Many photographers have boxes of old film negatives they would like to access in Lightroom. While most film scanning software can automatically invert the photos, this won’t work when using a camera to photograph them. So, how do you invert your negative into a positive photo? We’ll look at both processing it manually and how it can be simplified using a Lightroom plugin. The processing is somewhat different to digital photos!!
Scanning the negatives
We photographed our negatives on an inexpensive light box, with a camera mounted on a tripod looking directly down on it. For best results, shoot raw with slight over-exposure. Also, mask out any unwanted areas of light. Sandwiching the negative between two pieces of cardboard (ideally black) helps to keep it flat. An air duster helps to remove any dust to save retouching later.
Here’s the set-up we used:
We’re going to look at this using Lightroom Classic, but exactly the same can be done using Lightroom (cloud).
You can use the Develop module to change a negative scan into a positive image by reversing the tone curve. We need to change the direction of the curve and to do this we need to use the Point Curve. In Lightroom Classic, click the button in the lower right corner of the Tone Curve panel to switch to Point Curve. In the cloud-based apps, it’s the white circle. Here’s the before and after:
In Lightroom Classic, some people have trouble moving the two end-points one at a time from top to bottom. If so, try moving the left one halfway, then the other down to the bottom corner. Be sure to grab the very corner, if the line starts to bend then you haven’t got the corner. Then, finish the first point to the top corner.
At this point the photo won’t look right and will need some processing but it won’t be a negative anymore.
To save time, we suggest saving the tone curve as a preset, so for the next negative you can easily just click the preset (only save the tone curve in the preset).
Editing in Lightroom
After inversion, the photo will probably look very cold but you can use Lightroom’s normal sliders to make adjustments. However, because we reversed the tone curve, almost every slider will work in reverse (Contrast is an exception). Slider pairs are also reversed, for example, Whites affect the Blacks clipping, and vice versa.
To start, just try the Exposure slider – move to the left makes the photo brighter, to the right darker. Same with Temperature, to warm it up you go to the left. Even Vignette works in reverse! It’s quite tricky to start with, so it’s worth processing quite a number of negatives in a session as you do get used to it!
Here is the photo from the beginning with the tone curve adjustment made, then with some color and exposure corrections. In this one we used Split Toning to remove some of the Shadows color cast. Using the individual R, G, B channels and pulling the end points to the ends of the histogram can also be effective.
Using Negative Lab Pro plug-in
To speed up the process and improve the colors, there is an excellent plug-in called Negative Lab Pro. This doesn’t just invert the photo but also makes intelligent adjustments. Negative Lab Pro uses custom designed camera profiles that were made specifically for more accurate negative conversions. The result is closer to typical print lab processing. It’s generally a much better starting point for your editing.
First, open the photo in Loupe view to see a large preview. If using a raw file, crop the photo and do a basic White Balance adjustment (just click on the darkest part of the picture). When you use the plug-in to convert an image, there are sliders for initial adjustments and they work in the direction you expect, which is much easier! Negative Lab Pro also helps you remove the orange cast for a more accurate color. Here’s the same negative we used before with no adjustments.
It uses Lightroom’s sliders to make the adjustments, therefore doesn’t need to create an additional file. The plug-in uses its own Profile to achieve some of the behind the scenes work and some clever tone curve adjustments. Of course, from here we can go further in Lightroom, but it’s a great start and closer to the original prints. Negative Lab Pro expects to get you about 90% to your finished article. In our trials, we’d agree with that. It certainly speeds up the process.
The Trial gives the first 12 conversions free, and only counts ones where you accept the changes, so you can cancel the process on a photo if you don’t like the result.
Whether you use the Lightroom tone curve to invert and then process manually, or a plug-in to speed up the process, its lovely to save treasured memories that can then be shared with friends and family!
There are some very helpful community blogs you may find helpful too:
For extensive information on Lightroom Classic, see Adobe Lightroom Classic – The Missing FAQ.
If you have the Photography Plan, then as well as Classic you have access to the Lightroom cloud ecosystem including the mobile apps and web interface. For more information on these apps, see Adobe Lightroom – Edit Like a Pro.
Note: purchase of these books includes the first year’s Classic or cloud-based Premium Membership (depending on the book purchased), giving access to download the latest eBook (each time Adobe updates the software), email assistance for the applicable Lightroom version if you hit a problem, and other bonuses.
We also have a special bundle offer for the two books. This includes Premium Membership for the first year as described above for the whole Lightroom family!