Digitizing Film — A Modern Approach

David Bryan
Jan 30 · 6 min read

“…The digital camera has steadily become the scanning tool of choice for some of the most trusted image collections worldwide. It is used by institutions like the Library of Congress, the National Archives, as well as major museums and collections.”

Peter Krogh, photographer, writer, consultant, and a foremost authority on digital asset management and workflow.

*For more information about scanning film negatives with digital camera vs. a traditional flatbed scanner, there is a list of links at the bottom of this post.*

I started on this research because I’ll be digitizing thousands of my family’s old negatives — 35mm strips, color slides, 110 and some 127 film. With a flatbed scanner I would have no interest in taking on this project.

I started my camera scanning project with a trip to the lumber yard and built a new desk and place to work.

☑️ 10ft long wall-to-wall cedar desk

My scanning setup is based around this $50 (definitely not high CRI) A3 sized, LED light table: amazon.com/dp/B013SHKTXO.

I built a plywood frame that surrounds the light table, and bolted on an extruded aluminum t-slot post. I mounted the camera via tripod head to a linear slide with a locking lever. This allows me to move the camera vertically for focusing, and then lock it off completely.

On top of the plywood frame there are a two rails that support a sliding magnetic film holder. The rails have adjustable HDPE strips acting as guides, allowing me to fine tune to placement of the film holder for smooth horizontal sliding.

The film holder is made from a piece of scrap metal on the bottom (not sure the gauge, but it’s quite rigid) and some flexible magnetic sheet on top. I cut slots for the film strips in both layers (all of the 35mm film I’ll be scanning is cut on 4s, thus the length). Ideally I’d have these pieces laser cut, as getting this perfect is a pain in the ass.

Once the negatives are in place, the magnet is laid down on top and the strips are held very firmly and flatly in place. Notice there are two slots, both the same distance from the bottom edge — I load both strips in at the same time, digitize the right strip, flip the holder around and digitized the other strip.

The camera setup: A used Sony A6300 ($500), MD to NEX adapter (already owned, ~$10) , 12mm extension tube (already owned), and a Minolta MD 50mm F/3.5 Macro ($31 eBay). I went with Minolta because I already own a number of their lenses.

I use Sony’s Focus Check feature to zoom in and manually focus the lens on the negative’s film grain. My settings are F/11, ISO 100 and auto shutter speed; the shutter is usually open around 1–2 seconds, but very overexposed images can be up to 10 seconds.

With my lens and extension setup, I get nice tight 35mm coverage, with just a bit of extra room around the edge of each image. The following photo shows the uncropped edges:

The camera is tethered to my MacBook and I’m capturing the 25MB RAW images directly to an external hard drive. The software I’m using is called Capture One — I tigger the shutter remotely and have it automatically apply an inverse and white balance preset as each new images is captured, handy to keep an eye out for issues during a scanning session.

100% crop of 24mp capture

Above is 100% crop of the same photo. The Sony a6300 captures at 24 megapixels, and I’m happy with that amount of detail. You can see the grain in this photo, so I don’t think there’s too much more to be captured anyhow.

Some of the film I’ll be scanning has been stored it’s original sleeves, and some in a pile a the bottom of a box. The negative holder does a good job of keeping even the bent film flat.

I’ve gotten through 1600 photos so far. During capture, I save each roll of images into a new numbered folder, and each of their paper envelopes are labeled with corresponding number, so I can easily track down where each negative is located.

44 images in 15 minutes!

I built this setup to digitizing negatives as fast as possible. Above is a screenshot showing the number of images I captured between 8:00pm and 8:15pm — 44 images! That’s 175 photos an hour, take that stupid flatbed scanner.

Below are few samples of image quality. These have been scaled down from their original 6000x4000 file, but here’s a link to 70MB TIFF of the first image that you can check out at full resolution.




Zoomed in crop of the previous photo.


Another great result of this fast setup, is that I scan pretty much anything I come across and end up with many more happy accidents, like this set of “ruined” images!

A zoomed in crop of that photo as well, look at those bell bottoms!


More information about camera scanning:

“Your digital camera can be used to make very high quality scans of film and prints at unprecedented speed and cost. These techniques are in use in the Library of Congress, at major museums and in photo collections worldwide. Learn how the process can help you digitize photo collections on a scale that you never thought possible. This video gives essential information t anyone who needs to digitize a collection: including photographers, family historians and corporate media managers.”
“Digital Transitions Division of Cultural Heritage and Phase One A/S presents: Film Scanning, using DTDCH Hardware, Phase One digital backs, and Capture One CH software.”

Camera Scanning Basics — dpBestflow.org

Scanning without a Scanner: Digitizing Your Film with a DSLR– B&H Photo

Scanning Film with a Digital Camera — Japan Camera Hunter

Why You Should Digitize Your Film Using a Camera Instead of a Scanner– PetaPixel

Link to a file made with an Imacon film scanner and a Canon 1Ds MkII

Digitizing film with a digital camera Facebook Group.

David Bryan

Written by

Freelance Motion Graphics Artist and Designer from Portland, Oregon.

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