How to Invert Colour Negatives in Photoshop the Easy Way
In this post, I will show you how to invert 35mm colour negatives in Photoshop because removing the orange mask from film scans is challenging for many people. You’ve probably tried many different film inversion techniques to process your scans. And I bet the images lack the true-to-life colours and rich tones you get from a professional film-developing lab.
Because the film inversion technique I’ll describe below is quick, easy, and produces accurate (good enough!) colours. Plus, I will prove it using the X–Rite ColorChecker as a reference taken with Fuji Superia 200 colour negative film so you can judge the result for yourself.
It gets better:
This quick and easy technique will also work with 35mm black & white negative film scans by omitting Step 1 below.
Inverting Colour Negatives: The Problem
Images taken during the day using daylight-balanced film should have no colour cast. Look at sample images from a top film-developing lab. The colours look accurate!
Getting life-like colours requires removing the orange film mask properly, which is difficult because doing so affects the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights differently. But when you remove the orange film mask properly, the colours in the image look good.
However, most film inversion techniques use the Auto Tone command in Photoshop as a first step to remove the orange mask, which produces inconsistent results. Not anymore!
I have used many film inversion techniques (paid and free) to invert colour negatives. Now, I use this method because:
- It’s quick,
- It’s easy,
- It produces visually pleasing results.
Invert Colour Negatives: Four Easy Steps!
With that, here are the four easy steps to invert 35mm colour negatives in Photoshop:
- Apply colour balance adjustments (to remove the orange mask accurately)
- Apply auto colour (to remove a residual colour cast)
- Increase contrast (to add depth)
- Invert the image (to make the image positive)
Note: this film inversion technique works best if you save your film scans as linear TIFF files.
Step 1. Apply Colour Balance Adjustments
Firstly, open your image in Photoshop (see Fig. 1) and apply Colour Balance adjustments to align the R, G, and B colour channels (i.e., centre the histogram for each channel with the help of the Color Sampler Tool placed over a neutral colour). As a starting point, use these settings for good results: Shadows Levels: 1, 0, -1; Midtone Levels: -46, 29, 46; Highlight Levels: -90, 45, 90. But, depending on how you scan your negatives, you may want to tweak these settings.
Colour Balance adjustments work better than Auto Tone (or subtracting the film base colour) because they can remove the orange mask selectively from the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights.
After applying Colour Balance adjustments, the R, G, and B values for all grey tones in the image will be close to being equal or neutral (see Fig. 2).
Step 2. Apply Auto Colour
Secondly, use a curve adjustment layer with Auto Black & White, Auto Neutrals, and Black Clip: 1 (i.e., Auto Colour) to remove a residual colour cast (see Fig. 3). You might want to omit this adjustment if step one was successful!
Generally, combining Colour Balance adjustments with Auto Colour provides a better-looking (i.e., more accurate) image than using Auto Tone alone.
Step 3. Increase Contrast
Thirdly, apply another curve adjustment layer (or gamma adjustment) to increase the contrast in the image. To do this, lift the mid-tone brightness from 128 to 186 (see Fig. 4). This edit is necessary if you’re working with linear TIFF files because this gamma adjustment converts a linear file to a non-linear one.
Increasing contrast using curves is better than using Gamma Correction, which can blow the highlights!
If you work with non-linear files, apply less contrast or omit this step.
Step 4. Invert the Image
Lastly, invert the image to make the colours in the image positive (i.e., correct). See Fig. 5 below.
Afterwards, you might want to tweak the white balance and contrast. A professional film-developing lab would also do this!
Invert Colour Negatives: Summary
In this post, you learned how to invert 35mm colour negative film in Photoshop using a combination of Colour Balance and Auto Colour, which does a better job removing the orange film mask than using Auto Tone alone.
The secret to lifelike colours is to remove the orange mask so that the greys are neutral. You can also do this manually using Curve or Level Adjustments, but your settings will not work on other images (unless they have the same brightness).
Check out my other 35mm posts to see more photos taken with analogue film.
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