I made the conversion to the digital darkroom in the early days of digital and have stayed with it ever since. This means that the control of color, contrast and saturation is done digitally rather than with filters in the enlarger or other manual techniques. The digital method enables me to make repeatable and exact adjustments, resulting in much higher quality prints.
Over the past several years, I have tried a variety of film scanners, from flat bed scanners to "virtual drum" scanners to real drum scanners. I have tried scanners from a variety of manufacturers, such as Microtek, Imacon, Nikon, Heidelberg, ICG and Aztek. In fact, I own several different scanners, each of which I use for different purposes. I have done many, many tests and arrived at the following scanning process which, I believe, yields the highest quality available in the industry today.
All film is wet mounted on the scanning drum. Wet mounting is the best way to scan film since it fills in the grain, reducing the loss of detail caused by diffraction as light passes around the individual grains in the film. Wet mounting also reduces the amount of dust and scratches touch-up needed after scanning.
All film is scanned on an Aztek Premier 8000 drum scanner. Drum scanners provide the highest resolution and the highest Dmax (maximum density - how deep the scanner can see into the dark parts of the film) of any scanner type available. In a recent test conducted on behalf of the PMA (Photographic Marketing Association), the Aztek Premier delivered higher resolution and a higher Dmax than any other scanner on the market.
Custom film characterizations are used for each type of film we scan. Each type of film has its own color, saturation and exposure latitude characteristics. Film characterizations are a unique feature of the Aztek software and hardware. They record the unique characteristics of each film so that the resulting scan represents exactly what is on the film - no more, no less. This is important in order to capture everything that the film captured without introducing false color or other "digital" changes.
A grain size test is performed on each and every piece of film that we scan. Film grain size varies, depending on exposure and development processing. In order to best match the drum scanner aperture (dot size) to the film grain, each image is tested to determine the optimal aperture to use in order to deliver the finest detail.
After the film is scanned or the digital image is captured, it needs to be adjusted for tonality, color balance, saturation and other aspects so that it will print well on the chosen medium. These adjustments are necessary because the camera we use and the media we choose to view the final image, does not work the same way our eyes work. Each man-made product, whether film or sensor, whether photo paper or ink jet paper, has a set of limitations when compared to our eyes. So, in order to achieve the photographer's vision, each photographic image will require some adjustment to suite the chosen media.
In the wet darkroom, these adjustments are made by manipulating exposure and development times (of both the film and the paper), selecting different paper grades, using filter packs in the enlarger, and other methods. Specific areas of the image can be enhanced by using masks to limit the change to one area or the other. For example, it might be necessary to lighten some shadows or darken some highlights.
When printing in the wet darkroom, it is routine to "dodge" (lighten) or "burn" (darken) part of the image. Anyone familiar with Ansel Adams knows that he is best known for his printing abilities and how he was able to control the tonalities in the print through his techniques. "Masks" are used to control which parts of the image receive light or filtration. In fact, some of the best known wet darkroom printers used as many as 8-10 masks on a single image.
In the digital darkroom, the same adjustments can be made digitally. We can "dodge" and "burn" and use "masks" but now we do these things digitally. We replicate in the digital darkroom many of the same techniques used in the wet darkroom. This includes retouching imperfections caused by dust on the film or sensor, "dodging" and "burning" to lighten or darken different parts of the image, and saturation control. All of this is done in an effort to achieve a final print that is as close as possible to what I saw when I pressed the shutter.
In the end, the careful selection of film type and exposure is combined with the proper application of editing controls to produce an image file ready for printing.