Scanning Black & White Film // Film Photography

Set Up / Gear

I recently came across a technique for scanning film at home without the need for a flatbed or dedicated film scanner (Matt Day’s YouTube channel highly recommend checking this out) – it uses a light box, film holders, and your DSLR on a tripod or copy stand, with a (cheap) macro lens. I like this technique for its speed, accuracy, control, and it saves you cash on lab scans which have become increasingly expensive for anything high resolution or in bulk. My set up includes 35mm & 120 DigitaLIZA film holders, a light box, and a used Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DG Macro (this will double as a decent portrait lens and can be used on my 35mm Nikon FM3a as well). All in, it cost me under £200, versus £400+ for flatbed or dedicated film scanners with the right software. The actual set up is very simple: I put the light box on a table, invert the centre column of my tripod, level everything off, load film into the holders and I’m away.

Things to note on the set up:

  • make sure everything is level to each other (table is flat, light box is flat, film is loaded flat, DSLR is parallel to film plane);
  • fill the frame as much as possible to minimise cropping later on (a 1:1 magnification macro lens is essential here);
  • use live view with manual focus, focus on the grain of the film, check your histogram so that you aren’t clipping shadows or highlights – we are going for a flat image that we can process into (more on this later);
  • lastly, shoot at f/5.6 or f/8 in RAW format (or where your lens is sharpest and has adequate depth of field, with as little vignetting as possible).


Lightroom / Photoshop Processing

Because you are using your DSLR to capture RAW images, you get an extraordinary flexibility in control of the final output. Import your images, turn on any lens correction profiles and turn sharpening down to 0 (for now, you can play with this later, or add it in photoshop using NIK-Effects or Lumenzia). The following process will give you a good flat starting point from which to edit your image. Because you are dealing with a negative all of the edits you make in lightroom will need to be inverted: if you want to adjust the highlights, you need to move the shadows slider etc.. This is easy enough once you get the hang of it.

Switch the image to your favourite black-and-white profile, go to the curves panel and invert this. Histograms are a great tool to get batch processing done quickly, because you can quickly read where your data is. Processing a whole roll of film will take less than 20 minutes from set up, capture, and a good base edit. I like fairly contrasty images, so thats where I tend to take them (a steeper tone curve will result in more contrast).

Screenshot 2019-03-01 at 16.44.39
Basic inversion with contrast
Reading where the data lies on the tone curve
Example adjusted curve

Lightroom’s spot healing is great for quickly getting rid of any dust that may show up. I generally just deal with the distracting bits for general use, but if I plan on printing I would go into more detail in this stage. You might choose to then bring these into photoshop for more specific edits using luminosity masks & sharpening tools – be mindful of your grain when using sharpening tools. I personally use deconvolution sharpening with luminosity masks so as to reduce sharpening where its not needed (skies for instance, where you would just accentuate grain).

Bear in mind that the size of your files will depend largely on the camera you are using to capture them. My D750 captures a standard 24MP, which can easily print up to A2. (Want even higher resolution images? Shooting anything from 120 film up, you can stitch multiple photos together to create ultra-high resolution images. I’ve heard results with 8×10 film of almost 2GB base files.)

Im super happy with my first results – see above – using this new method (the 120 shots are also some of the first through my Yashica-Mat 124G, review coming soon). It takes some practice to get into the swing, but by my second and third roll of film I was starting to feel comfortable with the process. These photos were taken in Cape Town & Edinburgh.


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