24th June 2013 · 1 comment · Categories: Film Photography · Tags: ,


Before embarking on my experiment with shooting film, I figured I would need a way of scanning my negatives. My ancient Canon flatbed scanner can’t do it and my non-existent budget for the whole project is being stretched just by the cost of film and development, so buying a film scanner is out too. I thought to myself, “What would MacGyver do?” and decided to build a rig to do it using my DSLR.

There are plenty of other examples out on the internet, even ones made out of toilet rolls, but they all used at least one thing I didn’t have to hand so I came up with my own design.

As well as talking about how the rig works I will also show you how to process the resulting images in Lightroom and compare the end result to a “proper” scan of a print (SPOILER: It’s surprisingly good!).

The Rig

My rig is extremely cheap and easy to set up, if you happen have exactly the same things lying around that I do. If you have different things in your house, then it could be more difficult!

The light box is made from a cereal box lined with white paper, with a flash stuck in the open end of the box and with a hole on the top for the light to come out. The flash is in wireless mode controlled by the built-in flash on my K-5. To make the light more even, one sheet of paper is attached to the top of the box at the opposite end to the flash, so it forms a gentle curve to reflect light up through the hole.

The negative goes into a holder which sits on top of the hole. The negative holder is made from part of an Amazon box that has two pieces of cardboard stuck together on one edge, with an elastic band to hold the other side closed. This doesn’t hold the film too tightly but it does keep it flat.

The camera is then looking downwards at the negative – the right-angle capability of the Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod comes in handy once again. The main advantage of this arrangement is that the negative is horizontal so I don’t need to be too clever about how I mount it.

Finally, everything that could possibly cause stray reflections is covered in black paper, and there is a black paper tube around the lens that drops down over the negative holder to block out all the ambient light and the control flashes from the on-board flash when I actually take a shot.

I’m using my Tamron 90mm Macro lens for this job, because filling an APS-C sized sensor with a 35mm frame requires a 1:1.5 magnification ratio and that is definitely into proper macro territory. Also this lens is extremely sharp, has no vignetting or other distortions and an extremely flat focal plane so it is absolutely ideal for taking photographs of flat pieces of film. I’m also shooting in raw format because, as you will see, there are some pretty large adjustments that need to be done in Lightroom and JPEGs simply won’t have enough data in them to work with.

I’ve found that getting the negatives clean is absolutely essential, hence the air blower in the photo above, and that you also need to have a secondary continuous light source that you can use to check alignment and focussing. You can see how I’m using a desk lamp above. When it’s time to take the shot, turn off the lamp and let the flash do the work.

The Photos

As a test I dug out some old negatives I happened to have lying around, and picked out this shot taken around 1997 on a school trip to Germany. I’m not 100% certain what camera I used, but it may well have been my mum’s Nikon compact. Anyway, here’s an example of what you get out of the rig:


Note that in this case the camera was a little too far away so the frame isn’t completely filling the field of view.

The first thing to do upon getting this into Lightroom is to invert it to get vaguely normal colours. Unfortunately, Adobe didn’t see fit to include an invert function so you have to fake one by setting a backwards tone curve. To do that, select the RGB channel in the tone curve panel, choose  “custom” point curve and then drag the ends of the curve so it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 22.16.14

I’ve now saved that as a preset so I can apply it quickly after copying negative photos from the camera. After inversion we get an image like this:


Because the backing of the film is orange, it causes a strong cyan cast in the inverted image. We can correct this using Lightroom’s white balance tool. One thing to be aware of is that all of the basic controls now work backwards because they are applied before the inverted tone curve. That means you have to reduce the colour temperature to make the image more yellow.

I’ve found it best to start with by using the white balance eye-dropper tool to get a rough starting point and then tweaking it by hand because the strong cast and inversion can confuse Lightroom a bit.


Finally it’s starting to look a bit more like a normal photograph! The next thing is to set the black point and the white point to get a more normal contrast. Once again, because it’s inverted the controls are reversed, so the black slider will adjust the white point and the white slider adjusts the black point. Thankfully the histogram display is the right way round and the clipping warnings still work!

Since the adjustments required are generally quite large, I do this with the clipping warnings turned on, but I ignore them if just the white area of the negative holder or the black of the film outside the picture clips.

This gives us a much better balanced picture:


Finally, a crop and a bit more fine tuning of the same controls gives us this pretty nice-looking image:



The quality of this technique is surprisingly good considering it relies on some bits of paper and a cereal box. The results are especially impressive when compared with a scan of a print from a flatbed scanner. Here’s a scan I made of the same photo some years ago:


Immediately obvious is the fact that the print is actually quite significantly cropped – just compare how much of the tail of the aeroplane is visible in the two pictures. The white balance also looks a little pink to me, but that could be easily tweaked.

Most surprising is the fact that the print scan, and in fact the print itself, has blown highlights and looks much less sharp. Below is a comparison of the print scan on the left and the negative scan on the right. The print scan is at its original size and the negative has been reduced to match.


But it gets better than that! In fact there is actually twice as much detail in the negative scan. Here it is at original size:


Not bad at all!

Final Thoughts

Since first trying this out I have actually scanned a whole film (more on that soon) and found that once I got into the swing of it I was taking around two minutes to shoot each frame, so including setting up and packing away, a 36 shot roll would probably take about an hour and a half to digitise. The processing time in Lightroom is not much more than my normal (always raw format) routine.

I have also learned a few extra tips along the way

  • As everyone else probably knows already, you should wear gloves when handling negatives. The disposable latex ones I have for working on the car are fine, so long as I remember to wipe the powder off them first. I have learned the hard way that if you touch the emulsion side of a negative with a bare finger you will never get the marks off…
  • A book, specifically “Nursery Time with Thomas” (as shown in the photo with me in above), under the cereal box raises it to exactly the right height to fill the camera’s field of view with the frame.
  • Some shots have such a strong cyan cast when inverted that I was hitting Lightroom’s lowest possible colour temperature (2000K). I found I can put a blue cooling white-balance gel over the flash (one I got free with a photography mag years ago) to avoid this. If adding blue to remove a blue cast sounds odd, remember that everything is inverted and we actually need to cancel out the orange of the film backing – so a bluer light will give a more neutral starting point before we set the white balance in Lightroom.

1 Comment

  1. What a great project. I’m a firm believer that photography should be fun so thanks for sharing

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