Once upon a time, I posted a set of tutorials regarding my method for digitizing film photographs. For a variety of reasons, I took the tutorial down. However, I have noticed that there is still a huge amount of confusion regarding these methods, and a lot of disbelief that scanning film with a digital camera could yield results that are comparable to what can be achieved with a high-end desktop film scanner.
So, with that in mind, I have decided to resurrect my tutorials. Now, instead of simply re-posting the old tutorials, I have completely re-written them, with all of the updated methods I have accumulated over the past 2 years of scanning film in this way.
But first, a little digression (skip ahead for the tutorial)...
To all of the naysayers who claim that this method doesn't work or cannot work in theory, I invite you to look at the results that I (and others) have achieved. Yes, virtually all digital cameras use a Bayer array instead of individual red, green, and blue-sensitive sensors, like a scanner does; yes, most digital cameras do not record 16-bits/channel, like a scanner does. None of this matters. The results, I feel, speak for themselves. Who cares if something works in practice but not in theory?
Another misunderstanding of DSLR scanning is that the dynamic range captured on film cannot be accurately photographed by a digital camera, even one with "only" 14 stops of DR, such as the Nikon D800/D800E/D810, and others. This results from a complete misunderstanding of how film - particularly negative film - actually works. Did you ever notice how low contrast your negatives look - especially your colour negatives? This low contrast is real; during development, the dynamic range of the scene you photographed (which could easily be >14 stops on a bright sunny day) was compressed into a very small density range on the film; perhaps 9 stops (a density range of 3.0), which is more than adequately covered by any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera. Those densities are then mapped to the appropriate 48-bit RGB value (or 16-bit luminance value, in the case of B&W scans) during post-processing. And since an 8-bit JPEG is the most common output format, you will end up re-compressing those tones into the final image.
Anyway, the point is that a modern DSLR is more than adequate to digitize any colour or B&W negative, with respect to colour and dynamic range fidelity.
Scanning slide film is another matter. Slide film is fundamentally different than negative film; it is not simply a positive version of negative film. Slide film has a "baked in" contrast curve and the slide itself is the final product, whereas, as we've seen, the final contrast curve of negative film is established by mapping tones during post-processing.
Slide film is notorious for having a small dynamic range - the range of tones from pure black to pure white - that can be captured in a frame of slide film is very small; perhaps 5-6 stops. Put another way, the film compresses the dynamic range of the scene (which, as we've seen, can be well over 14 stops) into 5-6 stops. The photographer's job is to ensure that those 5-6 stops overlap with the important elements in the scene, and the tones outside the range clip to either white or (preferably) black.
Because the scene dynamic range is compressed into a very large density range, scanning slide film is a much more challenging affair than scanning negative film. This is because with negative film, the scanner (or digital camera, as we will see) does not have to "dig" into very deep shadows on the film (highlights in the inverted positive) to extract the detail, while on slide film, the shadows are much, much denser. The result of this is that lesser-grade scanners (like most flatbeds and even some dedicated film scanners) simply do not have the ability to extract any meaningful data from the deep shadows; this is particularly important in very dense film stocks, such as Velvia 50, which may have a maximum density of 4.0 (12 stops). For a DSLR like the D800, where dynamic range exceeds 14 stops, this is not a problem as long as the exposure is set correctly. I cannot stress this enough: scanning slide film requires patience and a lot of up-front work (on any system, scanner or DSLR) to ensure the maximum amount of detail is extracted from the source film.
Phew. That was quite the digression. Anyway, on to the tutorials.
1. The Tools You Will Need
The basic tools for my DSLR scanning method are as follows:
- a DSLR or mirrorless digital camera, capable of live view and Raw capture (and preferably capable of tethered capture, as well). Either APS-C or full frame are fine. I use a Nikon D800.
- a macro lens, preferably one capable of 1:1 reproduction. Any focal length is fine; longer focal lengths require more working distance between camera and film. An autofocus lens is also useful, but not essential. I use a Tokina 100 f/2.8 Macro.
- A sturdy copy stand. I cannot overstate how important this is. You need to keep the camera absolutely still and absolutely level (in both X and Y axes) to the film; without this, you'll get blurry images, either because the camera wasn't still or because focus was uneven across the film. A good copy stand, such as the Kaiser RS-2 (which I use) will do this. A poor copy stand will flex too much, and you'll be fighting to keep things level. Do not skimp here. If you're allocating a budget for this, spend more on this and less on your lens or camera. Seriously. One potential substitution here is to use a tripod with an inverted centre column (many Manfrotto tripods can do this). This will keep things still, but the 'level' issue might still be a problem.
- A bubble level. See above for why you need this. Get one of those small ruler-type levels that carpenters and plumbers use. The hotshoe mounted ones are ineffective, because there is too much play in the shoe. Ensure that the camera is level with the film holder.
- A light source. I highly recommend the Artograph Lightpad, which supplies bright, even, daylight-balanced light. An iPad will work, but you'll need to diffuse the light somehow or get the film elevated well away from the screen, or else the pixels will be seen in the scans.
- Film holders. You can use the holders from a scanner OR (and I recommend this) find yourself some film carriers from a disused enlarger. These are widely available on eBay. Get one carrier for each size of film you will be scanning; I have 35mm, 6x6, 6x7, and 4x5. These will hold the film much flatter than virtually any scanner film holder, except *perhaps* the magnetic Imacon holders.
- A remote shutter release OR tethering software with remote triggering. You need to release the shutter without touching the camera. I use Smart Shooter, which allows for fully-remote operation of the D800 (and many other cameras), including aperture, shutter speed, ISO, shutter release, and tethered live view.
- Image stitching software. This is purely optional. The idea is that for film formats larger than 24x36 35mm, taking multiple macro images and stitching them together provides additional resolution. For example, a 6x7 negative has ~4.9x the area of a 24x36mm negative, and could therefore be covered by 5 individual images, which could then be stitched together to provide a very high resolution final image. With only one exception, I do this for only very few negatives, and only when I want to print very large. The one exception? Large format 4x5. The reason I stitch with 4x5 is that (a) I cant get sufficient distance above the film to fill the D800's sensor with the full image and (b) when I'm shooting 4x5, I'm doing it because I want maximal detail. I use the built-in stitching function of Lightroom CC, which has never let me down. The advantage of using Lightroom is that the product of your stitching is a DNG file (i.e. a raw file). The other program I have used is AutoPano Giga, which is very good and offers advanced stitching capabilities, should you need them. In practice, however, Lightroom is generally sufficient (and you probably already have it).
- Photoshop or similar software capable of editing 16-bit TIFF files (if you're using Lightroom, I *highly* recommend Photoshop for its tight integration with Lightroom). Sadly, Lightroom is not an appropriate tool for inverting and colour correcting negatives (it is sufficient for positives, though), so you'll need Photoshop or similar.
To be clear, you can accomplish much of what I'm about to discuss with simpler tools. But - and I want to make this perfectly clear - your results will suffer. You may be perfectly happy with your results either way, and that's fine, but the method below is the surest way I know of to achieve maximal quality from a DSLR scanning rig (and yes, I know about the $50,000+ Phase One repro system).
So, let's get on with it.
2. Scanning Colour Negative Film with a DSLR
First off, let's tackle colour negatives. I suspect that for most people shooting film, this will be the section of greatest interest.
The first thing to recognize is that scanning colour negative film is not difficult. At all. The reasons why are discussed above (you didn't skip the digression, did you?).
What can be difficult is inverting and colour correcting your scans. Fortunately, I have a workflow that is highly effective for this.
I'm going to assume that you've got everything set up something like what is pictured in Figure 1.