Picture of How to digitize 35mm negatives
DSC00427 setup.JPG

One of the best ways to preserve old photos is to copy the negatives with a digital camera and then use image processing software to "develop" the photo.

I built a setup for digitiziation with a DSLR to process my old negatives some of which have a sentimental value.

Since I do not have a macro lens, I combined an SLR lens with a couple of cheap adaptors. The rest was improvised from pieces of wood, cardboard , PVC and even meccano parts.

NOTE: Check out a recent update of this instructable!

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Step 1: About film negatives

Picture of About film negatives

Image formation
  • Film photography is based on the sensitivity of  silver halides (AgBr, AgI etc) to light. The upper layer of the film is a coating of gelatin containing crystal grains of silver halides.

  • When the film is exposed to light, some Ag+ ions are excited to higher energy states and a few combine with electrons to form Ag which will act as nucleation centres in the development stage. At this point the latent image is formed .

  • When the film is developed with chemicals,  an oxidation - reduction reaction takes place. The silver ions in the exposed regions are reduced to neutral silver atoms which coagulate to form metal grains. This is a negative image since the film becomes non transparent in the exposed regions.

  • Colour photography is based on a variation of this process with the addition of organic coloured dyes coupled to the silver halides. The film coating  has three layers for the three basic colours (see photo).
Deterioration of negatives
  • Black and white negative images consist of silver grains which are stable over time. The supporting gelatin is sensitive to humidity and temperature but if stored properly B/W film can last for hundreds of years.

  • On the other hand the colour negatives are more sensitive to environmental factors because of the organic dyes they contain. The cyan dyes fade away faster and the negative becomes reddish. Exposure to light causes the magenta dyes to fade also, due to  ultraviolet  light.

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Allsop1 year ago
I have been looking for something like this for ages, so thanks. Now, I am not at all "handy" so many of these instructables are beyind me—I have managed to make a stand for my iPad out f an eggbox! That is about my level :-) So a couple of questions bearing in mind I will initially be scanning slides and then go on to negatives if I can manage the slides. Firstly what is the purpose of the tube that goes from the camera to the holder? Secondly I have a macro lens and light source, (my iPad with a torch app) so presumaby I could use my tripod to support the camera and just make a holder for the slides. I know this sounds daft but is that right, (I said I was not at all handy)? Cheers, Andrewt
tholopotami (author)  Allsop1 year ago
Dear Allsop, I think that the use of your iPad a a light source might work.. You may cut a simple mask out of cardboard, put it on the iPad and put the slide on. Shoot with the macro lens. One thing to check is that no patterns from the light source are transferred on the copy. This might come from birefringence patterns or imperfections. If this is so you should keep the screen a distance of 2-3 cms (1" ) from the light source. A tripod on the ground or a small tripod on a table will help you align the camera. You have to manually adjust exposure time.
Regarding the tube it was meant to avoid stray light. I do not use it anymore, i do the procedure in a dark room.
I have been using this setup for sometime now and I extended it to slides and 6x6 medium format negatives. An instructable is under preparation!
hats99942 years ago
this is a good way of doing this, but i have one thing to say. JUST BUY A SCANNER!!!
tholopotami (author)  hats99942 years ago
Dear hats9994, I have been using this method for some time now and let me point out why I prefer it, compared to a scanner: When you project the negative you have two important advantages (a) you have absolute control over the white balance of the photo because you can adjust the lighting conditions of the source to the reception of the camera. For example I also adjust the temperature parameter of the lighting in the Olympus. This gives you a much better starting point for post processing with Photoshop, specially for faint color negatives and (b) by using a projector as a source you get the maximum resolution and contrast because of the parallel beam. I have seen real difference in BW negatives processed with a scanner.
rondacosta2 years ago
Great Instructable. But I have a problem!!!! I saw your rig details and inmediately assumed you were digitizing 35mm slides wich is what I am looking for. A case of my brain seeing what I do want and need to see.
After visiting this 'able seven times I just suddenly realized that you are doing negatives.
Now, can you share/suggest any ideas about digitizing 35mm SLIDES? That will be greatly appreciated as I was about to start building your setup.
I will be using my daughter's Nikon D7000 with only Nikkor 18:200 lens. Reading your construct I am thinking of using instead my 40 year SLR Canon 50mm 1:1.4 lens with an extender. Any extra suggestions, please.
tholopotami (author)  rondacosta2 years ago
Thanks for your comments! I am glad if this helps you. Of course you can work with slides. The only change is that you do not have to invert the colors with Photoshop. Clip the slide on a cardboard screen. You can use the framed slides as they are. In fact I have used a slide frame on the screen as a guide for the 36mmx24mm format and in order to avoid the "shadows" that would arise from a cardboard window

You may need to intensify fade out colors.A few suggestions: (a) a real professional work requires the RAW format (b) When correcting the colors with Photoshop use the Levels option and correct the basic colors one by one. (c) Use the Variations option if you cannot decide with the colors (d) I almost always use the Blur option to smooth and connect details (Gaussian blur 1-2 pixels width, no more) and then sharpen the picture. It becomes more clear this way.
rondacosta2 years ago
,,,,, and BTW, I will be using this setup to copy all my Negatives once I am done with the 35mm slides,,,, thanks for this instructable.
FioriOnFire2 years ago
Would this work for a camera without a lens?
tholopotami (author)  FioriOnFire2 years ago
I think not. The size of the camera sensor (mine is 17mm) is much smaller than the size of the negative (36mm) and you need to form a "light cone" to match these sizes. This is what a lens does. If you just "project " the image on the sensor you will lose a large part of the image.

However if you just use any lens there will be deformations at the edges of the field. You have a choice between what I describe in this instructable ( a regular lens system + extensions --> a macro lens) and any camera that can be zoomed to the size of the 36mmx24mm negative at a tolerable distance.
tjok3 years ago
In step seven, you said "I made this as an independent module in order to use it for other projects". Just curious, what other projects did you use it on?
tholopotami (author)  tjok3 years ago
Case 1: I found a nice 480mm apochromatic objective lens system and I wanted to test it as a spotting scope. For this I mounted it on the end of a long rectangular board and used the mecano x-stage to focus a telescope eyepiece mounted on the other end. The whole thing was covered by a tube of black canson paper This allowed me to calculate distances for a future construction of the scope.

Case 2: I have something in mind related to micro-milling . If (and when) I do it I'll probably make an instructable about it. Stay tuned!
useraaaaa3 years ago
why DSLR

there are million of compact 10+ megapixel cameras,
with "close up mode".

it is possible to set enough light,
it does not move,
no complications with DOF

(i mean DSLR is not soo important)
DSLR because most point and shoots won't capture the wonderful dynamic range of film!

If you are scanning old negatives it is one thing, but if you really want a decent scan you should be shooting raws on a dslr.

But yeah, like tholopotami says, the idea is that you use what you've got!
tholopotami (author)  Techsupportnerd3 years ago
Indeed "raws" is the best way to control colours separately. They should be used in the case of coloured films.
tholopotami (author)  useraaaaa3 years ago
The point is that for this task it is better to use the best equipment you have. Before getting the DSLR I did the same job with a compact camera and a similar setup. Of course it can be done.
meddler3 years ago
Would a Cannon eos xti work?
Kennuf meddler3 years ago
Not until you look at the front of the camera and learn how to spell "CANON".
tholopotami (author)  meddler3 years ago
I do not see why not. If you want to mount an SLR lens with extension rings as I did the first thing to look for is an M42 adaptor for your model. They do not cost more than 20-25Euros. A set of M42 rings is less than 10 Euros on e-bay. By combining a couple of these rings you can adjust the frame as good as possible.
thank you I will look for that. I appreciate the help.
meddler meddler3 years ago
Never mind.... I do wonder if I have the ability to build this. It is just what I'm looking for though.
dkennedys83 years ago
Glad to see someone else rocking Olympus DSLRs!
avatar_i3 years ago
Nice Instructable.
I also have an Epson V-700, and it does GREAT on [minimum] 6x7 cm negs, and 4"x5" to 8"x10", but I have beed dismally disapointed with 35mm and 6x4.5 negs.

I did, however, find an old film era slide copier that has a t-mount base that will mount onto- and work on- nearly any digital camera, except for the entry level models. They work with negs and mounted slides.

Total cost, about $8.oo [since I already had a t-mount adapter], from the used bin at the local camers store. Most stores don't carry them any longer, but look around. Most camera store employees don't even know what these things are, and they were all over the place just 10~15 years ago!

Using a Nikon D300, I have made exceptional hi-res copies of some WWII negatives I have been looking to print, but couldn't afford to leave with the store- or pay their charges for lower quality scans.
tholopotami (author)  avatar_i3 years ago
Thanks for noting this. I forgot to mention the option of trying to find a slide copier for SLRs.
Cool. I'm getting extremely good results on my slides and negatives with my Epson V700 scanner. It costs around $500, though, so this method would be awesome for someone on a budget. Normal flatbed scanners can't do negatives properly.
I have a $49 Epson scanner, I use it all the time for black and white negatives, i just reverse the image (blacks turn white, etc) in photoshop after scanning. I'm sure most free photo editing software programs have that option too. My negatives are over 50 years old, it's hard to even see what is on them, so this is pretty magical when they come into view.
Yeah, color negatives are really hard to do without a really expensive scanner - I'll bet B&W works fine like you say though. It is really cool to see what comes out - my slides from the 50's look amazing.
tholopotami (author)  Ninzerbean3 years ago
I believe you about the 50 years old negatives. B/W contains only silver microcrystals which will stay there as long as the celluloid can keep them.Only the medium is subject to aging (becomes more yellow because of UV exposure).
Things are different with colour dyes (see step 14)

Thinking about the DSLR setup here is another advantage: When working with B/W I use a projector and an opaque screen. This produces an homogeneous and parallel light beam which helps increase the contrast of the negative image. This may improve the final result compared to a scanner.
tholopotami (author)  hardwarehank3 years ago
Thanks! As you say the problem is that you need more than a normal scanner to do the job decently. The advantage in my case is that I already had all the equipment ad did not have to buy anything. With the DSLR you can experiment a lot . For example you may change the "filament temperature" for lamp exposure from 4000-7000 depending on the light source you are using. This is useful the case of old colour negatives. Even better, with this setup you may use sunlight by pointing to a white wall. It works very well.
sferroni3 years ago
You can get far better results using the color curves tool, which I did on your second image with GIMP. The result is here attached.
tholopotami (author)  sferroni3 years ago
It looks better than those I posted!
tholopotami (author)  sferroni3 years ago
Thanks for trying this ! In fact I hesitate to use the curve tool since I do not have much eperience with it.
thepaul933 years ago
Is that a Olympus E-420?
tholopotami (author)  thepaul933 years ago
Yes. It is the less expensive of the series and it is also very light. I have an additional 150mm telephoto of the same brand and I modified an older 200mm telephoto for it (see one of my other instructables). I also use it on telescopes.
marcintosh3 years ago
It is not a surprise that films are still used for specific applications such as aerophotography.

I feel that the move to digital, while good for business and in certain respects the environment and my personal ecomomy (I can now shoot as much as I want last year 5k pix) has been a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Negs aren't OS dependent or Harddrive dependent nor do they need power to be viewed. Look to see the prices on medium format cameras on ebay- those guys aren't giving up, neither are the large format shooters..

Thanks for the Resolving Power work with the math - much appreciated.  All in all a very interesting Instructable.
Thanks again,
tholopotami (author)  marcintosh3 years ago
I am glad someone appreciated the calculations!
e5frog3 years ago
Cleaning the table was perhaps not the thing I thought about as much as setting focus to something in the picture. ;-)
tholopotami (author)  e5frog3 years ago
You are right, what can I say!
Maybe it was because we wasn't supposed to see the dirt! ;-)
Nice instructable, almost make me want to make my own - but I don't have one of those flashy cameras. Maybe I'll try hooking up a lamp on top of the flat bed scanner instead...
tholopotami (author)  e5frog3 years ago
Before getting the DSLR I used a compact camera of 5Mpxls. I set the camera at 3x zoom and infinity focus and also put a large 4x magnifying lens in front of it. This must be as large as possible to avoid distortions. Then I used the film holder with the x-stage but this time to focus since you cannot focus with the camera.
efra53 years ago
amazing, thanks!
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