Picture of Scanning Film Negatives with a DSLR
Well, lets just say I've gotten better at this over the last couple of years. The left image was one of the first I've "scanned" with my DSLR, and the one on the right I've just rescanned using the techniques described below (higher resolution available here). Right now I can get higher resolution and better image quality that what street labs give you on CD.

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.
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39676 months ago

Thanks for your tutorial, had a similar idea in the past but the purpose was different. I had a bunch of 35mm Negatives and want to know as fast as possible if they are worth for keeping. So i set up a light source, a holder for the negatives and a webcam. Then i used a free software to invert the actual webcam signal, so i could watch at me negatives in natural color.

Also i have a tip for you, if needed in post processing there are some good tools you might like. search on google pls:

polaroid dust remover tool (freeware)

neat image noise reduction (freeware, and better paid versions)

Also the cropping part can be done in batch with some freeware tools, so you can save time on that.

I don't have time to read this over in entirety, but by other comments and length of the instructable, this looks like it will be good. I have a box of negatives (condensed down from about 200 boxes) from a photographer that has been taking portrait, commercial, event and misc. photos of my city from about 1950 - 2005. I bought a cheap negative scanner which might only be good for the 35mm stuff and was worried about what to do with the larger format stuff. well looks like I found the solution. Thanks and favorited
pauloricca (author)  cerberustugowar2 years ago
Hey, thanks for the nice comments :) Please feel free to share any positive or negative results, or any issues that you may find.

LOL I see what you did there; you said negative results.

Seriously though, I had wanted to build something similar to digitise a lot of my late parents' film & slides before they degraded, but my ideas were quite complicated and so didn't get built. I can see myself making this in an afternoon with some matt black foamcore instead of laser-cut MDF.

Also, thanks for sharing the post processing part. :D

ceanes2 years ago
Thanks for posted it, i will try.
Gravity Boy2 years ago
Thank you for the instructable, nice work. I have some valuable slides or at least they have personal value and I do not trust to send them out to a lab or some cheaper solution such as a Costco service.

Your information is far more worthy of reading than the childish comments that were posted and you graciously ignored.

Thank you

pauloricca (author)  Gravity Boy2 years ago
You're very welcome! :) yeah.... apparently trolls are everywhere :P
auntwrennyz2 years ago
Thanks so much for this idea. I have been trying to figure out how to "scan" some images from some VERY old ViewMaster reels. I're thinking copyright issues, but I just want them for myself.

I spent HOURS looking at these images from the 1940's - 1960's reels my Dad gave me. Many of them are so damaged now that I'm afraid to put them in the viewer. (I even have some from the Apollo 11 mission images.) Many of these images were taken around the world. I used to sit outside and imagine I was touring all those exotic places. I just don't want to lose those memories and this might be the best way for me to do it. Thanks a bunch!
pauloricca (author)  auntwrennyz2 years ago
Thank you! :) That's exactly why I wanted to share this ;)
useraaaaa2 years ago
thank you Captain Obvious, you invented new crazy bicycle
dont even think to use space between frames as "white point"!
because it is too easy!
pauloricca (author)  useraaaaa2 years ago
lol Are you saying that I could have set the white balance to the blank parts of the negative? You do realize that photos taken under different lighting have different white balance points, don't you? ;) It's much more productive to set the auto white balance to a white object inside the frame.
But thanks for the input, anyway! I do appreciate it :)
danzo3212 years ago
>the left end of the curves represents the highlights and the left, the shadows.
Can't both be 'left' !
pauloricca (author)  danzo3212 years ago
Right! :) thanks. corrected
yellowcatt2 years ago
Very useful instructable.
I am in the process of setting up to copy some of my negatives.
I will use the neg carrier from an old enlarger to hold the negatives and probably use an LED lamp with a diffuser as the light source.

If you have a lot of negatives to scan it would probably be worth grouping them by film type and then finding an approximate correction for each type.
You could then set up macros for batch processing each set.
That should give you a reasonably good correction that will just need a bit of tweaking of the individual images.

pauloricca (author)  yellowcatt2 years ago
Yeah I use to do that exactly. Every time I get a roll developed, before cutting the film, I run it through the scanner and then process it in batch ;)
vincent75202 years ago
Great instructable !
Not only did I get a new way of scanning older films (it work with B&W too of course), but the photoshop part on balancing colors is very clear and I always need inputs on this matter as I have a very feeble mind regarding color techniques !!!!…
I truly thank you !…
pauloricca (author)  vincent75202 years ago
You're very welcome! :D thanks
dchall82 years ago
Best Instructable I've seen in a long time!  Thank you for sharing your film holder construction, camera settings, and software methods.  It is obvious you have solved a lot of problems. 

I have about 100 boxes of Kodachrome slides taken by my father and myself over the years.  He started shooting slides at the end of WWII.  With a few mods, your setup should work for slides just as well.  I am a big fan of making things out of reinforced/laminated cardboard when structural strength is not that important.  You have taken a lot of trial and error out of building a great slide copier.  For example back lighting through the hole in the box seems obvious (now), but has plagued my thought processes. 

I am curious why you did not paint everything flat black to stop bouncing reflections and colors all over your camera's sensors? 

I think you left out some images in Step 9.  You mentioned them but they are not there. 

Also a nit-pick - loose means 'not tight.'  You use loose instead of 'lose.' 
pauloricca (author)  dchall82 years ago
Thanks a lot for your input, I'm really glad you liked it! I have corrected what you've pointed out. In step 9 I only have those pictures but I wasn't referring to them in the right way.

Alos, for slides this guy has a very neat way of holding them. The L holder seems sturdy enough and quick to use, have a look.

I haven't painted it black, I see your point, but it doesn't seem to be an issue for some reason. I think, at least behind the diffuser, it even helps to have some light bouncing around, to help it diffuse better.

Thanks again!