Simple Guide to Digitizing Film Negatives
I have a revised and updated 2022 guide here.
In this post, I present a simple and inexpensive solution for digitizing and inverting/color correcting film negatives. My goal is to cut through all of the BS out there on photo forums (e.g., about the wonders of VueScan or why you need a $650 negative holder/copy stand) and show you how easy it can be to get great results.
I hope this information will convince you that “your camera is the best scanner” and helps you to get started, but if you plan to do much of this at all, I highly recommend Peter Krogh’s multimedia book, Digitizing Your Photos With Your Camera and Lightroom.
I grew up with film because I was born in 1974. I was never all that interested in photography, but I did have cameras and take pictures, so I used film. Mostly I remember using cheap 110 film cameras as a kid-we didn’t have anything nicer. My dad had some kind of SLR, but I was not allowed to touch it. As a teenager, I had a couple of Canon Snappy point and shoots which I thought were great, then when I got married my wife had a nice automatic SLR with a zoom lens (a Chinon Genesis). Unfortunately I never really appreciated that camera (although she took some fantastic images with it) because digital cameras were becoming mainstream at that time and had the big advantage (to my mind) that the photos were on the computer. I got my first digital camera in 2003 (a 4-megapixel Olympus point and shoot) and didn’t touch a film camera again for 14 years.
Over the years, it always bothered me that we had a trunk full of 4×6 prints and film negatives that rarely came out, but we never did anything about it. I did some research once on scanning film negatives, but the consensus then was that it was impossible without specialized film scanning equipment and software. I got serious about photography in 2014 then took an interest in film photography in 2017. After seeing my first batch of scans from the lab, I was convinced I had to scan and convert the negatives myself to get the kind of image quality that I wanted.
Thus began untold hours of searching the internet and scouring discussion forums for the occult knowledge of how to digitize and invert/correct the images. On the digitizing side, there are two camps: those that use scanners and those that use digital cameras. I will allow that the dedicated film scanners of old (e.g., the Plustek, Coolscan, and Dimage) probably provided a great balance of speed, ease of use, and image quality, but sadly those are no longer widely available and reliable. But I spent a month with an Epson flatbed scanner and found it to be intractable for more than an occasional roll of 12 frames of 6×6. The process was excruciatingly slow, the scanner is huge, and the resulting images are not without their problems. Suffice to say that flatbed scanning is not for me, and I was able to achieve much better image quality using a makeshift camera scanning rig. So the flatbed went back to Adorama at the end of 30 days.
I had much better luck camera scanning with a 35mm prime with extension tubes. I used a negative carrier from an enlarger that I bought on ebay taped onto the end of the lens hood to hold the film. Once I became comfortable with camera scanning and achieved some consistency in my process, I realized that this setup was not going to work as a long-term solution and continued the search. At this point, I decided it was time for some true expert advice, so I bought a copy of Peter Krogh’s multimedia book on digitizing photos. Peter is a strong advocate for scanning with a digital camera because of the excellent results that can be obtained and the ease of use compared to a flatbed scanner. I strongly recommend his book, particularly if you are planning to digitize a large collection of negatives, but I am not using the exact process he describes.
My Camera Scanning Setup for 35mm and 120
Assuming you already have a digital camera (DSLR or mirrorless) and macro lens, the only other things you need to digitize your negatives are a film holder, a mechanism to hold the camera perpendicular to the film, and a light source. If you don’t already have a macro lens, you can use an inexpensive macro or a prime lens with extension tubes.
Camera and Lens
I am using my Sony a6500 (and previously a6000) paired with the Sony 30mm f/3.5 Macro lens. I see a lot of posts and questions about using either very expensive modern macro lenses or vintage macro lenses, and there is no need for anything more than a basic, inexpensive macro. The lens I use is $300 new but can be picked up used for much less (I paid $150). It is small and light, has good autofocus, and is very sharp at f/8.
The light source was a major struggle for me initially because quality lightboxes are not cheap. Now I have an iPad Pro that I use as a backlight. If you do not already own an iPad, then I recommend getting one to use as your light source. It will also be invaluable for use throughout your photography workflow. I also have the Apple Magic Keyboard which is perfect for holding the iPad behind the film but any kind of iPad stand should be suitable.
Negative Carrier and Rail System
I am using a fairly simple rail system in combination with a small mirrorless camera, macro lens, and LED light panel (see the complete equipment list at the bottom of this page). I bought 35mm and 6×6 negative carriers from an enlarging system on ebay for about $15 each. I am also using a set of 3 color filters on the light panel to provide some color correction at the time of capture. Those filters were about $30. The rail system parts cost about $90; the light panel was $85. So my total investment for a film scanning rig is about $235. I also paid $150 for the macro lens, but that has other uses beyond scanning film.
Update in 2022: I am still using the same rail system as shown above but I’ve replaced the light panel with an iPad, and I ‘m now using a Beseler Negatrans film carrier for 35mm.
The rail system holds the negatives parallel to the camera’s sensor and keeps everything still. I can get very detailed 24-MP images of the 35mm negatives and ~14-MP single-frame images of 6×6 negatives. This setup also allows for capture of very high resolution images of the 6×6 negatives by panorama stitching multiple exposures. The rail system allows me to move the camera forward, backward, and side-to-side, and the negative holder can be raised and lowered. Combining 2 shots produces a 32-MP stitched image of the 6×6 negative; even higher resolution is possible by moving the lens closer and stitching more images.
Camera Scanning Process
The camera scanning process is simple. Shoot in raw and use aperture-priority exposure with the aperture at f/8 and typically +0.3 exposure compensation to shift the histogram slightly to the right. It is best not to expose to the right too much because the darkest areas of the inverted photo are the lightest on the negative, and overexposing tends to affect detail and contrast in those areas. If you are just starting out, I recommend capturing a few frames and checking the results rather than capturing an entire roll of negatives at once. After you are comfortable with the process and are seeing consistent results you can capture entire rolls without stopping.
For white balancing the raw negative, it is important to capture an image of the unexposed negative either in the area between frames or the area around the image if your negative holder shows it. I typically capture an extra image at the first of the roll in in between frames and use the area outside the image for white balancing.
Also remember that dust is your enemy. If developing at home, scan your negatives as soon as possible once they are dry. For lab developing, leave your negatives in the protective sleeves from the lab until you are ready to load them into the negative carrier. Wear some type of lint-free gloves (I’m currently using nitrile lab gloves) when handling the negatives, and use a rocket blower and/or static brush to clean the negatives as you load them into the carrier. Also, using a diffuse light source will reduce the appearance of dust and lint on the digitized negatives, but you will still have dust to deal with later on.
I use the Sony Imaging Edge software to tether and remotely control the camera for capturing images of the negatives. Using the Sony a6500, the software offers a live view on screen so I never have to touch the camera. Having a large image on my computer monitor simplifies the process of moving and aligning the strip of negatives between frames. I also have Lightroom set to watch and auto-import images as they are scanned, so I can quickly invert and color correct a digitized negative to check exposure or focus if needed while I still have the negatives in the carrier. Usually I will digitize the first couple of frames then check those in Lightroom before capturing the remainder of the roll.
I also recommend capturing a blank frame for flat field correction. It may not be needed, but if it is needed there is no way to capture the flat frame after the fact. I typically apply flat frame correction to all of my color negative scans but it’s not usually needed for black and white film. (Side note: the Lightroom Flat Field Correction tool can be a real pain. I’ve found that it can use a random frame instead of the calibration frame which ruins the images. Typically I apply Flat Frame Correction to no more than 3 images at a time so that I can closely monitor the process.)
Inversion and Color Correction
I work primarily in Lightroom because I prefer working with an all-RAW workflow (Photoshop TIFs are typically 150+ MBs). Until the April 2018 update to Lightroom, it was not possible to easily get consistent, reproducible results working exclusively in Lightroom, but it is now possible to create and use profiles in Lightroom for negative inversion and color correction. The profiles must be created in Photoshop, and they are specific to your particular digitizing process, but once created they can be used to invert and color correct any negatives from that same film stock within Lightroom and often with just one click to apply the profile. I have written a separate post detailing the process to create negative inversion profiles, so I won’t repeat that process here. Assuming you have created some profiles to apply, here is an overview of the process for inverting and color correcting an entire roll of negatives in Lightroom.
Update: There is a new plug-in available for Lightroom called Negative Lab Pro that hands-down produces fantastic results and provides an all-RAW workflow within Lightroom. Please take a look at my full review.
1. Select an image from the roll for white balancing. In the develop module, select the Adobe Standard profile then white balance on the unexposed film base. These settings can be synced to all the other images on the roll.
2. In the Profile Browser, select the film negative profile that provides the best color conversion of the negative. Profiles that are too dark or light can usually be applied with some exposure adjustment to get good results, but avoid profiles that have a strong color cast.
3. Adjust exposure for the image. You can also recover highlights and open shadows (using the opposite of those sliders), but go easy on the whites/blacks sliders and temperature/tint sliders. These adjustments are pretty much baked in to the profiles, so there is not much latitude for adjustment. If the image needs large adjustments of these sliders, look for a better profile or create a new profile for that image.
4. You can apply additional edits to the image, but remember that a little goes a long way. I’ve found that contrast and clarity work well and also use the gradient tools frequently. On my images, vibrance and post-crop vignetting do not seem to work well.
5. Apply sharpening and noise reduction. I apply a moderate amount of sharpening to the image with aggresive use of the Masking slider depending on the film type to avoid sharpening the film grain. Remember that you don’t need to sharpen the image (that was done with the film and lens), you only need to sharpen the digital capture of the negative to compensate for any loss of sharpness in the capture process. My camera does not produce much noise at base ISO, so I don’t apply much noise reduction at all. If I wanted a cleaner image, I would just shoot digital.
6. Clean up any major dust spots or lint using the spot removal tool. I do this step last because it can really bog down Lightroom. I only correct spots that are obvious when viewing the whole image. If I need to remove every speck of dust from an image, it is much faster to work in Photoshop, and I would typically color correct in Photoshop also.
7. Share your work!
Note that Lightroom Mobile does not support custom profiles, so you’ll have to export the final images as JPGs instead of sharing directly from Lightroom Mobile. With the June 2018 update, Lightroom CC (not Lightroom Classic) now syncs custom profiles with Lightroom Mobile. Following these instructions from Julianne Kost, I was able to import the film profiles to the Lightroom CC desktop app, then sync my edited RAW files directly from Lightroom Classic CC to my Lightroom Mobile account where I can share them anywhere from my phone.
Update (November 2018)
There is a new plug-in available for Lightroom called Negative Lab Pro that hands-down produces fantastic results and provides an all-RAW workflow within Lightroom. I have a full review posted here.
Until the April 2018 update to Lightroom, it was not possible to easily get consistent, reproducible results working exclusively in Lightroom, but it is now possible to create and use profiles in Lightroom for negative inversion and color correction. The profiles must be created in Photoshop and are specific to your particular digitizing process, but once created they can be used to invert and color correct any negatives from that same film stock within Lightroom and often with just one click to apply the profile. I included a full demonstration of this process in my original digitizing guide.
Light Source Color Compensation
Peter Krogh recommends using a dichroic light source that can be tuned to neutralize the mask of each specific type of film. I don’t have one of those, but using an iPad as the light source, I can simply create a full-screen image in Photoshop to use as the background using whatever color is needed to neutralize the negative mask. Previously I was using a set of gels that worked well (see Equipment List below for details). The use of a colored light source helps to balance the colors captured by the camera so that the digitized negative has a better balance of red, green, and blue. Although the colors can be corrected without using color compensation, I am getting better results neutralizing the film mask, particularly in blue skies and in the shadows of the positive image. I have written a separate post about my results using color filters when digitizing negatives.
Update 2022: Now that I am using an iPad as the light source, I can simply create a full-screen image in Photoshop to use as the background using whatever color is needed to neutralize the negative mask.
Here’s a comparison of a negative captured without and with color correction gels. Note that straight out of camera, the negative on the right is already nearly white balanced. The histograms below the image show the separation between the blue and red channels in the unfiltered negative. Even though these are raw images, the inversion and color correction includes some extreme adjustments to the color channels. By using the color filters, the raw image starts out more balanced and the end results are cleaner because less extreme adjustments to the red and blue channels are required. For a more detailed explanation of why this works, refer to Peter’s excellent book.
Camera/lens: I’m using a 24-MP Sony a6500 camera with 30mm f/3.5 macro lens. The macro lens produces very sharp images and provides autofocus on the negatives. Tethered shooting with on-screen live view is available using Sony’s Imaging Edge Remote software.
Film Holders: I am using negative carriers from enlargers. These are readily available on ebay for $20 or less. Get one for each size of film that you work with. These can be attached to the rail with screws or epoxy. Also consider the Beseler Negatrans for 35mm.
Light Source: 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but any iPad will work. Previously I used an Artograph Lightbox but the iPad works MUCH better. Artograph Lightpad Lightbox (6″x9″). The light pad provides an even source of white light, but it is not completely diffuse. If your lens has too much depth of field or if the negative is too close to the light, the grid of LEDs will be visible in the image. A layer of diffusion filter can help.
Rail System: I’m using the Desmond DVC-220 rail, Desmond DPLEX-50 clamp to hold the camera, and Desmond DPL-100 100mm lens plate with a negative carrier mounted at one end.
Color Correction: (Update: I’m now using the iPad Pro as the light source so no longer need to use the gels.) Set of 3 color filters to help neutralize the orange mask at the time of capture. I’m using Rosco Cinegel #3202: Full Blue (CTB), Cinegel #3204: Half Blue (1/2 CTB), and Cinegel #4415: 15 Green based on a recommendation from John Fechner (fechnerimaging.smugmug.com).