pretty, but it works. Another way to determine how many layers of tape you’ll need is to measure as closely as possible the height of the negative shelf on your existing negative carriers, assuming they are set to critical focus already. Then keep adding layers of tape until the same height is achieved from the bottom of the tape to the top of the carrier glass. 5.b. Alternative: If the new glass carrier doesn’t fit inside the scanner platen window, sitting directly on the platen, you’ll need to adjust the height of the new glass carrier to place the underside of the carrier at the focal point of the scanner lens, and use the Undermount design. In my hands, this required several layers of tape placed directly on the top assembly of the V700. But any way to accomplish the same thing is fine.
  6. Wet  mount a negative: Again, clean and dust the top of the carrier glass. Then, using transparent Kami tape or TESA tape, tape a piece of mylar to the new carrier at the top edge only (this is the edge of the glass that sits nearest the top edge of the scanner platen, i.e., the sensor “home.”  The sheet  of mylar becomes the top overlay of the complete sandwich of your wet-mount apparatus, specifically, from bottom to top: the taped corners that act as feet to raise the mounting glass off the platen to the focal plain, the piece of mounting glass, the negative, and the acrylic overlay. The next image shows me lifting the overlay mylar off the negative, which is resting on the mounting glass, which is resting on the scanner platen.Screen-Shot-2018-03-02-at-12.12.38-PM.png
  7. See the complete apparatus resting on the platen in the following image (this depiction uses the Overmount design as the glass carrier fit inside the window of the V700 Upper Assembly window). The two pieces of yellow masking tape are merely guides to mark the edges of the effective scanning width of the V700 when using the higher resolution lens (which is all I use).

7. Mounting the negative. The negative is held in place by applying a thin layer of wet mounting fluid onto the mounting glass while you hold the mylar sheet up and away from the glass (I do this using one hand as I hold the overlay sheet and the negative at the same time. Then carefully lay the negative into the fluid starting with the top edge first, then slowly rolling the negative into the fluid. It needn’t be perfect. Then apply a thin layer of fluid over the negative as you roll the acrylic overlay over the negative. Finally, move any bubbles over or under the negative to the edges of the film using a non-abrasive cloth (like PEC or similar).


I hope this helps you to convert your flatbed scanner to a wet-mount workflow. I’ve been using this technique for a few years and find it very useful for 35mm, 120, and 4×5 negatives. I suspect it would also work well with 8×10 negatives, but I haven’t tried that. This would let you use the higher resolution lens of the V700 on 8×10, which may be an advantage.

Send questions / comments my way and I’ll be happy to discuss them.

J. Riley Stewart

Easily verify the focus on your flatbed scanner

Wet Mounting on the Epson V700 V750 V800 V850

This article describes a way to make sure the placement of negatives above your scanner’s platen is within the depth of field of your scanner’s lens for best sharpness.

If your film holders don’t place the film where the scanner focuses its lens, then you’re going to get fuzzy images. And that may be causing you to pull your hair out. Neither are good situations to find yourself in.

Now, let’s talk about checking the focus of your scanner.

Many flatbed scanners have a fixed focal distance set by the manufacturer, and they provide holders that place the negative “precisely” at that distance.  Most of the time, this works well.

But there are times when you might suspect that the fixed focus (or even auto focus) isn’t behaving right. If you are getting consistently blurry scans or scans that you believe should be sharp and aren’t, you may have a scanner that isn’t focusing precisely, or a holder that isn’t placing the negative where the lens is focusing.

In this short article, I’ll show you an easy way to verify the depth of field on your flatbed scanner’s lens.  Then, you can take steps to make sure your negative carrier places negatives precisely at the optimum distance above the scanner platen for maximum sharpness and resolution.

To verify the focusing capability of your flatbed scanner, all you’ll need is a transparent ruler and a second ruler to measure with.

I’ll be using the Epson V700/V800 for this instruction, but the procedures should work for any flatbed scanner.


Like any lens, your scanner’s lens has a range of acceptable focus, or depth of field (DOF) where it performs best.  You can determine DOF by scanning a transparent ruler that has been placed on an incline, with one end well below the minimum DOF height and the other end placed well above the maximum DOF height. The graduations on the scanned image of the transparent ruler will be sharp within the scanner’s DOF.


  1. The first step is to place the transparent ruler on an incline relative to the scanner platen. In the following picture, I placed one end of the ruler on the platen and placed the other end of the ruler to rest on the top of the scanner bed, shimmed by approximately 1/4″.   Shimming the elevated end of the ruler will steepen the incline and help differentiate the sharpness along the entire length of the ruler.  It’s important to check that when you lower the lid on the scanner that you don’t move or warp the ruler. You don’t need to lower the lid all the way; just close it enough to avoid touching the end of the ruler.  Now, open the lid and tape each end of the ruler down to avoid movement during scanning.

    Shows the inclined placement of the transparent ruler on the V700 platen. The upper end is shimmed to increase the steepness of the incline. The white sheet of paper is only for illustration purposes so you can ‘see’ the scanner’s glass platen in this illustration (it’s not used during the actual scan).
  1. Scan the ruler using your normal scanning settings (i.e., high resolution, 2400 ppi) without sharpening, and open the file in your photo viewing software, like Preview, Photoshop, or Lightroom. Do not move the transparent ruler yet; you’ll need it in exactly the same location in Step 4.
  2. On the scanned image, examine the ruler along its entire length, looking for the sharpest delineation of the numbers on the ruler. There should be a range of numbers/graduations that will be sharper than anywhere else along the ruler. If your scanner’s depth of field is very wide, you may not see any difference in sharpness along the ruler. This is good, because it means you shouldn’t be experiencing out of focus situation no matter where the negative is placed above the platen. But you need to examine closely to rule out minor differences in sharpness as you examine along the length of the ruler.  In my example below, maximum sharpness was seen about 23-24 cm on the ruler, call it 23.5 cm. The differences in sharpness between 0 and 4 inches on this image is difficult to show, but careful inspection at 50% in Preview clearly shows the difference.  You should see a clear difference. V700FocusTest003
  3. Now you need to determine the distance above the platen where you found the sharpest graduations on the ruler. Use a different ruler for this step. A micrometer may also be used if you have one, but you don’t need that much precision. I used a simple wooden ruler that  began graduations at the very end of the ruler. So, at the point on the transparent ruler (still resting on the scanner) where I found maximum resolution, I measured the distance above the platen surface and found it to be 1/8″. Your results may vary.  This measurement told me that my scanner’s best performance was 1/8″ above the platen. IMG_2946
  4.  Now compare this distance to the height of the negative plane on your negative holder to see if your holder is placing the negative where the scanner has its maximum resolution. First place your negative holder on a flat hard surface (e.g. a table top) and find the lip on the holder that holds the negative during scanning. Measure the distance from the table top to the top of the lip. This tells you exactly where your holder is placing the negative during scanning. IMG_2978 copy
  5. Interpretation

    If you’re lucky, the height measured in Step 5 is exactly the same as the height measured in Step 4. It means your holder is placing the negative exactly where the scanner lens is focusing.

    If the holder doesn’t place the negative within an acceptable distance for the scanner’s lens, you’ll need to modify your holder or change to a holder that does. The Epson holder comes with adjusting feet; merely changing the setting on the feet may fix the problem.

    For the vast majority of scanners, the distance you find is sharpest will be very close to the distance measured on the negative carrier. But this quick test of focus on your scanner should at least confirm that scanner focusing is or is not optimal, and you can take actions to fix it.

    It’s possible that after doing this test, you find that there is no region of perfect sharpness along the entire length of the transparent ruler. There are two possible reasons: 1. the ruler moved or deflected during the scan when the lid is closed (re-read Step 1 in Procedures above), or the scanner’s lens is faulty and you may need to replace or repair the scanner.

Bonus utility: I used this test to determine where my custom negative carrier had to sit for maximum sharpness. I modified my scanner to accommodate a wet-mount under-mount design, and knowing my scanner’s specific DOF told me how much shimming I had to do for correct placement of the negative in this custom carrier. We’re not constrained to using the manufacturer’s film carriers once we know the scanner’s true DOF.

What does it mean when the negative is placed optimally, but the scans still appear ‘fuzzy?’

First, make sure your shooting technique is perfect.  Barring the case where the scanner is not functioning properly, finding that your images still appear unsharp most likely suggests a fault in technique. BY FAR, this will be the cause of unsharp images (i.e., not the scanner). It’s been the same since the the advent of modern cameras and lenses; it’s not the tools but the technique that causes most situations of unsharp images. You already know this, right?  Do you use a tripod when sharpness is important to the image? Do you practice appropriate aperture/shutter speed relative to subject motion? Technique remains one of the most important factors in acquiring an image on the negative that is sharp or not sharp. It’s always been that way.

Second, make sure to minimize your subjective bias toward those hyper-acute images shot with modern digital cameras. I suspect this bias is a leading cause for people new to film   thinking their scans are ‘blurry.’ This topic is probably worth a separate article; because it took me a couple years after returning to film scanning after a year shooting with digital to realize that comparing the two technologies is an apples and oranges comparison. In short, never compare a 1:1 depiction of a digital image to a 1:1 depiction of a scanned image unless the two images are exactly the same resolution (i.e., 20 MP to 20 MP), and even that is a stretch.  The best evaluation of sharpness for a film scan is by looking at an appropriately sized print, not a file on your computer monitor.  Don’t toss your scanner or give up on shooting film before making a print comparison!

I hope this article helps you determine whether your scanner is functioning properly, and how to determine where the optimum focal point of your scanner’s lens is.  Feel free to ask questions.



Let me hear your questions or comments below.