Best Practices for Scanning Film Negatives with a Digital Camera (DSLR or Mirrorless)

Scanning your film negatives with a digital camera can be an incredibly rewarding – or incredibly frustrating – process, largely depending on your setup and know-how.

While DSLR (or Mirrorless) film scanning holds many promising results – like RAW capture, faster capture times, and sharpness that rivals $10,000+ drum scanners – there are many potential stumbling blocks along the way that could prevent you from getting the results you want from your film negatives.

The purpose of this guide is to be a living document to share BEST PRACTICES for scanning film with a digital camera.


Equipment Guide:


LENS

The lens is an incredibly important part of the DSLR/Mirrorless scanning process. Not only will a good macro lens produces great edge-to-edge sharpness of your negative scan, but it will also prevent some of the most common issues with DSLR scanning, like orange blotches resulting from lens flare during capture

Tips:

  1. Use a modern macro lens if possible. Not only will a modern macro lens produce sharper results, but the newer AR coatings decrease the chance of lens flare during capture (lens flar can lead to strange colors and casts)

  2. Use a “native” lens if possible (and avoid adaptors and tubes). Every adaptor or tube adds to the likelihood of light variances that will throw off the color (which may not be visible during capture, but will be amplified by the conversion). Adaptors can also throw off lens corrections that are performed later in software.

  3. Longer focal lengths are preferable to shorter focal lengths. They allow you to keep the lens further from the negative, thus reducing the likelihood of lens reflections.


LIGHT SOURCE

The colors from your DSLR scan will only be as good as the light source that you use. Poor light sources will not be able to bring out the rich, natural colors in your negative. Poor light sources can also cause uneven lighting in your scan, which not only throws off the tonal balance, but will create uneven color reproduction.

Tips:

  1. Look for a light with a high CRI (Color Rendering Index) of at least 90+. If the manufacturer does not list the CRI, it is a good sign that it is not a good light source for DSLR film scanning.

  2. Look for an even lighting source - high-quality light pads made specifically for camera scanning should provide even illumination. If you are using a pixelated source (like an iPad) you’ll need to raise the film higher off the surface or use a diffuser (like opalized glass) to even out the light. If you are using a flash as a light source, special care will need to be taken to ensure even diffused light.

  3. It’s generally recommended to use a daylight balanced light source with a temperature of 5000°K or 5500°K - you certainly don’t want your light to be any warmer than this!

See recommended light sources for more.


TRIPOD / COPY-STAND

You’ll need a way to keep your camera stationary and in plane with your film. You’ll want to look for a solution that is easy to finely adjust, as well as being sturdy enough to remain fixed in place for an entire session of film digitization.

Tips:

  1. A sturdy copy-stand with an adjustable height is the ideal solution. They are significantly easier to adjust than a tripod, are more stable, and more ergonomic to use while sitting at your desk.

  2. In a pinch, you can use a traditional tripod. The sturdiest way to use a tripod is to invert the center column and shoot straight down.

  3. An alternative to copy-stands and tripods is using a bellows or digitization adaptor (see this example). The advantage of this setup is that it keeps everything in plane and light out. The disadvantage is that this method is not as flexible for working with different film formats, or switching between lenses.


FILM HOLDERS/CARRIERS

Now that you have a lens, light source and stand, you need a way to safely elevate and transport your film for each shot. The important considerations are 1) film flatness, 2) speed, 3) limiting contact with film.

Tips:

  1. Use a film carrier that elevates the film off the surface of your light pad. Placing the film directly on the light table can lead to newton-rings, and will exacerbate any small variances in light.

  2. Flatness is crucial to getting edge-to-edge sharpness across the entire frame - the depth of field of macro lenses is incredibly sensitive, so look for a film holder/carrier that has built-in mechanisms to keep the film flat.


AVOIDING DUST

One of the most annoying aspects of digital camera scanning is that the need to remove dust. Unlike traditional film scanners, there is no separate IR channel capture with digital cameras, making IR dust removal not possible. The best solution is to prevent dust from being on your film in the first place!

Tips:

  1. Wear lint-free gloves whenever handling film - this will prevent oil from your skin and finger-print smudges from getting on the film.

  2. Use a “rocket blaster” or anti-static dust removing brush directly prior to scanning. Since camera scanning doesn’t have IR dust removal, it will save you a lot of time to avoid dust in the first place. If using a rocket blaster, be sure to blast across both sides of the film, and blow the dust off the film rather than just pushing the dust to another part of the film.


Capture Guide


SETUP

Now that you have all your equipment together, it’s time to check your setup! A proper setup is crucial, because even with great equipment, a small mistake in your setup can lead to frustrating results.

Tips:

  1. Make sure to mask at ALL the stray light from your light source. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Some dark construction paper with a mask cut out will do. This includes masking out the light that is passing through sprocket holes, although you may be able to get away with it if you have a modern macro lens setup.

  2. Use a mirror to get the camera perfectly parallel to the film - place the mirror on the surface of the light pad. Then align your camera so that the reflection of the lens is exactly centered. See example of using mirror for alignment here.

  3. Turn off all the lights in the room before capture.

  4. Use your lens hood if you have one - to reduce flare potential.

  5. Take off any lens filters (like UV filters), as this can be a source of unwanted reflections.

  6. Shoot with the emulsion (matte) side of film facing towards the camera if you can (it’s less reflective and less likely to catch the light reflecting back from your camera/lens). You can then just flip the image during editing later.

  7. Use a remote trigger or camera countdown timer during capture. The vibration caused by pressing the shutter button can cause blur in the capture.


CAMERA SETTINGS:

  1. Shoot RAW - You don’t want to capture as a TIFF or JPEG because these will have a lot of settings built in that are intended for regular digital positive capture (and will result in distorted colors and tones when you invert the negative).

  2. ISO: Set to your camera’s base ISO. This will vary a bit by camera, but is usually 100 or 200 ISO.

  3. APERTURE: Set to f/8.0. This will minimize lens vignetting. Any lens vignetting that occurs during capture will be reversed during the inversion of the negative. It can also throw off the color balance along the outer edges of the capture.

  4. SHUTTER SPEED: Set to your camera meter’s recommendation, or 1-stop higher - You may find that some small improvements by exposing about 1-stop higher than your camera recommends, as this will result in slightly more “levels” of information being captured from the denser parts of the negative (You can read more about “exposing to the right” here).

  5. Keep the SAME exposure for the entire roll. This will cut down on variance during processing. Beware auto exposure, as the small settings changes throughout the roll will create unwanted variance.

  6. White Balance - since you are capturing RAW, the white balance won’t matter at this stage.

  7. If your camera supports it, use “focus peaking” with LiveView and focus manually - otherwise, use AutoFocus on each shot. - with focus peaking, you should be able to see that the film grain is in focus. If your camera does not have focus peaking and liveview, set it to AutoFocus, but be aware that there could be variations in your sharpness from frame to frame.


What do you think? What did I miss?

Comment below with your questions or additional tips, and I’ll keep updating the guide.

3 Likes

Light source… Add to the recommendation “Daylight light balance, 5000°K or 5500°K, to better balance the three channels in camera-scan capture.”

2 Likes

Tripod Copy Stand - Bellows and slide copier can work well. Suggest add, “Bellows and Slide/Film copier can make an effective horizontal setup, but be sure your chosen lens can focus as needed with bellows.”

1 Like

Setup… I suggest “emulsion” rather than “emulsive”

1 Like

Camera setting, white balance setting?

1 Like

In the end, it really doesn’t matter as RAW photography is a sensor dump, and the white balance setting is stored in EXIF and only affects the RAW image preview and the default conversion in your raw processor. Most of the time, you’re re-sampling the rebate/margin of the negative before converting it in NLP anyway.

If it really matters to you, you can take a sample of just the light table if you want true negative capture (measure and set it once), or find a way to set it from the rebate/margin of your negative if you want to avoid having to change it in lightroom (per film stock setting)

Added

Added and linked to the example you shared previously.

Updated

I’ve made this more detailed to break out ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed

Yes! I’ve added that white balance at the stage of capture doesn’t really matter.

2 Likes

Can you discuss this in more detail? Do you mean histogram should be the same for the entire roll?

No, I mean the exposure (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed) settings on your digital camera should be the same for the entire roll…

For instance, let’s say your base ISO is 100, and your aperture is set to f/8.0. Then using your digital camera, you adjust the shutter speed until your meter tells you it’s a correct exposure (or until the histogram is balanced in the middle or maybe a tad to the right). Let’s just say that shutter speed is 1/8th of a second.

So your settings for that frame would be ISO 100, F/8.0, 1/8th of a second.

You want to keep those same values fixed for the entire roll you are digitizing.

Don’t change those values throughout the roll, even if some of your exposures are denser than others. And don’t leave your camera mode on “Automatic” or “Aperture Priority” mode, as those modes will change the exposure settings slightly between each frame.

Does that make sense?

-Nate

1 Like

Hi Nate, thanks so much!

So just to make sure I’m getting you, what I want to do is determine the exposure for the first frame of the roll and then maintain those exact settings for each subsequent shot no matter what? So this is just assuming that all frames have about the same density?

I’m not sure if I understand this yet. Why is this important? As far as I read from your guide, NLP analyses each and every image individually and sets the tone curves accordingly. This should mean that any variance in exposure of the original negatives is irrelevant. Or does it mean that “errors” will be introduced when settings are changed or synced after the initial conversion?

According to what I found in my test series with exposure corrections ranging from 0 to 2 EV, slight differences exist although they are so small that I’ll put them in the middle of the vast field between right or wrong.

I also found that it can make sense to limit a badge of conversions to negatives with similar exposure and taken under similar lighting conditions, which would both support and contradict our findings.

It won’t matter so much when looking at just an individual conversion.

It will matter greater if you ever want to use “Sync Scene” get the exact same conversion between photos on a roll.

It will also matter greater when “roll analysis” is introduced in v3. If you have variance across your exposures, this could introduce some faulty data in the analysis.

-Nate

1 Like

…this is where I get stuck. I have rolls of film that I exposed by estimation rather than by measurement. Exposures vary greatly on these films. Will exact same conversions work under these circumstances?