Digitising My Negatives

As I mentioned before, I recently began shooting on film again (a little bit anyway). Of course, this meant I wanted someway of getting my images from the negatives and into my digital library for a bit of light editing and sharing.

I found myself on Amazon looking at the plethora of cheap negative scanners. Most of these consist of a 5mp CCD and a backlight; photos are scanned quickly, to JPEG, and mostly without the need to involve a computer. From what I could find though, this type of scanner has three problems: highly compressed JPEG output, relatively low resolution ‘scans’ and extremely mixed quality output.

Maybe I was worrying too much about image quality – but they weren’t good enough for me. I wanted RAW images and higher-resolution output.

The most obvious choice would’ve been something like the Plustek OpticFilm 8100 or a negative-compatible flatbed scanner. I could’ve scanned as TIFF at high resolution and have been done. The main problem with this solution was the price, I couldn’t justify the high cost for something I probably wouldn’t be doing often.

To this end, I decided to make the use of what I already owned (or could make pretty easily).

The Setup

The camera setup itself wasn’t too complicated, I used my Nikon D700 with and old 105mm Micro-Nikkor. The equipment isn’t massively important though, as long as you have a decent DSLR, mirrorless or high-end compact / bridge with a lens that can get close enough to fill the frame with a negative then you’re probably going to get higher quality shots than a cheap dedicated negative scanner. RAW shooting is a massive plus though; the results will need some white-balance correction.

All of this needs to be mounted on a fairly sturdy tripod that can take the weight of your setup pointing straight down.

A couple of things you will need to be able to do though: manual focus, or at least have the ability fix the focus, and a self-timer / cable release function. Shooting so close, things can get blurry quickly.

One useful little accessory is a macro focusing rail, it allows you to finely tune the focus without having to mess around with the camera’s settings too much. It can be especially helpful with older, heavier lenses that tend to fall out of focus when the camera is pointing towards the ground and nudged slightly.

Probably the most difficult bit of the whole setup was coming up with some way to backlight the negative a suitable amount and evenly. Fortunately an Amazon shipping box, printer paper, a torch and a lot of packing tape came to the rescue.

As I didn’t have anything suitable to diffuse the light directly under the negative I made a relatively long tube (appox. 30cm) and lined it with printer paper that curved up towards the negative-sized aperture I cut at one end of the box. This produced diffuse enough light that evenly lit the negative.

A special shout out should probably go to the torch I used, it was the extremely bright LED Lenser P7. This is probably the best torch I’ve ever bought, super-bright for normal torching with a neutral enough light temperature for small photography-related projects like this.

Now for the stuff that really matters…

The Settings

For my negatives I shot in manual mode: 1/50s, f/7.1, ISO 200. I left automatic white-balance enabled as I was shooting in RAW and the white balance would definitely have to be corrected in post-processing anyway.

I chose not to quite fill the frame with the negative to ensure I made the most of the lens’ sharpness in the centre. After cropping, most of my shots worked out at around 8mp, which was pretty good going and definitely better than the cheap negative scanners.

The Results

Straight out of the camera this is how the negatives looked:

Inverting the photo quickly got me to something that looked more sensible. The blue cast to the image is the nature of the colour film and this is what needs to be white-balanced away. This can take a lot of playing with to get right but once you’ve done it for a single image, it should be the same for the whole roll.

After a little pushing & prodding with your image editor of choice (mine is Aperture but I guess that won’t be true for much longer). You can get something that looks perfectly acceptable.

To be honest, this photo probably isn’t the best example, but you can find some of the better ones (B&W and colour) in my Flickr album.

Something that did surprise me during this process was the amount of dynamic range I got from the negatives by digitising them in this way, I could see details from the negatives that the original prints didn’t even give the smallest clue to. The large RAW photos also gave me a lot of latitude when I was editing, it was nice to maintain the atmosphere of film with the advantages of a digital editing workflow.

Did it take a while to do all this: yes, would I have been better off getting a scanner: possibly, would it have been anywhere near as satisfying or fun: definitely not!