Scanning processed film into a digital format is necessary for most photographers shooting film today, and is, therefore, an additional expense you need to consider. Reasonably priced professional scanning services can quickly grow to unreasonable sums depending on how much you shoot – possibly stopping you from shooting more film. Naturally, at one point or another many film photographers seek more affordable means of obtaining quality film scans. Like most things in life, if you want to do it right and affordably – you’ve got to do it yourself.
Currently, there are two good options for scanning film at home.
- Using a dedicated scanner (usually a flatbed scanner)
- Using a DSLR or mirrorless camera to “scan”
Film scanning alternatives
The first alternative method is pretty self-explanatory, it simply involves buying a scanner and using it as intended. There are many options with different characteristics. Common to them all is that they were designed with late 90s and early 2000s technology – and yet, they are not cheap. This article will focus on using a camera as a scanner – maybe even one you already have, or at least one you can afford.
The method of using a camera as a “scanner” is achieved by positioning the film you want to scan between a camera with a macro lens and a light source. That image is saved to the camera’s memory card and can then be edited on a computer to achieve a result comparable to scanning.
Film scanning alternatives under 100€
It’s no secret that this method is effective and can yield good results – you can see many YouTube videos and read many articles about it online. However, how will you save money on paying for scans if you need a 2000€ camera kit, like most people talking about it on the internet?
Can good results be achieved with a camera and lens that costs less than 100€? Well, we tried it, so let’s take a look.
Film Scanning Comparison – Cheap vs Expensive
We have scanned the same roll of film three different times, once with our professional lab scanner, once with the top of the range home scanner and once with our under 100€ kit.
Setup 1: Noritsu HS-1800
- One of the most modern and sought after professional scanners
- Has the benefit of scanning very quickly
- 10 000 to 15 000€
Setup 2: Epson V850
- Flatbed scanner – very common among home scanners
- Top model
Setup 3: Cheap DSLR
- Canon 350D: Announced in 2005, 8Mp sensor. Price: 49€
- Jena 50mm f/2.8 lens in M42 mount. Price: 35€ fully checked and working
- M42 or Canon EOS extension tube. Price: 10€
- Total: 94€
It turns out that the 100€ camera setup performas admirabily compared to the other scans. They differ quite a lot, particularly in colour. The Noritsu scans have better colours out of the box and possibly slightly better sharpness, but the camera scans get really close. It does this while being quicker and less painful than the Epson, which yield OK results, but very slowly.
Labs are great services and they are important community centres, but scanning is labour intensive and requires investment into expensive outdated scanners – and therefore no lab-owner truly likes scanning. If you want to support your local lab you should still develop your film at the lab. Camera scans require a bit of post-processing, as opposed to lab scans, so if you never want to touch a computer in your film workflow, then camera scanning isn’t for you. When you choose which method you want to go with, you need to consider time, money and convenience. For many people, DSLR scanning will save you money and encourage you to shoot more film. Read on if you want to see the results you can produce with an old DSLR.
Colour and contrast
A great way to look at colour and contrast on the whole roll is to look at ‘contact sheets’ – essentially thumbnails of the whole roll that stem back to the days of darkroom printing. Here are the contact sheets from the three scanning methods.
We did a little round at the office and found that people generally prefer the colours and contrast from the Noritsu. People rated the camera scans as second and the Epson flatbed third. Of course, you could always edit to your liking, which is easier with the camera scans and the flatbed scans, but harder with the Noritsu scans.
If you want to edit contrast and colours you need TIFF files. At the Kamerastore lab, you only pay 2€ extra for the TIFF, but some labs charge more. The camera scans provide a lot of good detail in both shadows and highlights allowing you a lot of creative freedom to edit them as you want. The Epson scans quite flat making it easy to add contrast and deeper shadows if you wanted to.
To show you that you get a lot of freedom with the camera scans, here are three random edits that took about 15 seconds each in Lightroom. You might not like how they look, but they illustrate that using camera RAW files is flexible and looks can be easily edited to your liking.
Detail and sharpness
Since Noritsu and Epson apply sharpening masks in JPG mode, we applied light sharpening to the camera scan too.
The scans are surprisingly close in terms of detail and sharpness. You can click on the pictures if you want to inspect them closer and draw your own conclusions.
It is not obvious who the winner is. Possibly the Epson looks the sharpest at this magnification, but when zooming in just a tiny bit it falls apart because the scans are very low resolution at only 2Mp (we scanned at 1200 DPI, which was all we had the patience for as even that took half an hour).
Therefore, we think it’s fair to say that the Noritsu gives slightly better detail, then comes the Epson and the 350D camera follows closely. You can look for yourself and see if you agree. We are, however, surprised at how close they are, considering the old and cheap equipment we used and the possible problems with the stability of the setup, which we will get back to.
All the scans are fine on normal print sizes, up to 20x24cm (8×10 inches), which is as large as most people will ever print. We could improve the results from the camera scanning dramatically using the same equipment by stitching images, or by getting a dedicated macro lens. Better stability would also help – and we’ll get back to that. The results are already impressive, and at the bottom of this article we will talk about how far you can go with camera scanning.
Also, do notice that the Noritsu produced some digital noise in the out of focus, dark area on the left of the image, unlike the camera and the Epson. Some people find that very distracting and ugly, other people don’t care.
Often the results of two different ways of scanning can be the same, but the process of getting them can be wildly different. Let’s compare the process of making these scans.
The Noritsu scans are obviously easy for the end-user if you can pay for it. At Kamerastore the basic scans cost 6 euros per roll on-top of developing your film and they are sent to you via WeTransfer. For some people, that price will be worth it, and others might just want to support their local lab as much as possible.
Scanning on a flatbed scanner like the Epson is a painful, slow process. Even on their top model, the v850 that we used, it took a bit less than half an hour to get 34 pictures of 2MP each with no extra processing and no digital ICE (which further slows it down). If you start scanning at higher DPI to get more megapixels one roll can take an hour or more. Furthermore, the holders are fiddly and it’s hard to keep all the surfaces dust-free, they are bad at holding a slightly curly film flat.
Scanning with the camera takes a bit of setting up, so it’s best if you can leave it mostly set up. If you have the parts ready in a box it shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes to set up. Once you have it set up, the speed of scanning mostly depends on the holder you use. Using a holder where you can forward the film with a knob, like the one we used, then photographing the whole roll shouldn’t take more than 2 or 3 minutes. Depending on how you convert and how quick your computer is, it can take anywhere from 5 minutes (using G2P on a fast-ish computer) to half an hour (doing it by hand) to finish the conversion. Converting using G2P is very easy and you can drink coffee while watching it work.
The principle of camera scanning is appealing because you start with the amount of money you have, then upgrade later whenever you want. You can start with the setup described here, or literally any other digital system camera you have lying around. When you’re ready, either because you want better quality or better workflow, you can upgrade to a better lens, better camera, better holder or a better light source, while still keeping everything else. The beauty is that you’re not throwing away the whole setup just to upgrade one part.
Traditional scanners use digital sensors from the late 90s and early 2000s. Most of them are CCD sensors, which capture much less dynamic range than a modern CMOS sensor. A file from a CMOS sensor (like a digital camera, even one as old as the 350D) gives nice details both in bright and in dark areas, where a CCD sensor would just see pure white or pure black in the same areas.
As a result, scans from cameras using CMOS sensors (most cameras for the past 15 years have these), provide you with a more flexible file that can be edited with ease. In a sense, it’s a bit like being at the lab when they do adjustments but instead of the operator making choices for you, you are calling the shots. The optimal scan is the scan that extracts all the information on the negative – and camera scanning gets close to that.
The camera scans produced by this cheap setup are surprisingly good, but there are some problems. The first is film holder shake and the other is mirror slap. Some pictures are sharper than the others – and it is a two-fold problem. First, the holder sat on an unstable table. You will get more stability on the floor or with a more sturdy table. The other problem is mirror slap – where the mirror shakes the camera when it moves out of the way. This can be remedied in one of several ways: Having a mirrorless camera, having a DSLR with mirror lock-up or using a sturdier mounting system, like a copy stand. All of our stability problems can probably be helped with a bit more careful setup and testing of your equipment.
Another problem is framing and focusing, which is very painful without live view or a computer tethering. We would, therefore, recommend finding a camera that has either, such as the 450D (Kamerastore has one in stock for only 10 euros more than the 350D).
We were pleasantly surprised at the editability of the scans we got from this 15-year-old camera. The resolution is good enough to resolve most 35mm films almost to the grain. The lens also surprised us, only losing a bit of sharpness compared to a 60mm dedicated macro we tested with the same setup. With some refinement, we are confident you could produce scans that are as good or better than most lab-scans and definitely better than an Epson flatbed – all that for less money than even the cheapest flatbed scanner on the market.
Here is the full list of equipment used.
- Camera: Canon 350D
- Lens: Jena 50mm f/2.8 (it is not marked Zeiss Jena, just Jena DDR) – M42 mount
- Adapter: M42 to EOS adapter (really, the cheaper the better in this case – the quality should not matter)
- M42 extension tube (‘macro rings’) – again, the cheaper the better (EOS extension tubes are easier to come by, usually, we just happened to have these in stock)
- Cullman tripod from before the reunification of Germany (Made in West Germany)
- A prototype film holder
- A Surface Pro 4 with a white screen as a light source
- Photoshop with Grain2Pixel installed
The pictures were exposed at: 100 ISO, 0.8s, at f/8, overexposed by about 0.5 stops.
Below, we will take a look at some of the reasoning behind our choices and some tips on what you need to think about. Keep reading to get into the more advanced and interesting aspects of film and scanning. It won’t be a full guide but should help you think about the right things that we wish someone had made us think about. At the end, there are some links and recommendations to equipment and guides.
The roll of Kodak Portra 400 shot on a Nikon F-301 and a Nikon 35mm f/2 lens was developed and scanned here at the Kamerastore lab. Our lab has a Noritsu HS-1800 (these days, they cost between 10 000 and 15 000 euros) – one of the most advanced high volume film scanners in existence. We asked the lab for basic scans, which produces 7MP JPG files for the 35mm negatives.
What should Portra 400 look like?
Without getting too technical, you should know that a colour negative film, if directly inverted to a positive, will look extremely flat and boring. This is intentional! You might have heard people say things like negative film can handle ‘a wide range of exposure’, or heard that it’s almost impossible to overexpose a negative film. Producers essentially achieve this by recording a low contrast, low saturation image on the film, then letting an ‘interpreter’ produce the final image. Therefore, even in the darkroom, a process of interpretation is applied through the characteristics of the photosensitive paper and by the person printing. Digital negative processing is essentially the same.
Above is a straight picture of one of the negatives, taken as a RAW, imported into Photoshop with no manual settings, then inverted directly (CTRL/CMD+I). As you can see, the results are not exactly what you would call pure Portra 400, and yet, this is the least processed negative conversion possible. The strong cyan cast is from the orange base of the film, but even if we adjust the white balance, the picture will be flat and have bad colours.
Scanning, or for that matter printing a colour negative in the darkroom, is an interpretive process. It’s a bit like translating language: Two people can translate a sentence completely differently depending on, for example, their training, mindset and background. The same applies to converting a negative film into a usable positive image. All scanning processes have biases and assumptions built into them by their makers, their hardware and their operators.
For example, the ‘Fuji look’ is often quoted as something any proper scanner technique should bring out in a Fujifilm negative. In reality, the Fuji look in people’s minds, with deep greens and a blue cast, is at least partly down to the scanners and practices used by more or less professional labs in the 90s and 2000s. There is nothing wrong with this look, but also, there is nothing inherently correct about it – it is just one way of interpreting a negative that the scanning industry thought would be pleasing to the masses.
So when using a camera to scan, we think you should be free to make the colours and contrast levels you like, since you are the ‘operator’. The RAW format from cameras is designed to give you maximal freedom over the final result but that often means it doesn’t look fantastic out of the box. If you want something closer to a final image Grain2Pixel has a function for applying ‘print simulation’, so it looks more like a final print.
This is what pro scanners and operators do anyway – they scan too much information, then compress it down and make a pleasing image. So there is no such thing as a pure negative. For the purists who don’t want to touch their film scans, we can calm you by saying this process is done in all labs and by all scanners anyway. They scan a file with more information than they need, then they either automatically or manually apply a preset (similar to a ‘filter’ on Instagram) to get the look that they think the customer wants.
Next, we will take a look at the camera we used to make these scans.
The 8Mp this camera has is plenty for most applications. Normal 35mm film has roughly 7MP of usable information. You can, of course, scan much more than that and start resolving all the grain in minute detail, but the payoff is small, though perhaps more pleasing if you want to make huge prints. The constraint on quality seen is mostly a function of the lens and the camera/film shake.
However, the 350D camera body is a slight pain to use. It does not have live view (seeing the image live on the camera’s screen), so you have to frame through the viewfinder, which is very awkward. It is made doubly awkward by only having 95% frame coverage in the viewfinder so what you see is a 95% crop of the actual frame. Therefore, we would probably recommend adding 20 euros on the 350D and get a 450D with live view and computer tethering – it comes with the added benefit of 4 more megapixels. This has live view and is easy to tether to a computer if you want to see your live view on the computer. If you have the chance, going for a slightly more modern model will not yield much better results, but make the process easier and more comfortable.
The results from the 350D are likely slightly out of focus. Despite our best efforts, the tiny viewfinder on the 350D isn’t great for precise manual focusing. We tested with live-view on the 450D and got slightly sharper results that could not be accounted for with the extra pixel count, but was more likely just down to better focus.
Next, we will take a look at perhaps the most important part of the setup – the lens.
The lens we used was not a dedicated macro lens, which has an impact on image quality. Most lenses meant for normal distances perform worse at very close distances like this. The 50mm vintage prime we used is a pretty good performer for the money, but certainly all modern prime lenses, and good quality zoom lenses, with an extension tube, will work as well. Do be careful that some modern lenses don’t work without electrical connections, which require more expensive extension tubes.
Therefore, if you want to up your game from what we have shown here, the lens is the first place to look. Lenses marked with ‘macro’ (‘micro’ in the case of Nikon) will make a big difference because they are optimised for this close distance work. We would go for a prime (fixed focal length) macro instead of a variable focal length macro. The shorter focal lengths are generally cheaper, such as the Sony 30mm or the Canon 35mm and provide brilliant results on APS-C sensors. If you have a full-frame camera, the shortest focal length we would recommend is 50mm. Auto-focus is handy, but if you go for a camera with live view or computer tethering where you can zoom in to adjust the focus manually.
If you want to up your game with a lot of quality, but perhaps a bit more fiddlyness and work, then an enlarger lens might be good for you. It’s hard to emphasise how good these are – most of the relatively modern ones will easily resolve the grain in most films. These were made for reproduction and have all the properties that you want for camera scanning. Even really good ones can be cheap, such as the Nikkor EL 50mm f/4. Kamerastore.com has a selection of enlarger lenses. The only problem about this is that they don’t have focusing rings. This is fixed easily enough: The most modular solution is getting a bellows system – Kamerastore usually has a range of macro bellows.There might not be one for your system exactly, but using adapter rings you can adapt anything to camera and lens – just remember you need to adapt both ends of it. Enlarger lenses generally have M39 threads, and some have M42 threads. Another alternative is to buy a separate focusing helicoid. This is the screw part that lets you lens expand to focus closer and can be found on all normal lenses. These can generally be had new from various online resellers for as little as 20€. The downside to this is that you have get no fine-tuned adjustment of the camera position, only of the focus. We chose to use a normal 50mm lens for the tests in this article because enlarger lenses are a level of complexity that you might not want to delve into right from the start. They are, however, a really nice way to upgrade once you get more confident – and you might not ever need to upgrade again if you do opt for this option.
In our case, we just grabbed a tripod that was around the office. It turned out to be a Cullman and probably isn’t the cheapest. Almost any tripod can be used if you have some creativity in placing it, adjusting the legs to different lengths or placing it on the table. Our tripod was convenient to use because it had a horizontally extending centre column, making it easy to place it on the floor and have the camera suspended over the table, close to the film. This did, however, lead to more camera shake than we would have liked. If you have a tripod, you can probably find a way of making it work, but if you are buying new just for camera scanning we would recommend just getting a copy stand.
A light source for camera scanning is often made really complicated on the internet but it turns out most of us have one in our pockets.
The light source
In our case, we used one of our computers, a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with a fullscreen white image and the brightness set to maximum. Computers, tablets (iPads), phones and the like are actually very good light sources because the white light they give off covers almost the full spectrum, giving better colour accuracy when scanning colour film. The only disadvantage is that it gives quite slow shutter speeds, which in this case probably reduced the sharpness. With this setup you can’t put the negative right on the screen as the pixels will show up – instead, you have to find a way to raise the negative above (some holders do, some don’t).
A cheap tracing pad can be used if you only scan BW, just make sure you raise the film about 3cm above the light source. Other, more expensive light sources can be found, such as a Kaiser light pad meant for viewing slides. These give good light quality and are a bit stronger than a screen, but they still don’t give very fast shutter speeds. People also use flashguns with diffusion, giving good light and fast shutter speeds, but it means that lining up the frame is harder, and it often tends to be expensive. Another alternative is constant LED studio lighting with strong diffusion and some separation between the negative and the light.
As we discussed earlier, converting negatives isn’t as straightforward as the name ‘negative’ would imply. You cannot simply invert the negative and get a beautiful positive. You can manually adjust it in Photoshop to make it look decent, but it would be a pain and take lots of manual labour.
We use the newly released and brilliant Grain2Pixel by TheDude. This is a free plugin for Photoshop that we think produces the best results out of the box and has the best workflow for us. At least in Finland, the photography package by Adobe is about 12 euros per month, giving you access to Photoshop, Lightroom, Camera Raw for Bridge, as well as 20GB of cloud storage. Another established plugin for Lightroom Classic is Negative Lab Pro, but it is quite expensive at $99 for just the plugin, then you have to pay for Adobe Lightroom as well. A completely free alternative is the negative module in RawTherapee, which seems to give decent results for some people, but when we tried it, it was fiddly and didn’t really get good results. Other similar programs do the same, such as the standalone FilmLab, which has been a phone app for a while and which is under development for PC and Mac but is, as of June 2020, not yet out.
The film holder
The holder we used is a project we’ve been tinkering with that has given us very good results. You can read more about it on Nord Fotographic.
You would think that holding a piece of plastic flat and level with the ability to shine light through it was a problem solved by humanity. There are holders out there that can do the job pretty well. Perhaps the best known is the Negative Supply holder, but at $329 for the 35mm version and $479 for the 120 medium format version (in total $828) and with shipping from the US (so taxes come on-top if you live anywhere else), a setup including them is extremely expensive, since you still need to buy a light, a stand/tripod and camera + lens.
One alternative is using holders meant for flatbed scanners. They are, of course, cheap and they work fine but are fiddly and most of them don’t hold the film particularly flat. This is probably the most budget-friendly option.
You could use two pieces of glass, but it probably will produce Newton rings (these strange rainbow rings that show up when you press shiny surfaces together) and will give you dust and scratch problems. There are some alternatives out there, but particularly if your film isn’t perfectly flat, you should be aware that products like the Skier box and the Essential film holder don’t flatten the film like more advanced holders. Hands down, the cheapest holder that can be used to scan 35mm, medium format and 4×5 large format is the ‘pixl-latr’ holder, which, while seems a bit slow to use, will hold all these formats for just 43€ (they are shipping in the coming weeks). This holder will remain the cheapest multiformat holder for the foreseeable future. If you just do 35mm, then the DigitaLIZA does a similar thing for just over 30€. New holders are coming to the market all the time right now, so if this has piqued your interest in camera scanning, we recommend you keep your eyes open for new holders coming on the market.
Finally, we’re going to show you that you can go very far with camera scanning.
How far can you go?
Camera scanning has very few limits in either direction. You can spend less than 100 euros and get very usable results, or you can spend thousands and get results that far outdo the best of scanner technology. We can do this because digital technology has moved on so much since the early 2000s when most scanners in use today were designed.
We compared a Hasselblad Flextight scanner, considered one of the highest quality scanners in existence, we tried to push the Sony a6300 and the cheapest Sony macro (the 30mm f/3.5). Stitching 18 shots together we got a 150Mp file from a 6×6 medium format frame of Ektar 100 with about as much detail as the Flextight scanner and with better dynamic range – on a setup for less than one-tenth of the cost.
Here is a comparison between the Noritsu and a Sony a7R (released October 2013) using the 200 euro Sony 50mm f/2.8 Macro. Yes, this is a relatively expensive setup (about 800€), but if you already own a modern digital camera, like the Sony a6000 series, or a Fuji X series, or any modern DSLR, these results are very attainable.
As you can see, there is no competition. The camera scan, even under not-perfect conditions (shaky tripod, weak light source) made a scan much sharper than the Noritsu. What you see as little specs is not digital noise but the grain of the Portra 400 negative. The file is 36Mp, more than enough to resolve the grain on a 35mm Portra 400 frame.
Guides and technique
Here are two OK starting points that in our opinion hit most of the key points:
This hits most of the key points, but isn’t really a guide:
Here is an interesting comparison between a drum scan and a camera scan:
Recommended equipment for cheap
If you buy a camera, then some of the below are probably good. If you already have a DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses it will likely work very well.
- Cheapest range (about 50€)
- Canon EOS 350D (no live view, but the cheapest option)
- Canon EOS 400D (no live view)
- Canon EOS 30D (no live view)
- Canon EOS 450D
- Canon EOS 1000D
- Canon EOS 40D
- Nikon D5000
- Nikon D5100 (most expensive of the cheap, but 16Mp)
- Modern high Mp, but only between 90€ and 180€: Very good upgrade for the money
- Nikon D3100/3200/3300 (3200 get’s the 24Mp sensor)
- Nikon D5200/5300 (both have the 24Mp sensor)
- Fujifilm X-A5 (24Mp)
- Fujifilm X-T10 (16Mp, but higher end than A5)
- Helios 44 (M42 mount)
- (Carl Zeiss) Jena 50mm f/2.8
- Pentacon Prakticar 50mm f/1.8 (29€)
- Konica 52mm f/1.8 Hexanon (29€)
- Cosina 50mm f2 Cosinon-S (29€)
- Enlarger lenses + macro bellows/focusing helicoids
- Nikkor 50mm f/4 – cheap and quite sharp
Kamerastore.com sells adapters for most combinations of lenses and cameras. You can also read more about adapting lenses in a brilliant article over at Kamerastore.com
Any M42 or Tamron Adaptall lens between 30mm and 100mm are great because they can adapt to any system and are cheap.
Focal lengths between 30mm and 100mm are great, with 50mm lenses being very cheap and ubiquitous.
Most lenses can be adapted to Canon EOS, including Pentax K mount, Chinon, Pentacon Prakticar and many other cheap, but wonderful lenses.