PetaPixel

Why You Should Digitize Your Film Using a Camera Instead of a Scanner

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If you shoot film and aren’t much into chemicals (or don’t have a basement in which to keep a gigantic 5×7″ enlarger), you’ll soon find yourself needing a way to import those beautiful pictures you’ve taken onto your computer. What? Why didn’t I say, “you’ll need a scanner”? After all, it’s not 1987 anymore — scanners are as common as toaster ovens.

Well, I didn’t say “a scanner” because it’s not the only way you can digitalize those pictures. Indeed, even though it’s the first (and often only) technique most people will think of, it is also the most inefficient and time consuming. And it can lose a lot, I mean a lot, of the quality of the original slide or negative.

But now there is a much better alternative…

Let’s cut to the chase: I’m proposing the use of a digital camera of high pixel count — full format or crop format, it doesn’t really matter — mated with a good macro lens to “scan” the film using multiple shots, like in a panorama.

“A good macro lens” is pretty much any macro lens because, with the possible exception of some Russian misassembled lemons, they all range from really good to exceptionally good. And if you have a bellows, you can use an enlarger lens instead (an Apo-Ronar, for example, will put you back of only 60/70 euros).

But what about the quality, you say? That’s what I will be discussing in this post.

First a brief overview of the contenders we’ll be examining in this article:

Flatbed Scanner: Epson V700

The film-holder height has been calibrated. I did not use fluid mounting, but I taped the films to the film-holder and/or used glass to keep the films flat — fluid mounting should only make a difference in terms of absence of dust, appearance of the grain clumps and, possibly, slightly better tonality.

Drum Scanner: Dainippon Screen DT-S 1045Ai

Having the films scanned professionally by an external service.

Camera and Lens: Canon 5D Mark II with a Contax Zeiss 60mm f/2.8 Makro Planar for medium and large format, and with a Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/2 (non-Ai version inverted) for 35mm films

Given that the Canon 5D Mark II is the challenger, we will compare it separately against each of the opponents.

So let’s check first how this setup fares against the Epson V700, an excellent flatbed. These following images are all 100% crops.

First the “usual difference” between the output of the two systems: those crops belongs to a 4.5x6cm negative shot with an ultra-sharp Fuji GS 645, on a sturdy tripod and with a soft release. The Epson crop has been sharpened, while the Canon one hasn’t:

Epson 700V

Epson 700V

Canon

Canon 5D Mark II + Makro Planar

Yes, the Epson (or any other flatbed scanner, for that matter) here looks like an old man who is in desperate need of new glasses.

And now the best possible case (I saw the Epson behave so well only on rare occasions, like once or twice in a blue moon). Here are crops of photos that were shot on an Hasselblad 500C/M with mirror up, the standard 80mm f/2.8 Planar, tripod etc.

Epson 700V

Epson 700V

Canon 5D Mark II

Canon 5D Mark II

Yep, you just witnessed the death of flatbed scanners as film-scanners. So buy the cheapest all-in-one or LiDE model you can get, just for bills and invoices, and be done.

But surely a drum scanner, a thing that costs more than many cars, which sets you back 60/200 euros a pop, will put the Canon setup to shame. Let’s see. Here are some photos that were shot on a Linhof Technika 13x18cm with a Symmar-S 240mm f/5.6. The drum image has been sharpened by the photo service, while the Canon one is unsharpened:

Drum (sharpened)

Drum (sharpened)

Canon 5D Mark II (unsharpened)

Canon 5D Mark II (unsharpened)

No, I didn’t make a mistake. Actually, I made one when I loaded the files in Photoshop. I gave both the same name – putting them in different folders – to make a sort of “blind test”. Well, I saw immediately that there was no contest, even though I made all the tests anyway. Boy oh boy was I in for a surprise.

This surprise came when I was saving the files: I used “Save as…” because I wanted to change back their names to something meaningful, and then I discovered that the file I was absolutely sure was of the Dainippon drum scanner (because it was obviously superior) was in fact the one shot with the Canon! I even double checked the EXIF because I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The amazing thing is that I did not use the lens at 1:1 or, like I do on 35mm film, at 2:1 or 3:1 magnification. So, in exceptional cases of extremely sharp negatives – say ultra sharp lenses and microfilm like films – I would be able to pull off even higher resolutions!

And, just to clear any doubts you may have, here the two crops above after a good dose of sharpening:

Drum (additional sharpening applied)

Drum (additional sharpening applied)

Canon 5D Mark II (with sharpening applied)

Canon 5D Mark II (with sharpening applied)

To put things in perspective: these images were crops from a 660MB greyscale file; seeing it like this on a monitor is like peeping at a print measuring 5.2×3.7 meters. At 240dpi I could still print it as large as 2.30 x 1.65 meters!

As I stated before, increasing the reproduction ratio would allow you to extract even more detail. See for yourself. All the following 100% unsharpened crops came from a 6x6cm negative shot like the ones before with a Hasselblad 500C/M (with mirror up) and the standard 80mm f/2.8 Planar (and a tripod). The last crop has been resized to 50% (at 3:1 there is more grain than detail, so keeping a gigantic file is pointless). And please ignore the tonality; this is a shot from a color negative, and I’m struggling a bit to find a suitable curve:

MF-R47_09_multishot_web

Epson V700

Epson V700

1:2 ratio (6 shots)

1:2 ratio (6 shots)

3:1 ratio (28 shots)

3:1 ratio (28 shots)

These were only a few examples, but I have tested this technique thoroughly with many images — color and black and white, slides and negatives — and I consistently found the same results.

Even the tonalities of the films were much better preserved with the Canon than with the scanners. And, as an added bonus, including the picture borders or digitizing odd format shots – 6×17, for example – is a breeze.

Here’s the summary of what I found: forget about scanners. Yes, if you have 3,000 euros lying around and you need to scan 100 shots a week, by all means buy a Coolscan or an Imacon — but in that case, for the sake of your own sanity, you should probably go digital and abandon film!

On the other hand, if you only need to scan your very best shots, follow my advice and look into digitizing film with your camera instead of a scanner.


Update: Here’s a simple explanation and tutorial on how I scan my film using a camera and macro lens.


About the author: Gianluca Bevacqua is a fine art photographer based in southern Italy who runs the website Addicted2light. This article was originally published here.


Thanks for sending in the tip, Phil!


 
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  • H

    I’m f**king amazed! What’s your set up for taking a photo of your film?

  • Samcornwell

    My wife and I use an Epson v750 scanner and the results are fantastic. These results really are an eyeopener though. Will have a go with the camera to test at home.

  • Samcornwell

    Also, I think we just wasted £500 on a scanner.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aydensgrace Ayden Gotzmer

    So, you’re holding the negative on a flat surface and then taking a photograph of the negative with a macro lens?

    Wicked. Would love to see a video tutorial on the whole process.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=744079103 Dov Hechtman

    Do you have a diagram of the rig you used to takes the shots

  • http://twitter.com/albertzablit Albert Zablit
  • Jango

    I’d love to see the setup for this too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TangoCan Kris J Boorman

    WELP.

  • L

    This is why they make dedicated film scanners. This will work [somewhat] for black and white, but it will be terrible for color, especially color neg.

  • DR DOOOM

    wouldn’t take multiple shots for a panorama, uploading, putting them together take more time then scanning

  • chuglife

    *taking

  • http://twitter.com/danwolfgang Dan Wolfgang

    I haven’t looked closely at flatbeds in a long time, but am not surprised only mediocre results are achieved with that.

    However, I’m not convinced of the other results. In particular, look at the tones of the grayscale images — the lightest areas of the drum scan clearly have more detail than the 5D shot. The color problem (“…this is a shot from a color negative, and I’m struggling a bit to find a suitable curve…”) is exactly the problem: you will always have trouble getting good color reproduction from the camera. Throw in many different types of film and I’m sure that will cause many speed bumps that are likely more easily resolved with some tried-and-trued scanning software and a scanner.

  • Alex

    You obviously do not know how to use the V700. No way did you have this thing properly setup.

  • Anthony

    The article starrs off with a stupid and insane remark about needing a 5×7 enlarger??.
    I make awesome prints ftom a hassy 500c/m on a omega D2 thats 40 years old.I scan the prints at 8×8 at 600 dpi on a crappy epson 3170.I get amazing results.

  • Opie

    Getting results like those and then writing off the scanner is like assuming a Ferrari is a piece of garbage because you don’t feel like learning stick.

    I’ve made scans on an Epson that equal the Imacon scans of the same negs. There’s a pretty steep learning curve, but once you invest a bit in a better holder and refine your technique, you’ll be getting results as nice as any other method…and you won’t need to stitch 28 frames together.

  • Owen

    I own a 5d mark 2 with a 60 canon macro with a copy stand and an Epson V 700. I don’t doubt your Canon shots , but I agree with another commenter that you must not know how to use the Epson. It does extraordinary scans of negs and prints. I have done 40×60 prints on an Epson 9880 with scans from the Epson that are razor sharp and rich with tone! Something is very wrong with your comparison.

  • harumph

    I’ve been using my Nikon Coolscan V ED slide/negative scanner since it was first released, and the results still blow my mind. A comparison with a CoolScan in place of the inferior Epson scanner might have leveled the playing field here.

  • GG

    Great idea!

    But this doesn’t replace a dedicated film scanner. As always, resolution isn’t everything and I have seen great scans coming out of the Epson and Nikon scanners, color and tones, etc. Also, after scanning a roll of film, you’ll be quickly tired of stitching hundred of files!!!

  • Opie

    Not to sit too highly on my horse, but I have a hard time taking advice from anyone who is still “struggling a bit” with any part of their method. Isn’t this what we used to have experts for?

    I have no doubt that this method is easier for the author of the article, but only because (as has been said already) he hasn’t really figured out what he’s doing yet. There are plenty of people out there who have gobs of knowledge, experience, and 5D’s, and most of them are still using their Epsons.

  • DamianMonsivais

    True. I use an imacon and a nikon scanner and nowhere do I get close to those crappy results. Its all about learning to use the scanners. Its a manual. sorry you have to work to get results.

  • DamianMonsivais

    there is a difference in Color negs and black and white.
    You have no silver left in a color neg as in black and white, only dye couplers.
    which is a little smudgy i agree, but that’s why you should photograph with larger formats i.e 4×5 if super douper sharpness matters.

  • DamianMonsivais

    Well if you dont have a scanner the alternative is using a digital camera but other then that if you know how to use the scanner then you wont have those problems up there.

  • Opie

    Like the Imacons, the only thing considerably “superior” about the Coolscan is the holder design. This makes it *easier* to get good scans, but the Epson can keep up once it’s really dialed in.

    On top of this, the Epson is the only option if you want to scan bigger than 120. Considering the diminishing returns of 120 over digital, a lot of people looking to scan film these days are doing so specifically for large format.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Blackjack177 Michael Garber

    I have been using this method to scan my film (but I’m less anal about it. One shot then crop is enough for me.) but I haven’t found a good color curve for any negative color films.

    The next thing I will try is to get the software bundle from some scanner, and see if that has supplied profiles for different films.

  • GG

    Your results look good but the color images look a tad on the blue side. Also, the first image seems to have blown out highlights, which shouldn’t happen with color neg.

  • Jason

    You can argue that he doesn’t know how to use his Epson well, but does he really do his own drum scans? Besides I have a v700 too and can’t figure out how to get good results, and I don’t have time to learn.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Z54FRKMCEX4LHMOGMLUHSW7WI4 West Cobb Photographer

    The results are interesting, but, if I barely have time to convert my old negs using a flatbed scanner, I certainly don’t have time to do multiple pano shots using the camera method. We’re talking time time time, here.

    I’m lucky, though – once I got “serious” with my photography I had already switched to digital, so nearly everything I have on negative is more of a personal level type stuff, and a flatbed is more than good enough for 5×7 prints of those – all that I would ever need. For, ahem, “older” photographers who did more pro work in the age of film, I can see where this method might make more sense.

  • harumph

    Good to know. A friend has the Epson, and maybe he just hasn’t spent the time calibrating that I have with the Nikon. Or maybe like you said, the Nikon just makes it easier for me to get good scans. Both of us just scan 35mm slides and negs.

  • George Kalogeris

    Hello,
    What is the best light source for film copying ?
    Isn’t the sun the strongest and most neutral light I can get ?
    Should I mount my slides in front of the lens tube and shoot towards the sun ?

  • Florian

    Yes, this is exactly what you’ll get from a flatbed scanner, I’m sorry. I have a V700 myself, and if you read any of the tons of reviews out there, you’ll know what the limits of flatbed scanners are. The achievable resolution is about 2400 dpi. That is, if the film is really planar, which is very difficult to get when using the film strip holders …
    The setup that he describes is far superior in terms of optical quality and theoretically achievable resolution; at 1:1 you get roughly 4000 dpi with a 5D Mk III so the results should be better than anything you can get with a flatbed, or at larger magnification than 1:1 with a dedicated film scanner, even drum types.
    The handling might be inconvenient, compared to a scanner. But I’ve had my fights and frustrations with the V700 film strip holders …

  • PeteTheSeeker

    Hi Gianluca, I also discovered this recently when I had a big job to do. I thought there’s got to be a better way. The setup I use is a black artists foam board, a sheet of glass ( from a picture frame) and two flash guns at a 45o angle. This is for prints. So fast. I did 1,440 over two days.

  • addicted2light

    First: sorry to all of you, I was away the last few days!

    I will try to respond to everyone here.

    1) the height of my film-holder has been carefully calibrated, and I even used a piece of anti newton glass to keep the film flat.

    2) the Epson results are not that bad, they look terrible because compared against a better technique. Keep in mind you’re looking at really really small portions of the frame!

    3) yes, a couple of flashes give you a good alternative setup; in this case the hive-like white material of the transparency adapter of many scanners makes a really good “base”, because it will spread the light evenly

    4) the process is very fast after you get used to it: I spend maybe 10 seconds making 3 to 6 shots (for medium format films) and 1 minute or so (this will depend by how powerful you computer is) to assemble them

    5) yes, an Imacon maybe can give you better results; but you will spend more time scanning, and you will have to have 3.000 euros or more laying around. I don’t! And a “GOOD” drum scan, from a reputable service, will set you back 50 to 200 euros FOR A SINGLE FRAME! This without factoring in the shipping costs back and forth and the risk of loosing your precious photos in the process.

    6) If you shoot only 35mm films than you have alternatives, like the Coolscans; but if you use medium, or worse: large, format than you’re out of alternatives.

    I am not a fanboy, and I’ve never been. So if something doesn’t work good enough I like to simply state the fact! Happy holidays to everyone :)

  • corey zwegers

    I agree, the white balance is not that great, but that can be fixed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tombode83 Tom Bode

    the big question is… how do you reproduce color negative with the camera? i mean color correct (not just invert the picture to positive)

  • Dewdle

    I’ll grant you this much . There are NO consumer or prosumer scanenrs out there that can do a faithful scan of a Kodachrome slide, becuase the “K” emulsions are actually 3-D and micro-etched ib bas relief and retain some silver in the dyes so the Digital ICE dust and scratchr emover doesn’t work with diddly . High contrast edges in the subject have very annoying colored outlines and artifacts. Some very high end scanners and Digital ICE Pro software/ multiple pass scanning remedies that , but requires a big investment and a lot of patience.

    I built a simple jig to re-photo my slides using a Nikon D80 and excellent 60mm 2.8. Macro Nikkor lens, a simple slide holder, and nothing more elaborate for light source than two 6500K compact fluorescent bulbs in a lightbox, then setting the camera for the same 6500K color WB index. From then on you merely treat each slide as an ” original scene” and shoot it using conventional exposure and subject reasoning. Shoot RAW + JPEG for best results and flexibility , although highest res JPEG is more than sufficient for most archiving. I quite often bracket, and even gone the HDR route on some frames.

    I can go thru a tray of 140 slides in less than an hour and get a very useable record of that tray’s film converted to digital , for reference, in sequence. Makes it easy to go back later and retrieve particular slide for further scanning.

    I also use an Epson 700 but seem to be getting much better results than you did with your scans. I routinely make 16 x 20′s and even 24 x 36 prints of canvas wraps for sale. But those need to be heavily massaged in Photoshop. Having Nik Software plugins really helps…especially the DFine unit.

    Again, I treat all scans as new originals and go from there. YMMV

  • http://www.brunocstreet.tumblr.com/ Bruno Candeias

    I used to scan my negatives with my 500D with a 50mm + macro lens attached to it.
    I recently bought a Plustek 8100, and I couldn’t be happier.. and the scanner itself was much cheaper than any Canon macro lens (and of course a 5D).

    The only advantage I see with DSLR scanning is the speed of the process.. much faster with a DSLR than with a dedicated film scanner

  • GG

    If the highlights get clipped then maybe shoot RAW or over expose by a half a stop to include more of the highlights in the negative. Instead of using Levels to increase the contrast of the image use an “S” curve in Curves.

  • H

    thanks!

  • Joey Miller

    What about lens distortion, field flatness, and diffraction limit? Even the best lenses will have distortion and field flatness issues. And I certainly wouldn’t shoot at f/11, especially with a high resolution sensor. RAW processing can correct distortion, but not the rest of it. Lenses are always sharper in the center than in the corners.

  • Matt

    Those scanners have great optics and light sources. Epsons are a waste of time IMO.

  • Matt

    Sorry, but not my experience. Epsons are not worth the time IMO. Yes, I have had them, Canon, Minota and Nikon as well. All of those others have much better optics, image chips, and light sources as well, not just film holders. If you like Epsons, thats fine, just don’t say they are as good as a real scanner.
    Additionally, I do have some of my Epson scans from 35mm from some soft subjects. But, do not have a single usable MF and there was no way I was going to waste time on LF.

  • Destin

    Sharpness is not the issue, Dynamic range and shadow detail is. Besides my drum scanner scans at 428 Mega Pixels. Lets see the 5DMKII do that.

  • Terry

    Hmmm….as an owner of a Screen 1045ai, I’m not convinced that using a camera is going to produce superior results to a drum scanner. First off, at what resolution did the scanning service scan the originals? In my own tests using Ilford Delta 100, resolving detail at the film grain level improves up to at least 6,000ppi (the scanner will go to 8,000). Another subtle technique with the 1045 is using drum speed to your advantage, at least for quality. On the 1045ai, drum speed decreases in steps as resolution is increased. Getting the best quality is knowing where the drum speed shift takes place. For example, quality improves when scanning at 6,001 ppi vs. 6,000 ppi since at 6,001 is where the drum speed slows from 600 to 300rpm (if memory serves). The difference is smeared grain vs. sharp grain.

    I think in the area of dynamic range the drum scanner would be superior as well.

    Since the 1045ai can scan up to an equivalent of 256 megapixles (16,384 pixels in either direction), I’ll remain skeptical UNLESS you’re shooting about 16 tiles for each photo. I’ve reproduced art using both the scanner and my dSLR using a 4×4 grid pattern and merging the shots and can tell you that the my drum scanner results are superior to my dSLR.

  • Terry

    Being the owner of a Screen 1045ai durm scanner, I find it a bit hard to believe that using the camera was superior to the drum scan. Frankly, I see a bit more detail or “shape” in your drum can sample.

    How exactly was the drum scan executed and what resolution was it scanned at? I’ve done tests of my own using Iford Delta 100 film and you need to scan at 4001ppi to maximize sharpness and 6001ppi if you want to extract the most detail at the film grain level. Why 4001 and 6001ppi? Those are two scanning resolutions where the drum slows to a lower rpm and renders grain without any “smearing”…it makes a difference.

  • photofreak70

    You should try Bilderberg flatbed scannerrs ,-)

  • Kaybee

    Just one question. How to remove those dust and scratches? I just know to convert and edit in Photoshop and do use the cloning tool a bit but it is very lengthy and tedious process. Is there a software out there which works in similar way like the bundled software that is provided with the negative scanners which automatically removes dusts and scratches? Thanks…

  • Karim Nasser

    Looks like you completely missed the point as to why people are returning to film photography in the first place, WE DON’T PIXEL PEEP!

  • Brian Todd

    What are the pics of 1:2 and 1:3 ratio? You took 28 shots of one negative? Would love to understand this better.

  • Seth Bogdanove

    I also use an Epson V750 and get perfect results. Either the author is using third-party software or he doesn’t understand the proprietary software. I have scanned 1920s silver nitrate negatives at 1200 dpi and gotten images that are perfectly crisp. Know-how matters when scanning.