Here’s a camera scanning rig that I built for “scanning” 35mm black & white negs very quickly with my digital camera. I picked up an old enlarger for $5.95 at a Goodwill store (different enlarger than I used for my 120 scanning setup) and utilized the neg carrier, bellows, and focusing mechanism to build this. It’s a big old Omega C760, and the bellows/focusing unit is a solidly-built piece of equipment. Laying on it’s side, it makes a great base for shooting negs. All I had to do was attach a couple of boards to it – one to hold the camera (with a simple bolt through the board to screw into the camera’s tripod mount), and another to hold the light box (same Logan light box that I use for the 120 setup – it slides in and out of this easily so I can use it for other things) – and build some kind of neg carrier (the tricky part).
My main objective was to create a fast way to slide negs through and shoot quickly without having to carefully line up every frame. With 120 film the speed is not such an issue, since you’re only shooting 12 frames or so per roll. Shooting 36 frames on a roll of 35mm film can add up to a lot of time if you have to spend time adjusting for each shot.
So the main thing that makes this work well is the film transport that I built by soldering together small pieces of brass. The rails are made of 1/8″ L-shapes bars which are paired to make a T track, and they’re spaced apart just enough to allow the film to slide through with a slight snugness. The pieces are soldered together so that when film is slid through, the image area of the film never comes in contact with any part of the mechanism.
You can see a bit of what it looks like, and how it loads in the video clip below.
A rig like this could be built without the bellows, but the advantage of bellow is that they provide an easy way to adjust the distance between camera and film plane. Simply turning the bellows focus knob moves the whole film plane unit (including lightbox) nearer or farther from the camera. This way I can get the negative to nearly fill the frame of the digital camera. The image is focused via the macro lens on the camera.
It takes just a couple of minutes to attach the camera to the base, slide a piece of film in, and set the focus on the camera (focusing is aided by the camera’s zoom feature and focus peaking). I focus with the lens wide open, then stop down to f/8 to add a bit more depth of field just in case there’s any bowing of the film. Exposure is set manually – in most instances I’ve shot at 1/15 sec, ISO 200, f/8. I set my camera to shoot black & white JPG images (see note below) at highest resolution. If I’m shooting a new roll of film that I just developed, I can shoot an entire roll in a few minutes. Working with film that’s already been cut into short strips takes longer, since you have to load each strip (and when scanning old film I spent a lot more time cleaning dust off each strip than actually shooting it).
The video below shows how it goes.
Note on JPG files and 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, and think they need to shoot RAW instead of JPG to capture the full dynamic range. 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 are capturing is only the difference between the blackest part of the film and the brightness of your light source. 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. I’ve shot negatives in RAW format and JPG to compare them, and could find no discernible difference.
I was holding my phone in one hand here, so in reality I can go a little faster than this, but you can see that it’s pretty quick. I sometimes set the camera to a 2-second self-timer delay to make sure there’s no camera movement, but I don’t think it’s really necessary.
I keep the camera set at a distance so that I pick up a little of the border, ensuring that I get the full image, then I usually crop a tiny bit in Lightroom to even out the borders (it’s very convenient that an ASP-C digital sensor is exactly the same proportion as a 35mm frame). Keeping a little of the border visible also makes it easier to align each frame, since you can see a little of each edge on the digital camera’s LCD as you slide the neg through. Being able to capture the entire image, including the natural edge of the 35mm frame, is a big advantage this has over some other scanning methods. I’ve never gotten a commercial scan that included the entire frame – they’re always cropped.
After shooting a roll or two, I move my SD card to my Mac; copy the images; drag the whole batch of images onto a Photoshop action droplet that I previously created to automatically invert all of the images from negatives to positives; then import to Lightroom and make some exposure and contrast adjustments.
Let me know if you have any questions.
Here are some photos of the setup:
I’m using the Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 lens mounted to a Fuji X-mount adapter, along with a 10mm extension tube to allow closer focusing.
Above, you can see the focus-peaking manual-focus assist (set to red) in action.
Below: At the ends of the brass L track, I bent the corners out to make film loading easier. Once the film is pushed in a bit though, the track holds the film straight and flat, and nothing ever touches either side of the image portion of the film.
Below is a view looking inside the bellows at the negative. The wood piece at the bottom is a spacer that holds the brass neg carrier at the proper height to line up with the center of the lens, and the areas above and to the sides of the neg are filled in with black matboard to minimize any extra light coming in. That circular opening is where the enlarger lens board would have originally been attached.
I’ve considered modifying the camera mount so that I could have the option of turning the camera sideways, moving the neg closer to the camera, and shooting three overlapping images of one neg to stitch together in Photoshop for a higher-resolution ‘scan’. But for now, the 16MP (4896 x 3264) images are plenty for me.
Another idea I have is to use the dichroic lamp housing that came with the enlarger as my light source. This would allow me to adjust the color output of the light to possibly compensate for the orange mask of color negative film. Not sure about that, but might have to give it a try.
Below are some images from a roll of film I developed a few nights ago. Those black borders are the actual frame edges captured in-camera. HCB would be proud.
Here’s a close-up of the leaf in the image above to show the amount of detail captured in the scan:
Detail above is from approx. this area outlined in red:
These were shot in my Yashica Electro 35 on Arista EDU 100 film, and developed in Arista Premium Liquid Developer.
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.