PetaPixel

How to Scan Film Negatives with a DSLR


Well, lets just say I’ve gotten better at this over the last couple of years. The left image was one of the first I’ve “scanned” with my DSLR, and the one on the right I’ve just rescanned using the techniques described below (higher resolution available here). Right now I can get higher resolution and better image quality that what street labs give you on CD.

I’ve seen many articles on the web explaining the basics of digitising film negatives or transparencies with a digital camera. The basics are quite simple: you take a photo of a negative into a light source and invert. That’s it. But that alone led me to scan negatives that looked like the one on the left, above. Because I’ve never seen one tutorial that told me “the whole story” of how to do it properly, I’ve decided to put together what I’ve learnt during the last two or three of years of scanning film with my DSLR.

First of all: Why?

  • Street labs can usually scan the film but I’ve got bad scans and missing/cut frames more than once. Also, when you scan, you make some artistic decisions over contrast and colour that are often definitive. By leaving these decisions to a machine or someone else, you are losing control over your creative freedom.
  • I often develop film myself and I don’t own a film scanner. Even if I did, good film scanners cost a fortune and I get better quality from scanning the film with my DSLR than I would if I used an average scanner.
  • Very precise control over colours, highlight and shadow curves, while making use of the vast film dynamic range.

These are my reasons, you may obviously have different ones. Some people do this because it’s faster than using a scanner, but that depends on how much time you spend post-processing, and I do spend a bit more than I would like to admit, but it is a time spent doing something that gives me pleasure, not pressing buttons on a poorly designed software and waiting for a tedious scan.

All the following instructions have the objective of achieving the best possible resolution, colour depth and dynamic range out of the film, while keeping image noise as low as possible. Also, I aimed at keeping the whole process as quick as possible. I think each time I’ve made a scan I’ve got better results than the time before, because I keep improving the process and now I’ve got to a stage I’m quite happy with the results.

What You Will Need

  1. Ideally, you need a DSLR (any would do) because of the higher colour/bit depth. But the same basic principles would apply to even a point and shoot if that’s what you’ve got;
  2. Again, ideally you should either use a macro tube with a prime lens or a macro lens, but if you don’t have any of these, your kit lens will also do the job, with a bit of loss in usable resolution, due to cropping. Kit lenses work just fine for medium format;
  3. A light source, preferably a flash wirelessly triggered, but a well lit wall, the sky or even a computer monitor will work;
  4. A white translucent, clean surface, such as an acrylic board. This is only needed if you’re using a very close light source, such as a flash;
  5. A piece of cardboard or wood and a couple of clamps are useful.
  6. If you’re using a flash, you will need either a cable or a wireless trigger. You could set up your flash as slave and trigger it with the in-camera flash but you would have to do it in a way that it wouldn’t get any light reflecting off the film surface, which may be a bit hard.

Setting Up the Hardware

The basic idea is pretty simple, you need a diffused, homogeneous light source, a way to hold your film, and a digital camera focused on the film. Because you’ll be focusing at a very close distance, the depth of field will be very narrow, so focusing precisely and keeping the distance between the film and the camera exactly the same throughout the scanning. In order to achieve this, several people developed different techniques, such as using a shoe box, simply a tripod and a glass table, or even a tube made from toilet paper rolls. I have tried variations of these in the past and ended up developing my own film holder using laser cutted mdf (schematics for hand or laser cutting can be found on thingiverse, with instruction of how to build it). I’ve designed this because it allows me to setup and scan a whole roll very very quickly, with very high precision! The instructions below are broadly independently of which type of film holder you are using.

Setting Up the Camera and Flash

What you need is to pick the sharpest lens you’ve got, and make it focus close enough so that the picture in the film, fills up the camera sensor as much as possible. The combination of equipment that works best for me is a 35mm 1.8G Nikon lens with a small 20mm macro extension tube. You can find very cheap extension tubes on ebay for whichever camera brand/lens mount you’ve got. I’m using a tube with auto-focus controls to let me use the focusing motor on the lens, which saves me some time and some headaches when finding out all the film I’ve scanned is just so slightly blurry (which did happened to me once or twice).

After making sure that the camera is focusing precisely on the film, you must keep everything stable enough not to bump into some of the parts during scanning. This is one of the main reasons I’ve designed the scanning tool: to make sure the distance between the camera and the film stays precisely the same. Having focused the lens, you will want to configure a couple of things in the camera:

  • Turn auto-focus off. This makes sure that the camera won’t try to change focus every time you take a picture.
  • Set the white balance to the warmest possible colour (such as incandescent or candle lighting), for colour negative film. Some cameras let you manually configure the light temperature so push it all the way to the warm side. This is because colour negatives have a brown film backing, so we want to neutralize it’s colour as much as possible. We could also do this in post-production, but it’s a good idea to do it at this stage to avoid unnecessary noise, and use as much of our camera’s colour depth as possible.
  • Set the exposure mode to Manual and set the aperture to f8 and the exposure time to around 1/125. Most lenses have their sharpest aperture at around f8 and we do want the sharpest possible image, don’t we? I set the speed at 1/125 because it’s about the slowest I can use in order to sync my flash properly and it’s fast enough that all the room light is “blacked out” in the photo (which means no weird reflections on the film).
  • Select the base (usually the minimum) ISO. This lets us avoid noise as much as possible. It’s usually either 100 or 200.
  • Set the flash to manual and select a medium strength.
  • Shoot in RAW! This allows you to use all the available colour depth, which will be much needed since we will increase the contrast of the final image quite a lot later on (which is the main cause of noise, and that’s why the above settings and some hints I’ll talk about later are so important).

I usually place the flash at about 30cm away from the film and make it shoot through a cardboard box so that the light doesn’t splash all over the room and cause unwanted reflections on the film. I have also cut a small hole in the cardboard box and place a lamp above it to have some light shine through the negative and make my life easier when focusing.

Scanning the Film

This process is pretty much straightforward, once you’ve set up everything correctly, you just shoot, slide the film to the next frame and shoot again. Just make sure you have put the film in the right way and not inverted, as it will make your life easier later on.

One thing I usually do is to try to “expose to the right” which means to make the picture as bright as possible without blowing out the highlights (make them completely white, thus loosing image data/detail/texture). The way I do it is to set my camera to show the pictures on “Highlights” mode, which makes it obvious when I’m making a mistake. You may also use the Histogram for that. So what I do is to keep the flash at its highest strength as long as it doesn’t blow out the highlights and when it does, lower it by a stop or two, and then raise it again for the next picture.

You should end up with something that looks like this:

Post-Processing

You may use any RAW development tool such as Lightroom, Aperture, Camera RAW or Capture One. I usually use Adobe Camera RAW (the RAW development tool that pops-up when you open RAW files on Photoshop) and occasionally Capture One when I just can’t reach the desired colour in Camera RAW, such as with underwater shots (Capture One has wider envelopes for white balance values, for some reason). The screenshots were taken from Adobe Camera RAW but you can do pretty much everything I explain here with any other package.

Crop

The first two steps affect all the images in the same way, so we start by selecting all images. We can now crop out the black borders. I like to leave the rough border to act as a frame but that’s obviously optional.

Invert Colours (for negative film)

While keeping every image selected, the next step is to invert the colours, to get a positive image. This can be done going to the Point tab of the Tone Curve Settings in Lightroom and moving the left point of the curve to the upper left corner and the right point to the lower right corner. In Capture One I do this by going to the Exposure Tab and under Levels, and moving the lower left point to the right and the lower right point to the left.

White Balance

You can now select a single image at a time and as a starting point, use the auto white balance tool to get a good approximation of the original colour. You should use the tool on the greyest point you can find in the photo. In the example photo, I’ve chosen to pick the white band of the dress. You may try several different points until you find one that more closely matches the correct colour. You may now use the colour temperature sliders to reach better colour settings. Just remember that because you have inverted the curves, the slides now work in the opposite way, so if you think the image is too blue, move the slider towards the temperature slider towards the blue end. The same applies to the green-pink Tint slider.

Auto White Balance gave me the following, which I had to adjust slightly, for it’s a bit too green/blue. I won’t be able to correct for all the blue excess at this stage because Lightroom trims the white balance envelopes, but we can correct that afterwards in the curves panel, as you can see on the next step.

Contrast Curves

This is perhaps the most interesting and creative part of the post-processing as it lets you capture all the awesome dynamic range of film, with a great level of control over the tone, highlight and shadow curves.

Go back to the Point Tone Curve Panel now. Because we have inverted the colours, the left end of the curves represents the highlights and the left, the shadows. You can look at the histogram to check where each of these ends begins, and move the end points closer this image envelope, but not too close to the limits. This will allow us to reach a smoother curve. Keep an eye on the picture to avoid trimming highlights or shadows.

You can now increase the contrast at will by adding points in the middle, looking at how the curve affects your image. In this case I was mainly looking at the skin tones and how the parts in the shadows develop into sun lit highlights (which is one of the good things about shooting film, if this shot was taken with a digital camera, the highlights would probably either be blown out or have a bad-looking yellow tint). I usually end up with something like this:

You may notice that even after moving the temperature slider all the way towards the blue end, I still get a blue tint. This can be corrected by changing the curves on the different Red, Green and Blue channels. We can do that by selecting the appropriate channel in the Point Tone Curve panel. Notice that inside the channels, the curve is not inverted, so the darker end is on the left side and the brighter, on the right. So, in this example, to achieve the image on the top, I moved the left end of the blue and green channels a bit to the right and added one or two middle points in each channels to control the middle of the curve. Do this until you’re happy with the final image. You may want to go back to the RGB curve to make some final adjustments. In the end, I got the following curves to produce the image on the top:

After changing the curves for the individual channels I got to this:

As you can see, the greenish blue tint is gone because I’ve moved both G and B curves down. After that I also noticed the image had a slight undesirable red shadow but overall it could use a warmer tone so I added one point in the lower half of the R channel and moved it below the diagonal, and another in the upper half and moved it a bit upwards. In the end I made slight adjustments to the RGB channel to accommodate the colour changes I’ve made.

This process takes some time (although you’ll get quicker with experience, and it definitely takes more time explaining than doing) and it’s probably the one where you will loose the most part of the whole process but for me, it’s also the most creative and rewarding step!

After this you may want to use the Spot Removal tool to remove blemishes, dirt or scratches and then select all the images and hit “Save Images…”. It’s also a good idea to select sRGB instead of the default Adobe RGB colour space by clicking those blue parameters on the bottom of the window. Adobe RGB (or aRGB) was supposed to cover a broader colour space but due to poor implementations, it brings some problems when printing or showing the image on the web.

Have fun and tell me about your results or any doubt you may have related to this process!


About the author: Paulo Ricca is a photography enthusiast and computer science PhD candidate based in London. You can visit his blog here and his Flickr photostream here. This post was originally published here.


 
 
  • http://twitter.com/JohnMilleker John Milleker

    Or tape the strip to a window. Shoot each frame, try to keep the digital sensor parallel to the film plane.
     

  • http://elsenyordobleu.blogspot.com/ dzilam

    thanks!! i’ll try it next week. Thank u!

  • http://www.kitchentravels.com/ Dawn – Kitchen Travels

    So. Awesome. You ROCK! Thanks for sharing this. Have a great weekend.

  • Paul

    This is a great trick you have here.  But by “street lab”  I can only assume you would mean the likes of box stores and pharmacy’s.  Your right they don’t have the proper equipment of personnel to properly scan your negatives. However your local photo lab if you still have one around can do far better then this if you want the correct results.  I’m not knocking your method, it works and its very well done, but I would like it noted that the term “street lab” is miss represented here and should be cleared up.  Yes I’m a manager at a lab that has been in business for over 40 years and we like many of the other great labs around the world we do take great care and pride in our service.  Again, I love this method, its just the knock and “street labs” I found insulting.

  • http://twitter.com/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    I’ve had good experiences of “street labs” as you call them, and pro labs (I’ve used pro labs to have slide film digitized since the “street labs” near me are no longer processing E-6) but if I were doing any particular amount of work with film (which I’m currently not) then I would happily spend a hundred or so £££ on a film scanner. your method, however innovative, is far too time consuming. I have no doubts that I could get decent results with this but I just don’t have the patience for it :P

  • http://twitter.com/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    I’ve had good experiences of “street labs” as you call them, and pro labs (I’ve used pro labs to have slide film digitized since the “street labs” near me are no longer processing E-6) but if I were doing any particular amount of work with film (which I’m currently not) then I would happily spend a hundred or so £££ on a film scanner. your method, however innovative, is far too time consuming. I have no doubts that I could get decent results with this but I just don’t have the patience for it :P

  • DaGuerre

    I’ve been doing this for months now. But my process is a little less complicated.

    I use a portable light table I bought years ago. I tape a transparency or negative to the lucite, turn on the light and shoot with a macro lens. Works fine for making scans for the Internet. Not sure if I’d want to use the same method for a higher quality scan.

    Here’s one I “scanned” recently.

    http://photos.modelmayhem.com/photos/110113/13/4d2f6e88e1909.jpg

  • http://whitneywoo.wordpress.com/ Whitney

    Wow, I hadn’t even thought of this. Up until now, I had just been going to the local drugstore to get all my film onto a DVD. Needless to say, some of the frames turn out poorly cropped, etc. I’m going to try this with my next batch and see how it turns out. Thanks so much for sharing!!!

  • http://twitter.com/hburger206 Hburger

    Quite a lot of effort for each negative, though! We got an Epson document/film scanner a few weeks ago – it’s brilliant, highly recommended.

  • Jared Monkman

    good luck with that

  • Knur

    Imagine Nikon D800 scans or digital medium format cameras scans. OO

  • WetcoastBob

    Tried for years to duplicate slides in the ’80s.  The problem was always even illumination.  This certainly will do the trick.

  • Paulo Ricca

    Yes absolutely, as I said, all you need is a light source and a way to keep the film straight. But I do agree with Jared it’s not easy to do it on a window. But I did that more than once when I wanted a really quick scan to preview a particular frame in a film.

  • Paulo Ricca

    Thanks a lot Dawn, you’re very welcome!

  • Paulo Ricca

    Hi Paul, you’re right, I honestly didn’t mean to diss photo labs. Actually I never tried to scan film in drug stores or pharmacies, the scans I was comparing to came from a dedicated photo store, but I wouldn’t know which equipement they used. I just called these labs “street labs” to differentiate them from pro labs, which I have never used but I’m guessing would have more expensive equipement and better results.
    Thanks for pointing that out!

  • Paulo Ricca

    Haha yeah, I know what you mean, but as we say in Portugal: “Those who run for pleasure, don’t get tired”. for me it’s a hobby, just like doing prints in he darkroom. It takes time and patience but I’m doing something that I’m passionate about ;)

  • Paulo Ricca

    That’s a very nice scan! How’s your workflow for negatives, on the software side? I tried to focus more on that as I think it’s where it makes the real difference in the end quality. The hardware part is just a way of scanning faster with fewer “hiccups”

  • Paulo Ricca

    You’re welcome! If you have any problems when scanning, give me a shout!

  • Paulo Ricca

    Yeah It does take some time, I’m always looking for ways to keep the process speedier but I tend to be a bit picky sometimes and spend a lot of time on a single picture :)  Which scanner do you own? I’ve played with the  v330 and was a bit disappointed with the results.. The v700 should be pretty good but it’s still a bit pricy for me right now. 

  • Paulo Ricca

    oh yes :) This is one of those cases when resolution does matter! I’ve got a 16mp d5100 and would find it nice to have a bit more o capture some more detail on finer grain film! But that’s probably me being over-geeky

  • DaGuerre

     Workflow? I don’t do “workflow.”

    When I come across a negative I want to scan…I scan it. I don’t do batches. I never scan more than 3 or 4 at a time.

  • Paulo Ricca

    As much as I like film photography, in these cases it feel really good to have the possibility to do trial and error ;)

  • Hwntw

    Just buy a scanner, FGS

  • Santiago

    Really nice, thanks! Just one thing. If you are shooting RAW, then the White Balance setting to compensate for the brown back color is really irrelevant, it’s just metadata. You can just as well set it in Lightroom or whenever you are debayering your raw file.

  • http://www.pauloricca.com/ Paulo Ricca

    Hi Santiago, thanks for the input. In theory you are completely right. The problem is that Adobe Camera Raw (Lightroom as well I suppose) doesn’t ignore the WB setting you define in camera and it clips the ends of the white balance envelope, so in fact even if the data is theoretically there, we just can’t access it through these programs. This is usually not a problem because the white balance is never THAT far off, but as we are shooting through the brown backing of the film, we need to go into extreme white balance corrections. In the example I show here, even moving the cursor to the far left of the temperature setting, I can never get rid of the blue tint without moving the blue curve (and losing a tiny bit of colour in the process probably).
    As I also say, if you use other raw processors such as Capture One, this is not an issue.

  • http://www.pauloricca.com/ Paulo Ricca

    And/or a life perhaps? ;)

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  • Earguy

    May I suggest, when shooting color negative for conversion, that you set your white balance to Kelvin, and set it to 2500 degrees?  In my experience, doing so and then inverting the colors gets you pretty close to proper colors. For most of my conversions, doing so is all I need; from there a simple autocolor key will work.

  • Matt

    so is this method high enough quality to be considered a true backup of the film in the event of lost/damage negatives? 

  • Nick S.

    I really love this method and have been “scanning” large and medium format chromes and negatives for the past month or so. I have found the best results have come from taking the lamp housing off my old Omega enlarger and using the 80mm Schneider enlarger lens to take photos of the emulsion placed on a lightbox underneath with my Panasonic GF1. This takes care of any and all concerns about flatness of film to sensor plus you get to use the enlarger’s bellows system to focus, which is far more convenient than determining proper focus with macro lenses and extension tubes. I like to take several photos, typically 8 for a 4×5 negative, and photomerge them in PS with the collage setting. It isn’t always perfect and I’m getting pretty frustrated with the Newton Rings that form when sandwiching the neg with glass to keep it flat, but once this beast has been slayed with use of ANR glass I’m confident this will be a great method that can easily rival dedicated film scanners so long as your workflow is consistent and meticulous. Here is one example that comes from a 9000 pixel wide source file (apologies for no 100 percent crop so you can see the detail, but you get the idea):

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/nic-san/7042120861/sizes/l/in/photostream/

    Happy hunting.

  • haohe382
  • http://www.pauloricca.com/ Paulo Ricca

    Thanks, that’s a great tip!

  • http://www.pauloricca.com/ Paulo Ricca

    Quality can mean different things.
    In my opinion, It gives you high enough resolution, as long as you have a very high resolution sensor. I think my 16mp are just near enough for average film but I could use more for finer grain, and certainly a lot more for medium format. But I guess that always depends on your objective. For most uses, today’s cameras have plenty resolution.
    Colour depth and dynamic range are, counter intuitively, not big issues because film compresses the dynamic range (film doesn’t emit light ;) ) So that’s why when scanning film with the dslr you get a low contrast image: you capture the whole dynamic range of film! 

    The main problem with this method is noise. Because you’re expanding the dynamic range, you are increasing the contrast of the photo a lot and that brings noise. Almost all the methods I propose in the blog post, have noise minimization in mind, but still there is a slightly more noise in the final image than in the film.

    Now you choose, if that’s good enough for you, Matt :)

  • http://www.pauloricca.com/ Paulo Ricca

    Hey Nick, that’s pretty cool! You attach the 80mm to the GF1, on the enlarging head and then take several photos of the emulsion while moving it around on the light table, is that it? That’s quite engenius :)

  • http://twitter.com/thelonelylights Adam Cross

    And that’s awesome, taking pleasure in what you do is most important!  I would try your method for fun, it would be interesting to look at the results compared with getting them done at a pro or street lab but it’s not something I could do every time I want to scan photos :P

  • Nick S.

     Hey Paulo, that is indeed how it is done. As long as the surface of the lightbox and the field of focus are completely flat, the photomerge between all the photos you decide to take is pretty painless. It’s nice to know you can see beyond the limits of a single shot and get vastly more resolution, depending on how much effort you’re willing to put in.

  • Dpet

    It works just as fine, taking the picture in RAW mode and posprocessing with any software to change the reference white, black or grey…. and then.. PUF!!! perfect!

  • M.A.

    Nick, could you post a picture of your “scanning” setup?

  • Nick S.

     Here you go, M.A. I have a 50mm extension tube installed in this one for extra magnification, but that is unnecessary for film scanning. And while I use the same enlarger lens for everything, it should technically be possible to use any lens, so long as you can find a t-mount/m39 threadmount adapter for it to stick on the bottom of the bellows. Word on the street is macro lenses are better equipped for closer magnification that enlarger ones, but I haven’t had an opportunity to test this.

  • http://twitter.com/darntonviolins Michael Darnton

    I also have been doing this for a while. My setup is here: 
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mdarnton/7183241686/in/photostream
    I didn’t find enlarger lenses really up to the job–they’re not made for 1:1, but more like 1:10 and larger, and the corners weren’t coming in for me as well as they were with one of my normal Nikon micro-Nikkors. They were also comparatively short on contrast, and I tried some good ones. If you get everything set up well, you can make quite a bit better scans than with a flatbed scanner, resolving film grain right out into the corners. I’m looking forward to moving up to a 24Mp camera ASAP.

    Perfect alignment is crucial, and lining up the reflection of the lens reflected by a mirror placed on the carrier or light source perfectly in the center of the finder is the easy way to get everything straight.

  • Randy
  • Michael

    Personally I think it’s not a good idea to use the monitor as lighting source. I tried that before and I ended with the pixel grid in my image. Unless you hold the negative slightly off the screen.

  • Terance

    Really nice, thanks!

  • Eduardo

    Nick, you have used the 80mm lens to avoid the perpective distortion of 35 mm with macro, like Paulo did, am I right?

  • naylor83

    Thanks for a great tutorial.

    I’m thinking about the adjustments you made to the colour curves. Have you tried saving them as a preset in Lightroom and then applying them to several pics at once? If so, what was the outcome? I’m trying to asses how different do the curves need to be for each individual frame.

  • naylor83

    Haha, not asses, *assess*

  • rosshj

    This is my setup. It’s a little ghetto, but I’m going to improve it over time. As far as I can tell, I’m getting similar results to the same film scanned with a Noritsu S2.

  • rosshj

    Note the SB0-910 under the table. I zoom in with live view, focus, then I turn off all the lights and use a remote to release the shutter.

  • gabol67

    does it have to be a DSLR? can you use a Canon SX50 HS?

  • Robert Broad

    Any thoughts on whether using a blue filter would help to offset the orange base tone of colour negatives? You’d think that correcting optically pre-camera would leave more colour bandwidth for fine-grading of the image in post. If so, anyone know what the proper filter colour/number would be?