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.