February 27, 2022
I started shooting film again in 2017 and as soon as I received my first batch of scans back from the local lab, I knew I would have to scan my own negatives. Since then, I’ve embarked on the quest that every modern film shooter must endure: how to transform physical negatives into high quality digital images. After a number of experiments starting with an over-priced but under-whelming Epson scanner, I’ve found a solution that works for me. That is, it provides good quality digital images with a minimal time investment for a reasonable price.
I’ve written previously about my setup using a simple rail system in combination with a small mirrorless camera, macro lens, and LED light panel. The key component of a digitizing rig is the film holder. At the time I was using a 35mm negative carrier from an enlarging system to hold the film. This system worked well, and once I got rolling, I probably spent an average of 20-30 seconds on each frame to load the strip of negatives, advance the frame, clamp the carrier shut, focus and capture the image, then release the clamp and advance to the next frame. I found that the 35mm negative carrier, when clamped securely, did a good job at holding the film flat while the solid metal construction blocked all stray light and provided a secure connection to the camera via the rail system. The only downside to this system was that the film strip sometimes fell out of the track when the clamps were released, and the film alignment had to be checked for every frame. If the film slipped out and fell to the floor, then the negatives would be covered in dust requiring meticulous cleaning and lots of extra time with the spot removal tool in Lightroom. Another negative of the negative carrier is that is can scratch the negative when advancing the frame. But overall not bad for $15.
Then about a year ago I came across a listing for a Beseler Negatrans. The Negatrans is a specialized negative carrier designed to “save time and minimize handling when printing multiple images from the same roll of film.” In addition to securely advancing the entire roll through the carrier by use of a wheel and o-ring system that pulls the film along by its edge, the Negatrans was specifically designed to minimize scratching because nothing touches the surface of the film. For less than $50 ($30 plus shipping and tax), I decided to give it a try.
In addition to being extremely quick to use, the Negatrans minimizes dust and scratches on the film. Once my film is fully dry after developing, I simply roll it back up and put it in a film canister and keep it there until I’m ready to scan it. The entire roll of film can be digitized within a few minutes of being removed from the canister, and I hardly have to touch the film except to insert it into the Negatrans. I’ve found that this greatly reduces the amount of dust on my negatives (a big problem here in dusty West Texas).
Despite its strengths, the Negatrans does have a couple of downsides. First, because the film is only held by the edges, it may not be perfectly flat, and this can be an issue with films that tend to curl particularly near the ends of the roll. But for curled films this is probably an issue for several film holders. Second, the opening of the Negatrans is very tight and does crop in on the frame slightly (and digitizing with sprockets or film border is impossible). Although it seems like I am losing part of the frame, in reality this is not really a problem and eliminates the need to manually crop out the film border later on. I have learned to consciously frame my images a little bit wider with the camera when taking the photo. Since switching over to the Negatrans, I have not needed to use my other 35mm negative carrier. I think the only situation when that might be needed would be if I needed to capture a better quality scan of a curled negative.
Evaluating Aperture and Depth of Field
Update: After writing this post and realizing that the film curl issue could be a real problem, I decided to investigate further by looking at how the aperture setting used for digitizing affects focus and sharpness across the negative. I captured a series of four images of the negative using the Sony 30mm f/3.5 Macro lens starting at f/4 then closing the aperture in one stop increments until f/11. I set the focus point near the center of the frame so that the camera would not change the focus point between the exposures.
For reference, the negative travels through the Negatrans horizontally (of course) so film curl would affect the top and bottom of the digitized negative. The example photo was shot vertically (in portrait orientation), so we’ll be comparing sharpness at the center and near the left and right sides (top and bottom of the horizontal negative when digitized.)
This comparison test shows fairly conclusively that overall sharpness across the image is produced by shooting at f/8 or even f/11 compared to f/5.6. I had previously been using f/5.6 as the default. I should have made this comparison much sooner! Note that if you are using a full frame camera, there will be less depth of field at these apertures but you may have another f-stop or two available before diffraction kicks in.
In theory, the macro depth of field for my camera (Sony a6500 APS-C), focusing on a 24mmx36mm negative frame to fill the image sensor (0.625x magnification), is 0.67mm at f/4.0. This increases to 0.95mm at f/5.6, 1.35mm at f/8, and 1.91mm at f/11. Not all of that depth of field is actually usable (since the film negative and focus point would need to be optimized based on the amount of curvature in the film plane), so practically speaking, the depth of field is probably less than 1mm at f/8. Diffraction may also come into play and is more of a problem with macro than for normal photography. Strictly speaking, the calculator shows that diffraction may become visible at f/4.8 when viewing a 100% crop on-screen or at f/9.5 when printed. Looking at these test images on screen, I am seeing some loss of sharpness at f/11, so I think the diffracton limit for print is more applicable. Based on this evaluation, I’m going to be using f/8 or possibly f/9 with the Negatrans (and for all my negative captures) in the future.
There have also been several products (some examples linked below) brought to market in the last couple of years to address the problem of holding the negative for digitizing. These range from affordable ($55) to ridiculous ($500+). The pilx-latr seems to provide a lot of value because it accomodates formats from 35mm to 4×5 and has built-in diffusion, but it may be limited by the all-plastic construction and advancing the film might be a chore. I also think that the $99 price of the Negative Supply Basic Film Carrier could be justified but their “basic” film scanning kit starts at $489!
Other options available now (early 2022):
- Negative Supply Basic Film Carrier 35 $99 (Or the Film Carrier MK1 for $319)
- VALOI 360 Basic Bundle $270
- Pixl-latr Fillm Holder $55
- Cameradactyl Mongoose $650
The Beseler Negatrans provides a great option for camera scanning 35mm negatives. With my next few rolls I’m going to pay more attention and try to get the negatives to lay flat but based on what I’ve seen with my scans so far, this is not a serious concern for me.