How to Scan Your Film Using a Digital Camera and Macro Lens


Yesterday I wrote a post showing the high level of image quality you can achieve by scanning film using a digital camera rather than a film scanner. This post will describe my personal technique for digitizing film using a DSLR and a macro lens.

The Setup

The nice thing about this technique is that you’ll be able to extract all the information on the film even with a low-res digital camera, as long as you can increase the reproduction ratio and get used to compositing multiple files in one, like when doing a panoramic image. For the details please take a look at the previous post linked above.

The setup is really, really simple: simply place you camera vertically on top of the film (which is taped on a slide viewer) using a metal lens hood that acts as spacer, camera support, and light screen. Then you’ll use the Live View to focus on the film grain, and the self timer set at 2 seconds (or a soft shutter release) to avoid vibrations.


The secret is taking multiple shots of each film frame, and then combining the individual photos using panoramic software. How many shots you’ll need will depend on:

  • The reproduction ratio you (and your lens) will use
  • How detailed the picture is
  • The resolution of your camera
  • The sensor size of your camera (full frame, APS-C, or smaller)

Generally I use a 1:2 enlargement ratio on medium and large format film and a 3:1 ratio on 35mm, and I get more or less these results:

35mm -> 4/6 shots
4.5×6cm -> 3/6 shots
6×6 & 6×7 -> 6/8 shots
4×5in & 13x18cm -> 20/30 shots

Here is an example of a single piece of film captured with multiple macro photos:


…and the resulting “scanned” photo that resulted after combining the shots:


The shooting the photographs of the film generally takes about 15-30 seconds for each film; how much time the computer will need to join the shots will depend on your computer’s processor power, RAM, and the number of shots that need to be joined. Just to give you a rough idea, though: my 2011 iMac with 24GB of RAM generally takes 30-50 seconds to join 6 shots and up to 10 minutes to join 30 shots.

Using an higher reproduction ratio is more time consuming (you’ll need more shots to cover the same area), but as a result you will be able to extract the most detail from the film. Here are some examples showing my Canon setup at various reproduction ratios, compared to the results of a well-respected flatbed scanner, the Epson v700:



The Tips

That’s all for the general gist of how I digitize using a DSLR. Now, on to some tips on how to optimizing this process:


  • Don’t try to shoot wide open; even an excellent lens like the Zeiss Makro Planar has its problems, and all your pictures will look mushy. Close the lens a couple of stops from the maximum aperture (remember, set the Live View to compensate automatically for the light loss if you want to see anything at all!)
  • If possible, focus on the film grain, not on the details; this way you will be sure to extract all the information there is on the film, and it’s easier. If you can’t seem to see the grain, just look at a dark out-of-focus area, the grain will stand out!
  • Focus independently for each shot; even if they are on the same strip of film, they will more often than not require an adjustment in focus
  • For maximum sharpness, tape the film to the viewer, tensioning the film itself a bit to ensure maximum flatness; use painter’s paper masking tape — the kind that leaves no residue


  • If your computer is powerful enough, shoot in RAW; you will benefit not only from more detail, but also from extended dynamic range and better grays/colors
  • Close the lens a couple more stops from the aperture you used to focus – use f/8 or, better yet, f/11 – to take the shot. This way you will hit the sweet spot of your lens and avoid vignetting-related issues
  • Do custom white balancing using the viewer surface, without the film. This way your colors will be almost perfect without the need to mess with the curves later in Photoshop or GIMP
  • Shoot in manual mode in order to have the same exposure and density on all sections
  • “Expose to the right”. In other words, increase exposure until the histogram for all the colors almost touches the right side of the histogram. This will ensure that you will have as little noise as possible and that you will exploit the entire dynamic range your camera is capable of. Be careful to not overexpose too much — this is another good reason to shoot in RAW


  • Shoot in some kind of order (clockwise, counterclockwise, whatever), to avoid forgetting same part of the film frame. After a while it will became routine, and you will become very efficient
  • To avoid scratching the negatives, put them down with the shiny side up – it’s called the “protective layer” for a reason. Having the opaque side – the emulsion – in contact with the viewer surface will give you the added benefit of avoiding newton rings
  • If the picture you’re about to “scan” doesn’t have many details – vast areas of sky, water or out-of-focus zones – take closer knit shots to help the panoramic software identify meaningful “anchors” that will be used in the merging process
  • If you don’t have a slide viewer and are comfortable around electricity, you can easily build on using an old scanner (there are plenty of DIY projects like this on the web)


The panoramic software you use is up to you — there are hundreds of them out there. The only important thing is that it has to let you join the files in a “matrix” fashion, not only in rows. Here some of the one I have tried or currently use, and a few notes for each one:

  • Adobe Photoshop’s Photomerge function: Really good 90% of the time. Use the “reposition” option, because you are not shooting a panorama, so there is no parallax error to take care of. Its biggest downside is the lack of manual correction options. On the bright side, it is still one of the fastest panoramic programs I’ve ever used, as it is able to “digest” even 110 files at once without a hitch.
  • ArcSoft Panorama Maker 5: Really good for the 10% of the times in which Photoshop’s Photomerge goes nuts. Its biggest drawback is that it’s impossible to maintain the 16bit in the output TIFF. On the bright side, it’s very cheap (€13.99 on the Mac App Store).
  • PhotoStitch: This one comes free with every Canon digital camera. It would be really good, except that has a strong tendency to crash if used with 6 files or more (at least with Canon 5D Mark II files, could also be some kind of incompatibility. I don’t know). As with Panorama Maker, it doesn’t support a 16bit output. It does support 16bit on paper, but the resulting TIFF files will be an ugly mess.
  • Hugin: Free and extremely complete. This program is a bit complicated and intimidating at first, even though it offers an “assistant” to guide you. It’s excellent for general panoramic photography, but I found it a bit of an overkill for just joining a few shots.

So there you have it: a way of digitizing film using a digital camera and macro lens instead of a dedicated film scanner!

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.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Wicked! I was just looking up film scanners today {how odd I found this} and I’ll be trying out this method. Sounds like a lot of fun! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Trausti Hraunfjörð

    On the stitching front, people might want to use PTgui from It is used by most top professionals who work with image stitching on every day basis. Hugin is it’s “little nephew”. Stitching is faster and better than using anything else.

  • Samcornwell

    I know this is a tutorial for negs but, did you know you can also get lenses specifically designed to hold slides? You’ll need a constant light source to compliment it though.

  • David Heatley

    What lens are you using?

  • Nathan Blaney
  • Santay

    The roof is crooked in the composited image. Fail.

  • Vic Vital Jr.

    Epic fail!

  • Michael Garber

    I’ve got that, but it has 2 problems. 1, it crops your images slightly. 2, it doesn’t work for medium format.
    And for good measure, 3, it’s more fiddly than it looks.

  • Jeremiah

    It’s so easy to sit on my ass and pronounce on those who actually get up and do something a bit clever and creative. Better than being in the real world I’d say.

  • I The Wonderer

    You are aware that there are special lens adapters which have a film holder and light source for taking (analog) pictures of analog slides?

  • Alex Szecsi

    HEY HEY! “Scanning” with camera guys.How big is your camera Dmax?Because you cant capture highlits on the film with DLSR.And did you hear about AUTO FOCUS SCANNERS? No offense just ask these basic things about proper scanning.

  • Keith Stansell

    Great article – I’ve been experimenting doing this with an old slide duplicator that had the lighting guts removed before I bought it. I made a new lighting setup on the inside with two daylight cfc’s shining down on a sheet of paper. I’ve experimented with using colored paper and found I could reduce the orange cast of negatives by using teal colored paper. I don’t have a macro lens, but instead bought an inexpensive extension ring set that I use with my 35mm prime lens. One other tip – if your camera can do live view shooting hooked up to a computer, you can set the focus on a much larger screen than the one on your camera.

  • DamianMonsivais

    so you like to yell I see

  • lorenzo

    it’s not clear to me what i need:
    1) a macro lens OK
    2) digital camera : whatever compact like a Fuji X100?
    3) what about slide viewer? where is it inserted and where?
    4) light screen? could you suggest me one to see?

  • fivepool

    What is the minimal focusing distance on this lens? Modern makro-planars have 22cm (50mm)to 44cm (100mm), no way to achieve critical focus using only a lens hood as a spacer.. stopping down might help but it doesnt replace careful focus, am i wrong somewhere? This solution is so simple and appealing otherwise..

  • BrianPuccio

    Have you considered scanning with a Coolscan (the 4000/5000 if you’ve got 35mm film or the 8000/9000 if you’ve got medium format)? I don’t think many PetaPixel readers would be splurging on an Imacon any time soon, but a Coolscan is more reasonably priced. (Compare the prices of these to many of the DSLR/lens kits that are feature here.) First, you’d be able to automate the work (run a stack of slides through with an autofeeder or run an entire roll through using the negative feeder). Second, and more importantly, you’d be moving from an all-purpose scanner to a dedicated transparency scanner.

  • Matt

    What scanners are you talking about? The above article mentions the Epson line, and they are not worth the time IMO. IMO a DSLR with a decent lens will win every time in that comparison. Now, a dedicated Canon, Minolta, or Nikon scanner will do a better job. But, my Nikon is almost unusable because Nikon scan is not supported on the last a couple of windows. And, I don’t like the results with vuescan.

  • Michael Trende

    thats also my question!!

  • paulcredmond

    Could you please elaborate on the slide viewer? Any links to decent ones on Amazon etc?

  • Thomas J. Webb

    You could do multiple exposures (HDR). That’s what I do with my scanner anyway. Another thing to consider for my case is sheet film. My scanner can accomodate 35mm and 120/220 but not sheet film. Given that I have a good DSLR do I pay for a much more expensive scanner just to be able to do sheet film or do I just buy a transparency viewer for less than 50 bucks off eBay? I think I’ll try the cheaper option first…

  • Keith Stansell

    Any tips on getting accurate color when converting negatives to positives? I’ve been experimenting with this myself and I can get somewhat close, but find it difficult to get the colors tuned in. I did an experiment and took my film camera and my Canon 60D to shoot the same subject – using the same settings. Using the digital photos as a reference, I could get the converted negatives close, but still have not been able to get all the colors correct. If I get the red right, then the blue seems a bit off.

  • Sixpm

    I got to give the Fotodiox RhinoCam a shot with the Sony NEX6 body and a Pentax 645 Macro lens with extension tubes, the combination amybe crazily sharp. :)

  • Joey Miller

    To anyone reading this in the future, I have figured out an alternative to the Contax 60mm macro the author uses and no one else has or wants to spend that kind of money on. Get a Zeiss ZE or ZF.2 50mm f/2 macro, a 20mm extension tube, and the hood from a Zeiss ZE or ZF.2 100mm f/2 macro. This setup will allow you to place the hooded lens directly on the film as described and achieve focus. Works well with a 5D3 or D800, whichever you prefer. If you have an iPad, you can use that and a piece of tracing paper to get a good even light surface with any of the softbox apps available.

  • Joey Miller

    I just posted a solution above, oh, 8 months later. Zeiss 50 macro (ZE or ZF.2), 20mm extension tube, hood from the 100mm Zeiss macro. There you go.

  • Kaybee

    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…

  • nrimo

    I found this method will consume much time to clean dirts on old film, but very useful for new/ clean film. It is much more easier to use film scanner with infra-red capability to work with old film.

  • raynep

    use an incandescent, halogen or other black-body-radiation type of light source to get better white balance, and therefore easier negative-to-positive colour balance

  • Casey

    It seems like he fails to mention that you’ll also need a set of extension tubes so that you can get 2:1 or 3:1 magnification. I tried this with a D800 and 55 micro lens, and a 6×4.5 slide not quite filled the frame. I guess the 55 micro is not really a true 1:1 macro lens after all.

  • Jeff

    The Coolscan 8000/9000 are not supported anymore by Nikon, when they break down, theres no service/parts for them. Many of the ones on ebay are broken, they have lots of moving parts and things to fail! I had a Nikon Coolscan 4000 back in the day, and it was really nice, had no problem scanning dense slide films such as Velvia. This solution above is inexpensive albeit more time consuming, but the results are awesome.

  • Daniel Southard

    I completely disagree with the validity of this method, because there is no ‘control group’ provided. Both methods are digitized representations of a physical object, and both have their own look, but until we see an optically enlarged physical print to compare it to, there is no way of knowing whether the ‘sharpness’ and ‘visual acuity’ we see with the Canon 5D method is simply an effect of the internal software of the camera. For all we know, the Epson scan is a more accurate representation of the actual negative. If that is the case, I would rather use Photoshop’s sharpening tools rather than let the Canon do it for me.

  • Jason Mac

    How do you convert the negative image to a positive? I’m guessing you have an easy, automatic process for doing so many.