Written by Amy Berge
I am fortunate enough that I have a Noritsu LS-600 (read: super swanky scanner) for my 35mm film. It can take in and scan an entire roll at once, is extremely fast, gives me great results, and has saved me a ton of money over the years. It only has two flaws: It doesn’t scan sprocket holes, and it doesn’t scan 120 film. (Some of you might think #2 is a HUGE flaw, but honestly, I really, really love 35mm film and making it my primary medium is no issue for me #unpopularopinion.)
So, what do I do when I want to scan sprocket holes or 120? I have my trusty Epson v600. It’s a workhorse I’ve owned for more than a decade. It does have a few problems, though. You can only scan small strips at a time, it’s slooooow, and, when scanning C-41 film, I can never get the color how I imagine it. These are very annoying issues to have and why I have been hoping for some sort of alternative to try.
Digitizing Film Negatives with a DSLR
Every so often, I hear other film shooters talk about using their DSLR to digitize their negatives and how they are choosing it over using a flatbed. I started watching YouTube videos to gather information and form my own strategy. Through LOTS of trial and error, I now have a set up that works, saves me time over my flatbed, and I have even found software to alleviate lots of those pesky color issues when scanning C-41 film. I’m SO EXCITED to pass this information along, because with minimal investment, you too can digitize your negatives right in your own home.
The DSLR Scanning Process
I’m going to outline my process here, but I have also shot a video for IGTV, because I love being able to see things in writing and also in action. I hope this helps you, too, but if you have any questions, please ask away!
Let’s start by addressing what you need to do this process. It’s going to sound like a lot, but you most likely already own the more expensive items and others you can purchase relatively cheaply.
- A DSLR camera
- Some of you might be tapping out already. I know quite a few fellow film shooters who up and sold their DSLR. I kept mine because I use it a couple times a year for our church directory shots. It’s also a Nikon D700 (circa 2010), and I don’t think I would get more than $50 if I tried to sell it. I figure it’s of more value just to have access to it. If you have one of those fancy, newer DSLR cameras I bet your digitizing will turn out waaaay better than mine.
- A light table
- I just bought one on Amazon for like $20, and it was worth every penny. I tried using my iPad at first with just a blank, white screen, and it was NOT good. The pixels were extremely obvious in the shots, even when I tried placing something to filter the light over the screen.
- A tripod
- I’m going to assume you already have one of these, but if not, I’m not going to shame you. I’m just going to look away while you order one, and, in two business days, we can pretend like nothing ever happened.
- A level
- Once again, super cheap and makes a huge difference. Yes, you can level things out in post, but, really, you need the entire negative to be in the same focus plane. You don’t want part of it blurry just because you didn’t spring for one of these bad boys.
- Remote shutter release
- Any bump in the camera will mess this process up, so do yourself a favor and use one.
- A macro lens
- Okay, confession time: I didn’t own one. (Am I even a real photographer?) I did have extension tubes, so I tried to use those, and it was a disaster. You’re stuck with such a narrow focus range and getting it lined up for the negative to fill the frame and get it in focus was killing the whole project. I stopped by my local camera shop natcam.com. They ship orders over $50 free, and they have a great warranty and customer service. I cannot recommend them enough! I love getting gear from them, and I want them to stay in business for a very long time, so I love helping others discover them. Just to tell you how awesome they are, the sales associate talked me OUT of the lens I was looking at to sell me a cheaper lens that does everything I need it to. I walked out of there spending less than $50, and it was exactly what I needed. I subsequently used it at a newborn shoot on my F100 and was thrilled to have it in my arsenal.
- An anti-static cloth
- I always keep one handy to wipe off my negatives to prep them for scanning.
- Optional: a negative holder with sides
- I created one out of cardstock using an exacto knife to cut an opening for the negative and two slits to string the negative through. Check out the video above to see what it looks like. Everything just stays more centered, and the sides block out ambient light. The first time I was fiddling with the set-up, I noticed some splotches in my results, and I figured out it was from a lamp bouncing its light off the negative. So I for sure would recommend you NOT have any overhead lights on during this process, and if you don’t make sides to block out light, that you at least put up some sort of barrier so sunlight or lamplight doesn’t sneak its way onto the negative you’re trying to digitize.
- Optional: a spare section of film
- I took a roll of film that was blank, and I taped it onto the ends of my film so I could “thread” the film through the holder I made and pull it in one long strip, seamlessly through the cut-out. (Also shown in the video above.)
Your Camera Settings
The next piece is to figure out the settings on your DSLR. I am still experimenting with this part, but, so far, the settings I have found best for me are f8, 1/80th second, ISO 640.
I use f8 because I’m very paranoid about everything being in focus, and I want to give myself a rather deep focal plane to work with. For my shutter speed, I found that anything below 1/80th of a second gives me some camera shake. I wonder if it’s my tripod (read: inexpensive) or because I keep my tripod a little askew because I’m not working with a neck for the camera. Either way, I can’t have camera shake, so 1/80th it is!
The last piece is ISO; obviously the lower the better, but when I went lower than 640 my base images were too dark in Lightroom. Maybe I have to use a higher ISO because I’m using a smaller aperture and faster shutter speed, or maybe my light table isn’t as bright as it could be. Either way, I can’t have a dark negative, so I compensate by using a higher ISO than optimal. I encourage you to play around with your settings to find the sweet spot where everything is in focus, the image is bright, but you’re not adding unnecessary noise to it.
Setting Everything Up
Once you have everything, you just kind of piece it together and go. Setting it all up is the longest part of the process, but once it’s done, digitizing them is a breeze, and it’s still waaaay faster than my flatbed!
Put the remote shutter and level on your camera, and the camera on the tripod pointing downward. (I had to adjust the legs so my camera could point down and still get the negative in the frame. This is where having the level on the camera helped a ton, because my tripod wasn’t level but my camera was so I couldn’t just rely on the level built-in to the tripod.)
Tape the spare pieces of negative to the ends of the roll you want to digitize, then thread through the negative holder. Place the negative/holder on the light table.
Raise or lower your camera until the negative takes up as much of the frame as possible. Make sure your camera is level. Put the camera on Live View so you can zoom in and focus as precisely as possible. I zoom in on the film stock name so I know I’m trying to focus on something that should be crisp and clear.
Double check that your camera is still level. Use your shutter release to take a picture of the negative, pull on the end to advance the frame, and take another picture. Do this until you have taken pictures of the entire roll.
Editing the Film Scans
Bring all your photos into Lightroom, and do yourself a favor and test out Negative Lab Pro. It is the best software I have found/used for dealing with color negatives. You can use this no matter how you scan, so even if you love your trusty flatbed scanner, go over and give Negative Lab Pro a try because it’s free for your first 12 negatives!
If you’re scanning on a flatbed, just be sure to scan it as if it’s a positive, because Negative Lab Pro does its thing by converting the negative into a positive. If you’ve taken pictures with your DSLR you don’t have to worry about remembering, because you’ll always have the original file as a negative.
Using Negative Lab Pro
There’s a tutorial for how to use it on their site, but I’ll just give you a quick overview here.
Use the white balance dropper to select an area of the negative that isn’t exposed (so between frames is the perfect spot.) Crop your negative so none of the borders show (no sprocket holes, no nothing. Just the image) Decide if you want the color profile to be Noritsu or Frontier (or “None” but let’s be real: you’re already on Team Noritsu or Team Frontier, so there’s no way you’re not going to choose one of these as your color profile.) Then, hit “convert negative” and watch the magic happen.
You’ll now have access to sliders to fine tune the image (brightness, contrast, tint, temp, highlights, shadows, etc.) When you’re done, you’ll just “apply” the changes and have the best looking scan you can do at home without owning your own Frontier or Noritsu. (If you want to show off the sprocket holes or the edges of the film, just re-crop it now that the color work is done!)
So, is scanning/digitizing with a DSLR more convoluted than scanning with a flat bed? Yes. But, ultimately, it ends up taking way less of your day. And even with my ancient D700, I feel like the quality of my images rivals my flatbed. So get out there and start digitizing your film!
Thank you so much, Amy! Amy is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out her other articles here, including tutorials on how to hack your DX code and how to create light leaks!
Leave your questions about scanning film negatives with a DSLR below in the comments!