Scanning negatives

A design school in New Zealand recently asked me for reproduction rights to use this image as a backdrop to some kind of 3D animation thing. I agreed, and quoted them a reasonable price, which they agreed to.

Unfortunately, there is only one existing print of that image, and it is small (printed on 8×10 paper with one-inch borders). Worse still, I could not find that print, and my only scans of it are very small and of low resolution. They needed something of medium- to high-resolution — and they needed it in New Zealand within a few days.

I’ve never scanned negatives before, but that was the obvious thing to do. Fortunately, I located the negative right away (even though I haven’t seen it in about 12 years). While I was at it, I picked out a few other negatives to get scanned, as a bit of a test to see if that is a viable way to breathe some new life into my old black & white photographs.

I’m pleased to report that it works very well. I deliberately chose a few difficult negatives — ones that were underexposed or underdeveloped — as well as some that I simply wanted to work on without having to deal with chemistry (it’s been 10 years since I’ve worked in a darkroom).

The scans I got back were generally low in contrast, but that’s just fine because it means all the information was there. They require a bit of work in Paintshop Pro (which I prefer over Photoshop). I had to remove some dust spots (clone tool), mess with the histogram tool to add contrast, and also use the Shadow/Midtone/Highlight tool to crank the contrast a bit more.

The results were outstanding. For example, below is a photo I took in 1991, when I had three cats. I made one print from this back in the day, but the negative is so underexposed that it was almost impossible to get anything useful from it. In the one work print I still have, you can barely see the three cats — everything is just black. With an hour or so of experimenting and about $10 worth of photo paper I probably could have gotten something close to acceptable.

But with the negative scan, I just spun a few dials and boom, a pretty good result, as you can see. I don’t even consider this to be “finished,” it’s just a three minute test to see what I could get.


From left to right (interior) a very young and very skinny Spiff (1991-2005), a not-yet-fat Larry (1987-2001), and the usually shy Oreo (1989-2001). I don’t know who the cat in the window is, but it’s probably the same as this one, as that photo was taken at about the same time.

I’m pretty impressed with the negative scanning. Watch for some resurrections on the Monday Morning Photo Blog.

Technical Note: Keep in mind that different monitors will show different results as
they are not all calibrated the same way. For example, you should be
able to see a bit of space between Spiff’s right side and Larry’s left
side. It shows how skinny Spiff was.

You can use the image below (from as a test to see if your monitor is calibrated correctly.

Here’s how DP Review puts it: “DPReview calibrate their monitors using Color Vision OptiCal at the (fairly well accepted) PC normal gamma 2.2, this means that on our monitors we can make out the difference between all of the (computer generated) grayscale blocks (above). We recommend to make the most of this review you should be able to see the difference (at least) between X,Y and Z and ideally A,B and C.”

Bang bang

I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with war photography. Not so much with the battlefield stuff in which someone like Robert Capa documents the horrors of war at their most intense and chaotic moments. Rather, I’ve always felt conflicted over war photography that happens in more controlled settings. In particular, things like executions and torture, such as when a captured prisoner is quickly “dispatched” out of convenience, revenge, or merely sport. Robert Capa

A case in point happened about ten or twelve years ago, when a young photographer found himself in the jungle of either El Salvador or Nicaragua (I don’t remember which), tagging along with a patrol of soldiers or guerrillas from one side or the other (I don’t remember which side). The patrol captured a prisoner who they accused of giving intelligence information to the other side, an act which had resulted in a number of their compatriots being killed. According to the photographer the evidence was clear and undisputed. The sentence for this crime was death, but they couldn’t shoot him because enemy patrols were nearby and they would hear the shots. Apparently, dragging him back to a place where a proper trial and sentence could be carried out was also out of the question. So they killed him there, in the jungle, with a knife.Robert Capa

I remember hearing the photographer on CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” describing the scene. It was chilling. They tied the man up, threw him in a shallow grave, and knifed him in the gut a few times. They stood around while he died slowly in the dirt. All the while, the photographer was taking pictures, which he later sold to Time magazine.

The easy question is “how can a photographer stand by and photograph such a thing and not do anything to stop it.” There are two answers. First the ideological one: it is not the photographer’s job to affect a situation, merely to record or document it. Then there is the practical answer: a photographer in a situation like that cannot defend someone because of the risk having the aggression turned on him or herself.

Having once studied photography and its history formally, I’ve been through most of the arguments. Once I even presented a paper and slideshow on war photography. Most of the rhetoric revolves around the argument that the photographers are performing a valuable service by documenting these horrors � that the victims deserve to have the method of their demise known to the world. Anyone who survived the Central America of the 1980s will attest to the value of witness given the number of “disappeared”, in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatamala. These photographers also say that there are many times when their presence has prevented atrocities from taking place because the men with the guns didn’t want anything recorded on film.

Still, there are times when one has to wonder.

Don McCullinFor me, the question has never been “why didn’t they do anything.” It has always been “how does one step into someone else’s terror and grief, walk away with a piece of it, but not be effected personally?” Very few war photographers admit to any ill effects beyond stress and cynicism. However, in the current issue of the print edition of Photo District News (PDN), respected (and retired) war photographer Don McCullin answers that exact question in an interview. In his case, the answer is “I can’t”. The following excerpt is the most elegant statement from that side of the discussion I’ve ever read.

Don McCullin-BeirutPDN: Didn’t you take a hiatus from war photography at one point?
DM: Yes, I did. I was in Beirut in 1982. I photographed a woman whose house had been bombed by the Israelis. Her family was trapped inside the building. I miscalculated and took this quick picture of her while she was running toward me and screaming. She kept coming like a locomotive and then her fists started flying, and I just had to take this beating. I went back to my hotel and I sat down and thought, “This is it. I can’t do this anymore after twenty years of this.” A man came to the hotel and said to me, “You know that woman that just attacked you; she’s been killed by a car bomb explosion.” That was really the turning point in my life.

PDN: But what was wrong with taking her picture in the first place?
DM: I realized I was stealing from her deep, deep grief. There has to come a time when we say, “Look, we’ve been photographing dead people, people being executed and what have you. What good has it done?” You have to ask yourself, “Do we have the right to steal these moments?” You cannot be a just and honest man if you don’t ask yourself these questions before someone else asks you. I’ve found it very difficult to live with myself after doing the work I’ve done. I’ve made a name photographing someone else’s demise. Can I live, justifiably comfortable with this? The answer is, No, I can’t.

PDN: Are you saying you feel that you misspent your career?
DM: Yes and no. My career has not been 100% war photography. I’ve done a lot of other things, and I’ve invested the twilight part of my life in landscape photography. I’m looking at the most beautiful scene tonight in my garden, which is full of mist and golden trees. I look at the last day’s light with some poetry. I know the quality of life that I’m clinging to, and war photography will not bring you a quality of life. It will bring you a bad dream forever.