The End Of Film Capture, The Future Of Film Archives

When Frans Lanting first clicked his shutter on assignment in the late 1970s, he began a prolific photographic journey that would take him around the world for more than 25 years creating hundreds of thousands of images—all on film. From black-and-white to Kodachrome, Lanting’s medium of choice—like every other serious photographer—was film. Simply because he switched to digital capture in the new millennium doesn’t somehow make a generation of iconic film images suddenly worthless.

Like many photographers, Lanting has a large archive of negatives and transparencies. But unlike some others, he has recognized the continuing value of that film for more than just posterity. Film may have gone away as a capture medium, but it continues to live on as an asset.

“It’s quite remarkable,” Lanting says, “how rapidly the photographic profession has moved from working with photographs in analog form to working with them in digital form. It’s a true revolution that happened in a matter of a few years. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the value of film. How can you best take care of an image collection full of valuable transparencies that are the result of many years of active work? For either archival, professional or commercial reasons, you want to make that film accessible. For quite a few photographers, it translates into a new opportunity.

“Because of this revolutionary shift from analog to digital,” Lanting says, “film, if it wants to be recognized at all, needs to be available in digital form. It’s silly to think all the important images from this point forward are just images created after the year 2000. In order to draw on my life’s work, we’ve had to digitize more than 25 years’ worth of the most significant film originals.”

Lanting’s studio uses a multilayered process to bring film originals into the digital era. The first step is maintaining an accessible film archive, for which he uses a battery of filing cabinets with transparencies in archival sleeves in hanging folders, organized taxonomically and by geography so that it’s searchable and easily accessible by cross-referencing a digital database.

The next step is to edit the images in order to determine precisely which ones should be digitized. In Lanting’s case, this was first done by determining the most important photographs in the collection, followed by the ongoing ingestion of images based on client needs for projects. As such, he has amassed quite a digital record of his film work.

“Editing is editing,” Lanting says. “No matter if it’s film or digital capture, you apply selection criteria that can be governed by specific projects or by general applications. We’ve done that not just once; it’s an ongoing process because we have so much work here. We have a digitized film archive of 20,000 images culled from hundreds of thousands. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Of those 20,000 images, about half are the commercial collection, which is available online for people to browse through and utilize through licensing protocols, but up front, we have to organize the transparencies in a way that enables a good editing process.

“I would like to say that we figured out a master plan from the get-go,” he continues, “and that we stuck to it and that we only digitized things once, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. I think very few photographers found the magic solution from day one because this was all a leap into the unknown. Let’s not forget that 10 years ago we were just at the beginning point of this digital revolution.”

With a plan in place for digitizing their archives, photographers can begin scanning originals and seamlessly integrate them into their digital workflow. For Lanting, this process is multistaged because he scans different transparencies on different machines for different purposes.

“Rule number one,” he says, “is to scan your images at the highest quality you can afford, but I would complement that by suggesting you scan at the lowest level you can get away with. You don’t want to put all of your precious eggs in one scanning basket before you get a handle on the process. Most of all, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve and how many images you’re talking about and how you can start grading them according to something that makes it an achievable process.”

Lanting’s studio creates film scans at three primary levels. In-house scans with a Nikon Coolscan are ideal for all web uses and many other immediate purposes. For higher-quality needs, he creates image files from an Imacon FlexTight 949, which he thinks of as a pseudo-drum scanner—providing high-quality files acceptable for practically all publishing applications.

“We apply different solutions, depending on the value of the images,” says Lanting, “and also how quickly we need the images to be distributed. Everything depends ultimately on what your goals are, how many images you have to work through and what your budget is. Coolscans are a great solution if you’re looking at doing thousands of scans on a budget—and even more so if you have to do it yourself because this is a machine that’s easy to use. There are bulk loaders and other batch-processing capabilities that allow you to turn over a lot of images in a short amount of time.”

Lanting outsources the highest-quality scans. These drum scans are made for every image intended for book publication or exhibition prints, working with trusted vendors and paying $40 to $50 per scan. International discount operations have sprung up to offer photographers the opportunity to make inexpensive high-res drum scans, but Lanting is wary of shipping large batches of original film overseas.

“The price drops dramatically,” he says, “but communication becomes an issue, and there’s a risk factor involved, as well. My recommendation to other photographers would be that if you’re preparing for a book publication or fine prints, it’s worth it to have the images drum-scanned. But it’s a risky thing if you house a couple hundred images with which you plan a book, to send those all out overseas simultaneously. The choices that we look at all have to do with being able to do things either totally under our control or to work with services that we can have a direct and interactive relationship with.”

However he scans an image, Lanting is then faced with a raw file that’s no more ready for publication than a RAW digital capture. Optimization must occur before reproductions can be made.

“We once looked at film as being an objective reflection of reality,” Lanting says. “Consider Kodachrome. It was looked at as being the gold standard, and unless you produced images on Kodachrome, you couldn’t get them published. Editors wanted nothing less. We now know that Kodachrome was a flawed emulsion, with a lot of color shifts that were a function of how far a particular roll of film was in its aging process. It usually started off too cyan and ended up too magenta. So in the scanning and priming process, we have the opportunity to correct for this an
d make up for flaws in photographs that were once accepted as they were.

“Over the years, I’ve used quite a few different emulsions,” he adds, “ranging from different Kodachromes and Ektachromes to Fujichromes to some more exotic emulsions. None of them are a perfect representation of what you see. They all have a bias. Some of them are too contrasty, others too flat. That requires adjustments in Photoshop to bring the images up to a more contemporary standard. Often, the transparencies that have been used most frequently require other adjustments because they’re scratched, dirty.”

From the original scan, no matter whether it’s a $40 drum scan or a quick in-house scan, Lanting’s team adds crucial metadata—what was once known simply as captions and now takes the form of searchable keywords—to create a master file. This is a file that he personally approves in the same way a traditional black-and-white photographer approves a master print from which all derivative works are created. In Lanting’s case, those derivative files may have different resolutions and sharpness profiles for different publishing applications.

This is the stage at which Lanting’s initial decision of what and how to scan proves either wise or costly. Were he to use an image that was scanned on the Imacon and that now requires a drum scan for a book, he’d be forced to redo work—eating up both time and money. Were he to scan everything as drum scans, he’d be paying a tenfold premium for images that may rarely be published beyond the small-magazine size. The problem compounds with the inclusion of all the keywording and editing required to take scans from raw files to publishable images. Those first-tier decisions are the cornerstone to the entire process.

“It’s not just redoing a scan,” Lanting says. “All the adjustments have to be applied again, the images need to get reabsorbed into our database, and everything needs to be consistent with the previous renditions to the extent that it can be. And making decisions about what to scan and at what level needs to be looked at within the larger context of all the other requirements—image adjustments and attaching enough information to the digitized version of the photograph to make it a unit that can function in a digital context. That requires captioning and keywording and database solutions that you need to figure out before you start the scanning pipeline. The answers to those solutions are going to be governed as well by the system you’ve embraced for your digital image workflow.”

While so many photographers have said goodbye to film, Lanting has been saying hello again. The translation process that enables film-based imagery to function in a digital context has little to do with nostalgia and everything to do with maintaining film as an active part of the photographic record. This archive—whether it’s used for personal reference or professional development—applies to every photographer who’s ever worked with film. Film’s legacy is important to the broader context of the medium, as well.

“If you care about your own history as a photographer,” Lanting says, “or if you care about the history of photography in general, this is a really important interface—how you structure the translation of film-based imagery to digital imagery. It’s like doing a translation between different languages. And just as translation involves an interpretation—the words don’t always match—in the same way the translation from analog to digital is also an interpretation, and as such, film will remain an active part of the language that photographers have spoken for many decades.”

Frans Lanting’s Film-To-Digital Workflow

Bringing Frans Lanting’s massive film library up to digital standards is a never-ending job. Here’s how it’s done.

1 Organization. Maintaining a well-organized archival film-storage system is crucial in order to efficiently find images as they’re needed by clients and publications.

2 Editing and prioritizing. “Editing is editing” as far as Lanting is concerned, no matter what the medium. The important part is to determine the necessary images, then determine the type of use—which dictates the type of scan to be made.

3 Scanning. The scanning method is determined by the usage requirements, but this requires a balancing act, as Lanting wants to waste neither money nor time.

Higher-quality scans are more expensive, but redoing work (including scanning, retouching and keywording) at a later date is equally undesirable.

4 Priming. Raw scans are no more publishable than RAW digital captures. Repairing color casts and film scratches and optimizing the files for reproduction are the first steps, followed by keywording and captioning so that these master files can be seamlessly integrated into the established digital workflow.

Scanning Options

Basic: Coolscan. Using a Nikon Coolscan scanner, Lanting’s team makes in-house scans for all web uses and for many small printing purposes.

Advanced: Imacon. For higher-quality printing and stock-distribution purposes, the team relies on an Imacon FlexTight 949 for “pseudo-drum-scan quality.”

Premium: Drum. For the utmost in file size and printing quality, Lanting outsources drum scans for every image destined for books or exhibitions.

Frans Lanting is a world-renowned photographer whose influential work appears in books, magazines and exhibits around the globe. You can see more of his work at

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