November 27, 2022
Digitalizing film using your DSLR or mirrorless camera. You don’t need a dedicated scanner to digitise film because a mirrorless or DSLR camera will do the job and more, when done right. Tim Coleman walks you through the best ways to photograph film with your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Peace of mind and backup You can get a fresh start with editing, online sharing, and digital printing. Yes, digitalizing film is important for analogue shooters today. Unfortunately, digital has become the primarystay of photography by 2022. This means that there are fewer tools available for analog photographers to preserve film.
Nikon has ceased producing its excellent dedicated film scanners, alternatives from the likes of Plustek don’t come cheap either, while those that do like the nifty Kodak Mini Digital Film and Slide Scanners can lack the resolution for high quality scans.
Have no fear. If you know how to set up your DSLR or mirrorless camera correctly, you can get high-quality digital scans of your film stock. Even a smartphone can do it. In this article we’ll walk you through how to get your film ‘scans’ done with a camera.
How to photograph film
For film photography, you must have the right lighting, lenses, masks, and camera.
You’ll need to place a clear and bright light source – ideally daylight-balanced – behind the film to obtain the best quality picture of it using a camera. A light box is the best and cheapest option. Kaiser Fototechnik, a company that specializes in light boxes, offers a wide range of options for budgets and sizes. One of the smallest and most affordable light boxes from Kaiser Fototechnik is sufficient for this purpose. Lomography has a specially-built film mask and a built in light box bed.
If you don’t own a light box but happen to have a portable studio light with continuous output – even many studio flashes do – then that’ll work instead. For this particular task, flash is just as effective as continuous lighting. You’ll need to go about suspending a firm and flat diffused surface between light and camera on which to place the film. A white sheet of perspex will prevent unwanted reflections and hotspots. This setup may be more faff than it’s worth, but if you like a DIY challenge then this option could be for you!
Once you have the surface and light source in place, it is time to create a secure aperture to allow for film to be placed flat. You can also mask it to prevent flare-inducing light. The aforementioned Lomography’s DigitaLIZA kit is a simple solution for 35mm and 120 film.
If you’re on a real shoestring, why not make your own mask? Mount board is a secure material to cut out a mask for any film size; 35mm, 120 and 5×4 large format. It’s more fiddly than a purpose-built mask to secure the film (we’ll get onto that), but again a good option for DIY enthusiasts and all film-size masks can be cut within the same large format aperture!
Other purpose-made options include the Nikon PB-6 Bellows that allow you to insert film rolls. A slide copier such as the Nikon ES-2, or SRB Photographic can be attached directly to our camera lens for slides. Both the slide copier and bellow options require clear vision of a strong source of light.
Lens and camera selection
Both the resolution of your lens and your camera is the most important consideration. The more pixels, the larger the ‘scan’ and enlargement prospects you have. A full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera will likely have more pixels than crop sensor formats like APS-C or Micro Four Thirds. But, in other words, the sensor size is irrelevant as the film should always be illuminated by a strong lighting source to reduce noise.
To make the most of your camera and its resolution, you’ll want a lens that can focus close enough in order to fill the entire frame with the film. For full frame you’ll likely need a macro lens, while a standard lens might well focus close enough with a crop sensor camera like Micro Four Thirds. A prime lens with a standard focal length of 50mm to 105mm will maximize sharpness, minimise distortion, and allow for a manageable working distance. Although a smartphone is also possible, the primary camera angle may cause barrel distortion.
How to digitize and photograph film
Set up your camera, work station and prepare the film.
Camera and workstation set up
Many modern cameras offer image stabilisation. You should mount your camera to a support to photograph film, such a tripod. This will lock the camera in place and allow you to quickly and accurately work through potentially many film rolls.
To avoid distortion caused by shooting at an angle, it is important to place the camera directly on the film. A bubble-level will do, though a neat trick is to use a mirror on the same surface as the film and ensure the lens is centre-frame in your shot – this accounts for the level of both surface and camera simultaneously. You will need a support option such as a tripod. It should have a center column that extends horizontally from the legs. This allows you to angle the camera down and square it without having to worry about the legs.
What camera settings should I use to photograph film?
We’ll keep camera settings to the basics; use the highest possible picture quality and raw format in case exposure is off in any way. Exposure is tricky as the film base must appear white. Over-exposing can lead to uneven exposure. To maximise editing flexibility, it’s wise to shoot a flat colour profile and restrain sharpness in-camera.
White balance is most fiddly because the temperature of your light source as well as the colour cast from the film base can affect it. This scenario will make it difficult for auto white balance to work. To kill those two birds with one stone – create and save a manual white balance reading of a blank exposure of the chosen film against the light source. If you’ve shot in raw, further white balance adjustments are much easier in your chosen editing software where you can use the white balance picker tool from any blank area of the film to set white balance instead.
Secure the film
A mask can be used to protect the film from light spillage and prevent it from being damaged. Pre-made film holders are the best option, and they should be cheap. For medium format, you can cut a 5x4in aperture from black mount board. Next, you can cut a 6x7cm aperture. Finally, you can cut a 36x24mm aperture to complete the frame. This will cover all major film sizes.
For each cut-out, secure a ridge to the mount board’s underside. This makes it easier for you to slide between the frames of the film roll. To fix it down, use masking tape. You can also flatten the film roll with pressure plates or magnetic tape, especially if it is curved.
Smudges, fingerprints, dust and fingerprints can be a problem when film is being scanned. So, before you press the camera shutter, make sure your working environment is as clean and dust free as possible and that you avoid handling film with bare hands – look for lint-free cotton gloves.
Next, take a closer look at the film with a magnifying glass or loupe. It is difficult to see blemishes clearly with your naked eye. Use a blower to remove any dust. You can skip the tedious process of cloning and healing film by following these steps.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of frames you could be taking photos of. Before you start snapping away, consider these:
You should be careful about choosing which frames you will photograph as you go through each roll. Why digitize a frame if you won’t be able to edit, print, or share it? Consider this moment a preedit. It is a library management process and picture rating process similar to Adobe Camera Raw.
As with any other set of digital images you should think about how you will name your digital photos of film. This will allow them to be easily found further down the line. Although date and subject are the obvious options, you might also want to keyword the files with information such as the camera used.
The metadata included with your digitized film files, including date, location and camera settings, all refer to the moment that you took the photo of the film. It takes a lot of brain power to remember where film photos were taken.
How your library will grow is determined by how you name your files at the very beginning. Consider how easy it would be to navigate these photos once you have hundreds of folders in your library.
Negative film must be inverted when editing software is used. Adobe Camera Raw / Photoshop offers an easy shortcut, CTRL+I or CMD+I. Any software with Tone Curves can also accomplish this task by inverting the Point curve. Slides can be positive already and don’t require the same treatment.
Try as you may, the reality is that it’s infuriatingly hard to remove all blemishes from film (and you aren’t enjoying the Digital ICE feature in dedicated scanners that does this job for you). The healing or clone tools will be your best friend as you work through those archived files. The healing tool works best for blemishes that are not too detailed in the image, while the Clone tool can help with the recovery of more intricate details. Other edits are up to your artistic preferences. Happy ‘scanning’!
7 top tips to digitalize film with your camera
- A light box and film mask are the most cost-effective way to digitalize film with your DSLR or mirrorless cameras.
- To minimize distortion and maximize resolution, position the camera with a close-focusing lens.
- You can save and create an in camera custom white balance reading taken directly from the film base or light source.
- To protect film from dust and dirt, use gloves.
- Don’t photograph every frame – consider the photographing film process as a pre-edit
- When you manage large quantities of film, it is important to have the discipline and thought necessary to file naming.
- Film negatives need to be inverted, and the shortcut in Adobe software remains Cmd+I, or instead in Curves reverse the ‘Point Curve’
Scanner and film photography tips
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