Whether you are shooting film or have a large collection of negatives, chances are you will want to scan them one day. The process to digitize your analog pictures can be expensive and sometimes even disappointing regarding image quality. When I started playing with my Mamiya RB67, I wished there was a cheap and quick scanning method that would offer me a good amount of detail and decent colors. I found it using gear I already owned and that most of you actually also have at home. It even surpassed my expectations to the point that I decided to share the technique with you in this article.
Image Quality: Lab versus DIY
Before we dive into the how-to, I want to make a point and show you that the quality you can get out of this technique is as good as what many labs offer, if not better. This way you’ll know that I’m not wasting your time with a promising idea that doesn’t deliver. So here are two different scans of the very same negative. One of them was realized with my Nikon D810, a Sigma 105mm macro lens, two Elinchrom ELB flashes, and Capture One, while the second one was done by a lab. Can you guess which is which?
In both examples above, the lab scan is labeled "A" on the left (less magenta in the skin tones). While I don’t have the exact model of the scanner used by the lab, I know it was an Imacon. An expensive machine but not the best around either — not as good as a drum scanner. If you were to buy a second-hand Imacon, it would set you back $2,000.
So while my technique remains very basic, it will cost you less than $2,000 and will yield digital files that are comparable. Best of all, it should only take a few minutes to digitize a few rolls of film. Much fast than an Imacon or Epson scanner.
The Gear You Need to Scan Negatives
Before we go any further, here is a list of the required gear and accessories:
- Macro lens
- Two pieces of glass that are at least the size of you negative
- Tablet, phone, or laptop, depending on the size of you negative.
I believe these are all things you already own. Some of you may be lacking the macro lens, but it can be replaced by a 50mm with extension tubes (just be careful with deformation and vignetting then). Also, if you have everything except the macro lens, it will still cost you less than a good Epson or Imacon scanner.
Now that we are clear with what we need let’s set it all up. The goal here is to recreate a reprographic system with a light table. The initial idea actually came from seeing this video:
Place your tablet (or phone or laptop) on a table, install one of the two glasses on top of the screen, and have your camera on the tripod above it. The lens should be pointing straight down, and the focal plan must perfectly parallel to the glass surface, where your negative will be placed. To be honest with you, this is the hardest part. At this stage, your setup should look something like a poor man's reprographic system.
If you hadn’t understood yet, the tablet is meant to light our negative from underneath. So make sure to turn its brightness to the maximum, and have a pure-white image displayed in full-screen mode. The glass on top of it is here just to separate the negative from the screen and avoid having the pixels showing in our scan. Depending on the aperture you are using, you might have to raise the negative even more than just a few millimeters. Also, make sure both the glass, the negative, and the screen are pristine. An air blower will probably come in handy here.
Once everything is cleaned, you can go ahead and snap a picture of your negative. Make sure to focus on the grain and not on the picture itself as it may have been out of focus in the first place. To do so, switch on the live view mode and zoom in all the way.
You now have you negative in digital form. All you have to do next is convert it to a positive image in Capture One, Lightroom, or Photoshop. If you don’t know how to do this, be sure to stay tuned. As you read these lines, I’m writing a second article that will detail this process for you.
Wait, you are wondering what that second piece of glass was for, right? Well, as we don’t use a carriage for our negatives, chances are they are not totally flat. If they aren’t, clean the second piece of glass, then put it down over your negative.
Improving the Setup
Let’s be honest, this scanning method is very basic and has its flaws. Since my first attempt, I actually improved the system above. I still wanted to share it in its most simple form as it’s also the cheapest one. But here are the few things I noticed so far that you can tweak to make it better.
First of all, your iPad is most likely not bright enough to light your negative in any condition. You may have to do this in a dark room or wait until dusk. This can be overcome by using strobes instead of a tablet. I personally place two Elinchrom ELB 400 heads in a shoe box with a piece of glass on top. With this setup, I can digitize my film in any lighting condition and I can even adjust my strobes output in order to brighten or darken my scan.
Then comes the dust. You must do this process in an immaculate environment. Forget about doing it outdoors or with your windows open. Placing a bellow between the negative and the lens can also prevent having dust coming onto the negative or lens after you have cleaned them.
Thirdly, I could see people complain about colors. Perhaps you shoot film because you want those beautiful colors it can render that your digital camera cannot. Well, then this technique is probably not for you unless you have a digital medium format system like shown in the Digital Transition video.
Light flare may also bother you. Having the negative lit from behind, you may see some contrast issue or color orbs appearing. If that’s the case, cut a hole the size of your negative in a black piece of paper and lay it down over the negative.
Finally, you might find your pictures lacking details. But there is a simple fix for this potential issue. Below is another scan of the same negative as before, again using only my D810. Left is the one with my basic setup (iPad, D810, tripod), and the right one is my current setup (Elinchrom ELB 400, D810, old reprographic table).
The difference in terms of resolution between the two is very easy to explain. The first scan was done with the negative filling the D810 frame. Being that it was a 6x7 negative, I got a bit less than 36 megapixels. For the second one, I placed my camera at the closest distance I could focus my Sigma 105mm lens, and shot multiple images. All the pictures were then stitched together to create a 200-megapixel-plus digital negative. You may also notice a difference in terms of colors between the two and that seems to come from the iPad screen not being bright enough to shine through the negative. The rendering from the setup with the flashes yields a better dynamic range.
As you can see, if the development of the film is done properly, this technique yields perfectly acceptable results. At least, more than enough for you and your clients to post on the web or even print in small formats. The conversion in Capture One or Photoshop will also play an important role in the final digital image quality, so be sure to stay tuned and read my next article regarding that matter.