Camera-scanning 120 negativesPosted: August 27, 2015
I recently posted photos that I had shot on black and white 120 film, home processed, and ‘scanned’ using my Fuji X-T1 camera and an old Nikkor macro lens. I’ll detail a little bit of the process below, because I think this holds great promise of being a quick and easy way to get some really nice quality scans. Below is a screen shot of a detail area from the photo above, to give you some idea of the quality and resolution.
When cropped square, these images are about 3100 x 3100 pixels. The X-T1 has about a 16MP sensor in it, and the full image size is 3264 x 4896 pixels. I didn’t completely fill the frame with the negative, so I’m cropping in a bit (plus cropping square of course in this case, since they’re 6×6 negs). I could make higher-resolution images of 120 film by getting closer to the neg and moving it around to capture several images, then auto-stitching them in Photoshop. I’ve seen examples of this online that are stunning. But for quick scans, these 9+MP images are pretty great.
So, how was this done?
First I bought a small light box to act as a backlight-source. I got a Logan 4″ x 5″ Slim Edge Light Pad, but I’m sure any would work fine. I had read that this model has a nice consistent brightness and color. And I wanted one for some other uses, anyway.
Then I had to figure out a way to hold the camera perfectly parallel to the light box. A tripod could be used, but it would be hard to align it perfectly, and to adjust height and repeat the setup. I tried this with a tripod in the past, and it’s a pain in the a**. An old copy stand would be perfect, but I had a hard time finding one for a reasonable price. So I decided that an old photo enlarger could be converted to a copy stand. I picked up an old Omega enlarger at a thrift store for $16:
It seemed a shame to tear apart such a nice enlarger, but I found that it could easily be dismantled in a way that it could be put back together if I want to return it to it’s intended use.
I added a small platform of plywood, with a hole cut at the perfect size to hold the end of my Nikkor macro lens. This certainly wouldn’t work with all lenses, but the way this lens is built (and since the Fuji X-T1 is a very light camera), it works perfectly. I used a level to carefully align the platform to be near-perfectly level with the base of the enlarger (fortunately, the enlarger had adjustment screws on the base that normally holds the neg-carrier, to make this adjustment easy).
I used a neg carrier that I happened to have from a flatbed scanner to hold the negatives flat against the light box, and inserted the camera and lens into the platform:
It may look a bit unstable, but the camera actually sits very steady, since the camera body is light, and the lens is heavy and has a portion that sticks out with nice straight sides, which slides into the hole in the plywood (I looped the camera strap around the top of the enlarger to keep it out of the way, but it would also catch the camera if it were somehow knocked off the stand). The height of the stand was adjusted so the neg would almost fill the frame, then the lens was focused. The manual focus aid in the X-T1 helps a lot for this — it will zoom in on the center of the frame and show red highlights when edges are in sharp focus, as seen below in the bad iphone photo of the camera’s LCD screen:
The room lights were shut off before shooting the actual photos, to eliminate any reflections off the film.
I tested the camera and lens combo by shooting several images of a couple negs from f/3.5 to f/22, and found that I got the sharpest images at f/3.5 to f/8. Surprisingly, this lens actually seems slightly sharper wide open at f3.5 than stopped down a stop or two. But to get a little bit of depth of field to help ensure the whole neg was in focus, even if it wasn’t completely flat, I shot them at f/8.
Here’s the lens I’m using:
It’s a Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 – a great macro lens with extremely little distortion. In these images of square negatives, there was absolutely no bowing of the edges of the images. When cropped square to the image, the edges were perfectly straight. I’m lucky that I just happened to have this lens already, so I only needed a cheap adapter to put it on the Fuji X-T1.
The camera was set to electronic shutter so there’d be no camera movement from the shutter, and set to ISO 200, auto shutter speed, and with a 2-second self-timer to eliminate camera shake from pressing the shutter button. Next time I’ll set the shutter speed manually so that all of the exposures on a roll are consistent, as that will make later Lightroom adjustments easier to apply through the whole roll.
The negs had just been dried after developing, so they were still very clean, so I didn’t even bother blowing dust off of them. The scans picked up a few dust spots, but not bad at all. I slid the negs through by hand, and had to spend a few second on each one making sure it was aligned straight in the viewfinder, and that I wasn’t cutting off any of the image. That’s where this process could really be improved — by building some kind of neg carrier that the negs could slide through and stay aligned in the viewfinder. Even so, it probably only took about 15 minutes to shoot the roll, from setting the camera height and focusing the first neg to shooting all twelve images. (EDIT: Now that I’ve done a few rolls this way, it’s even faster — I have the enlarger marked at the proper height, so setup is faster, and I can get through a roll in a few minutes)
Process updated: See NOTE at end of this post.
Then the negs were brought into Lightroom and adjusted. Here’s what they looked like when first imported to Lightroom:
In Lightroom there’s no easy way to invert the negs into positives (they should really add a simple checkbox in the tone curve panel to invert the image). You have to grab each end of the tone curve and pull the bottom end up to the top, and the top end down to the bottom to invert the image (if you can’t get this to work, click the button in the bottom-right of the Tone Curve box — this change it to a ‘point curve’ and you can move the very ends of the line). So you change this: Simple enough, but now all of your exposure sliders in Lightroom are reversed. Increasing the Exposure slider darkens the image; decreasing the Blacks slider actually increases the Whites. It’s a bit confusing. I did this in Lightroom because I wanted to work with the camera RAW image, thinking that would give me the best quality. But after some experimenting I’ve decided that the JPG images are just as good, so it’s easy to simply invert the images in Photoshop, then make all the normal adjustments in Lightroom. Next time I do this, I’ll quickly invert all the images in Photoshop before importing them into Lightroom. Process updated: See NOTE at end of post.
Another advantage that I discovered in shooting my own scans is that I can get the full frame with no cropping of the image. Here’s the first test image I shot, from an older roll of film. You can see the actual edges of the frame of the film:
And here is an overlay showing the scan that the lab did on top of my scan (tinted red). The red edges are the parts of the image that were cropped out of the lab scan. That’s a pretty big difference.
I’m looking forward to developing more film and experimenting more with this. Next step: build a neg carrier to slide the 120 film through. After that: Build a rig to slide 35mm negs through for the same kind of setup.
I’ve scanned more film using this setup and have changed just a couple things:
1) I’m setting my camera to record a B&W JPG instead of color to simplify it a little. I did some testing of B&W vs Color and JPG vs RAW, and found virtually no difference. The dynamic range is very low, so there’s no need to shoot raw.
Note on dynamic range: I’ve seen some online posts about camera-scanning, and people are concerned about the digital camera’s ability to capture the full dynamic range of the film. Here’s my take: Relax, it’s not an issue at all. The dynamic range of the scene was already captured and compressed in the film. When “scanning” the neg, the dynamic range you’re capturing is only the difference between the blackest part of the film and the brightness of your light pad. Unless your light pad is as bright as the sun, you’re not talking about much dynamic range here. I don’t get any clipping of highlights or shadows.
2) Before importing into Lightroom I do a quick inversion in Photoshop to turn the negs into positives. I created a Photoshop action ‘droplet‘, so all I have to do is drag a folder full of images onto the ‘droplet’ on my Mac, and they will all be opened in Photoshop, inverted and re-saved. It all works automatically and just takes a few seconds. Then when they’re imported into Lightroom I don’t have to mess with inverting the tone curve.