From the Darkroom to Lightroom: Getting the Best Photos Out of Negatives

“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” – Ansel Adams

A photograph has the power to move us. Pictures of family and friends and those from birthdays and holidays are more than just a mix of colors printed on paper. They represent moments and memories that strike a deep chord within us. Which is why photographers, over the years, have used different technologies to enhance and fine-tune photos to be the best that they could be. In the age of film, they used all the darkroom techniques available to them, while modern day photographers have access to digital tools such as Adobe Lightroom.

From the Darkroom…

The details of image processing in darkrooms are fascinating Рfor photography history buffs and others. Darkrooms were called that because the rooms were designed to block out light which could end up distorting negatives. The process, although painstaking, is nothing short of magical. (It also explains why there are many diehard film photographers even today).  First, the negatives are removed from the camera in the darkroom and immersed in a developer liquid. Second, the negative is immediately dipped in a stop bath (a liquid that stops the negative from developing further) and then in the fixer (which stabilizes the negative so that it can be displayed in light. The last step is to sink the negative in a wetting agent for about half a minute before it dries out into a photograph.

Photographers also use a few darkroom techniques to manipulate negatives and gain artistic value. Dodging and burning are a couple of them. Dodging involves withholding exposure in order to lighten the picture and burning is the exact opposite – that is, increasing the amount of exposure in order to darken it.

Another technique, toning, is used to manipulate the color of the picture. Some photographers experiment with chemicals and film emulsion, others apply liquids with paint brushes, while still others take old photographs to try to transform them into something new and some even try to invoke a sense of alternative realities in their pictures. Photographer Alexander Waepsi uses this last technique in a set of images titled ‘Manipulations’.

Alexandra Waepsi
Photo credit: Alexandra Waepsi via


…to Lightroom

These days, thanks to smartphones, you can instantly view a photo you have taken. Plus, technology is a great leveler. Software such as Adobe Lightroom gives you more edit options and greater creative control – even if you want to use negatives.

That’s because you can scan old (and new) 35mm negatives (most widely used format) and edit them using Lightroom to get great looking photographs. A few scanners have negative holders that allow you to scan 35mm film, but not all of them are equipped for the task. It’s also important to keep the negative scanning process dust free by blowing away any dust particles that may have settled onto your film. This makes the final images in Lightroom less grainy.

While the darkroom experience has throwback appeal for professional and serious hobby photographers, software such as Lightroom gives the rest of us an easier way to work with negatives, once they are scanned.

Getting help with scanning negatives

Using a negative scanning service is a hassle-free way to digitize your stash of film. Here are a few other advantages to going this route:

  • Preserving an image – in its entirety: When you develop and print a photo from a negative, the final image has to be cropped on paper. Even if this cropping is minimal, you can still lose a small part of the photo. By getting your negatives professionally digitized, you can capture and preserve the entire image.
  • Capturing more detail: Scanning negatives allows you to capture more detail than scanning prints. As it is the first raw image that is recorded when the shutter snaps, you are much closer to the original memory when you extract it from a negative. Again the best results are obtained from using professional grade equipment.
  • Convenience and access: A negative scanning service will not only do the tedious job of digitizing hundreds of negatives for you, it can ease the process of storing and accessing your photos through a secure cloud storage option. They are then readily available for you to view, download, edit and share as you want.
A memory captured in a negative (Photo: ScanCafe)