Developing and scanning film can be expensive. Here in the UK, high street stores like Snappy Snaps and Boots aren’t exactly cheap, and the quality of their work is often disappointing. Professional labs do great work, but the cost has risen pretty much across the board in recent years. The answer to this problem of cost, for many of us, is to develop and scan our own photos.
Faced with a bundle of over thirty rolls of colour negative film which would have cost a king’s ransom to develop professionally, I picked up a Tetenal C41 kit and got to work myself. Despite a few hairy moments, I walked away with dozens of sheets of good looking negatives.
Little did I know, this was only the beginning of the fun and games.
Scanning film can be a mundane and dispiriting prospect. With the excitement of shooting and developing long forgotten, photographers are confronted with the vexing question of how best to convert physical negatives into useable digital files.
Hope turned to despair when my Epson V600 shot out dull, soft files which were stricken with Newton rings. My lack of true knowhow regarding Lightroom meant that I was not able to make the best of a bad situation. Back to the drawing board.
I eventually got my hands on two old dedicated film scanners: a Minolta Dimage Multi for medium format, and a Canoscan FS4000US. Although these solved some of my problems, their outdated software could not deliver the colour I was hoping for. Back to the internet for more consultation.
Enter Negative Lab Pro
As I looked for where to turn next, I came across an Adobe Lightroom Classic plugin named Negative Lab Pro (NLP). According to some forums and YouTubers, it was the answer to my prayers.
Initially created with digital cameras in mind, NLP uses a range of complex algorithms to convert digital raw files into the colourful, vibrant photos that we have come to expect from the industry-leading film scanners used by the best professional photo labs.
I reached out to Nate Johnson, the creator of NLP, and let him know that we planned to test the software with the intention of sharing the results with the Casual Photophile audience. Nate was gracious enough to answer a few questions we had about the program, and I’ll share that conversation later. Before that, I’ll explain the process of creating a digital file from a physical negative, relate my impressions of the software, and share some photos that have been processed using NLP.
Using Negative Lab Pro
One of the big promises that NLP makes on its website, is greater convenience and ease of use. “No more messing around with tedious exports and hand-edited curves,” the website boldly states. So, does it deliver on this bold promise?
In a word, yes. In a few more words, yes, although we’ll need to make some small adjustments to our workflow to get everything ready for the program to work its magic.
It only works with raw .dng files. We can get these from our negatives by either scanning them using Vuescan or taking photos of them with our digital camera with a macro lens and a backlight (a method commonly referred to as DSLR scanning). This preparation stage will take either a long or short time, depending on the speed of the scanner being used, or the speed of the photographer using the digital camera scanning setup. Once we’ve gotten this part of the workflow down, we’ll be left with an unconverted (“raw”) scan of the negative.
After this, we have to adjust the white balance of each negative by taking a reading from the frame. Next we highlight the negative (or negatives, since NLP can batch scan) that we’d like to convert, and then tap the shortcut key. We’re quickly met with a selection of options which will adjust the way that the plugin functions. Firstly, we need to specify how we’ve scanned or photographed the negatives (using a scanner or DSLR).
With the next option, things become more fun. Nate has managed to emulate the tones and colours of the celebrated Fuji Frontier and Noritsu minilab scanners within the software. By selecting one of these scanners (there are other choices such as black and white available too), we can imbue our photos with a vibrance that is often elusive when trying to manipulate the image in Lightroom directly.
Adjustments to saturation levels and a border buffer are also offered in this screen. That second option is vital as NLP inspects each pixel to decide on colour and exposure. If the film border is included in this calculation, it can throw off the exposure.
Selections made, we click the Convert Negative button, and after a few moments, we’re greeted with a beautiful conversion.
I have to say, I was seriously impressed with the job that the software did right from the off. Even in scenes where the light was difficult, NLP was able to pull out nice details and consistently great colour. That said, there is also a range of sliders and pull-down menus which allow the user to really refine the look of each individual photo.
A really nice feature is the ability to copy the settings that we’ve have dialed in for one negative, and paste them across several photos. This means that we can easily create a consistent look for a set of photographs.
Another strength of NLP is that it increases the speed of most users’ workflow. If we set up the white balance, crop and other adjustments before activating the plugin, we can work through edits extremely quickly. It’s not as simple as just clicking a button and getting great results, but it honestly isn’t too much more than that. I found that a few tweaks to the brightness, contrast and sharpening tools were sufficient to give me a great result.
I did get the occasional colour cast in the shadows, but these are easy to rectify. NLP includes sliders which allow us to add or remove colours in the RGB and CMY spectrums. These are split into adjustments for the highs, mids and shadows, meaning that we can precisely remove those pesky blue tones from your shadows if necessary.
Even though the program is quite simple to use, editing mistakes can occur. Fortunately, the changes made by NLP are non-destructive. At any moment it’s possible to revert our photo back to the base negative, so that we can re-convert it and begin again.
Another neat feature of NLP is the film-specific metadata that has recently been added to the software. Dovetailing with Lightroom’s own data, NLP allows us to add information such as film stock, lenses and other information about our photos. This allows us to easily search through files, and organize photos however we wish. This is just another small feature that makes the digitization of film that little bit easier.
With both speed and stunning results on its side, NLP feels like a great choice for those of us who develop and scan at home. That said, would-be buyers should consider the overall cost of the setup. Home development and scanning isn’t free – there’s the recurring cost of development chemicals and the on-time cost of buying a scanner or DSLR/Mirrorless system with scanning stand, lightbox, etc. After that, NLP costs $99 (there’s a free trial version at the NLP website which allows the conversion of 14 negatives for free).
My recommendation is that interested shooters should pick twelve of their own negatives to work on, rather than using the sample set that is available. This way familiarity will allow the shooter to compare previous results to those made by NLP, and get a taste of the workflow that the software enables.
It only takes ten rolls of 120 film at local rates to recoup the cost of the plugin. And whilst there is the ongoing cost of Lightroom to contend with, that is hardly something Nate at NLP can do anything about.
Personally, considering the cost of local lab scanning and the time it takes to mail away film and wait for a lab to get around to sending the scans, I think NLP provides great value for the quality of results that can be achieved. Add speed and simplicity to the equation and NLP is a real winner for me.
Interview with Nate Johnson, Creator of Negative Lab Pro
CP: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you came up with Negative Lab Pro?
Nate: My background is a mix of both technical and non-technical roles. I’ve been a part of a few different startups. I’ve built iPhone apps, web apps, and other Lightroom plugins. I’ve also had quite a few non-technical roles in my careers, mainly in marketing-related fields, like branding and search engine optimization.
I’ve found my real passion is in imaging software and style emulation. I just love the mix of art and science that it requires.
I found an outlet for this passion back in 2016 when I started Nate Photographic. I started creating and selling my own Lightroom presets, as well as courses on advanced style development in Lightroom and RAW profile development.
I expected that the site would just be a side gig, but it took off quicker than I could imagine, and within a year I was able to focus on it full-time.
My goal has always been to reduce the “trial and error” that often accompanies photo processing – both by understanding what is actually happening in the RAW processing pipeline, and by breaking down and measuring the characteristics that make up a processing “style.”
So I think that background prepared me for making Negative Lab Pro. Of course, there is always some experimentation involved, and I’m always experimenting with ways to improve. But it helps tremendously to have a background in these things to take the guesswork out of it.
CP: Great. And so these experiments with your presets led you toward creating Negative Lab Pro?
Nate: Yes, the short version is that Negative Lab Pro is something I built for myself, after being dissatisfied with other methods, workflows and software. It wasn’t until I had already built the earliest version that it occurred to me that it could be useful for other photographers, too.
I had started to shoot more film around the time I started Nate Photographic. I found that I really enjoyed shooting film – it forced me to slow down and visualize my shots. And the results (especially on 120) were just so incredible!
My original goal was to use what I learned from shooting film to create better, more dynamic analogue emulations for digital shooters. I started by creating a darkroom emulator for Lightroom called “X-Chrome.” X-Chrome really took off fast. I wanted it to be more than just a preset pack. I made it so digital shooters could combine B+W film stocks, chemical developers, and paper/toner stocks – and the three components interacted very naturally to make the final look.
Working with colour film, though, I hit a roadblock. I was really dissatisfied with all of the options I tried for colour negative processing.
CP: So what was the problem with colour film and how did you move past it?
First, I found that labs were inconsistent (and very pricey). Sometimes the results were spectacular, but other times they were way off, and the 8-bit jpegs just didn’t have enough “editability” left to fix them. (Plus, it really bothered me how much the lab scanners cropped-in to my carefully framed shots!)
Then I picked up an Epson v600. The process was a nightmare. It was just so slow (I’m not very patient). Not only did each scan take forever, but the whole workflow sucked – preview (wait), edit (wait), scan (wait), repeat.
Getting through a whole roll this way was just a nightmare. Not to mention that the edits were destructive, so if I ever wanted to go back and re-edit from the true original, it meant re-scanning. Definitely not ideal.
My last hope was using a digital camera to scan the film. I was intrigued by the promise of faster scans, with equivalent (or better) sharpness, and keeping all edits RAW and non-destructive. It could be the perfect workflow – I just couldn’t find any software that really took advantage of the full potential here.
Lightroom had a lot of the building blocks I wanted (RAW pipeline, non-destructive editing, catalog management) but of course, out of the box, it was still missing some pretty major pieces. And fundamentally, the pipeline was built for positive digital images. So the default profiles contaminated the negative before you even begin editing.
So that’s what Negative Lab Pro came out of – it was something I just wanted personally to make my ideal workflow. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about selling it. I just knew I wanted it.
CP: So how did you go about creating the plugin from there?
First, I made a RAW camera profile for my Fuji X-T2 that was optimized for negative inversion (by taking out any elements that would contaminate the negative – things like added tone curves, hue twists and black subtraction.)
Then, I built a spreadsheet where I would input different measurements from the film negative, and it would spit out the basic settings to add in Lightroom. It was really really basic, but it was one step better than doing it by hand.
From there, I just needed a way to package it so it would all happen automatically. I had recently developed a Lightroom plugin called “Opal – The Opacity Slider for Lightroom”, so I was really familiar with Lightroom’s SDK, and I knew it was possible (though not easy) to make something like Negative Lab Pro. In a couple of weeks, I had a proof-of-concept that was very basic, but allowed me to more quickly test and refine my analysis and conversion settings.
At this point, I was starting to think, “Hmm… maybe other photographers would want this too?” So I put together a little video demo of my process, and put it up on YouTube.
The response from the film community absolutely blew me away. So I started focusing my efforts into making this something that other photographers could use in their own workflows.
CP: One comment I’ve seen more than once is people speculating about a standalone Negative Lab Pro application, removing the need for a Lightroom subscription. Is there a reason why this wouldn’t be possible?
Firstly, I totally understand these comments. I’m not a big fan of the subscription model, either, and I wish Adobe offered a way to simply buy a perpetual license.
That said, I’m a really big fan of Lightroom, Photoshop, Illustrator & Premiere, and I think the Creative Cloud offerings are pretty reasonably priced for what incredible tools they are. But yeah, I wish they still offered perpetual licenses.
There are some major advantages to both me (the developer) and you (the user) by integrating into Lightroom (rather than building a standalone product).
From a development standpoint, the problem with building a standalone application is that it would be considerably slower to develop and wouldn’t be as full-featured. Think of all the things that Lightroom already has built-in (RAW processing, catalog management, history and undo states, metadata, virtual copies, cropping, perspective correction, lens profiles, flatfield correction, pano merging, enhanced profiles, etc).
It just isn’t feasible for me – as a one-man team – to build something comparable from scratch. I’d rather let Adobe’s massive team of developer’s handle those basic things (and continue adding new, awesome features like they have been doing) while I just focus on improving the experience with Negative Lab Pro.
From a user standpoint, the integration means you get all the benefits and features of Lightroom, plus a tool specifically made for converting and editing film negatives. It makes for a tremendously powerful combo and it gives you an environment where you can do everything in one place. I think it makes for a more compelling total product offering than I could achieve with a standalone version.
I also get asked a lot about integrating with other software packages, like Photoshop or Capture One. It’s something I’ll keep looking into, but right now, Capture One doesn’t have an advanced enough plugin environment for something like Negative Lab Pro. And with Photoshop, they have a great plugin environment, but it isn’t a RAW processor. This is why Adobe Camera Raw acts as a bridge between your Raw photos and Photoshop.
So for me, it is less than ideal since you can’t work on RAW directly, you can’t batch process (at least not as well as Lightroom) and your changes are destructive (so it’s harder to come back and re-edit).
I know that I’ll miss out on some potential users by keeping this as a Lightroom plugin for now, but that focus also means I can continue to make it better and better for those who do choose it.
CP: What were the key barriers that had to be overcome to release Negative Lab Pro?
There were a lot of technical barriers to making Negative Lab Pro work the way it does inside of Lightroom. The inner-workings are not trivial. I’m guessing that’s why it didn’t already exist. And I’ve ended up writing a lot of custom solutions for it that I haven’t seen implemented anywhere else. For instance, the AutoColor analysis engine I wrote is a really powerful solution I haven’t seen implemented anywhere before.
I would say though that the biggest barrier was finding ways to make it work well for all users (which is something I continue to work to improve). It was relatively easy to make Negative Lab Pro work well for my exact setup and preferences (digitizing with a Fuji X-T2, 80mm Macro, Kaiser light table, shooting Portra 400, primarily of overcast scenes). But what about different camera-scanning setups? Or people using film scanners? Or shooting different film stocks and different types of scenes?
In some ways, the engineers who wrote the conversion software for lab scanners like the Fuji Frontier had it way easier. So many of the variables were already fixed in place.
So making something that works well across a multitude of variables and capture methods was a major barrier to getting it launched. And honestly, when I launched version 1.0, it worked way better for DSLR-scanning then it did for traditional film scanners.
Only in recent versions has the film-scanning inversions started to match the quality of DSLR/Mirrorless scans, so I’m sure I lost a lot of early potential users that way who tried it and didn’t have a good experience.
CP: So what does the future have in store for Negative Lab Pro? Will we see more bespoke profiles akin to the Frontier and Noritsu ones currently available?
Yes, lots of good stuff in store for Negative Lab Pro users. And if you look at where Negative Lab Pro started in version 1, to where it is today (v2.1.2), there have already been major improvements in every area.
I try to focus all my updates around three key areas: 1) Image quality, 2) Workflow and 3) compatibility.
For image quality, the first thing you’ll see soon are more bespoke profiles. I’m using a Lightroom featured called “enhanced profiles” which give incredible control over the tones and colours in the final image, so I’ll be able to more closely emulate the final look of different lab scanners and paper profiles.
I already have a beta of these profiles up on the private Facebook group, and the response has been great.
Also related to image quality, in version 3.0 I’ll be introducing “roll analysis” – which will allow users to use the context of the entire roll to get better, more accurate conversions.
For instance, right now Negative Lab Pro can be “fooled” by scenes with limited colours or tonal range (for instance, an image with nothing other than a blue sky). But by using the context of the entire roll, NLP will be able to produce a more natural conversion.
For workflow, users have been asking for a while for the ability to make and manage specific “presets” within Negative Lab Pro. So that will be coming and I think it will really speed up the workflow.
For compatibility, I’ve made major strides when it comes to supporting RAW DNGs from both Vuescan and Silverfast, with custom RAW profiles. I don’t know of anyone else doing this, and the results are pretty great. So expect more of that!
CP: Sum up in one sentence why film shooters should take notice of Negative Lab Pro.
Negative Lab Pro brings impossibly good colour negative conversions right into your Lightroom workflow – no messing around with tedious exports and hand-edited curves. With Negative Lab Pro, lab-quality tones and colours are just a few clicks away.
CP: Is there anything else that you’d like to point out about NLP to the Casual Photophile readership?
I really encourage readers to just try the free trial! It can be downloaded at our site, and they’ll get 14 free conversions to try (with no watermarks).
And definitely don’t fret if the initial conversion needs a little bit of work to get them to the colour and style you want– that’s what all the settings and controls in Negative Lab Pro are there for! Once you find your way around the controls, you’ll be amazed how quickly your negatives can look good.
Many thanks to Nate for taking the time to chat with us. For more information on Negative Lab Pro, visit their site.
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