Digitizing Film with a Digital Camera - A Detailed Tutorial

I'm telling you upfront: this will be a long post.  Long and detailed.

However, I promise it will be worth the read, if you're searching for a solution for scanning film of any size, any format, for a (relatively) cheap price and with high quality.

Scanning Film - The Situation in 2014

Film is dead.

Let me re-phrase that: film is dead to the major camera and camera accessory manufacturers.  Leica has just introduced a new film camera (the M-A) and offers a total of 3 film camera models (the M-A, MP, and M7), and Nikon still offers the F6 for sale (no word on how many of those they sell each year), the world has effectively decided that for most amateur and professional uses, digital is where it's at.  And with good reason; digital is cheap, easy, and quick.

Most amateur photographers are taking snapshots, and for them an iPhone, P&S digicam, or entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera is more than enough to get the job done.

At the pro level, digital offers enormous flexibility in editing, rapid shooting, low noise at previously unheard of ISO speeds, and quick turnaround times for clients.

That said, there is a large community of photographers in the middle - the advanced amateurs, amongst which I count myself - for whom photography is neither about snapshots nor pleasing clients.  For this (growing???) community, film is a viable option, and indeed, many of us choose film as our primary artistic medium, even with all of the digital whizz-bangery available to us.  I've written at length about why *I* choose to shoot film, so I digress.

There is, however, a problem for us film shooters, and it's a problem of digitization.  As it stands, in order to share our work with the global community (via Flickr, our websites, Twitter, Facebook, or - GASP! - prints), we're forced to digitize our photographs in some way (Ed. If you're printing your negatives optically, this article isn't for you.  While I love traditional darkroom prints, and often prefer them to digital prints, the fact is that many/most people do not have (a) access to a darkroom or (b) the knowledge required to make high quality prints.  For these people, scanning - in some form - is often a necessary part of the film photography process).

This has traditionally been the domain of the scanner, which comes in one of two major forms.

First, we have the ubiquitous flatbed scanner, which has the advantage of being reasonably cheap and flexible enough to scan many/most film formats.  On the other hand, even the best flatbed scanners produce results that range from just acceptable (on large format, in particular) to downright awful (on 35mm film).

Second, we have the dedicated film scanner, which has the advantage of producing really excellent scans.  On the other hand, the best film scanners (those that either produce the best output or work with the most formats - or both...) tend to be very pricey.  Moreover, most of these scanners are no longer made (the main exceptions being the Plustek Opticfilm line), are long out of warranty and/or are no longer serviced by the manufacturer.  Case in point, the Nikon Coolscan 9000ED.  By all accounts, this is a brilliant scanner, capable for pro-level scans that are second only to drum scans (or perhaps Imacon 'virtual' drum scans).  Unfortunately, the Nikon has become obscenely expensive on the used marker ($3500+ US) and, to my knowledge, all units are now out of warranty, and thus any repair is likely to be very, very costly.

There are other, cheaper options in the used-but-reasonably-priced film scanner realm (the Polaroid SprintScan 120, a.k.a. Microtek Artixscan 120tf being my favourite example), but these tend to be hard to find, and again, are subject to expensive (or impossible) repairs, given their age.

So we have a dilemma.  We have a small-but-growing community of film photographers who want to share their work with the world, and thus require a decent scanner.  At the same time, we have very few scanner options that are cheap, and those that are tend to be sub-par performers.

Enter the Digital Camera

So what to do?

I believe the future of film photography lies with high quality digital cameras.

No, that's not a mistake.  Digital cameras - in particular high megapixel DSLRs and mirrorless cameras - are widely available, relatively cheap, under warranty, and, most importantly, are capable of producing 'scans' that easily rival or surpass those made by virtually all late-model film scanners.

Now, I'm not the first to have conceived of this idea.  There have been numerous online discussions about using DSLRs to digitize film (ed. for the sake of brevity, I will use "DSLR" to mean any digital camera, whether it has a reflex mirror or not), and people are producing truly excellent results with this method.  Nothing I say from this point on should be construed as me taking credit for this process.  What I'm hoping to achieve here is a standard procedure that anyone can follow to produce top quality digitization of their film using a DSLR; a sort of meta-analysis of DSLR scanning.

Required Equipment

Here's what you're going to need.  I'll discuss each in detail below.
 

  1. A digital camera capable of live view on the rear LCD.
  2. A macro lens.
  3. A remote release cable.
  4. A tripod or copy stand.
  5. A light source.
  6. Bubble level.
  7. Black coroplast or cardboard
  8. Film holders (this is optional but recommended)
  9. A computer with Photoshop, MakeTIFF, ColorPerfect and, optionally, image stitching software.

Let's go through these one at a time.

First, the camera.  I'll be honest: the better the digital camera you have, the better your results will be.  If you can get a Nikon D810 or Canon 5D Mark II, all the better.  That said, I'm working with a two-and-a-half year old Fujifilm X-Pro1, and I don't feel at all limited by my results.  The good thing here is that while a better digital camera will cost you as much or more as a top notch film scanner, don't forget that you're also getting...a camera, which you can use to, you know, take pictures of your kids, make movies, and all the other lovely things that these modern cameras can do.  The one thing the camera MUST have is live view, with the ability to zoom into the image preview.

Next, the lens.  You want a lens that can do 1:2 macro, at least (preferably 1:1...you can always move back).  Alternatively, you want a lens that can do macro with the help of extension tubes.  The good thing here is that virtually all macro lenses are of excellent quality, and because you're going to be using manual focus exclusively, you can get by using an old adapted M42 or K-mount lens, if your particular camera system supports this.  I personally use a Pentax Macro-Takumar 50 f/4 in M42 mount, which will do 1:2 (half life-size) natively, and add an extension tube to that to get me to 1:1 for 35mm negatives (I shoot MF and LF in 1:2...more on this below).  This is one (potential) advantage of a mirrorless camera over a DSLR; because of their short flange focal length, mirrorless cameras can be adapted to many older lens mounts, thus allowing the use of lenses from many manufacturers.

The remote release cable is needed so that you're not physically touching the camera during the exposure.  Some very recent cameras can do this by WiFi.  That's fine, too.

Next, the stabilization system.  This is not a place to skimp.  I currently use an Induro CT-213 carbon fibre tripod (with the head inverted, as shown below).  A copy stand would be even better, but of course this would require additional space (that I current do not have).  The other advantage to the tripod is that it's a tripod, and can be used as such for other things.  If you're going to use a tripod, you need one that either allows you to invert the head OR has an arm that extends outward from the main body, such as this Manfrotto.

For a light source, there are two main ways to go.  First, a lot of people use a speedlight to backlight the film.  This is a perfectly legitimate way to work, and has the same advantages as the camera and tripod: namely that the speedlight can be used for other things.  I prefer to work with a dedicated light source; in my case, an Artograph Lightpad (I have the 6x9 inch model).  I chose this lightpad for two reasons: first, I already owned it for viewing film under a loupe, and second, unlike other light tables, it's LED based, and thus gives a much more consistent illumination intensity and colour.

A bubble level is required to keep everything....level.

Coroplast (a kind of corrugated plastic, typically used for lawn signs) can be purchased at any art supply store.  You're going to use it to make a mask to block stray light from entering your lens.  You'll create masks of various sizes (depending on the size of the film you're digitizing).

Film holders are also optional.  Their main job is to elevate the film and provide some structural rigidity to the whole apparatus.  Again, not strictly necessary but if you can source some - even cheap plastic ones from a flatbed - this is highly recommended.

Finally, we come to the brains of the operation: the computer.  You will need Photoshop (or something similar) and a program called 'MakeTIFF', which comes from the makers of ColorPerfect (which you'll also need).  Additionally, if you want to get advanced and get into really high megapixel images, you'll need a proper stitching program.  I use Autopano Giga 3, which gives excellent results.  Photomerge (built into Photoshop) also works well, although I find Autopano Giga produces fewer artifacts for most images.

The Protocol

(Ed. This protocol will describe a workflow for medium format (120) film.  The workflow for 35mm is identical, except you'd normally shoot fewer images of each from (typically only one, thus removing the need for stitching), and for large format, you'd shoot more (typically 10-12 for 4x5).  The protocol also assumes you are proficient in the operation of your specific camera model.)

Preparing the Camera

Set your camera up on the copy stand or tripod.  Depending on which tripod you're using, you'll either invert the head and arm, or have the arm extend out to the side.  Orient the camera so that it's facing the floor.  Attach the lens.  Set the camera's white balance to 'Daylight' and capture quality to 'Raw'.  You also want to work at the lowest native ISO for your particular camera.  That is, the lowest ISO that is not actually a pull process setting.  For example, many Canon cameras offer ISO 50, which is actually just ISO 100 (the true native ISO), with the exposure dropped one stop in camera (i.e. after the exposure).  The problem with this is that you automatically lose one stop of highlight detail.

Daylight white balance, lowest native ISO (200, on the X-Pro1), Raw capture.

Set the lens to the optimal f/stop; that is, the f/stop at which DoF and sharpness are maximized but diffraction has not yet begun to negatively affect the image quality.  For APS-C cameras, this is likely f/8-f/11, while full frame cameras can be stopped down to f/11-f/16.

Preparing the light source

If you're using a LightPad (which I *highly* recommend), plug it in and orient it vertically beneath the mounted camera.

Medium format film in the holder from a Polaroid SprintScan 120.

The setup, showing the black construction paper (soon to be replaced by coroplast), acting as a mask against stray light.

The whole setup.

Preparing the Film

Insert your film into the film holder and lay the holder down on top of the LightPad.  Ensure that some of the unexposed film (either the leader or the space between frames) is visible to the camera; this will be used in the next step to calibrate the exposure.  Use the coroplast mask to cover the rest of the Lightpad, to avoid any stray light from entering the lens.  Place the bubble level on the LightPad (or on the film holder itself, if possible) to judge the alignment of the apparatus.  Then, transfer the bubble level to the camera and position the camera such that it is level with the LightPad and film.

Determining the Exposure

With the camera in live view and your histogram visible, adjust your shutter speed such that the blank film leader (i.e. the brightest possible part of your negative) is just clipping.  Remember, you're working with Raw files, so your histogram is lying to you.  Raws have ~1 stop of additional headroom beyond what the histogram says, so you want to push the brightest highlights just into clipping.  If you push it a little bit too far, this will simply manifest as slightly clipped shadows in your inverted negative, which typically are not as big a problem as clipped highlights (also, how many of your shots typically have shadows at DMax anyway?).  At f/11 and ISO 100, your exposure may be in the realm of a second or so; all the more reason to ensure you have a sturdy tripod and remote release.

Determining Optimal Exposure - The unexposed film is *just* clipping the histogram at f/8, 1.6s, ISO200.  This exposure will define the darkest component of our inverted positive image.

Determining Focus

Adjust the height of the camera above the negative such that the full frame of your camera covers roughly 1/4 of your negative; you'll be making 6 total exposures, and you want to allow for some overlap (again, this is for MF...for 35mm, I work at 1:1 and get the entire film frame into my digital camera frame, while for LF, I'll typically shoot 12-15 exposures, so I'd want roughly 1/20 or so of the neg in the frame, to allow for overlap).  Avoid the temptation to take too many shots here.  Yes, you can go to 1:1 and shoot 18-20 images for a 6x6 negative, but I've found that this creates enormous headaches in the stitching steps below (mainly in the form of increased stitching artifact and a LOT more time required to generate the final image).  Plus, do you REALLY need that much resolution?

Zooming into the key parts of the image allows setting critical focus.

Position the LightPad such that key details of the negative are visible on the camera's LCD.  Adjust focus such that the details appear sharp, and then zoom into the image (my X-Pro1 offers 5x and 10x zoom, for example) to verify focus.  As you focus the lens, you'll notice the camera shakes a bit.  Take your time, adjust, and let the camera settle to confirm best focus.  Move focus in and out several times to verify that you've got the best plane of focus.  If your camera supports focus peaking, that may or may not be of use.  I turn focus peaking off, as I find that it tends to distract me a bit.  IMPORTANT: ONCE YOU'VE GOT YOUR FOCUS POSITION SELECTED, DO NOT TOUCH THE CAMERA OR LENS UNTIL YOU HAVE CAPTURED YOUR IMAGES.  FROM HERE ON OUT, YOU WILL ONLY MOVE THE LIGHTPAD AND FILM, NOT THE CAMERA.

Making the Exposures

Move the LightPad such that the top left corner (including some of the film holder and blank film border) is visible in the camera's LCD.  Note the specific features to be captured in this image.  Make your exposure.  Now, WITHOUT CHANGING EXPOSURE OR FOCUS, make additional exposures of the film moving in a left-to-right, up-to-down pattern.  Do this by moving the LightPad, NOT by moving the camera.  Allow for overlap.  For a 6x7 negative, I'll typically shoot in a 2x3 array; 2 images across by 3 images down, for a total of 6 images.

That's it for the 'capture' portion.  Once you set focus and exposure, you can easily shoot 3-6 frames in under 5 minutes.  Probably much less.

Importing the Images

Import the images into your computer.  I suggest just dragging and dropping into a dedicated folder; you don't want to import these images into Lightroom or Bridge or Aperture just yet.

Drag the Raw images onto the MakeTIFF window to convert them to linear TIFF files.

Next, open MakeTIFF.  Drag your images onto the MakeTIFF window, and let the program convert your Raw files into linear TIFFs.  Be sure to select the option that allows you to save the images into a separate folder, just to keep things organized.

Once MakeTIFF is done, you should have 6 linear TIFF files.

Stitching

This is going to be the most variable part of the process, since everyone will be doing the stitching a bit differently than everyone else.  I personally recommend AutoPano Giga, which does a really tremendous job on virtually every file I've given it.  Photomerge also works well.

Select your linear TIFF files in AutoPano Giga.

I should digress here for a moment and say that you don't actually *need* to stitch.  All of what I've written above could be accomplished with a single exposure.  In fact, if you've got a high megapixel DSLR like a D810, a single 36MP exposure might be enough resolution for you.  In that case, skip ahead.

If you've got sufficient detail in your images and you've allowed for adequate overlap, the stitching process is rather straightforward.  In fact, with one exception, I don't think I've ever used anything except the default settings in AutoPano Giga.

The one exception is, however, fairly critical.  You see, AutoPano Giga (APG; and similar programs) is designed to generate panoramas from images generated by digital cameras, whereby the camera is rotated about some fixed node (say, a tripod head).  This process introduces distortion, which is dependent on the focal length used.  However, this isn't what we're doing here; we're not shooting a panorama, and we're not moving the camera.  But APG doesn't know that.  Fortunately, APG has a setting that allows you to force a specific focal length to be used to compute the distortion correction.  Since panoramas made with longer focal length lenses will produce less distortion than wide angle lenses, you want to select a very long focal length.  Force APG to use a 1000mm focal length for all stitching; this will eliminate any erroneous distortion.

Preferences > Images > Focal (1000.00mm)

 

Save the result as a 16-bit TIFF, no compression.

Colour Conversion 

If you're working with colour negatives, now comes the time that you'll need to invert your stitched image.  For this, you'll be using ColorPerfect, as I have previously recommended for scanner-based inversion.

Open the 6 image stitch in Photoshop and crop away any film holder from the image (but DO NOT crop away all of the unexposed film border; ColorPerfect tends to do a better job when it can see the actual film base in the image).  Open ColorPerfect and select your film stock (Ed. if you're unfamiliar with ColorPerfect, see my previous post on the subject).

The ridiculous looking linear TIFF stitch.  Don't worry...it'll all work out in the end.

ColorPerfect on default settings.  Pretty darn good, right out of the box.

You should now have a reasonably good looking positive image.  As with scanning, you'll likely need to do a bit of post processing on this image to get it to where you want it (follow my previous tutorial on the subject).  But you're basically done.

Apply creative edits in Lightroom, to taste.


That's all there is to it.  From a 16MP X-Pro1, I can generate 28-40MP final images from 6x7 film, and well over 100MP from 4x5.  For 35mm, this method may or may not be worth your time.  Frankly, the Pakon F-135+ makes scanning 35mm colour negative film so easy, that this method may be overkill.

For slide film, the method is the same, except you'll want to create a profile for your particular film, as detailed here, except imaging your IT8 target with the digital camera instead of the scanner.  Everything else is the same.

For B&W film, everything is again identical, except you're going to use ColorPerfect's virtual grades to invert the image (or just invert in Photoshop and edit to taste).


The Results?

So what do the results look like?

Take a look.

Mamiya 7 | 43mm f/4.5 | Kodak Portra 400 - This is a 6-image stitch, producing an original of ~28MP.

Wista VX field camera | Schneider APO-Symmar 135 f/5.6 @ f/32 | Ilford HP5+ | Ilford DD-X - This is an 18 image stitch of a 4x5 negative.  The original is ~75MP.  I initially had some trouble with stitching artifacts in the sky, which were the result of using too many images (thus creating too many stitch seams). 18 was a good compromise between detail, compute power, and artifact.  The amount of detail here is staggering (see below).

100% crop of the image above.

Wista VX field camera | Schneider APO-Symmar 135 f/5.6 @ f/32 | Ilford HP5+ | Ilford DD-X - Another 18 image stitch of a large format B&W negative.

Mamiya 7 | 150 f/4.5 | Kodak Portra 400 - This is an 8 image stitch, producing a 38MP final image.  This image was taken with the 150 f/4.5, which is a *very* demanding lens with which to nail focus.  Consequently, the focus point is actually on the zipper on Elliot's sweater, rather than his eyes.  Nevertheless, you can see in the images below how much detail is retained in this digitization process.

Screen grab of pixel-level detail.  This is prior to applying a touch of sharpening in FocusMagic.

...and after a tiny bit of FocusMagic ('Out of Focus Blur', 'Digital Camera', '3', for what it's worth).

 

Pros and Cons

The major benefit to this method is the fact that you don't need a scanner and you probably already have a camera that is suitable.  Even if you don't, you can buy a very good DSLR for less than the cost of a dedicated film scanner, and use it both as a way of digitizing film AND as a camera.

Secondly, this method (in my experience) produces results that are far and away better than what is achievable with a flatbed scanner, and easily on par with a top-of-the-line dedicated film scanner.  Whether the method outperforms a drum scan is a bit irrelevant; it costs far less than a drum scan, and is something that virtually anyone can do at home.

The major downside to this method is that it's more laborious than flatbed scanning (or even than using a dedicated film scanner).  You've got to have a reasonably powerful computer (I'm using a circa-2011 15" MacBook Pro with an SSD and 16GB of RAM), and while much of the computing process is automated, it's still not a "set-and-forget" thing.  Moreover, if you're stitching, you've got to manually move the film around to generate the images (NOTE: there are one-off automated solutions for this, developed by some folks at the Large Format Photography forums, so this is not completely outside the realm of possibility...it just happens to be completely outside of my own abilities).

Second, there may be instances - particularly when dealing with negatives that have a lot of featureless area in them - where stitching may fail.  There are potential solutions to this (e.g. fiducial markers, manual stitching points, and others), but they're all time-consuming workarounds, which may not be worth the added quality.

Third, if you rely on Digital ICE or other noise/grain reduction algorithms (I don't), then this system is not for you.  Your best bet here is to work in conditions that are as dust-free as possible.  Use lint-free gloves, use a rocket blower to remove dust from the film, and just generally try your best to keep all obvious sources of dust away from the film.  I don't think of this as *that* much of a 'con'.  Digital ICE - nice as it is - isn't perfect, and generally leaves artifacts that can be just as objectionable as dust.  In my experience, working in a low dust environment, with gloves and a rocket blower, produces fairly dust-free scans.  Anything that does appear can be easily spotted out in post.  I *highly* recommend the Content-Aware fill tool in Photoshop for this process.

Finally, there's cost.  This method *will* cost more than a flatbed.  An Epson V800 can be had for well under $1000, whereas you can't get a decent DSLR (or mirrorless) and a macro lens for that; and you've still got the software to think about.  On the other hand, if you've already got a suitable digital camera and a copy of Photoshop, then the entire procedure becomes more cost feasible.

 

Why?

I'll close by discussing why, exactly, I wanted to do this, particularly as the owner of a high quality film scanner.

I am acutely aware of the fact that my scanner will eventually break.  It *will* happen.  At that point, the question will be: how do I go on as a film photographer?  Do I live with the inferior results (but admitted convenience) of a flatbed, or do I give up film altogether?

For me, as I said above, the (ironic) answer is that the future of film photography, for me, lies in high megapixel, low noise digital cameras.  We've already got 36MP cameras available for <$2000 US, and the next generation of Sony full frame sensors is likely to top 45MP.  At that point, even a single image of a 6x6 negative will contain upwards of 30MP, which is more than enough for most practical uses.  Taken a step further, a 4-6 image stitch with a 40+ MP sensor will begin to push resolutions towards what can can only be described as ludicrous.

 

Conclusions

So, what do we make of all of this?

Well, I'm getting closer and closer to selling my film scanner (not the Pakon...that thing is brilliant for quick "contact" scans of 35mm film).  For what I could get for it, I could just about buy a D800.  Slap on a decent macro lens, and I'd never have an issue with scanning film again.

I'm truly sold on this method.  Over the past couple of weeks, I've tried to break the process by feeding in 'difficult' negatives, such as the Stanley Park seawall shot above, where there is a lot of featureless sky.  Every time, the digital camera method has been up to the challenge.  And for LF film, the results are truly amazing.

I cannot say enough good things about this method.  

New York City - August 2014

It seems that in all the madness this fall, I neglected to post all the photos from the New York City trip last August.  Truth be told, I still had one roll of 400H that wasn't developed until last week, so in my defence, the photos weren't really complete.

For this trip, I took 2 Leicas (MP and M2) with the 40/1.4 and the Summitar, along with the Mamiya 7 with the 43mm.  I also shot only colour film, which is rare for me.

The trip itself was just a quick weekend away for us.  We stayed at The Nolitan in (you guessed it!) NoLiTa, which is a wonderful little boutique hotel that offers a stunning rooftop terrace (see below) and a free wine and cheese happy hour every day at 5PM.  Splendid!

Did some shopping, walked about.  Had dinner with some friends.  You know; as you do, in New York.

I even managed to take care of a little business while I was there.

New York is one of those places that I could go back to again and again.  Which probably explains why I keep going back there.  It's just over an hour by plane from Toronto, which makes it easily accessible.  And it's a terrific place to visit all year 'round. 

Anyway, enjoy the photos.