I've seen many articles on the web explaining the basics of digitising film negatives or transparencies with a digital camera. The basics are quite simple: you take a photo of a negative into a light source and invert. That's it. But that alone led me to scan negatives that looked like the one on the left, above. Because I've never seen one tutorial that told me "the whole story" of how to do it properly, I've decided to put together what I've learnt during the last two or three years of scanning film with my DSLR.
First of all: Why?
- Street labs can usually scan the film but I’ve got bad scans and missing/cut frames more than once. Also, when you scan, you make some artistic decisions over contrast and colour that are often definitive. By leaving these decisions to a machine or someone else, you are losing control over your creative freedom.
- I often develop film myself and I don’t own a film scanner. Even if I did, good film scanners cost a fortune and I get better quality from scanning the film with my DSLR than I would if I used an average scanner.
- Very precise control over colours, highlight and shadow curves, while making use of the vast film dynamic range.
These are my reasons, you may obviously have different ones. Some people do this because it’s faster than using a scanner, but that depends on how much time you spend post-processing, and I do spend a bit more than I would like to admit, but it is a time spent doing something that gives me pleasure, not pressing buttons on a poorly designed software and waiting for a tedious scan.
All the following instructions have the objective of achieving the best possible resolution, colour depth and dynamic range out of the film, while keeping image noise as low as possible. Also, I aimed at keeping the whole process as quick as possible. I think each time I’ve made a scan I’ve got better results than the time before, because I keep improving the process and now I’ve got to a stage I’m quite happy with the results.
I’ve separated this tutorial into five sections, and you may want to skip, or skim through some of these.
Step 1: What you need
- Again, ideally you should either use a macro tube with a prime lens or a macro lens, but if you don’t have any of these, your kit lens will also do the job, with a bit of loss in usable resolution, due to cropping. Kit lenses work just fine for medium format;
- A light source, preferably a flash wirelessly triggered, but a well lit wall, the sky or even a computer monitor will work;
A white translucent, clean surface, such as an acrylic board. This is only needed if you’re using a very close light source, such as a flash;
- A piece of cardboard or wood and a couple of clamps are useful.
- If you’re using a flash, you will need either a cable or a wireless trigger. You could set up your flash as slave and trigger it with the in-camera flash but you would have to do it in a way that it wouldn’t get any light reflecting off the film surface, which may be a bit hard.