Digitizing negatives with a Digital Camera
A lifelong question, or as it seems as time marches on, what is the best way to scan or digitize your negatives? Well there isn’t simply an answer that fits all the needs of everyone. What i’m going to explain is the method which best suits my needs, and i’ll also explain my logic.
Exploring the options
I’ve been scanning film for as long as i’ve been using it consciously. That means like everyone else, I fully depended on labs to do all the work for me initially. That is a fantastic thing if you can afford such services, truth be told, i’d LOVE to just be able to come home to my scanned negatives e-mailed to me.
There are limitations to labs though; they are resolution limited to whichever scanner they are using, and a commercial scanners main priority is consistent quality with speed and quantity. That means it was never meant to be used as what I call “archival scans”. They do have options for .TIF and possibly different rasterization options.
Then we go to flatbed scanners, most popular ones being Epson V850, V750, V600, V30, and Canon CanoScan’s 9000F, 8800F. These scanners advertise amazing resolution which are lies… They are limited to an optical resolution, be sure not to believe interpolated sizes as they are just the maximum optical resolution up-sampled. For most peoples needs, a flatbed will do them just fine. I find them great for proofing work quickly and affordably. Scanning large amounts of work with little to no interaction needed is very fitting. For my intents and purposes, there are downsides which are shared among of the other methods of scanning we’re used to hearing about.
Older dedicated scanners like my old Microtek ArtixScan 120 (4000DPI optical resolution!) are fantastic for ” archival quality scans”. These quality scanners still command big bucks because they just aren’t produced anymore, and with that, all the needed parts and servicing and most importantly software support is gone. If you have the time and patience to use a older dedicated scanner, whether it be a 10+ year old ArtixScan 120TF that requires use of everyones favorite ‘last ditch effort’ software VueScan, or a Nikon CoolScan 9000 ED with it’s just discontinued support from Nikon, you’re going to run up into an instance where obsolescence is unavoidable.
The Pakon F-135 that you might’ve remembered me using and making a rather long post about (which is now lost!) is a special case, a dedicated scanner that has speed, it has Digital ICE, it is the ideal scanner for throughput. Unfortunately, it requires proprietary software running on Windows XP which in itself is a pain in the behind to get setup, but the results are good. And although the scans are equivalent to 6mp, you can print 8×10 pretty decently, but not archival quality to me. The prices of these units are ridiculous now, and unfortunately I don’t see that going down with the popularity, and it only does 135!
That left a gap in the market for some new dedicated scanners from familiar names. Scanners like the Plustek Opticfilm line that are still being made, have great support and tons of people rave about them. There is also the line of Reflecta scanners that people use over in Europe.
Of course the highest end of the spectrum includes the Hasselblad Flextight series, which are a kind of hybrid drum scanner, and the Phase One Reprographic system. These are the most expensive and yield the highest quality results possible with today’s technology within the limits of money.
The Phase One Repographic system really struck a chord with me, it’s exactly what I think scanning setups in the future could be.
Taking a step into the unknown, or is it really unknown?
Inspired by Mike Fraser whom also inspired me to ditch my Epson V700 to get an ArtixScan 120TF and a Pakon F-135, and then subsequently ditch all of it for this new setup, has been a major driving force to this workflow. Mine differs slightly, whether that’s because i’m lazy or not using the same software.. in my opinion the results are pretty good for me.. and that’s what matters!
The only thing better than DSLR scanning is *tethered* DSLR scanning. pic.twitter.com/IdTdAkzd3n
— Mike Fraser (@mr_mikefraser) September 18, 2015
I remember years back in my head I’ve always thought about trying to use a digital SLR to record negatives by using slide copier hardware like so:
But never really had success. There were either issues with not owning a macro lens able to reproduce 1:1, or the camera I owned wasn’t capable of doing it. A quick Google image search shows dozens if not hundreds of setups from using empty soda cans to exotically expensive rigs.
The ingenuity of these methods are in their design, but I figured the implementation would be roughly the same. Light source, rigid mount, lens/bellows setup.
With this in mind I set out to basically create a cost effective version of that Phase One Reprographic system utilizing as much of the equipment I already own.
Testing the process out first
I decided to have a stab at making my own setup and seeing if it was indeed, a feasible thing. I just bought an A7RII, and sold my A7R so resolution was never an issue. The added benefit of an Electronic Shutter was very appealing and even with a wobbly tripod I thought I could get away with it.
The components that were used in my first-rough setup were really making use of things laying around.
- Sony A7RII (already own)
- Micro-Nikkor 55mm f3.5 F-Bayonet Manual Focus lens
- Nikon F extension tube
- Nikon F to Sony E adapter
- Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (Used as light source, already owned)
- Beseler negative holder (Picked up for free as part of a kit)
- Paper plate with hole cut in it to support negative holder (FREE!)
I had a spare tripod laying around that I was able to make the column invert with the head so that the camera could be lowered into position while maintaining the position of the 3 legs.
I actually discovered quickly that light bleed was an issue with these negative holders on the screen itself, so elevating the holder off the screen reduced pixels coming through the negative (re: shallow DOF) and even distribution of light.
The results were pretty good, by using a IR remote for the camera that I already had, there was no interaction with the camera itself when capturing. Focus was a bit of a pain sometimes because it is a manual focus lens, but that was a start I wanted to have.
I used this very setup for about a month or so, every time thinking about optimizing certain things and or finding cost effective solutions to real needs, like the lens, light table, stand.
The equipment for my digitizing rig
After a month or so of deliberation I started to acquire some of the more important things needed to make my rig. The total cost of the equipment I acquired can be debatable as being “expensive” but you have to realize i’m not just using it for this, the A7RII is my digital camera that I use to take to photoshoots, product photography, snapping photos of my kid, you know a CAMERA! The added bonus with the 90mm f2.8 is that I needed a good portrait lens, you won’t see better bokeh than from a fast Macro!
- Sony A7RII – 42.4mp beast ($2,500 new)
- Sony LA-EA3 – Allows use of Minolta/Sony A-Mount lenses on FE Mount Sony cameras ($80 used)
- Sony IR Remote – Not really needed but nice ($20)
- Tamron SP 90mm f2.8 Di Macro USD A-Mount lens ($400 used)
- ArtOGraph LightPad model A920 ($50 used)
- Beseler Negatrans negative holder/conveyer for 135 film ($30 used, $9 replacement belts) – Plan to get a 120 version as well for 120 negatives
- Random tripod that you can reverse the mount ($Free somewhere, this is temporary)
- It should be noted I am looking for a sturdy copy stand like a Kaiser RS-2 or Beseler Digital Copy Stand, even vintage stands like Minolta or Pentax ones should do the trick if you’re careful with weight.
- Obviously if you have a stand with movements it makes things easier to square off with the plane of the negative.
- A carpenters’ bubble level – Used to level the camera to the plane or whatever surface ($3)
As an added bonus, my Surface Pro 3 has Sony’s remote interface installed so I can shoot tethered, with images going directly to the hard drive. I can also change settings and such on the fly. That is what the orange USB cable is for.
Process of digitizing
Step 1. Setup
Once you have the parts all assembled, which, i’ve timed takes me less than 5 minutes to put the tripod up (mostly set already), power cable for the ArtoOGraph, Beseler negatrans on top of the lightpad, plug in USB cable from Surface Pro 3 to A7RII, put the Macro lens on, mount the A7RII onto tripod and presto we have the image below.
Minor Update: (2016.01.21)
I’ve procured a classic Minolta Copy Stand which is PERFECT for this need. I was hunting one locally and on eBay and this one was won for $99 + 20 shipping. I’m able to now use mechanical shutter on my A7RII allowing for one more stop of EV data in the RAW files. The process is the same below, but letting you know a proper stand is definitely the way to go.
I’ve also purchased a 120 version of the Negatrans which means the same process for 6×6 and 6×7 negatives.
Step 2. Level out the camera/surface you’re digitizing to
Use a level of choice to zero out the camera/tripod and the surface.
Step 3. Load negative into Negatrans
The best negative holder solution I found was using a Beseler Negatrans to transport the negative. You spin a knob on the corner of the holder, and it advances the film through. The video below shows it. The best thing about this holder is once you load it, you don’t touch the negative anymore. A conveyer belt setup that is rubber grabs the outside of the negatives and pulls it along, the tension is strong and ensures negative flatness.
Step 4. Adjust settings on camera, compose, focus, capture.
Because the A7RII has an electronic shutter option, i’ve been using that feature for capture. I have the rest of the settings tied to “Custom 2” on the mode dial which is real handy. The tripod isn’t sturdy enough (re: I need a copy stand!) to just use the regular mechanical shutter without vibration, so at 1/20-1/30th of a second at f4-5.6 and 160 ISO i’m able to capture as much detail on the plane without sacrificing anything. I’m also shooting 14-bit uncompressed RAW for every bit of detail I can squeeze out of this lens and sensor.
Step 5. Turn Negatrans to move to next negative
Once focus is achieved and capture done, simply just turn the negatrans to the next shot and repeat the process. In this way, it’s actually FASTER than the Pakon F-135.. because it’s just an instant capture and not rolling through. I can capture an entire roll of 36 frames in less than 5 minutes, with files that are ~37mp uncompressed RAW.
I’m careful not to move the negatrans holder while in use for scanning, or the tripod, or light table. If this is done with care the post-process steps are easier.
Step 6. Post-Process
The procedure i’ve developed in this guide is for black and white, which is relatively simple compared to color film. For color, some use ColorPerfect for this task. I find for color film that my quick invert finds levels (highlight and shadow clipping points) and using a white balance tool based on a middle-grey object is fine for now.
For black and white I use my preset actions to achieve mostly what is done for color, but removing excess in the process.
I use Adobe products, I do for work, and I do for home. It’s just something that i’m used to. Namely Bridge and Photoshop CC.
Step A. Load Bridge, select all the files and open in Camera RAW (ACR)
Pretty simple, select all and open it in ACR so we can batch-crop.
Step B. Select all images and crop
Here’s where being careful with the Negatrans by not moving it comes into play, batch cropping these files means it’s one less post step for each file. Once good, hit “Done” to save .XMP data for each file.
Step C. Open an individual file, and action process!
With an individual file open in ACR with the crop already selected, open it into Photoshop.
I’ve developed a Photoshop Action (available at the end) which I created to get the negative seen here into shape for final adjustments.
- Inverting the image
- Levels set to find white and black clipping points of the image
- Channel mixer to greyscale the image using green channel
- Minor curve adjustment to boost contrast overall
I found this set of actions got most of my black and white images to where I like them, leaving the individual adjustments modifiable in History should I feel they’ve gone too far.
I’ve also set it to a shortcut key, F10.
The end result is below from this one action.
Step D. Fine-tune image
I found the contrast a bit much, and midtones a bit dark so I tweaked the levels to get it to where I like it. The benefit of using a file with this much data is that the negative doesn’t just crap out instantly like a .JPG
Step E. Save out
In the actions set i’ve made I also have one for Saving, it is simply going to change the depth from 16 bits/channel to 8 bits/channel, Save the JPG in highest quality at full size and close. For images that I know i’ll want to modify or tweak later I have a separate action to save out high resolution PSD files to my archive. Another process for another post.
The final image seen here was run through traditional Black and white chemistry, and digitized using an A7RII and post-processed in Photoshop to give a really detailed and flexible ‘scan’.
File is viewable at full resolution about 35.7 megapixels on Flickr from which that image links from.
I’ve come to appreciate the work of others who’ve made their methods known publicly and to learn from. I think in the future a company will make a solution that is way more turn-key in the sense that you just need to supply the money to get the results (for the typical consumer/hobbyist). I think it’s also important to reinvest some attention to our negatives in today’s world of incredibly high PPI screens, especially if we’re dumping thousands of dollars into camera equipment and film. Not to mention the ease of archiving once digitized, meaning this method for me will ensure the initial effort lasts the course. All of these factors were key players into helping me decide that this workflow was for me, further tweaking ahead I think it can turn into my permanent solution.
Here is my action for B&W negative conversion process in Photoshop.
C-41 action will be finished up when I scan some more C-41 and posted as well.
Mike Fraser has put up his method on YouTube and definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in this approach:
Claudio Gomboli has documented a methodology using his Leica M9-P and BEOON duplication kit documented on his site, it is perfect for those who want the smallest, lightest footprint available.
Jamie Maldonaldo has also documented with examples the workflow he used in similar fashion to scan larger negatives, 120 to large format and stitch.
There’s other people doing the same thing; here’s a few on YouTube in a short search.
A few scan comparisons, one being versus an Epson V500.