For most film photographers shooting in the digital age, photos made on film are nearly always digitized. It’s a necessary step in the modern film photography workflow. But the number of digitizing options available to the home developer are few, and many of these can be unsatisfying or downright prohibitive. A company called Negative Supply wants to change this with a new product – the Film Carrier MK1.
Current Digitization Options and their Pros and Cons
At the lowest end of the price and quality scale exist scanners like the Kodak Scanza, which saves scans as JPG files but doesn’t offer a sensor of high enough quality to match the definition or dynamic range of better scanners. In fact, the Scanza’s product listings even recommend a flatbed scanner if users are looking to get “high quality” digitization.
Flatbeds, possibly the next best option offering respectable image quality, miss the mark in other ways. The workflow is painstakingly slow, the negative holders often don’t hold the negatives as flat as desired, and the reproduction of film characteristics do not regularly hold up (grain detail can be lost, color can be flat, sharpness and depth can be lacking). Not to mention price – at the top end (say, an Epson V850) we’ll be dropping a grand.
In my experience with the V600, my scans were only ever fine. I never ended up investing in better film holders or ANR glass, because doing so felt like giving into the sunk cost fallacy – I wasn’t happy, why invest more into a process that wasn’t making me love film more? I quickly became dissatisfied and moved on.
One rung higher we find dedicated 135 or 120 scanners such as the Plustek models. One of our authors, Dustin Vaughn-Luma, reviewed the Plustek OpticFilm 120 to only lackluster results – yes, the image quality was better than what he was getting with a flatbed, but the entire workflow made him think the enterprise was better off abandoned.
Another level upward we find older dedicated scanners like the Nikon Coolscan or the Nexlab/Kodak Pakon. These, especially the Pakon, can run close to a $1,000 again on the high end of the spectrum and at least several hundred on the low end. Not to mention, we quickly run into frustrations with essentially retrofitting old hardware and software to run on new computers. With the Pakon, the resolution is fairly low and the scanner cannot truly handle E6 or black-and-white film.
Finally, we begin to top out at the premier dedicated film scanners. Here we have scanners like the Noritsu, the Fuji Frontier, and Imacon/Hasselblad scanners. These, in particular the Imacon/Hasselblad scanners, produce outstanding results. For the Noritsus, expect to be out about a grand or four. For the Fuji, expect to be out upwards of six thousand. And for the Imacon and Hasselblad scanners, you could be paying over $10,000. No one will be buying one of these unless they’re interested in opening a lab and selling scanning services.
But even if a regular shooter buys in and can justify the jaw-dropping financial investment into one of these famed machines, he or she may still be out of luck – the scanners do not handle the color characteristics of E6 as well as they do the negative conversion of C41.
At the very, very top end of all image scanners, film or otherwise, drum scanning rests, with the top-of-the-line Heidelberg Tango Drum scanner as its poster-child. I really have no clue how much these machines sell for, because they are so specialized and gargantuan. My research indicates that they’d be going for between ten and sixteen thousand.
The Film Carrier MK1, shown in renders below, looks to simplify and minimize film digitization.
A Solution in Plain Sight
It feels like someone on the Casual Photophile team laments the scanning process on a weekly basis. The complaints are usually related to workflow and time investment, but no doubt those are both influenced by the amount of work and processing it requires to get a wonderful scan.
There might be on panacea to this entire fluster though – digital camera scanning. Some may be familiar with the process, but for those who are not, it’s remarkably simple. At its simplest explanation, DCS is projecting light through our filmstrips and then taking a picture of each individual frame using a digital camera.
In a bit more lengthy explanation, DCS involves using a light source like a light table or light pad, placing our film on top of it so that the film is illuminated, positioning our digital camera directly over the film using a tripod or copy stand, filling the entire frame with a single film frame of negative using a macro lens for close focusing, and then taking a digital photo of the film frame. This file, which can (and should) be taken in RAW format, can then be imported into Lightroom where it can be converted to color-corrected images.
Perhaps the best and easiest way to convert RAW files is using a Lightroom plugin called Negative Lab Pro, which can be licensed for $99. The results make this cost seem more than worth it to someone who scans frequently, but for those who want to save cash there are manual ways to convert in Lightroom or Photoshop.
Why would DCS make for a better scanning process? On the basis of image quality alone, a modern DSLR can produce photos with exceptionally high resolution, impeccable color from modern sensors, and incredibly deep dynamic range.
Shooting a film frame with a 1:1 reproduction with a top-of-the-line digital camera (say the Nikon D850 or the Sony α7R II) can produce a print of 27 inches by 18 inches at print quality of 300 DPI without any enlarging. Factor in technologies like pixel shifting, as Mark Sperry from Northeast Photographic mentioned in his recent podcast with AJ Holmes of Negative Supply, and we’re talking truly massive files. The same can be said for multiple captures of a single film frame that are later stitched together in post-processing.
That said, to produce high quality digitizations of film, we do not have to own a recent professional model digital camera. Even if we dip back into the closet to find a ten-year-old DSLR (or wanted to spend under $100 to acquire an older mode), we can produce outstanding scans.
Consider the 2009 model year Canon EOS 500D/Rebel T1i. Even with its APS-C sensor, it’s possible to produce prints of 11×14 at 300 DPI with no enlarging and no need for multiple captures.
All of this, however, depends on having the supporting cast to make digitizing both efficient and effective. There are a variety of problems that can crop up. If the film isn’t laying flat enough, sharpness and color will be wonky. If your light source isn’t consistent enough, scans will show harsh vignettes and color shifts. Moving from frame to frame can be time consuming compared to a dedicated scanner that precisely and automatically inches the film along.
The Film Carrier MK1 from Negative Supply
This is where Negative Supply comes to save the day. Over the last year, photographers AJ Holmes of Nashville and Saxon McClamma of Philadelphia have been designing a product aimed at setting the standard for digital camera scanning. They’ve been shooting film for a combined twenty-five-plus years and have cycled through many of the various scanning options available from flatbeds to minilab scanners.
Saxon, who had been using flatbed scanners and a Nikon Coolscan, decided that digital camera scanning might present a more satisfying setup. The main issue in AJ’s and Saxon’s minds was getting their hands on a reliable negative holder. Unsatisfied with what the market had to offer and with Saxon wielding a degree in engineering and design, the two decided to fill the gap and make their own apparatus.
Since then, they’ve produced seven prototypes with early models using dozens of parts assembled by hand – but now they’re ready to begin production of the MK1 unit and are launching a Kickstarter on July 1 to do just that.
[Samples in the image galleries below were digitized using the Negative Supply Film Carrier MK1]
The Film Carrier MK1 is a high quality 35mm negative holder that uses a drive mechanism to smoothly and accurately advance film over an opening for illumination from a light table. Thanks to smooth running bearings, silicon tensioners, and a completely greaseless unit, the film is kept remarkably flat and taut while advancement is smooth yet dampened. Thanks to the greaseless design, there is no risk of lubrication or particulate damaging the film.
The film advances along the outer edge of the filmstrip so that captures of the frames can extend out to the black borders. Due to the spooling nature of the strip, the film keeps safely coiled on the entry end and the exit end of the carrier.
The current model is made using a technology referred to as Multi-Jet Fusion (MJF) printing, which was created by HP. The resulting unit is assembled from two precisely manufactured Nylon halves assembled and finished with high-end hardware and beautiful stainless steel components.
Through the months of R&D and computer-aided design, Negative Supply has put prototypes into the hands of beta testers across the United States. Northeast Photographic, a professional lab based in Maine, has been using the film carrier extensively and providing feedback to AJ and Saxon for application in the current model. The results speak for themselves.
To sweeten the deal, Negative Supply is also offering what they are calling the Pro Mount MK1 and a magnetically-attached anti-static brush kit. The Pro Mount is essentially a stand for the Film Carrier unit that provides better stability through its heavy design, larger surface area, leveling feet, and anti-slip foot bottoms. The Film Carrier MK1 attaches to the Pro Mount MK1 using a secure magnetic connection. The anti-static brush attaches to the Pro Mount in the same way in front of the Film Carrier so that the filmstrip is brushed as it feeds into the carrier, meaning automatic dusting prior to digitization.
How to Buy
The Kickstarter for the MK1 system goes live today. For the first 48-hours of the launch, Early Bird supporters can get the Film Carrier MK1 for $249 and the entire MK1 system for $399. The earliest supporters can expect to receive the products fastest, with Negative Supply expecting to ship in September.
After the Early Bird period, prices increase by $30 for both options. As AJ and Saxon pointed out, finding a manufacturer to produce 5,000 pieces of their system would have been a piece of cake. Working with an industry as niche as the analog photography one, finding a manufacturer that will produce high quality goods at a reasonable price-point for film-community-sized orders, is not easily done.
Dealing with these constraints, AJ and Saxon originally aimed for the unit to be priced at $500, but they realized that a lower price would mean reaching more film photographers and ultimately mean having a better shot at impacting the entire industry.
They have planned for low order amounts and stretch goals of 500 units or more. The more successful the Kickstarter is, the faster Negative Supply can get medium and large format rigs into design and production, which will be compatible with the pre-existing Pro Mount MK1.
In the next thirty days, Negative Supply plans to get their most current model into the hands of individuals around the world with experience in traditional scanning approaches, digital camera scanning, and scanning in museum contexts in order to solicit final feedback for the official production run.
While film photographers have legitimately dozens of potential choices for their scanning, be it at home or in a lab, digital camera scanning may be both the best option, and the one that few people have tried. With Negative Supply’s new Film Carrier, those interested in exploring DCS should find it that much easier to do so.
For more details, visit the Kickstarter campaign.