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Yes Please

So, you have exposed your roll of film to light, and now it is time to see the images. There are two ways to go about this. You can use your roll of film to create a negative, which you can use in a darkroom to create prints using an enlarger, photographic paper and chemicals. Or you can digitize photos instead.

One of these is fun, expensive, time-consuming and not to mention space consuming. The other is a fast and chemical free way to see your images. I say chemical free, but you still need to turn your exposed roll of film into negatives.

A local photography shop will have a service for this or at least know where it is possible. You could, of course, digitize photos yourself.

Overhead shot of a zenit film photography camera and a hand holding a strip of film negatives

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Digitizing Photos From Negatives

So, now you have your negatives, let’s get started on digitizing your images. There are a few ways you can do this, which we will go through now.

The most common way is to use a scanner. The other way is to utilise your digital camera. Read on for all the information.

Scanners

An image scanner is a device that ‘scans’ your images and negatives to create a digital version. They typically use a charge-coupled device (CCD) or a contact image sensor (CIS) as the image sensor.

They come in three different versions; a flatbed, a film scanner and a drum scanner.

FlatBed

A flatbed scanner is sometimes called a ‘reflective scanner’ because it works by shining white light onto the scanned object and reads the intensity and colour light reflected from it. This usually happens one line at a time.

They are for scanning prints or other flat, opaque materials. Some flatbeds have transparency adapters, used for scanning film.

A diagram showing a flatbed scanner or 'reflective scanner' used to digitize photos

A CCD flatbed scanner has a glass pane under which sits a bright light (xenon, LED or cold cathode fluorescent) that illuminates the pane, and a moving optical array. CCD-type scanners typically contain three rows of sensors with red, green, and blue filters.

The CCD version is what you will find on most flatbed scanners.

These scanners utilise the same type of imaging sensor found inside a legacy digital camera. They use an actual lens to capture the full image onto the imaging sensor.

This method is great for capturing very high-resolution details along with a widened colour space.

An epson photo scanner used to digitize photos on white background

Negative Scanners

A negative scanner is also known as a slide or transparency scanner. It works by passing a narrow and focused beam of light through the film, recording the lights’ intensity and colour.

This scanner works when fed uncut film, up to six frames long in a carrier. A motor moves the holder, which scans each image separately, then moving the next negative in. Here a CCD sensor captures the information.

These are the cheapest options when scanning slides or film negatives. They have the potential for high levels of quality and advanced features if you can afford them.

From using these in the past, I have found that these scanners touch your film more than the other two types. Rollers can scratch or damage negatives if not cleaned properly. 

An Veho negative scanner used to digitize photos on white background

Drum Scanner

Drum scanners use photomultiplier tubes (PMT) rather than CCD arrays to capture photographic information. Reflective and transmissive originals are mounted on an acrylic cylinder (the scanner drum) which rotates at high speed while it passes the object being scanned in front of optics that deliver image information to the PMTs.

Light from the original artwork splits into separate red, blue, and green beams in the optical bench of the scanner with dichroic filters.

These scanners extract more information and detail from very dark areas, much better than a flatbed scanner. They use tungsten rather than LED or fluorescent light. These scanners offer a much higher quality of scan compared to any other scanner.

Their colour, detail and tonal quality are unsurpassable. However, they are incredibly expensive if you can find one, and time consuming to use.

A drummer scanner in use for digitizing photos

Using a Scanner

We will assume that you will use a flatbed scanner or a negative scanner to digitize your negatives. A drum scanner can be affordable to use if you can find a service to do it for you.

Here is a list of a few items you will benefit from when scanning:

Negative Scanner

Here, we are using the Plustek OpticFilm 135. This is one of the most affordable yet best negative scanners I have come across.

Along with the scanner, you will receive a holder for 35mm mounted slides (positive) and a holder for 35mm negative film (negative).

  1. Make sure the scanner is switched on, connected to your computer and turned on;
  2. Ensure the software is on your computer and running;
  3. Load the negatives into the appropriate tray. Make sure you use the cotton gloves;
  4. Make sure the negatives are correctly inserted and not warped;
  5. It will take 205 seconds to scan six negatives @ 3600 dpi (equivalent to a 17.3 MP image, making 12″ x 17″ prints possible).

NB: We believe the Plustek OpticFilm 135 is great at scanning, but not great in post-production. Collect your images and run them through Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop

Graphic image of a Plustek OpticFilm 135 used to digitize slides

Flatbed Scanner

Here, we are using the Epson Perfection V800 Photo scanner. This device will come with transparency holders for slide films, negatives for 35mm and medium format. Find the one appropriate for your negative size and you’re good to go.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Make sure the scanner is switched on, connected to your computer and turned on;
  • Ensure the software is on your computer and running;
  • Load the negatives into the appropriate tray. Make sure you use the cotton gloves;
  • Make sure the negatives are correctly inserted and not warped;
  • The text should be facing backwards;

Epson Perfection V800 Photo scanner with a background of 35mm film

  • Dust off your negatives using the negative blower/canned air;
  • Clean and dust off the glass plane inside the scanner;
  • Place the film tray as instructed and close the top of the scanner;
  • (For the scanner to scan transparencies, the white reflective insert needs to be sat in the scanner lid);

Alright, now on to the software part.

  • Open the settings panel of your scanning software. In our case, we are using Epson Scan;
  • Set the scan panel to the professional mode for the most possible adjustments;
  • Make sure the Document Type is set to ‘Film’ and the Film Type is set to ‘Positive Film’;
  • Image Type should be on the highest settings. 24-bit colour is sufficient;
  • DPI – dots per inch. This denotes the resolution quality of your scan. Set this to 3200 dpi;
  • Select the areas that you want to scan. Make sure you select only the image, and not the borders;
  • Check to make sure the size of the output is between 30mb and 50mb. This will allow your images to surpass an 11×14″ print. (You may need to click preview before the negatives are seen);
  • Run through the adjustments (indepth below) and press scan when you are satisfied;
  • You may find that using Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop will help you get the most from your scans.

Adjustments

Unsharp Mask: This will add a sharpness to your images. Preview and check this box if you would like it applied.

Grain Reduction: This will try to help your images reduce their grain and therefore look better

Colour Restoration: This setting aims to change the colour according to what the program feels is best. Use the preview to see if it helps, and if it does, check the box

Backlight Correction: Here you can remove shadows from photos that have too much background light

Dust Removal: This will aim to eliminate dust from your negative

Digital ICE Technology: This is EPSON’s patented dust and scratch removal technology.

There are other features, such as a histogram, to help fine tune the dynamic range. There is a tone curve correction area, allowing you to change the colour tones.

NB: Scanning images is different from working with images in editing software programs. A 4 x 6″ scanned negative @ 300 dpi will give you a file big enough to print a 4×6 image. @600 dpi, that same image will give you a maximum size of 8 x 12″. A scan at 1200 dpi will give you 16 x 24″, and so on.

Screenshot of the epson scanners adjustment panel for digitizing photos

Without a Scanner

There is another option. A truly sound tool for digitizing your film is something you already have: a digital camera. A scanner functions much like a regular camera, therefore, a camera can be used to perform similar functions as a scanner.

The idea is that you use the ability to rephotograph the negative. Using DSLR or modern mirrorless systems, you are able to produce high-resolution digital files of your photographic film.

Here is a list of items you will need:

diagram of a digital camera on a tripod used to digitize photos

bhphotovideo.com

Capturing

  1. Place your camera on the bottom section of the tripods’ camera pole. The idea is to get as close to the negative as possible. Have the camera facing directly down to the floor.
  2. The camera settings should be ISO 100 f/5.6-f/8. Shoot in RAW using an RGB colour space profile. Bracket your images by  ⅓ EV steps for a stop or two either side of the metered exposure. Lock up the mirror (if you have one) and use the self-timer.
  3. Place the light source on the ground, facing the camera lens.
  4. Place the negative in the film holder using the white gloves.
  5. Clean and dust as necessary using the air, blower and anti-static cloth.
  6. Fill as much of the frame as possible – adjust tripod, camera and lens accordingly.
  7. Find an area to focus on, such as text. You can even use the manufacturer’s text on the film itself. Use live view mode for the best results.
  8. Capture the image. Move on to the next.

Post-Processing

As you have photographed a negative, you need to turn it into a positive.

  1. Invert the image using Camera Raw, Photoshop or Lightroom. This will give you a positive image.
  2. Work on the brightness and contrast.
  3. Complete the first round of post-processing looking at the dynamic range, highlights and whites, shadows and blacks and all the mid tones in between.

If you are experiencing colour cast with your colour film, fine-tune the colour temperature to a colour that is more natural.

Conclusion

Scanning your images in and digitizing them can be a little finicky at times. Especially when you haven’t got your workflow down to a T. That will come with time, and by practicing the options in our post.

I have the Epson V800 at home as it offers me great quality, and gives me the chance to scan in 35mm, medium and large formats, slides and of course prints.

The negative scanner only has the capacity to produce digital versions of 35mm, but if that is all you do, it is a cheaper option.

Triptych of a landscape image showing the results of digitizing photos with a Tango Drum Scanner and an Epson V700 scanner

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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