Welcome to my blog, I'm Charles Johnson - a scientist and an amateur photographer. This site is devoted to all aspects of science related to photography. For more information read my About page.
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Charles S. Johnson, Jr.
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Some of us photographic seniors have negatives and slides that we need to digitize, and that can be a problem. In general dedicated film scanners are better than flatbed scanners for copying film, but many film scanners have vanished from the market; and the good ones that remain tend to be expensive. One alternative is to search for a good flatbed scanner that has an integrated transparency unit and make do with that. For example recent reviews demonstrate that the Epson 700 and 750 are satisfactory film scanners. I went a cheaper route a few years ago and purchased an HP G4050 scanner for prints and an occasional negative or slide.
The HP G4050 has been satisfactory for prints and has done an acceptable job on Kodacolor negatives where orange background removal and color correction are essential. However, I have not had much success reproducing high quality medium format black and white negatives, e.g. 6 x 6 (2.5” by 2.5”). First I found that scans at 2400 dpi and higher take a long time, and I learned to scan only one negative at a time, to turn off special features, and not to exceed 2400 dpi. Unfortunately, the files I finally obtained had blown out highlights, and I was unable to fix the problem by means of adjustments in the HP software. I note that my negatives had been properly exposed and all areas maintain good detail.
The solution I found for digitizing my negatives is simple, obvious, and by no means original. I photographed the negatives with an 18 megapixel DSLR camera! I mounted a negative in a holder, either one that came with a scanner or a homemade cardboard holder, and then placed the holder on a light box with the emulsion side down. In my case the light box was a Porta-Trace by Gagne that had been purchased for slide sorting. I used a Sigma 105mm macro lens, and the camera was fitted with a two-axis bubble level in the hot shoe. To maximize resolution, I shot at f/8.0 with a 10 second timer; and I avoided mirror vibration by shooting from the live view mode. Live view with 5x magnification also insured quite good results with manual focus. With this technique I was able to obtain low contrast images of my negatives that could be inverted in Photoshop and adjusted to obtain prints that rival anything I was able to produce with an enlarger and chemical processing.
I am very pleased with this technique and no longer feel the need for a film scanner, at least for black and white negatives. Those requiring high volume negative copying may reach a different conclusion. However, scanning individual medium format negatives is slow no matter how you do it, and having the images on my camera card fits my work flow much better than having to deal with additional scanner software. In the unlikely event that the dynamic range of a negative exceeds the range of my camera, I can resort to HDR capture and processing. A web search of “negative copying digital camera” reveals a number of postings on this subject.