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Seeing Red

I had a friend call me in a panic the other day. She was scanning some 35mm film and she was freaking out because they kept scanning bright red. I’ve seen it before I told her, and it’s not as devastating as she might think.

Her scanner, an inexpensive HP, is just that: inexpensive. A more expensive model would have settings and capabilities that this one just doesn’t have, but since its doubtful most people will opt to invest any more money on a scanner when they only have a limited number of images they’ll be scanning, a work-around may be called for. There’s a very simple way to keep your scanner from “seeing red”…

The red scanning, or, as I affectionately call it, the Mars Effect, is caused by the scanners imprecise selection of the area to be scanned. This isn’t a scientific explanation, mind you, just what I’ve observed over time and thousands of scans. The scanner my friend has, not unlike one that I have (I have four scanners of various makes, models and abilities, from low to fairly high end) has a built in, white, transparency adapter that pretty much only takes standard slides and 35mm film. The scanner, in film mode, is converting the negative to positive. When it does that, the areas that scan black around the film are converted to white – a very large sea of whiteness. The red is the scanners attempt at white balance. With the lower end scanners, you have no control over the negative to positive process.

You can, however, force the issue and make the scanner scan the film in black and white. If you adjust your selection lines to the very edge, or a little inside, the image to be scanned, the scanner won’t “see” all the white and will scan the image, in this case, in black and white – and by black and white, I mean, even if the mode is set to color, black and white.

But is this a good idea? Not always. Below is the same shot scanned both in the “Mars Effect” as I affectionately like to call it and with the selection lines pulled in to force the black and white scan:

Let’s look at the black and white scan, first. So, it’s scanned and you bring it in to Photoshop. It’s dark, but you’ll just go and put a curves, or levels, adjustment on it and it’ll lighten up in no time, right? Well, most of the time, no, not right. Especially on a scanner that doesn’t have good adjustment controls in the user interface, even more if it’s a dark shot to begin with, you can adjust and adjust and all you’re going to get is blacker and whiter. The detail is a goner.

Now let’s tackle the red scan! The one thing the red scan has that the black and white doesn’t have is (say it with me) color! True, the only color channel left, for the most part (you might get some yellow mixed in the red, on lighter slides), it’s still color and color is good! Once you have the red scan open in Photoshop, the first thing you need to do is run a Black and White adjustment on it. Go through all the presets, even tweak the sliders, to get some good detail in the dark areas. You may have to be careful not to blow out the light areas, but as in the case of this barn, things like skies are easy to replace so don’t stress too much about them.

After you’ve found the black and white adjustment you like, go back in for a curves adjustment. Adjust by moving the histogram up into the light areas (towards the upper left hand corner). You can try the eyedroppers if you choose, I’ve just had better luck with the histogram. The goal with the curves adjustment is to get even more detail out. If you have to go back in and paint out the light colors because they’re too blown out, that’s okay, too. Again, I’m going to replace the sky, so I’m not sweating it. Yes, you can also use a Layer Blend Mode, such as Screen, if you so choose. Again, I like Curves because of the greater control it affords me.

Next time your low end scanner is seeing red, don’t despair! Give this a try, and with a little work, your red scan could turn into a gorgeous photograph!

Author Disclaimer: No one technique is ever “the best” for every situation. Every photo is different and different methods should be explored to find which the best in that particular situation is. That being said, let it be known that I attempt to try and teach many different ways of doing things. If I employ one way and it seems to you, the reader, that another way may have worked as well or better, rest assured that the techniques being used are done so in the interest of creative exploration, not blatant omission. ~JS

About Janine Smith (114 Articles)
Janine Smith is the owner of Landailyn Research and Restoration, a Fort Worth, Texas based company whose services include family history research and photo restoration. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to repair photographs damaged by unforeseen circumstances such as house fires and natural disasters. <br> Janine’s work is well-known in the world of genealogical and historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives, and non-profit organizations; appearing on the board of directors for several organizations and institutions. She is a sought-after lecturer on photo restoration and preservation to libraries, genealogical and historical societies. <br> In addition to being a Lynda.com author, Janine is the author of many articles on research and restoration appearing in newspapers and magazines, both on and offline. Janine's history and photo restoration columns appear regularly on TipSquirrel.com and in the popular Shades Of The Departed Digital Magazine. <br> Janine is the winner of the 2010 “Photoshop User Award” in the photo-restoration category.

2 Comments on Seeing Red

  1. Awesome detailed tutorial. I especially appreciated the directions on how to use curves in this situation.

  2. Awesome detailed tutorial. I especially appreciated the directions on how to use curves in this situation.

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