Simplest At-Home Method for Digitizing Negatives
So I'm not going to lie...I've got a bit of a problem. The good news, is that my problem surrounds organization and order. I'm constantly re-organizing and re-decorating in order to find a more perfect union of utility and creative design. Vinyl records are organized alphabetically in a clean yet stylish setup. Film negatives are in archival sleeves set in binders organized by date and film type. If all this sounds normal, I'll leave it at that and refrain from elaborating any further. I certainly won't bother you with my method for organizing cereals and granola.
These habits translate to my digital life as well. My harddrives and computer files are meticulously organized. Need a random but oddly specific picture from 2009? I can pull it up in less than 30 seconds, even from the pool of tens of thousands of photos present on the drive. Every film photo I take is stored digitally as well (scanned by the wonderful folks at The Darkroom). You never know when you might need to access it! I won't lie, it does take a bit of effort to keep everything this organized, but I'm a firm believer that it all pays off.
With all of this in mind, it should come as no surprise to you that when my wife approached with a box of film negatives from her college years, unsorted, disorganized, and unscanned, I started to twitch a bit. Now my wife is no stranger to organization. She keeps our household running smoothly, and does a tremendous job of maintaining order in chaotic situations (can you say "preparing for a baby"?). The disorganization in this particular situation came down to the simple fact that she had not enjoyed her college photography class, and disliked the reminder of those long hours in the darkroom. Really, I can't blame her.
Nevertheless, the sight of those 4x5 and medium format negatives sitting piled in a box wouldn't leave my mind. A few hours later, she returned to the room to find me sorting her hundreds of negatives by project, subject, filmstock, and camera. Hasselblad photos of Jimmy in the studio on Kodak Tri-X go here, Mamiya photos of Dana in the forest on Kodak T-Max go there. These went into archival sleeves, which subsequently went into a fresh binder with just the right amount of space. There was only one problem. Of all these gloriously large negatives, none had been digitized.
By some accounts, I'm relatively new to the film game. While I've been shooting film since I was five or six, I didn't enter the arena fully until 2013 or so, and while I like to think my knowledge is pretty advanced considering the time, it still isn't the same as having 30 years of experience. Anyway, this is all to say that high-quality scanning at the lab level has been available ever since I entered the realm of film photography. Because of this, all of my negatives have been digitized without much effort on my part, and I had never needed to scan them myself or use a secondary scanning service (which are often more expensive than the combined development and scanning).
Because of this, I was at a bit of a loss at what to do. "Should I buy a scanner? Would I really use it? What about digitizing services? Perhaps I could send them there. Oh, but those cost too much." Then I remembered a process rarely spoken about and rarely used regarding scanning negatives with a digital camera. I'd seen Kickstarters, intricate home-baked setups, special lenses that held the film, and even Nikon recently released an adapter to do this with the D850. With the increasing power of digital cameras, it's no wonder the idea is beginning to be ubiquitous. The problem with most of the Kickstarters and the D850 setup, however, is that they can't scan negatives larger than 35mm. This wouldn't do me any good. Even if some of the home-baked methods worked with larger film, I wasn't crazy about an item I had to build (taking valuable time) that would end up sitting in my closet the other days of the year.
In the end, I realized that all of this came down to three things: a camera, a macro lens, and a backlit negative. After a bit of experimentation, I found a setup that not only works, but works incredibly well. In fact, I'm pretty stoked about the outcome, not only because I love the results, but because I didn't have to purchase anything new, and setup was less than a minute.
First, let's start with the lighting. In order to make this process work, I needed a backlit negative. In order to accomplish this, I needed a light source. My choice is the Fotodiox 10" Flapjack for a few reasons: it's bright, it's dimmable, it's battery powered and portable, it can sit on a table facing directly up (creating a flat, lit surface), and it's incredibly diffused.
It was simple to set this light on the table facing directly up, place the negative on top, ensure that it wasn't curling, and suddenly I have a perfectly backlit negative ready for the camera. Now obviously many of you will not want to purchase a new light specifically for this project (although it's still cheaper than a nice scanner), so really any diffused light source beneath the negative will do, as long as it is even. Perhaps try using a glass table with a light source beneath it, so the negative can sit on a flat surface. It is very important that the negative is at least mostly flat, otherwise the images will turn out with portions out of focus.
Now that we have lighting figured out, we come to the camera and the lens. For this project, I used a Canon 5D IV with the Canon L-Series 100mm Macro lens, although really any DSLR or mirrorless camera with a macro lens will work. The camera should be mounted on a tripod (although you're welcome to try handheld), facing directly down toward the backlit negative. Be sure to position it carefully. At this point, choose your camera settings. If you'd like to blast the light, you can achieve a fast shutter with a closed-down aperture, although you really don't have to go crazy with it. I adjusted the brightness of my light source so that I was shooting at F8 (for increased sharpness and a wider depth of field), with a shutter speed of 1/250. This seemed more than adequate for this work.
You should position the camera at an optimal distance from the negative so as not to lose any of the image, yet also not require a drastic cropping (which will lead to a loss in resolution and clarity). If you're using the same size negatives, however, this adjustment needs only be done once. Additionally, this method was quite nice due to the ability to set it up quickly, and not disturb the wife in the process. This didn't require the elimination of the other light sources in the room, so everyone was able to go about their business. I was able to work in the same room in which she was crafting without either of us bothering the other.
Once I captured the image, I had completed the first half of the process. I then brought the image into Photoshop (you can use some comparable software instead if you'd like), and cropped the image. I'd recommend setting a ratio (1x1 in this particular situation), so that you don't end up with oddly shaped images. Then I inverted the image, adjusted the lighting a bit (my images always turned out a bit too bright after inversion), and converted the file to black and white to reduce any unnecessary color casts my camera had imprinted.
At this point, I had what I was looking for; a properly exposed, high-resolution copy of a quality negative. For those who are curious, here is the finalized full-resolution file. Certainly, you can purchase a scanner or send your negatives off to a scanning service, but if you've got some time and the equipment, why waste the money? This is a bit more tedious, but you have much more control over your image (you're shooting raw while most labs give you a jpeg image) and unless you're having your negatives drum-scanned (can you say arm and leg?) you're probably capturing at a higher resolution.
So what's the word? Have you tried this method with success? Maybe it didn't work for you, or you found something that worked better in your situation? Let me know! I'd be happy to answer any questions and hear about your own methods as well. I still have over 100 images to digitize, so I'll never turn down any tips or tricks.