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:
- Why use your DSLR to scan your film negatives?
- How to DSLR scan your film negatives (VIDEO)
- What you’ll need: Hardware
- What you’ll need: Software
- The ideal “all-RAW” workflow
- Image Comparisons
- Conclusion & Comments
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
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)
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
» Much more insight and discussion on best light tables for DSLR film scanning here
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 Masks/Carriers:
UPDATE: In the past year, there’s been an EXPLOSION of great new film scanning masks that I prefer over the Digitaliza. It truly is a great time to be shooting film! Here are a few of my favorites:
» Negative Supply ($329 for 35mm carrier,$479 for 120 carrier) – These guys are making the highest quality film scanning tools on the market. The design and build quality are absolutely top-notch and they’ve really thought through how to improve film flatness AND workflow speed. Sure, it’s an investment, but their units feel like they would survive a nuclear blast (seriously).
» Essential Film Holder (£90 includes both 35mm, 120 and diffuser) – A clever design that works with both 35mm and 120 film, and includes a quality diffuser (which opens up more options for light sources – for instance, you can use the diffuser directly against an iPad screen). It’s a good value for all it includes, and works quite well.
» Skier Sunray Copy Box ($239 includes 35mm mask, 120 mask, diffuser and high-quality LED light source) – If you’re building a digital camera setup from scratch, this is a fantastic solution. Almost everything you need is included in a small footprint unit. The way it is designed eliminates some of the most common issues I see with DIY digital camera scanning setups. The downsides are that the unit gets hot quickly (so could be an issue for very large projects)
» PIXL-LATR (£39.99 includes both 35mm, 120 and diffuser) – Another clever product, the PIXL-LATR uses a modular design that can be rearranged to suit your needs. And because it comes with a diffuser, it’s easy to use with LED screens you already own (like an iPhone or iPad). At £39.99, the build quality is obviously going to be lower than the more expensive units, but it gets the job done! One trick I’ve found is that a 4×5 of ANR Glass (like this one) fits perfectly inside. So I’ve rigged mine up with one for incredible flatness.
🚫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.
🚫 Extension Tubes
As tempting as it is to just take an existing lens and add an extension tube to it to make it a macro, you will NOT get the same results. You will see much more softness in the corners of your scans, and you will be much more prone to getting flares and uneven light, which cause MAJOR headaches during conversion.
🚫 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.
EDIT: The one exception to this is ANR glass (Anti-Newton Ring). You can use this hold your negatives flat, and it won’t cause any newton rings.
🚫 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.
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.
» 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.
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:
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!
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
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
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)
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.
6. Film Specific Metadata
Using metadata on your images is a great way to organize your images, find specific types of images, or share information about an image when you post it online. Lightroom has an incredible metadata engine, but by default it is missing metadata that is specific to the analog process. Negative Lab Pro adds a film-specific metadata section to Lightroom! So, you can add metadata about the analog gear you used to shoot a negative, metadata about your shooting settings, metadata on how you’ve digitized the negatives, and metadata on how you’ve developed your negatives. On the original RAW, the film-specific metadata is non-destructive to the standard fields (important so that Lightroom doesn’t misinterpret your image), but when you go to export an image, you have the ability to overwrite standard EXIF tags and Auto-Generate Rich Captions. You can also use the metadata you add in Lightroom for sorting your Library, searching for images, or creating Smart Collections!
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).
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).
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
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!