How to Rescue Images That Even the LomoLab had Given Up On – Extreme-Scan it Yourself!

2013-05-12 13

Tips on getting the most out of very badly exposed images using a scanner.

This is the story of a doomed roll of Lomo colour negative film. After the whole roll was shot and during the course of winding the film back into the canister, the camera back was accidentally opened. The part of the film that had not been wound back into the can was briefly exposed to light (indoor artificial lighting). Uh-oh!

The film was sent for processing to the LomoLab with the print and scan options. But when it came back, the packet had an ‘unexposed’ sticker on it and no prints nor scans.

Unexposed? I knew there were images on the film, since I took them! Checking the negatives, there appeared to be some faint images. I carefully cut up the long single strip of uncut film so I can put it in a negative sleeve to take a better look on a light box…

The processed film: some terrible exposures and 1.5 frames of properly exposed images at the end (the first and fourth strips are shown up-side down).
There were 1.5 frames of properly exposed images at frames 19 and 20. Five or so of the other frames had faint images on them. I decided to scan the good images and see what I can get from the rest.

The correctly exposed images were easy to scan. The other frames called for some ‘extreme-scanning’! Look at the photo above and guess how many shots I managed to rescue.

Here are the results…

Scans from the first strip of film
Scans from the second strip of film
Scans from the third strip of film
Scans from the fourth strip of film. The last two photos were correctly exposed.

Surprisingly, I got more images than expected by taking the time to play around with the scanner’s software and really pushing the settings to the extremes.


The films were scanned on an Epson flatbed scanner using the Epson Scan software. The description below sometimes refers to the controls in Epson Scan (given in italics), but other scanning software will have similar settings.

You must control the settings manually, so switch off all automatic scanning and image adjustments (in Epson Scan: select ‘Professional mode’), such as: auto exposure, auto level, unsharp mask, grain reduction, colour restoration, descreen, etc. In the case of this film, the poor exposure means that the edges of each frame are no longer distinguishable. This scanner uses software to automatically detect the frame edges; this feature has to be switched off so the frames can be defined manually (in Epson Scan: switch off ‘Thumbnail preview’).

Having switched off all auto features, the only controls I used were:

  • Histogram
  • Tone correction
  • Brightness/Contrast/Saturation/Color Balance
  • Digital Ice for dust removal (if your scanner has this)
The Epson Scan ‘professional mode’ interface, highlighting the locations of the controls listed above.

The images I got were the results of tweaking the first three parameters in the list above. You have to do this in the scanning software (not in a post-processing software, such as Adobe Photoshop) so the adjustments can be applied at the time of scanning in order to get the most information out of the raw film.

Pushing the exposure, brightness and contrast settings to the extremes initially introduced colour distortion to the images (or at least it did using Epson Scan), which I decided not to try and correct but to work with it. Given such poor exposure, there really is no ‘true colour’ information in the film anymore. So rather than getting what would otherwise be muddy looking shots, I think the distorted colours actually added some interest to the images. What do you think? Is this kind of image adjustment acceptable if we want to stay true to analogue?

Well, with these images (below) taken at a boxing ring, I decided to add more grit to the action by applying a dust filter. In Photoshop, select >Filter >Noise >Dust & Scratches…

Credits: digitaljunk

Yah, I am just winding you up. Actually, I added an analogue dust filter – don’t clean the film and switch off Digital Ice! (To increase the ‘threshold’ setting, put the film on a carpet first.) For these images, I thought the lack of frame edges (which merged the sequence of action shots together) and the graininess caused by poor exposure added to the mood of a fight. (You can click on this photo and use the superviewer feature to get a better look.) (Note that these shots are from the first few frames in the third strip of film, which showed no sign of any image at first glance!)

The moral of the story is… if you know there was something on your film, even if the lab says there’s no image, don’t give up on it – rescue it. Give it some extreme-scanning love and see what you can get, you may be surprised by the results!

written by digitaljunk on 2013-05-12 #gear #tutorials #film #exposure #rescue #scanning #tipster #problem #scan #scanner #how-to #wrong #bad


  1. math0165
    math0165 ·

    I had the same experience with the very first rolls I had developed in the lab :) all black, and I rescued some semi-decent pictures by scanning them myself.

  2. asharnanae
    asharnanae ·

    The most extreme scans I have had is from monumentally over exposed film, it was so dark, that even looking at it in full sunlight it was tough to see an image. When I got my new scanner, The epson software managed to bring them up, where my old scanner had no chance. Now I did try printing them in the darkroom, while it worked, it was taking 8 and 10 minute exposure times! so..... yeah..... just didn't have the time do that for a whole film.

    Most of the time, what you can do with a scanner is comparable to what you can do with an enlarger and a darkroom, the scanner is just quicker. :)

  3. diomaxwelle
    diomaxwelle ·

    Oh man, I own an epson and this is gonna save me some grief. Thanks!!

  4. sibu_sen
    sibu_sen ·

    Oh, this motivates me to go home and give some films I had given up on another chance. Thanks! :)

  5. alix-mansell
    alix-mansell ·

    Lots of my photos come out like this even without opening my camera so I've been using the settings you describe! I clearly have no idea what I'm doing. btw Do you scan at 24bit 300dpi? I've been using quite a bit higher - am I wasting disc space?

  6. segata
    segata ·

    Very useful article, I am about to go to war with a mess up from my zorki using an epson scanner so this will come in very handy :)

  7. digitaljunk
    digitaljunk ·

    Hi @math0165 and @asharnanae, thanks for reading and for sharing your extreme-scanning experiences. Your comments really help to encourage people to try scanning the negatives which at first look like they were too far gone, and not to give up on their photos just yet!

  8. digitaljunk
    digitaljunk ·

    Hello @alix-mansell

    I batch scan all my photos at the lowest bit rate (24 in this case), at 300dpi when scaled up to fit approximately a 6x4” (15x10cm) print size. That makes a 10 to 15 mb file per colour image, enough for a standard print and for web. As much as possible, these are scanned with the auto setting controlled by the software, so all I am really doing is loading/changing the films in the film holder.
    If I really like an image and want a larger file/print, then I will make a fine scan at a higher resolution. Then I might manually adjust the scan settings to try and get the most out of the image (instead of leaving it to the software to do its thing).
    If you think in traditional dark room terms, it’s similar to making contact prints of all the negatives; and when you like a particular photo, making a fine print of just that one.
    That’s just what I do personally. But I do think it’s not necessary to make really large scans of everything. It takes longer to scan, needs more storage (so also costs more to buy more disk space), and you’ll probably never need that much quality for all your shots.

    As for your photos coming out this way even without opening the camera, it’s all about getting the exposure right. Get a light meter and get to know the settings of your camera. Plastic cameras, especially, have a limited range of shutter speeds and apertures. Make a note of what these are and check them against a light meter when you shoot.

    Thanks for your response and I hope that helps!! :-)

  9. digitaljunk
    digitaljunk ·

    Hey @diomaxwelle @sibu_sen @segata
    I am so glad my article inspired you to give this a try.
    good luck with your scans, hope they go well

  10. segata
    segata ·

    Well the results are in and I recovered some of the roll, Ive only ran dust removal over them and scanned at 4800 dpi, main difficulty was figureing out the frame borders as they werent fully visable, I will upload the photos soon :)

  11. sibu_sen
    sibu_sen ·

    thanks @digitaljunk ! They went well yes, I'm very pleased! Feel free to take a look:…

  12. digitaljunk
    digitaljunk ·

    @segata look forward to seeing your results. Do post a link here when there’re ready!…

  13. digitaljunk
    digitaljunk ·

    Yeah, they look good, well done! I especially like the sepia-like vintage feel to the photos.

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