Scanning film with a digital camera


by Bellamy /

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Scanning film with a digital camera – by Adrien Saint-Pierre
Today we have a guest article on how to scan your film negatives with a digital camera. Cutting out the need for a flatbed scanner and making use of what many photographers have at home. Adrien Saint-Pierre takes us through the process in this excellent guide.

Hi everyone,

I am an amateur photographer with a love for film and as a student, my budget is fairly limited. I shoot mainly a Bronica ETRS medium format camera with Portra 400 and Ilford HP5+. I made the choice not to develop my own negatives but I can’t afford the cost of high-res scan. When I decided to scan negs by myself, flatbed scanners were not cheap and I was not very impressed by their quality. On top of that, it did not look very straightforward either to get a decent scan out of their terrible proprietary software.

A friend of mine then suggested to use my old DSLR as a joke, it turned out that many people were already doing it with impressive results. I quickly put a scanning setup together and results with black and white were great, colour was still messy. After many experiments, I want to share with you my colour film scanning process. This method relies on a basic DSLR, a macro lens, a light table, and Adobe Photoshop. In this tutorial, I will rely on a collage algorithm to get a high resolution scan of a 645 negative. More importantly, these are tools that most photographers already own, making the all process very affordable while being highly qualitative.

 What you need to get started

  • –  A digital camera with a liveview capability. I use my old Nikon D90, it works like a charm. If you are planning to scan a consequent number of negatives, get at least a spare battery.
  • –  A macro lens with a 1:1 reproduction ratio. I use a Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/3.5 with a PK- 3 extension ring.
  • –  A tripod/column to attach the camera. You have to take the shot facing down so you need a tripod where the column can either be inverted or used horizontally. I use a quite sturdy tripod and a ballhead.
  • –  A level to make sure things are perfectly parallel. I use my phone with an app, it does the trick.
  • –  A light table. Forget about using an iPad, pixels will be showing, no matter what. Get a proper one, it’s cheap and always useful to review negatives anyway.
  • –  A negative holder. I use one coming from an old Epson Perfection 4990. This one is ok but it’s not always easy to maintain the negative perfectly flat. I’ll get back to that later.
  • –  Release cable/remote. I use the Yongnuo RF remotes I already had, any cheap one will do.
  • –  A blower/brush to get rid of the dust.
  • –  Optional but recommended, a calibrated monitor. I use a x-rite display calibrator, great investment.
  • –  A proper cup of coffee/tea and some relaxing music. I can’t stress enough this last point, it makes a world of difference.

Overall, this particular setup cost me £30 for the negative holder, £30 for the light table, £40 for the lens, £20 for the extension ring. So a total of £120 excluding the camera, the tripod, the remote, and the software I already had. Not too bad.

1. The capture process

    1. Make sure that your focal plan is perfectly parallel to your light table. It can be tedious but it is a crucial step, do it with care as the camera won’t be moved after that. On the picture you can see the setup with my phone used as a level.
  1. Place the film in the holder. Make sure the negative is as flat as possible. A tiny flatness issue not only distorts your image but can also get it out of focus. It’s also a good time to dust off the light table and your negative. The more you remove now, the less time you will spend getting rid of it in front of your computer.
  2. Time to place the film holder under the camera. You now need to get the focus right and this is where the liveview comes in handy. Once again, this is a tedious process and probably the most critical too.
  1. Coming to the settings, I go by f/8 and 1/10 of a second for colour film, 1/40 for black and white. As you should shoot raw, fixing the white balance does not matter at this stage. You might need to play a bit with these parameters as trial and error is the way to go. If you use a DSLR, I also recommend delaying the exposure after the mirror is up.
  2. Time to scan! Now you need to take as many pictures as needed to cover the all negative by sliding the film holder. You need to make sure they overlap sufficiently and that you are also capturing the unexposed part of the neg, this is very important for the following steps. I usually take 9 shots for a 6×4.5 and I am left with a final resolution of about 50 megapixels, this will depend on the result you are targeting. You can do this tethered or with a memory card, totally up to you.

2. Processing

1. Import the photos into Photoshop, no particular adjustment is needed. I find that a bit of sharpening can sometimes help the collage algorithm though.

  1. Once all photos are open, go to File>Automate>Photomerge and select Collage. Click on “Add Open Files”, make sure the “Blend images together” box is ticked and press “OK
  2. Depending on the computer you are using, this might take some time. There is also a small chance that the Photomerge fail. In this case, be patient and start over making sure your focus is properly done and your film is flat. Bear in mind that the more detailed the picture, the more chances of success. If it works, you should get something like this:
  3. Now, we need to sample the film stock where it is not exposed to get rid of the orange mask. Select all layers and merge them together. Add a “Levels” adjustment layer. Select the White eyedropper and set the “Sample size” (upper left) to “11 by 11 Average” to begin with. Click a few times on the unexposed part of the film, if the results are consistent, your “Sample size” is adequate. If not, change it until you obtain consistent results.
  4. Now we need to invert the picture. Add an “invert” adjustment. The picture looks ugly but don’t panic, everything is under control.
  5. For this step, we need to get rid of everything which is not the picture itself, including the borders. Use the crop tool.
  6. Now we are ready for the last operation, the tonal curve adjustment. Add a “Curves” adjustment layer. Open the “Auto options…” and make sure the following parameters are selected: “Enhance Per Channel Constrast”, “Snap Neutral Midtones”, “Shadows Clip” to 0.01%, “Highlights Clip” to 0.01%. Click on “OK”.
  7. Click on “Auto” and voila! If you can still observe a cyan cast, select the Red curve in the RGB menu and move it slightly to the left.


Now, the rest is on you. You should have a relatively well-balanced and detailed scan to work with in a convenient PSD file format.

To end this tutorial, I would like to acknowledge and thank Michael Fraser for the orange protective layer removal process he once shared on his blog. My scanning process relies heavily on it and before that, I had pretty much given up on colour film. Of course, this is only one way of doing it and you should experiment to improve and adapt it to your own needs.

Below are some examples of scans I made using this process:

You can find some of my scanning tests on my flickr:

If you have any question or suggestions, please share them in the comments!

Thanks for taking the time to put this guide together for us, Adrien. It is greatly appreciated.


34 comments on “Scanning film with a digital camera”

    Eric February 29, 2016 at 7:33 pm / Reply

    Bravo et merci beaucoup.
    Whaou, congratulations and thanks so much
    Chapeau ! Hat off !


    Pao February 29, 2016 at 7:58 pm / Reply

    I use a similar method. Just a tip if you are using a Canon DSLR, try installing the Magic Lantern firmware hack. It has a mode that allows you to invert the colors during live view so you see a positive image BEFORE you even scan. Makes the whole process of editing and scanning easier :)

    jim February 29, 2016 at 11:17 pm / Reply

    Thanks for the tips!

    I’ve been been scanning old 35mm B&W negs this way for a while now with a Canon 6D. Color neg has always been a hassle. One thing that surprised me. I get my sharpest results at f/11. I had had been shooting two stops down, under the assumption that this is generally the sharpest setting of most lenses and DOF would not be an issue since the film image is flat. Also assumed that diffraction would set in at high f-stops. Worth looking at in your setup.

    rollbahn March 1, 2016 at 12:05 pm / Reply

    It’s a great idea in theory and if you haven’t got a scanner it works in a pinch but the colours are still off the mark. I’ve owned everything from a Coolscan, Pakon, Imacon, Epson V700, Polaroid Sprintscan and with a a bit of work you can always get a halfway decent colour scan but the colours are always slightly off what they should be. Roads and pavements with colour casts, skin tones either magenta or yellow no matter what you tweak etc

    I eventually gave up and bought an old Fuji Frontier for very little money and now the colour is perfect. It still needs tweaking to taste but at least the greys are grey, whites are white and blacks and black and skin tones are pleasing rather than all the magneta and cyan issues you get otherwise.

    It would be great if someone like Kodak could get a scanner out that does what we all need. Fast scanning and well colour balanced. I hear so many times people give up on colour film as they just can’t get the image the way they want and lab scanning can be so expensive.

    Duncan March 1, 2016 at 9:40 pm / Reply

    I’ve been meaning to have a go like this, but using an old enlarging lens rather than a proper macro lens (which I don’t own now). I have tried an old 1:1 slide copier, which works well on crop frame but not full frame (the edges are mushy with ff).

    One tip for you: when getting the camera parallel with the neg, you can do it very quickly by putting a small mirror on the neg carrier, then adjusting the camera until the reflected image of the lens is centred. You might need to stop the lens down a bit and shine some light on the rig, but it doesn’t really have to be sharp to see when it’s aligned properly.

    This auto-collimation method makes aligning any copy job a breeze.

    Brett March 2, 2016 at 5:44 am / Reply

    Thanks very much for this article Adrien! I saw a few months ago that Cecil Williams has developed a macro duplicator pedestal called FilmToaster. It looks like it might be able to speed up the capture process a bit. His website is here:

    johnny v March 2, 2016 at 5:59 am / Reply

    As someone who uses a traditional darkroom for black & white film, I have toyed with the idea of using a film scanner for reprinting the few colour pictures I take (as I don’t have the equipment for colour printing, nor the desire to learn the process). This is perhaps something I can try.

    Tony Rowlett March 2, 2016 at 6:00 am / Reply

    Excellent article, many thanks for writing and sharing.

    I have been doing a little bit of this and I am fortunate to possess a 35mm negative carrier that sandwiches the 35mm frame between two planes of “Anti Newton Glass,” which holds the negative perfectly flat and is well worth researching. (If you were to sandwich the negative between two planes of non-Anti Newton Glass, you would have to deal with “newton rings” which would be visible to the camera and pretty much intolerable.) If one were to embark on a large project of “scanning” negatives in this way, it might be worth it to take a look.

    I don’t have such a negative carrier for any other size negative. My late father gave me many of his negatives dating from the 1940s through 1960s that are large format. I have not yet found a source for the anti newton glass. Thankfully, large format negatives seem to be much flatter than 35mm ones.

    Adrien March 2, 2016 at 10:43 am / Reply

    I agree that a Fuji Frontier is a must and I would definitely love to have one. However, as I tend relocate on a two-year basis, it does not seem very practical for my personal use. I would also be worried about the day some maintenance will have to be done, this is a very complex machine after all. I guess it would be great to have one in a shared photo lab!
    Concerning the colours, I believe you could get better results with the method I described by using a high CRI light. The one I have is a cheapo from Amazon and I don’t think it’s CRI is very satisfying. This is something I will probably try to change in the next few months. However, when sampling the unexposed part of the negative, you are removing the bias introduced by the orange layer in the best way possible. My main issue at the moment is the CRI I believe, the spectrum of colours that reaches my glass is probably too inconsistent and non-linear.
    All in all, this method still beats all scanners in resolution, speed, and ease of use.

    Adrien March 2, 2016 at 10:48 am / Reply

    That’s an excellent idea, thanks for the tip!

    I’ve seen this accessory around, if I recall well the price he was asking for was nuts…

    @Tony Rowlett
    I wanted to investigate the anti-newton glass myself but many people on forums reported very mitigated results so I decided not to invest, as they don’t come cheap!

    Mike March 2, 2016 at 10:51 am / Reply

    Thanks for the shout out on the orange mask. This is the best way of scanning film, without buying a drum scanner or an Imacon. Seriously. If you’re not getting good colour out of this, that’s YOUR fault; the method is sound.

    No one should be investing in a scanner in 2016; that’s old tech. Get a 24+ MP DSLR, a good copy stand, and a good macro lens, and produce scans that will make you want to piss on your V800. Seriously. If you aren’t getting good results from this, you are incompetent.

    DSLR scanning is the way to go. Unless, of course, you’ve joined the 21st century and just given up on film.

    Elias Rangel March 4, 2016 at 12:21 am / Reply

    My light table is a card box, some parchment paper for diffusion, with a clamp lamp as a light source :D
    I’ve done some tests with AutoPano for stitching. It supports working in batches, which takes a lot of friction from the process.

    redseca2 March 4, 2016 at 3:39 am / Reply

    This is a wonderful work around for film negatives.

    But it also got me to thinking. I have well beyond 10,000 slides that I scan slowly, and with often mediocre results using a Plustek scanner.

    But I still own a Kodak Carousel projector. Has anyone experimented with using a digital camera to copy slides projected onto a screen? Once you get it to work with results you are satisfied with the workflow would be as fast as you can click the projector control and take the photo. The tedious part would be loading carousels. Unlike the close in approach with precise tight tolerances needed for copying negatives, you could try projecting a room size image, where minor mis-alignments and the projector lens and camera lens being off axis wouldn’t register.

    Vasile Guta-Ciucur March 4, 2016 at 4:21 am / Reply

    Using a Point and Shoot camera with a sharp fixed lens, a good macro capability (it goes down to 1cm, 3cm and even 5cm is good enough) and a reasonable resolution (depends on where you need the scan). A 10Mp resolution is a good start and usually, Panasonic cameras are great. It is vital to have the posibility to do a custom White Balance directly on the light table, before placing the film.

    Adrien March 4, 2016 at 11:08 am / Reply

    @Elias Rangel
    My next step will be to buy a proper enlarger to use the column and I will probably automate the all capture with a moving negative holder and then a script to stitch and correct the colours. Even if the process I described is still much faster than using a regular flatbed scanner, it’s still a chore and I would love to get rid of it.

    I scanned a large number of slides for people in my family and I used the dedicated Nikon ES-1 with the same macro lens + extension tube I used in the tutorial. I use a remote flash and I actually shoot JPEG once the white balance is properly set in the customs options of the camera. However, as I do not own a full-frame digital camera, I am losing a small portion of the slide, not a big deal in my case but worth considering.
    I don’t believe it would be easier to capture a large projected image as errors in the alignment of the two focal plans are likely to be amplified and thus, more challenging to correct.

    @Vasile Guta-Ciucur
    You can use any camera you like, indeed. I think that for 24×36 film, it could do the trick as there is not that much information to extract from it (I estimate a good 8 megapixels worth of information, at best). You might also lack in dynamics as smaller sensors won’t be able to math film capabilities. If you want to scan larger formats by stitching, you will need a much better lens with virtually no distorsion.

    Piotr March 4, 2016 at 7:03 pm / Reply

    Hey guys !
    In theory it’s really amazing idea, I’ve experiment with this quite a lot..the only thing nobody tells about is that the digital camera has really narrow dynamic range, and that was massive problem for me.
    One of most important film features for me is its hi dynamic range.
    While ‘recording’ image using digital camera, basically you loose so much information – in my opinion it’s like trying to record music pressed on vinyl using digital voice (memo) recorder.
    Of course I could use a HDR technique, but it unbearably multiplying time needed to ‘scan’.

    Adrien March 5, 2016 at 11:13 am / Reply

    I think there is a common misconception about what dynamic range is and what it means to film, this has nothing to do with the ability to overexpose. To estimate the DR of film, you need to refer to the density as a function of the log-exposure of the film. I have the one for the new Portra 400 in front of me and I can tell you it will boast about 10 EV of DR, which is already great. On the other hand, any modern entry-level DSLR can capture 13 EV of DR.
    So yes, a digital camera is very adequate to scan film. To reply to the vinyl analogy, CDs have a far superior dynamic range too.

    Mike March 7, 2016 at 7:35 am / Reply

    The amount of know-nothing-know-it-all-ery around here is stunning. Limited DR? Dude, you have zero clue about this. Zero. Try it out for a year, publish several tutorial articles, try various different methods like Dave Lam and I did, and then get back to me.

    This is FAR better than anything you can produce for under $10,000 US (assuming you could figure out how to use an X1…or even know what an X1 is), and even then it’s a close race.

    Adrien March 7, 2016 at 4:55 pm / Reply

    I think we should stop rationalising why using film “makes sense” technically over digital. Technically speaking, digital wins, by a large margin, period. Resolution, linearity of the tonal response, dynamic range, colour balancing, workflow, duplication… Except for very specific applications such as large format where huge resolution and movements are needed, digital IS better.
    Fortunately, it’s not because something is technically “not the best” that we should stop caring about it. Shoot film because you like it, that’s as simple as that. Use whatever you want as long as you enjoy the process and the results.
    And please, try to understand what you are talking about when engaging into technical discussions. I know this is the internet but that’s not because an idiot claims he measured himself 20 EV of dynamic range on dpreview that you should believe him. There is a very clear definition of dynamic range and how it’s measured. Datasheets for all film stocks are given by manufacturers, this is enough material to put an end to this pseudo-science…

    Mike March 7, 2016 at 10:09 pm / Reply

    ^^This^^. So much this.

    Adrien March 7, 2016 at 11:39 pm / Reply

    What do you mean?

    Adrien March 8, 2016 at 10:13 am / Reply

    A good read about this:

    Valentí Zapater March 15, 2016 at 9:08 pm / Reply

    The problem of the accuracy of colour and fast work is not difficult to solve scanning (with a scanner). All you need is an ICC profile for every kind of film. This profile is only for your scanner and you can’t share it. It’s customized. For example, I use a Fujichrome Velvia 50 film profile for my Nikon Coolscan 8000 ED. With a Photoshop action and the customized profile it’s very fast to get an accurate colour. I do it with slides, but I don’t know how it works for negative film.
    But, what about scanning with a camera? I don’t know. I have made several inquiries and it seems that is not as simple as doing a customized ICC camera profile for every kind of film. Anyone have more information or ideas about this?

    Thomas E April 12, 2016 at 3:13 am / Reply

    I really appreciate this article on scanning and I can definitely recommend the method (I dubbed it “The Digital Darkroom” – it bears some resemblance). After spending about two years in the digital darkroom, I can definitely recommend the method.
    Here is an article which might prove useful to you:

    mark fewtrell April 12, 2016 at 4:15 pm / Reply

    I have everything but the light source. Id been wondering about the bases for overhead projectors. Bad idea?

    Nondas Skorpideas April 12, 2016 at 7:27 pm / Reply

    Try Vuescan. It will make the whole inversion process much more accurate. Vuescan is a very respected scanning software that allows a great degree of freedom, keeping it simple.
    Instead of scanning, just import your negative DNG file, and select the film vendor. Vuescan will do the inversion for you. It has presets for nearly every film that was ever made. Let me know if need further info.

    Thomas E April 14, 2016 at 11:37 am / Reply

    I have tested VueScan and the results for color film were not satisfying / consistent. I even tried the expensive silverfast; after more than a year I stumbled across ColorPerfect (see my article /link above) and finally got consistent colors without performing advanced color correction in post processing. -> if VueScan is not right for you, give it a shot

    Thomas E April 14, 2016 at 12:04 pm / Reply

    @nondas: did you notice a difference when using a dng instead of the camera’s proprietary raw as input data for VueScan ?

    Nondas Skorpideas April 15, 2016 at 6:10 pm / Reply

    @Thomas E: I get very consistent results from Vuescan, although I “scan” mainly b&w. Even when you choose the appropriate type of film, it allows you to make micro adjustments to white & black points, luminance levels of every color, etc.
    As far as file format is concerned, I export either DNG or 16-bit TIFF from Lightroom and import the file straight to Vuescan. My recent Pentax setup, was working straight in DNG, so that was convenient. Haven’t tried though any other proprietary formats of other vendors to see how they behave, or even if Vuescan can read them at all.
    In addition, I think it even has some batch scan options that allow you to “scan” several files in one go, provided of course that they come from the same film type.
    As a general comment though for this approach of “scanning” I would say that film flatness is crucial, since the depth of field of a macro lens is between 1 and 3 millimetres. Most good macro lenses work great at f11 or even f22 which makes things a bit easier.

    Adrien April 16, 2016 at 3:03 pm / Reply

    Scanning black and white is pretty straightforward, only colour negative film poses a serious challenge. After trying some plugins and several orange mask removal techniques, I was always plagued by inconsistency. Of course, having a database of the different film stocks can help to some extent but it can’t do anything about variations in the development process. Each film shows non-linearities in its exposition curve and the development process will bring even more of these. Hence, you will observe variations that will show greatly when scanned with generic parameters. Just do the test, take two rolls of the same film stock not developed at the same time, fine-tune one image and apply the exact same settings to any image of the other roll, it does not work. The plugins can offer power extensive options but they are not helping you getting accurate colours, they are helping you tweaking them individually to your taste. Sampling the non-exposed part (but developed) is therefore the most accurate method if you want to scan the picture as it is.

    Hectocotylus August 17, 2016 at 3:52 am / Reply

    I’m in a process of setting up a kit for scanning my old negatives and slides with digital SLR (Canon 7D) and macro lens (Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM). I ordered A4 tracing light box and Epson film/slide holder. I’m pretty excited by possibility of resurrecting over 40 years old shots, possibly with the quality in which they have never been seen before! I’ve done research and read number of articles and tutorials touching this subject but I still have 3 questions:

    1. Is it worth to cover most of the light box surface leaving exposed only the frame that is being scanned? Would the surrounding light negatively impact the quality of the scan?

    2. Has anyone tried using thin (e.g. 2mm) sheet of anti-reflective clear glass or acrylic on top of scanned film to ensure it is perfectly flat on the light box? Are they any known disadvantages of this solution?

    3. I still haven’t found convincing way of removing colour cast from scanned colour negatives that could be automated (at least to some degree) and could offer high effectiveness/accuracy. I would like to avoid tweaking each frame individually in Photoshop, leaving the final effect to the subjective liking. Do you have any suggestions?

    Eric September 10, 2016 at 11:18 pm / Reply

    Hello Everyone,

    I have been copying both colour and black/white negs for a while now.
    See …..

    Just a few technical notes for you all …

    (1) Film Flatness – is a must, and not always easy to achieve. Also the two planes
    must also be parrallel, ie film to sensor, otherwise we run the risk of having ‘soft’
    (2) Ideally you’ll need a flat-field copy lens, I use a Rodenstock APO-D 75mm f4
    which is really optimised for 1:1 copying, but still achieves excellent results even
    for my less-than-optimal and approximate 0.62:1 copy ratio. I use a 24MP DX camera,
    Nikon D3200.
    (3) Always copy in RAW mode as this allows greater dynamic range to be recorded, but
    if you use a lighbox (like those above in your article), the diffused light will naturally flattern
    the contrast somewhat anyway. RAW also has a much greater quanisation range (12-14 f-stops), than say 8-bit (and 8 f-stop) JPG, so best stick to RAW. You can convert later
    of course.

    Hope this is also of some use.

    Great article, good to know other folk have attempted an alternative route!

    Rick Schuster September 14, 2016 at 10:44 pm / Reply

    Thanks for the great article. I found tripod setups time-consuming to set up and adjust each time, so I rigged up an old enlarger to act as a copy-stand. The camera always stays parallel to the base, and I can raise and lower the camera to capture a whole piece of film in one shot, or to capture pieces to stitch. I often see old enlargers selling (or often going unsold) for just a few dollars on goodwill’s auction site. If you’re up for some tinkering to adapt an enlarger to hold your camera, it can be a good option.
    Here’s a description of my setup:

    John October 13, 2016 at 2:22 pm / Reply

    Great write-up, thanks!

    Are there any recommended light sources you all are using? I’ve been looking at light boxes and while there are a lot out there there’s a lot of reviews of uneven lighting, inconsistent light levels – essentially tracing boxes that are trying to be used to do this copy work. If there’s one you like that covers 8×10 could you post what it is?

    I’d be scanning black and white (primarily) up to 8×10 but primarily 6×6

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