How to Sharpen Your Film Scans by James Baturin

How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
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Written by James Baturin

Scanning is a great way to make digital files of your physical negatives.

I’ve been scanning my negatives for a few years now with an Epson V600 scanner (find on Amazon), and it works great. But sometimes the scanner renders the scans a bit soft where they look out of focus even if the photo itself is sharp.

Whether this is an issue with the scanner glass or just the way it renders the image, I wanted to find a way to sharpen my film negative scans while keeping the natural look of the film.

How to Sharpen Your Film Scans
How to Sharpen Your Film Scans
How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film

Sharpening Film Scans with the Scanner vs. Photoshop

For a while, I was using the default “unsharp mask” in the scanner software settings. It’s essentially a sharpening filter that is applied by the scanner directly to the scan.

While this did make my film images sharper (and was more than sufficient for the purposes of posting film photos on social media), once I started trying to print photos of my digital scans, I didn’t love the way the unsharp mask rendered the grain of the film.

To me, it looked harsh and a bit too much like a digital simulation trying to be what grain actually looks like.

How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
No sharpening applied
How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Sharpening using the Unsharp Mask with the scanner software

I’m not very savvy in Lightroom or Photoshop, and after a few unsuccessful searches through online forums, I decided to go to my film guy at the local camera shop for advice.

“Oh, high pass,” he said without skipping a beat in response to my question.

He went on to explain that “high pass” is essentially a filter that can be applied in Photoshop for sharpening photos. He explained how to use it, and it seemed pretty simple, even for a Photoshop newbie like me.

So I went home, followed his instructions to sharpen my film scans and was actually very pleased with the results. I was looking for a subtle change, but for those who want a bit more sharpness the high pass filter gives you that option, too.

So here’s how to use the high pass filter in photo shop to sharpen your film negative scans!

How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Sharpening using the High Pass filter

Using the High Pass Filter

As I said, applying the high pass filter in Photoshop is pretty simple. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Open your negative scan (scanned without the scanner’s unsharp mask) in Photoshop, and make any other edits to your photo that you were planning to do (contrast adjustments, spot touch dust/hairs, etc.).
  1. Create a copy of the background layer in the layers menu. Do this by right clicking on the background later in the layers dropdown menu and click “duplicate layer” (or CTRL+J on Windows or Command+J on Mac).
How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Duplicate layer
  1. With the duplicate layer selected, click on “Filter” on the top menu bar. In the drop down menu click “Other” and then “High Pass.” Your image should turn a color close to middle grey, with a faint outline of the edges in your image. This will allow you to see the effect of the filter as the outline of your image will get more prominent as you increase sharpness.
How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Select High Pass from Filter menu
  1. A small dialog box will appear with a magnified preview of your image and a slider that reads “Radius: ____ pixels.” The more you increase this number, the more you increase the sharpness of your image. I was looking for a pretty subtle change in sharpness, so anything between 0.5 and 3.0 pixels is enough in my opinion. If you do too much, it will create ugly halos and distortions in your image, so keep that in mind. Once you have set the number, click “OK.”
How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
High Pass filter settings
  1. Your image should now appear as grey, with a black outline of the image itself. Now, you need to blend the two layers to get the final image. To do this, go back to the layers panel, and on the dropdown menu, which says “normal,” click “overlay.” This will blend the two layers and give you your sharpened image. You can also toggle between the sharpened and unsharpened layer by clicking the eye symbol beside the duplicate layer.
How to Sharpen Film Scans by James Baturin on Shoot It With Film
Change blending mode to Overlay

Hopefully, this is helpful if you haven’t been happy with how your negative scans are turning out. I like this technique because it’s simple and gives you a lot of control.

I was looking for a very subtle change in sharpness (I don’t mind a softer look), but you can experiment to get the look you want.

Please share your tips for sharpening negative scans if you have any!

Thank you so much, James! James is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, including an article on how to shoot long exposures and Concert Photography on Film. You can also check out James’s work on his website and Instagram.

Leave your questions about sharpening film scans below in the comments, and if you need the tools mentioned in this article, you can pick up the Epson V600 scanner and Photoshop on Amazon.

Check out the rest of our film tutorials here!

James Baturin

James Baturin is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find his other articles here, including Hasselblad 500 C/M Film Camera Review and Long Exposure Film Photography Tutorial.

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Blog Comments

Great Article,

Thanks for the advice. This came at (almost) the perfect time, since I’ve been scanning a ton of film shot over the summer.

I, unfortunately, already scanned about 6 rolls using the scanners unsharp mask and didn’t realize how bad they looked until later inspection.

Thanks again,
Tom

Thanks Tom. I can empathize. I have 2 years worth of film scans that were scanned using the unsharp mask that I’m only now slowly rescanning. It’s a slow process but the results are worth it. Glad you found this helpful!

I used the High Pass for years before I learned this tip – copy the layer and then set the blending mode to Overlay before you apply the High Pass. This way you can see the actual effect of the sharpening on the finished image as you adjust the amount. Also, either way you do it, if you later decide it’s too much, Soft Light is a good, more subtle option to Overlay.

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