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DSLR Film Scanning: The Secret to Perfect Color Negatives

For photographers who still love shooting analog film (like myself), DSLR Film scanning holds incredible promise. It offers analog photographers the best of all worlds, with incredible image quality and gorgeous colors from their negative scans in a faster, easier workflow.

But here’s the thing…  DSLR Film scanning also takes a bit of setup, equipment and know-how to get great negative scans. And with color negatives especially, getting great colors in the conversion is far from a given. As I’ve built my own setup for scanning film, I’ve seen a lot of mistakes that can trip you up and degrade your results.

So whether you are looking to try DSLR scanning for the first time, or you just want to improve the results from your setup, this guide is for you! 

I’ll take you through my DSLR-scanning workflow step-by-step, showing you what to do and (just as importantly) mistakes you should avoid. We’ll look at:

Ready? Let’s scan some film!


Why DSLR Film Scanning?

Before we look at setup, let’s look at what we can hope to gain by using a DSLR to scan our color film negatives. These are just a few of the advantages that we hope to gain by switching or improving our DSLR scanning setup.

1. DSLR Film Scanning is literally 100x FASTER than a traditional scanner

Scanner Time Remaining: 52 minutes!

With my Epson V600, it took me up to an hour to scan and process a single frame at full res! Now, with my DSLR setup, I can scan an entire roll of 120 film in about 10 minutes.

This is a BIG one for me.

When I used a traditional scanner, I’d often spend 5 minutes preparing a single scan, and then up 50 minutes waiting for one high-res scan (using my Epson Perfection V600). It was a long, painful experience, and I honestly never had the patience to make it through an entire roll at once.

With DSLR Film scanning, each “scan” happens as quickly as photo – in a fraction of second. I can now get through an entire roll in just a few minutes. And because I’m shooting RAW, I don’t have to worry about making too many adjustments during the DSLR scanning process. I can batch-edit everything later in post. It’s really a game changer!

2. DSLR Film Scanning has the potential for dramatically better colors and tones (because of RAW)

Epson V600 vs DSLR Film Scanning

With my DSLR scan setup, I’m able to process my negatives in an all-RAW workflow. When done correctly, this leads to significantly better tones and colors.

I was constantly disappointed with the colors I got from my negative scans with a traditional film scanner. Even after a LOT of work in post, they still didn’t look quite right. The problem is that the software in most scanners is just horrible at producing good colors. And even worse, they are fundamentally changing (and degrading) the colors and tones in the scan in a way that you cannot “undo” later.

By shooting RAW with your DSLR film scanning setup, you’re able to capture the colors and tones in your negative in a way that makes it easier to manipulate during conversion. This is incredibly important, because to convert your negatives into color-corrected positives, we need all the editing leeway we can get!

IMPORTANT: This doesn’t mean that DSLR scans will automatically look better – you have to have the right workflow for processing your DSLR scans in their RAW form to be able to get better tones and colors than a traditional scanner. Later, I’ll show you how I process my DSLR Scans in an all-raw workflow that produces great results.

3. DSLR Film Scanning gives YOU greater creative control of your final image

Professional Film Lab vs DSLR Film Scanning

Even with the best film labs, you are giving up creative control of your film negatives. For instance, the lab scanned image on the left was over-processed, missing highlight and shadow detail which could not be recovered in the JPEG I received back. With DSLR scanning, I could control every detail of how the image was processed.

The only alternative that can product results close to DSLR scanning your negatives is to send off your negatives to a professional film lab. Not only are these pro-labs expensive, but there is another major drawback: you lose creative control!  Some of the decisions the lab makes just can’t be undone. Because most likely, you will get back an 8-bit JPEG, which has very little room for further editing. Want to see more details in the shadows? Or pull back some highlights? Too bad. You’ll quickly notice that the information you want to bring out just isn’t there anymore.

With a DSLR scanning setup, you have full, glorious control over your RAW data. And with development tools like Negative Lab Pro, you can choose exactly how you want to process that data, in a non-destructive workflow that will even let you emulate those pro-lab film scanners!

Sold on DSLR film scanning? Ok, let’s look at how it’s done.


VIDEO: How to scan film color negatives with a DSLR

It’s important to watch this video carefully and follow each step It may be a little different for you depending on your camera model, but the main points should remain the same. There is a purpose for each step I show!

 

👆👆👆NOTE: The process is ONLY be covered in the video above. Watch first. 👆👆👆

 


DLSR Film Scanning Equipment List

Ok, you’ve watched the video already right? If not, stop reading this, and go back up an watch!

HARDWARE:

Here’s a list of the basic hardware I used in my DSLR film scanning setup, along with links of where I got mine. Of course, you can substitute much of this with your existing equipment.

DSLR Film Scanning equipment list

1) Tripod:
This tripod is great! Picked it up on Amazon for 1/4 of the price of more expensive tripods, but performs great, and once you invert the main column, it’s a perfect tripod for this setup.
» Vanguard Alta Pro – $150 at Amazon.

2) Macro Lens:
This lens is insane. If you are using the Fuji X system, would highly recommend checking this out – not just for film scanning but for it’s amazing macro shots (the image stabilization is a HUGE bonus when you’re in the field, although you should leave off image stabilization during scanning to ensure maximum sharpness.)
» 80mm Fujinon Macro – 1,049 at Amazon.

3) Camera
For this setup, I used my Fuji X-T2. If you’re in the market for a camera, I would highly recommend it. The Live Mode is a HUGE help for framing, focusing and exposing your negative.
» Fuji X-T2 – $1,099 at Amazon.

4) Light Table
I looked at a lot of Light Tables and for now, this one is really working out well. As shown in video, make sure it plugged in and at maximum brightness.
» Kaiser Slimlite Plano – $109 at Amazon.

5) Air Blower (and other cleaning tools)
It’s worth getting a whole cleaning kit, but the air blower and brush from this DSLR cleaning kit are especially useful for making sure your equipment and negatives are dust-free.
» Camera Cleaning Kit – $10 at Amazon.

6)  Film Scanning Mask:
I really like this Digitaliza film scanning mask from lomography. It’s simple to use and it holds everything very flat (which was not the case with my Epson V600 scanning mask). Perfect for DSLR Film scanning.
» Digitaliza film scanning mask – $45 at Lomography.

🚫Hardware Items I would recommend you NOT use:

Probably just as important as what I include in my process is what I DON’T include. I’ve seen some of these items recommended on other blogs, but in my own tests they were either unnecessary, or degraded negative quality.

🚫 Color Filters
I’ve seen a number of bloggers recommend using a combination of blue and green color filters during shooting to reduce the orange mask naturally. While this will bring your negative to a more neutral balance in camera, it also introduces more opportunities for uneven distributions of light (which is very very difficult to correct for in post) and it will not improve your image quality. The main argument for using color filters is capturing more data from the blue channel during shooting, but as long as you expose your negative to the right (as shown in video), you will have more than enough data for processing RAW.

🚫 Additional “glass” or “plastic”
Take off any filters on your camera lens, and do NOT place any glass on or beneath your negatives during shooting. Additional glass can produce a number of unwanted effects, such as introducing more dust to your image, uneven distribution of light, and newton rings. If you are concerned about the “flatness” of your negative, you can upgrade your scanning mask, or use magic tape around the edges of your film to tape your negative directly to your light table.

🚫 Your Scanners Default Film Mask
In my tests, scanner supplied film masks do a poor job of keeping film flat, and can sometimes cause uneven distribution of light (leading to portions of the film appearing discolored). In my opinion, it is well worth upgrading to a better scanning mask, or taping the film directly to your light table.


SOFTWARE

The software you use to process your negative is a CRITICAL piece to getting great results with a negative scan. Even if you follow the steps perfectly to capture your negative, it won’t matter if you don’t have a RAW method for conversion and editing.

Converting film negatives in Lightroom

Negative Lab Pro is a Lightroom Plugin that let’s you convert and edit color negatives in an all-RAW process

» Negative Lab Pro + Lightroom: 
To really take advantage of all that beautiful RAW data in your DSLR scan, you need a workflow that let’s you keep your process RAW, which is exactly what Negative Lab Pro is for! While there are other, non-RAW ways to process your negative scans (like Photoshop or ColorPerfect), these methods hurt the tones and colors in your image (they’re also “destructive” which makes it difficult to re-edit in the future). To show you what a difference this makes, I’ve included some comparisons later on in this guide.

» Negative Lab Pro (https://www.negativelabpro.com).


The ideal RAW workflow with Negative Lab Pro

Negative Lab Pro is a Lightroom plug-in I’ve developed for converting negative images inside your Lightroom workflow. While it can be used with regular negative scans, it includes a number of features that makes it especially well-suited for use with a DSLR film scanning in an All-RAW workflow.

Here’s how Negative Lab Pro works with RAW DSLR scans:

Custom Camera Calibration for DSLR Film Scans

1. Custom RAW Camera Calibrations

This is a crucial (and often missing) step in the DSLR negative conversion process. Standard camera profiles have fine-tuned settings in them that were designed for positive, digital shots. So when you are working on a negative scan, those changes will have the OPPOSITE effect they were meant to have, greatly throwing off your tones and colors. Negative Lab Pro includes over 600 custom camera profiles that were made to match your DSLR camera with a calibration built specifically for working with negatives (we’ll take a look at the difference this makes in the image comparison section).

2. Scanner emulations!
Negative Lab Pro - Pro Scanner Emulations

Another problem with most methods of negative conversion is that they take RAW data (which is already spoiled by the wrong calibration) and then interpret the tones and colors linearly. This produces flat tones and unappealing colors. The beautiful tones and colors we typically associate with analog film are based on the color models of two scanner models: the Fuji Frontier and Fuji Noritsu scanners. Negative Lab Pro lets you emulate these pro scanners right inside of Lightroom (or you can choose no emulation).

3. Automatic analysis and settings adjustments
Converting negatives in Lightroom
In just a few seconds, Negative Lab Pro will analyze the RAW data in your negative image for you. It looks at each color channel independently, automatically adjusting for film density and color correction – something that is nearly impossible to do well by hand. You can convert a single negative (in the Develop module), or you can batch convert multiple negatives (in the Library Module).

4. Non-destructive, RAW editing tools
Negative Lab pro - editing options

You’ll find that you will almost alway want to make some tweaks to the initial negative conversion – either to the tones or the color balance. Making these changes directly in Lightroom is quite difficult and can have unintended results (as everything is inverted and each color channel is in its own “space”), but fortunately, you can make most changes directly inside of Negative Lab Pro, and it will update the Lightroom settings for you. It also saves these changes to custom metadata, which means the next time you pull up Negative Lab for that particular image, you’ll be able to pick up right where you left off.

5. Additional Lightroom adjustments (optional)
Tiff Copy for Editing Film Negatives in Lightroom

If you want to make additional adjustments to your converted image using Lightroom’s existing tools (like the HSL panel), you select “Make Tiff Copy” when you apply your changes in Negative Lab Pro. This will produce an 16-bit, lossless Tiff copy of your current negative and import it into the same Lightroom folder (right after your RAW negative). On the TIFF copy, all the regular Lightroom settings and sliders will work as they normally do (since you are now working on a positive image). This can be really useful for make fine-tuned changes, just be aware that if you need to make major changes to the tones in your image, it is best to do it on the RAW file with Negative Lab Pro first. Only export to TIFF once you’re close to finished.

Learn more about color negative conversions with Negative Lab Pro (https://www.negativelabpro.com)


Image Comparisons

I though it would be useful to end this with some comparisons of the output you get using different methodologies compared to our “DSLR scan + Negative Lab Pro” setup. To do this, I’ve had the same negatives processed a number of different ways.

NOTE: For each of the examples below, you can drag the slider to reveal the differences.

ColorPerfect (non-RAW) vs Negative Lab Pro (RAW)

Before using Negative Lab Pro with my DSLR Film scanning setup, I had tried a Photoshop plugin called “ColorPerfect.” Since ColorPerfect is a photoshop plugin, it cannot work directly on the RAW file – you must first convert your RAW file to a TIFF file (using another application called “MakeTIFF”). Not only does this add a lot of mess to your workflow, but as you’ll see below, it severely degrades color and tonal quality.

LEFT:  ColorPerfect (non-RAW workflow). RIGHT: Negative Lab Pro (RAW workflow).

LEFT (before) Notice how drab the tones and colors are in ColorPerfect’s non-raw conversion. There is also a noticeable color cast in the highlights (with patches of yellow and cyan).  RIGHT (after): This is a RAW workflow using Negative Lab Pro (on the Noritsu color setting). Not only is this initial conversion better, but the workflow is simpler since it all happens in Lightroom.

This comparison shows just what a dramatic difference it makes having the right software to process your negative. Negative Lab’s all-raw process produces rich, smooth tones, with neutral grays and brilliant colors. Look especially close at the difference in those skin tones.

Lightroom (Manual Method) vs Lightroom with Negative Lab Pro

It is possible to manually set your curve points in Lightroom to process a film negative into a positive. But because you have to adjust each color channel separately, it is difficult to make many adjustments beyond the basic conversion. And as we’ll see, there are also color and tonal issues introduced by the default Camera Profiles (in this case, Adobe Standard), as the tonal and color adjustments embedded in them have the OPPOSITE effect for the inverted photo!

LEFT:  Lightroom (manual method). RIGHT: Negative Lab Pro for Lightroom (automatic conversion).

LEFT: This is as good as I could get this image by hand in Lightroom after about 10 minutes of adjusting curves. The most noticeable problems are in the skin tones and the color balance in the highlights. RIGHT: Again, this was the automatic conversion by Negative Lab Pro in Lightroom. The color is perfect and the skin tones are bright, even and natural. It’s able to do this partially because of it’s custom camera calibration profiles (made specifically for negative development) and it’s image analysis, which is able to set and adjust all three color channels more precisely than can be done by hand.

As you can see, there are visible color issues in the manually developed negative. These issues are difficult (or impossible) to address by hand as they require edits to the individual R/G/B tone curves, in an inverted space. Luckily, In just a few seconds, we’re able to get a significantly better results with Negative Lab Pro.

Photoshop Conversion Methods

One of the most popular methods of conversion is using a combination of sampling the film mask, creating a subtractive layer with the sampled color, inverting, and then using auto-curves in Photoshop. Doing it all manually is very time consuming, but there are a number of photoshop actions that automate the process.

Sometimes this works great, and other times it does not. It almost always requires a fair amount of manually fiddling with curves afterwards to try to get close to accurate.

LEFT:  Photoshop (action). RIGHT: Negative Lab Pro for Lightroom (automatic conversion).

 

In this case, I’ve followed all the recommended steps from the photoshop action, and it left me with a pretty nasty cyan tint. Even if I correct for the tint, the hues are still way off, and the conversion has a fundamentally “digital” look to it.

Professional Lab Scan vs Negative Lab Pro

Finally, let’s look at the ultimate test: a professional lab scan vs our DSLR scan processed with Negative Lab Pro. Can our DSLR scan really produce better color and tonal results than one of the premier film labs in the country? Let’s find out!

LEFT:  Professional Lab (TheFindLab). RIGHT: DSLR Scan with Negative Lab Pro

LEFT: The professional lab scan is actually pretty good, but there are still a few issues. The highlights and shadows are protected, but overall, the tones feel flat. There’s also a slight magenta/purple tint to the highlights that feels unnatural. Perhaps most upsetting is the amount of the image that was “cropped out” by their misaligned scanner, which I would not have known about had I not scanned it myself later. RIGHT: Our DSLR film scanning process produces better, more natural skin tones, with better color separation and tonal depth. As a bonus, we also haven’t lost any of the image to scanner crop!

While the professional lab scan performs well, there are still some minor issues that result in drab feeling skin tones, poor color separation, and lack of depth. Additionally, the labs scanner has cropped our image (especially the right hand side).

By scanning our film with our DSLR, then processing RAW with Negative Lab Pro, we’ve been able to get noticeably improved skin tones, truer color reproduction, and full creative control.(Which is great news, because I paid $130 to have just 5 rolls of 120 film developed and scanned by that lab, which I will never need to do again!)


Conclusion & Comments

As we’ve seen, with a carefully defined setup and processing strategy, it is possible to get better color and tones using a DSLR scanning setup with your color negatives. And as DSLR technology improves, these advantages will only continue to grow!

Have questions about your DSLR film scanning setup, or processing film negatives? Leave a comment below!

4 Comments

  1. Looks amazing, Nate! I watched your video on Youtube, then managed to make my way to your website. Excellent stuff that I’ll have to come back and spend a bit more time with!

    I tried to sign-up for your email notification for when the LR NegativeLab plugin becomes available (or for additional beta testing if you still need testers), but I’m not receiving the confirmation email to click to verify my subscription.

    I’ve tried it twice, checked my junk and trash folders, but have still not received the confirmation email. I’ll check again in the morning, but this is really exciting since I’m not particularly satisfied with Colorperfect nor my manual curves adjustments in PS or LR.

  2. Herman

    This looks great! love to try it out. Looks easy to work with. One comment if you make tiff file it would be great if it has the same name as the original. People will see by the extension what kind of file it is. That will be more easy to use if you batch process i think. Good luck.

    • Nate Johnson

      Thanks Herman! So right now, if you select “TIFF Copy”, it will use the existing name + “-positive.tif”. So if the filename was 01688.NEF it then becomes 01688-positive.tif . The reason I do this is because conceivably you may want to make a tif copy of a tif negative (for instance, if you scanned a negative with a flatbed scanner and that output a tif). Make sense?

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