Simple Scanning of Negative Film Without a Film Scanner

Having finally gotten around to developing the steadily increasing pile of film that had been amassing over the past year of general creative apathy, I was stuck with no longer owning or having access to a film scanner, so I turned to Google in the hopes of sourcing a DIY solution. I don’t need amazing quality, I just wanted to see what I’ve got and maybe share a few on social media.

The first thing I found was something I’ve seen before. It looks like an open sided sandwich box, and can be used to get a standard (non-backlit) flatbed scanner to scan transparent media. I had a try, but with no luck. It’s possible that I’m not positioning it correctly somehow, or that my little all-in-one printer scanner isn’t quite up to the task, but if anybody is interested, there’s a detailed tutorial right here.

A second option, and one which I have only briefly tried (with slightly better luck than the cardboard adapter, but still not fantastic results) is using a smartphone or tablet to provide backlighting on the scanner bed. Petapixel detail the process here. I suspect that my attempts might have involved too much screen brightness, so it’s probably worth experimenting with that. I whacked mine right up, and the resulting scan was just way too bright, creating a nearly black image once it was inverted.

Now, on to what I actually have found works for me.

I had an old lightbox, of sorts. Nothing more advanced than a piece of semi-opaque smooth white plastic with a small bulb set behind it. It’s useful for viewing slides, but not quite bright enough for my purposes, so I set it on one of those LED work lamps you can pick up cheaply just about anywhere.

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If your negatives don’t lie flat on their own, you might want to try a piece of glass over the top, or carefully flatten then out at the edges with one hand whilst you shoot with the other.

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I’m using an iPhone 5, for reference. Any smartphone with a decent camera will work. You’ll want something with a reasonable image editing app available, unless you want to take the additional step of transferring to a computer and doing your editing there instead. I used Photoshop Express. It’s a free app, available on both IOS and Android, and is remarkably powerful. There are in-app purchases available, some of which I have because I use this app pretty extensively, but most of the adjustments I used were straight out of the box features.

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Crop tool. You also have the option to straighten up the image here, and check it’s all lined up how you want it. I later found it easier to do step two before this, it’s often simpler to see the edges on the positive image.

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Invert the image. Under basic filters (‘looks’) there’s an invert option.

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After that, it’s just a case of fiddling around with the slider settings until it looks about right. These are the ones I found most helpful, although I also made minor adjustments in highlights and shadows, and later found the ‘defog’ option  (purchased premium feature) helpful (although not so helpful that I’d recommend purchasing it solely for this purpose, frankly).

Here’s the finished image.

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It definitely works best on evenly exposed images. I got a handful of landscapes that I’m quite pleased with through it.

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I’m also reasonably happy with a few band shots I took at a festival over the summer.

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What seems to be less successful is where thinner negatives are involved. This is one which I shot on Ilford 3200 film, in a dark venue, and one of only about five I managed to rescue at all, although once I can get my hands on a scanner the rest of the roll should be salvageable.

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On the other hand, even when the original is less than perfect, this technique can actually bring out a surprisingly pleasing result.

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Obviously it’s not perfect, and it’s not the most amazing quality. But it’s just about good enough for basic sharing, and for finding out what you’ve got on a roll of negative film, relatively quickly and without a dedicated scanner.


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1 Comment

  1. helenbriggsphotography

     /  October 15, 2014

    That’s really useful to know, thanks for sharing! Also great for getting in the sprocket holes if you’ve put 35mm in an old medium format camera 🙂


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