As a film shooter, inevitably the idea of becoming your own lab becomes increasingly tempting. The ability to push and pull your film at will, develop the same day as shooting, and be the boss of the exposure and color of your scans helps you have creative control over your film. And as soon as you start scanning your own film, you realize just how much control the lab tech has at crafting your resulting image.
Without question, the hardest decision to make is how you are going to scan your film. The options are seemingly endless, but one process is becoming a fan favorite among film shooters: scanning/digitizing with a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Factors to consider when choosing a scanning system is the ease and efficiency, the quality, and the size negatives or positives you’re able to scan (If you shoot lots of formats, you will want something that can handle 35mm, 35mm with sprockets, 120/medium format, and 4x5 film.) Scanning with a digital camera checks all of these boxes, and many are switching over and ditching their old flatbed scanner.
So you’re clearly thoroughly convinced by now to try your hand at DSLR scanning, but that begs the question: what in the world do I need to do it? And that’s exactly what we’re going to cover today in this article. We gotchu.
Most of these things you probably already have. But if not, the goal here is to present you with options as you build out your super pro scanning setup. No need to go all high end as you’re getting the hang of the process.
Cassette Negative Holders
Having a solid system for holding your negative, separating it from your light source, diffusing the light, properly masking the frame, and the ability to block or reveal the sprockets is very (very) necessary. A high quality system will be the thing making your life easiest and therefore will help you fall in love with the DSLR method of scanning. Please do yourself a favor and don’t skimp on this part. Grab a mask for each size negative you use and never look back. The beauty of Cassette is the ability to create any size film holder. 35mm, 35mm with sprockets, all of the major medium format dimensions, and even 4x5 are on hand, but if you need a specific size, reach out! It’s the best investment you’ll make on this venture.
A Digital Camera
Depending on how long you have been or how deep you are in the film game, you most likely already at least have an old DSLR lying around that will do the trick. A crop-sensor camera is great for even just testing out the waters. The better the camera, the better quality the scan, but any DSLR or mirrorless camera will give you a feel for the process. So grab what you have (or borrow one from a friend!)
A Light Source
Light source matters. Not all light sources are created equally; a bright, clean light with proper Kelvin temperature is going to give you the best quality scan for your negatives. Something like CineStill’s CS-Lite provides just that and is a great option for those who are ready to make a bit of an investment in their at-home scanning.
A light that is bright will allow you to use a smaller aperture (for a wider focal plane, which will help ensure your negative is all in focus) and a faster shutter speed (which will decrease the possibility of camera shake as you’re grabbing a shot of your negative)
The beauty of Cassette is it has a built in light diffuser, which means if you want to use a tablet or tracing table as a light source for your film scan, you can! The pixels of a tablet inevitably get picked up by the DSLR image and will render your scan unusable. Cheaper light sources don’t necessarily offer even distribution of light across your negative, but with Cassette’s diffuser and elevated negative you need not worry about pixel interference and are assured you will get the best quality scan possible out of any light source you use!
Shop film holder for scanner here.
A Macro Lens
Once again, you can go as cheap or expensive as you want to with this. High quality glass will give you a high quality image. But if you’re doing this on a budget, a lens with extension tubes will suffice. You just need to get as up-close-and-personal as possible with your negative. The more you have to crop, the lower quality your final result.
Getting close enough to focus on your 4x5 negative will be much easier than focusing on your medium format negative, which will be easier than focusing on 35mm. Because 35mm film is so small, you might end up wanting to use a macro AND extension tubes to get that tight shot! (This is not to shame you for loving 35mm. I, myself, am an absolute 35mm apologist. It’s my favorite format.)
You are going to make sure you have your camera sensor exactly parallel to your film so that your focal plane is even across the entire image. Making the initial image level will also mean you don’t have to try to adjust the angles or axes during post-processing. This simple tool will save you a huge headache later on. I recommend a 3 axis hot shoe level for best accuracy. It’s also a handy item to have in your camera bag any time you mount your camera on a tripod. (Yes, tripods have a level, but honestly I find them rather useless, because it’s one thing to have your tripod level and a totally different thing to have your camera level.)
The beauty of the Cassette is that its base has four rubber leveling feet, so you can get your film parallel to the ground even if your surface isn’t level.
A Shutter Release
You most likely already have a shutter release, but if not, get one. Like now. It’s just another tool a photographer should have in their arsenal. I say this not to be a gatekeeper, but because it will make your life infinitely easier if you do anything with bulb mode or long exposures. (And let’s be honest, bulb mode and long exposures are just fun ways to play.)
Shutter releases are useful for not having to depress your shutter manually for great lengths of time OR for times you have to avoid camera shake at all costs. Scanning your negative is one of those times, because even the act of depressing the button will shake your camera more than you realize while scanning your negative with a macro lens and/or extension tubes. I learned this the hard way so you don’t have to.
If you have a newer camera, it most likely has a remote built in (because the future is now), but if you’re like me and the digital camera you’re working with is older, look for something like a remote shutter release or just a classic threaded cable release.
An Anti-Static Cloth And Compressed Air
Anyone who works with negatives knows these are essential. I remember learning about the magic of an anti-static cloth in high school photo class. Sloooooowly wiping the negative with this kind of cloth not only removes dust, but makes the negative more immune to collecting more dust as you work with it in an enlarger. Same goes for scanning.
But compressed air. Goodness gracious I have fallen in love with this little can of magic. I swear it’s my real life equivalent of Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I spray this stuff on everything. If any technology in my life appears slightly wonky, I spray it with this stuff and it repairs itself. I even spray it sweeping down my negatives. I once got judged by a friend when he heard I did this, but I stand by my decision. At this point, I buy compressed air in bulk from Costco.
Take stock of the tools you have and the tools you need. Gather ‘em all and stay tuned, because next time we will walk you through how to piece them all together to get a fantastic digital camera scan of your film.