How To Digitize Old Film With Your Digital Camera

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How To Digitize Old Film- Part One - The Setup (1)

 

Whether you just got the need to start shooting film, or you decided that you want to digitize those old film slides that your parents shot when you were young, you can actually do it at home, for basically zero cost. Yes, there are flatbed scanners, there are drum scanners, but those cost money, and according to many reviews don’t provide enough detail when compared to good old DSLR quality, which you hopefully have laying around somewhere at home. So let's take a look at how to digitize old film using your digital camera and a few pieces of material that you probably have lying around.

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Now, most developed film you’ll get is either negative or positive but it is all translucent. Meaning that you’ll have to get it backlit before capturing it properly. That is the reason this requires some makeshift tools.

Part One – The Setup for Digitizing Old Film

What You Need to Digitize Old Film

  • Paper.
  • Pencil.
  • Ruler (preferably longer than 20 cm).

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  • Scalpel (or any sharp tool that is good enough for cutting paper, scissors would do too, but I’m used to a scalpel).
  • Glue.
  • Sticky Tape (not Gaffer/Duct tape though, since it will rip paper to shreds).
  • Cardboard sheet (I repurposed an old folder for this).

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  • Camera.
  • Lens.
  • Tripod.
  • A light source (used my flash, but you can use any light really).

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  • Lens cloth (to remove fingerprints from the film and such).
  • A few pegs (minimum of 4; paper clips will damage the film, that is why pegs are better in this case).
  • Something to hold the rolled up film: I used two cups, where the handles served as holders.

Step 1

Once you have all the supplies, it is time to draw the outlines. I used the following dimensions to cut out the sheet of cardboard.

scheme

Note, that this hole is big enough for a medium format film. You can use the same size, or downscale for 35mm. There is nothing hard about determining the size of the cutout really.

The hole needs to be as big as the frame + some margin, and the walls around it need to be thick enough so it doesn’t bend that easily. The space between the bend line and the frame is around 10 cm from the top of the frame (this is to align with my flash height), but you can alter it to the height of your light.

The space below the bend line is used to stick tape and attach the whole thing to the table so it remains stable.

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Step 2

  • Glue the two sheets together with liquid glue, but do so only below the frame hole (in this case the part of the cardboard which is 4 cm high above the bend line), and leave the rest unglued so you can put the film between the pieces.
  • You can also use a stapler or whatever you want to keep the two pieces together. I used glue because I had it sitting around in my drawers.

Step 3

  • Once the glue has set, cut a triangle, about 3-4 cm in height from the right angle part of the sheet of cardboard you have left, and use it as a shim (sticky tape will do to hold it in place) to hold the film holster at 90 degrees relative to the table.
  • Now use sticky tape to tape down the holster to the table. This is important because you don’t want it moving around when you have set the focus of the camera. Use sticky tape on both sides of the holster.

Step 4

  • Now carefully place the film between the two sheets of the holster, securing it with pegs. Don’t use paper clips, they will crumple the film, since they provide pressure to small areas in different places and directions, unlike pegs which press equally over larger surfaces on the same spot.
  • Use some heavy but smooth objects to hold the roll as straight as possible without damaging it. If the film is pre-cut into slides, you have no problem with the roll folding back on its own, since there is none.

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Step 5

  • Place the light behind the film, but make sure it is not hitting the film at an angle. Make everything line up perfectly, so the light is as even as possible.
  • Just leave about 20 cm between the light and the film. Especially if is a tungsten bulb – it can overheat and melt the film and you’ll ruin it.

Step 6

  • Take one regular white piece of paper, fold it twice on the shorter sides, so it makes a П shape. Then place it between the light and the film, in order to diffuse the light and have an evenly lit surface.
  • The П shape will help it stand on its own, but if you want you can use sticky tape to hold it in place.
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As you can see there is a sheet of regular print paper between the flash and the film.

To be continued in part two of this article, where we discuss on how to photograph the slide and post-process the image..

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Part Two – Photographing and Post Processing Your Old Film

Now, when the film is in position and properly lit, it is time to photograph it, and make the final image in post processing.

For this purpose, you’ll need your camera, tripod, lens, and some focusing skills. Pick a lens that has the smallest focus distance, or a lens that is capable of focusing close enough for the film to fill most (or whole) frame of the camera.

Step 1

Set the camera on the tripod, and position it as close as the lens would focus. Tip: make sure that the camera is not angled towards any side – you need to be parallel with the film as much as possible. Use the cutout as a reference and fine tune your setup.

The more precise you are, the less correction you’ll have to do.

Step 2

With the backlight off, take a test shot. If the ambient light is too strong, make sure to tone it down as much as possible, and correct the settings in the camera to the point that you get a dark frame.

But make sure that you have the shutter speed faster than 1/200, ISO 100, and the rest is compensated with the F/stop. Set the white balance to one of the presets, preferably to daylight. Or set it to tungsten/fluorescent if the light is of that type.

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Step 3

Turn on the back light and take a test shot. If the image starts to clip, close down the aperture up until f/8. If the image still clips, increase the shutter speed. If you are at maximum shutter speed at f/8, start moving the light further away. Once you have a slightly overexposed image but far from clipping, take your final shot.

Step 4

For the next frames, just move the film, check the focus, and take the shot. Repeat until you run out of film.

The frame straight out of camera.

The frame straight out of camera.

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Step 5

Load the images in Lightroom or Photoshop Camera RAW. Since most likely you’ll be dealing with negatives, you’ll have to do some blind edits first. But for now, make sure all the images are there, that the focus is correct and that everything is nice and sharp.

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Step 6

Select all the images, do lens profile correction, remove any chromatic aberration (this is important here, since when you invert the colors, you won’t be able to correct the aberration properly), do noise reduction if necessary (there should be no noise due to low ISO and exposure to the right).

Also, don’t forget to correct the exposure to the proper exposure now, since you overexposed the image a tad to begin with (this is to get a cleaner image).

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Step 7

Take the White Balance color picker tool, and click on the outer part of the film (basically where the holes are perforated for the camera to wind it) this will remove the yellow tones from the film and correct the white balance properly.

Step 8

Load the images in Photoshop (open from Camera RAW, or Edit In Photoshop from Lightroom). On each image, select the background layer (the only layer), and hit CTRL+I. This will invert the colors, effectively bringing the image to positive.

Step 9

Now select Camera RAW Filter, and develop your image properly. You might need to play with the HSL slider a little due to the fact that the film can get some color cast/fringing from age, elements, or simply from the light itself.

Guided Transform Tool In Action.

Guided Transform Tool In Action.

While you are here, use the new guided transform tool, and select all the borders of the frame, to transform the image to perfection.

Step 10

Clone/Heal scratches, dust, dirt and other imperfections from the transfer, and save the final picture.

The final image.

The final image.

And there you have it, you have successfully turned analog pictures to digital, with excellent quality.

AND LASTLY: As we're looking at digitizing film and processing these images via computer software like Lightroom, we thought it'd be a good idea to download our free Lightroom Shortcuts Cheat Sheet. Learn your way around Adobe's premium suite in no time! Download it here.

Summary

This guide is meant for people that want to make the most of their analog shots, or just want to have digital copies of their analog slides. If you live in a country like mine, where photo studios that do developing and scanning use technology older than myself, it becomes the only option.

It took me around 2 hours to complete building the setup, shoot 1 roll of medium format film and edit the shots.

Whether it's film or digital, all photographers aspire to mastering and Understanding Light and really learning how to use it. This guide is for those who want to discover the secrets to controlling, manipulating and ‘reading' light used by the professionals.



 

Further Resources on Film Photography

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Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and is not afraid to share the knowledge about it.

4 thoughts on “How To Digitize Old Film With Your Digital Camera

  1. Anonymous

    And the tine to scan my 5,000 slides and maybe 10,000 negs? I will be it for ever. Cheaper to buy a good slide and neg scanner – cost about $1700

  2. Richard Bender

    I use my scanner for copying color and B&W slides and negatives. Much faster, easier and more accurate.

    Buy a good Epson scanner and you’ll get this work done fast with high quality.

  3. Claude B.

    I agree with Richard, a good scanner (Epson V600 Photo, or Cannon) for negatives for 35mm or 120 films, negatives or positives. Include the scratch cleaner.

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