Update (November 2018)
There is a new plug-in available for inverting and color-correcting color film negatives in Lightroom called Negative Lab Pro that hands-down produces fantastic results and provides an all-RAW workflow within Lightroom. Please take a look at my full review.
Since I started shooting film again just over a year ago, I’ve been hoping to find a simple process to invert scanned color negatives in Lightroom, but until recently it’s been impossible. But with the 7.3 release of Lightroom Classic in April 2018, Adobe has now given us the tools to invert color negatives with just one click. I don’t pretend to fully understand the process or the inner workings of the software that makes this possible, and I would have never figured this out on my own. I am grateful to Matt Kloskowski for publishing a couple of Youtube videos on the powerful new Profiles feature of Lightroom.
In the most recent video, Matt explains how to export a color lookup table (LUT) in Photoshop then create a new Lightroom profile based on that LUT in Camera Raw. Using this process, I was able to create a LUT from a color correction layer group in Photoshop then create a profile to invert a scanned negative in Lightroom using that same LUT. This LUT-based profile can then be used on other scanned negatives in Lightroom to invert the image with just one click. So there’s a little bit of work required up front to create some profiles for your film stocks, but once created, you can use those profiles to process all of your negatives very quickly.
Unfortunately, there is no universal profile for a given film stock. However, using a standardized capture process, no more than 2 or 3 profiles are needed for each film stock, primarily to get a good conversion under different lighting conditions. I have created a set of profiles for each film stock based on a variety of photos captured under different lighting and exposure conditions. Using a handful of these, I can quickly preview and select one that provides a near-perfect inversion and color correction for almost any photo. And since the Profile Browser provides preview thumbnails and full size previews of the selected profile, it is very easy to select the best profile to apply to the image. So far I’ve found that I can usually find a profile that provides very good color correction, then make brightness adjustments using the exposure slider.
Although the sliders still work backwards because the image has been inverted, this method does not require any cumbersome messing around in the Tone Curve to correct colors in the image. In addition, I no longer have to take every image into Photoshop. The Lightroom method is much faster and avoids having to create and store a huge TIFF file for every scanned image. For my workflow, a 36-exposure roll of raw files requires about 864 MB of disk space; when converted to TIFFs and color-corrected, those images require nearly 15 GB! I was filling up my laptop’s SSD with 2 or 3 rolls of film. Besides just being faster than working in Photoshop, by converting in Lightroom you are still working with a raw file instead of a converted TIFF, so the photos retain much higher image quality after conversion.
So enough already, how do I get started? Here’s a detailed summary of the process I’m using so far-this is probably not the best process, it is just what I have found to work in the few hours I’ve been experimenting. If you find improvements to make this process work better, please let me know!
Step 1: Set Profile and White Balance in Lightroom
Starting from a “scanned” raw image (I am using raw files captured using my camera, not a scanner), set the profile to Adobe Standard and set the white balance on the negative. I usually use the White Balance dropper tool to select the unexposed negative in one of the scans, then apply these settings to all of the scans from the roll.
Step 2: Send Image to Photoshop
The next step is the send the negative image to Photoshop. Be sure to set the color working space to ProPhotoRGB in the Color Settings dialog before inverting the negative. My default was sRGB which did not work well.
Step 3: Color Correction in Photoshop
Now for the magic! I am using the fantastic Photoshop action provided by IamtheJeff to invert and color correct the negative (Update July 2018: IamtheJeff’s 2018 action cannot be used to generate a LUT, you must use the previous version. See next paragraph.). This action does all the work-inverting the image, removing the orange mask, and setting white and black points for each color to remove any color casts-to transform the scanned negative into a beautiful color corrected image. But, the results of the inversion and color correction are specific to the film stock, lighting conditions of the photo (e.g., daylight or tungsten), the particular scanning setup (color of light used to scan the negative), and the initial white balance of the negative before the profile is applied. Essentially, we are creating a color map to transform the colors of the negative into correct positive colors so if two negatives have different colors-for example, if they are scanned using a different color light source-then the color map will incorrectly transform the colors and the resulting image will be incorrect. This is why we need to develop several profiles for a particular film stock using images captured under various different lighting conditions and scenes so that we can select a profile that matches the lighting of the negative. And because everyone has a different scanning setup-my lightbox emits a different color of white light than your flash-my profiles will not work for someone else. To use this method, you must develop the profiles yourself and maintain consistency in your negative scanning process.
Read all about IamtheJeff’s method here. IamtheJeff updated the action in 2018. This new version cannot be used without modification to generate a lookup table because some of the adjustments are performed directly on the background layer and not in adjustment layers. Be sure to use the previous version (which still provides excellent results) here. After running the action, I now have an inverted and color corrected image. Note that all color correction adjustments are grouped into a single layer separate from the untouched background layer containing the negative. (Also note that I am also Jeff, but I am not IamtheJeff.)
If you want to use IamtheJeff’s updated action, you’ll need to make a few modifications so that the background layer remains untouched and all of the inversion adjustments are separate from that layer. One of my readers (Lloyd O’D.) reports that he was able to successfully get a profile into Lightroom using the new action by deleting the invert command and replacing it with an invert adjustment layer, then disabling or deleting the Merge Layers command at the beginning which should be left as a layer. The steps generating the C, M, and Y fill layers can also be deleted if you don’t want to use those for manual color tweaking. Lloyd also said that he thinks the new action seems to produce better out of the box exposure/contrast, but I didn’t really notice a difference on the images that I tested.
Step 4: Create Lookup Table
Export the Color Correction layer generated by the action as a Color Lookup Table (File->Export->Color Lookup Tables). Make sure that only the Color Correction group layer is selected. In the export dialog, make sure that the settings are 32 Grid Points and CUBE format.
Step 5: Create Profile from LUT
Next, select the Background (negative) layer and open the Camera Raw Filter. Go to the Presets tab, then Alt-click on the New Preset icon at the bottom of the window. This is where the magic happens. Give the profile a descriptive name (I am using the film stock plus a letter for different types of images) and assign it to a Profile Set (e.g., Film Negative Profiles). Then select Color Lookup Table in the lower part of the dialog and select the CUBE file you just exported. Set the color space to ProPhotoRGB. You can also set Min and Max to 100. This setting controls the Amount slider for the profile in Lightroom, and 100% is the only value that will work. Click OK to save the profile and close Camera Raw.
Apply Profile in Lightroom
Restart Lightroom, and your newly created profile should be available in the Profile Browser. If you apply this profile to the raw image it was based on, you should get an identical result to what you saw in Photoshop. If yours looks different, make sure you set the color workspace to ProPhotoRGB before inverting the image.
I repeated this process for several images, then started trying out the profiles on other negatives from the same film stock. I am finding that one of the profiles will typically work for any given negative, even negatives from other rolls shot on the same type of film. I have found that the negative MUST be white balanced under the Adobe Standard profile before applying the inversion profile. I use the unexposed frame outside the image for setting white balance, and this setting can be applied to all images on the same roll. For some negatives applying the profile is all that is needed, but other images require an exposure adjustment and maybe some highlights and shadows adjustments. I have now digitized more than 20 rolls of older negatives and have found this process to work great. The most time-consuming part is cropping each image individually after capture.
Also, do not try to auto white balance the corrected image, it will not work as expected. Adobe’s documentation on profiles states that profiles are applied at the end of the image rendering pipeline, so the auto white balance tool is actually looking at the raw negative image, not the inverted image you see on the screen (also why the sliders are still reversed for some adjustments). You can still manually adjust the Temperature and Tint sliders if needed.
Overall, this process is working really well and will save a ton of time and disk space not having to convert all of my film scans to TIFFs. Once again, a huge thanks to MattK for sharing his knowledge of LUTs and profiles, and to IamtheJeff for making the awesome color correction action freely available. If you find this helpful, please let me know! And if you need info on the camera scanning process, I highly recommend Peter Krogh’s multimedia book Digitizing Your Photos with your Camera and Lightroom.
I have written a couple of other articles on digitizing film negatives. One covers my start-to-finish camera scanning and conversion process, and the second demonstrates the benefits of using filters to compensate the color of the light source for the orange mask of color negatives.
Update: I was asked on the Photoshop Family forum to share some sample profiles. I shared a couple of sample profiles created using Portra400 outdoors. For my test, I was able to use one of these 2 profiles to color correct about 90% of the images on 3 different rolls of Portra400 film. The other images were under different enough lighting conditions, i.e., indoors and pre-dawn, that the profiles did not apply. I was doubtful that these would work for someone else because the LUT depends on your particular scanning setup, and this has been confirmed-the profiles are specific to how the negatives are scanned and initially white balanced so they will not work for someone else using a different scanning process.