As an active member of several online film photography communities, I’ve recently been seeing lots of questions from fellow photographers who are weighing various options for digitizing negatives at home. Given that I have been in the process of changing up my workflow and that I have at my disposal a flatbed scanner and a DSLR scanning setup, I thought I’d share my impressions and a couple of sample comparisons in the form of one 35mm and one 6×6 image in hopes that this can be a reference to answer some of these recurring questions.
[This guest post was written by Tony Huynh. Tony is a clinical pharmacist by day who relishes photography as a creative outlet that forces him to slow down, harness his creativity, and see the world in a different way. He also loves tinkering and enjoys all things mechanical, which makes analog cameras and the process of shooting, developing, and printing film the perfect marriage of his love of science and photography.]
Hardware and Software
Flatbed Scanning Setup :
DSLR Scanning Setup (photos of setup) :
- Camera: Canon EOS 70D (tethered to iMac)
- Lens: Vivitar (Komine) 55mm f/2.8 macro (~$80 USD) + Olympus OM to EF adapter (~$11 USD)
- Light source/negative holder: Skier Sunray Copy Box ($160 USD – I have v2; v3 just announced)
- Camera support: Bogen 22B Special enlarger base (<$40 USD) + Manfrotto 488RC2 ballhead
Lab Scans :
- Provided by Indie Film Lab (“large/corrected” JPG scans)
Scanning and processing methods:
- Flatbed scans: Used SilverFast 8 SE, scanned as 300 ppi, 3200 dpi and exported as TIFFs. NegaFix was applied for the film stock (Kodak Tri-X) and images had auto-adjustments applied on pre-scan, but no further edits were done before export from SilverFast.
- DSLR scans: negatives captured as RAW images at f/8. Camera focused on grain manually at 10x magnification using Live View. Fine-tuning of alignment and focusing of the setup accomplished with the aid of Vlad’s Test Target, which adapts the USAF 1951 resolution chart onto 35mm film in a manner that allows for evaluation of sharpness and focus across a 35mm frame.
- 35mm negative captured as a single image. 6×6 medium format negative captured as six separate images which were stitched into a panorama before export from Lightroom as a DNG.
- All post-processing for both flatbed and DSLR images was done through Photoshop using the lab scans as a reference to closely match all comparison images. Edits were primarily limited to dust removal, levels and curves adjustments, and smart sharpening. Lab scans did not receive additional processing after receipt from the lab.
- 6×6 DSLR scan had to be resized to reduce the file size for uploading to the internet.
Click on the links below for full resolution images.
Image Quality – It should be obvious that the flatbed scans are significantly softer than both the DSLR scan and the lab scan, both of which are exceptionally sharp. The grain on the DSLR and lab scans is clearly visible, whereas on the flatbed scan it is very muddy and of poor quality when viewing at 100%. When comparing between just the DSLR and lab scans, I have a much harder time identifying any significant differences that I would attribute to the quality of the scans versus the quality and differences in the edits. The sharpening appears to be applied more heavily on the 35mm lab scan, and the whites have been clipped a bit on the 6×6 lab scan. At a normal viewing distance, though, I would say the flatbed scan is perfectly acceptable for 90%+ of use-cases.
Ease of “Scanning” – Without a doubt, the process of scanning with my DSLR is significantly faster than using the flatbed Epson V550. Not much needs to be explained here, but this also will be largely dependent on your individual setup. The hardest part of any DSLR or mirrorless scanning setup is providing a stable support for the camera that’s easily aligned, and then the next most crucial element is the masking of the negative to avoid stray light, which can reduce contrast or cause flare or reflections in the resultant image. Having a dedicated negative carrier and light source, as well as a sturdy “copy stand” of sorts eliminates much of this for me. Using the DSLR method I can “scan” a whole roll within minutes, whereas it can take me approximately 10 minutes to scan one image with my flatbed.
Ease of Processing – I found the flatbed scans much more difficult to edit in post than the DSLR scans. This may come down to the fact that the flatbed scans have some adjustments applied by SilverFast versus working with unedited RAW files for the DSLR images, thus your results may vary and my results may have been different if I elected to not apply NegaFix or auto adjustments in SilverFast.
- DSLR/mirrorless scanning is much sharper than an entry-level flatbed for both 35mm and medium format, (can be) much more efficient, and is comparable in quality to lab scans. See our main image in full res here.
- Cost of entry will most likely be higher with a DSLR/mirrorless, even excluding the camera body, though can be done more economically than my setup with a little creativity (possibly at the cost of efficiency).
- Flatbed scanner results will likely be perfectly acceptable for most use-cases. Just make sure to set your expectations accordingly.
A Note on Flatbed Sharpness
I had received some comments from a fellow photographer questioning the sharpness and focus of my particular Epson V550 scanner. They recommended that I do some testing to ensure that my scanner is in focus, out-of-the-box. While I did respond stating that my methods account for the general use-case of a flatbed printer by the mass consumers and that maybe only 1% of users would ever consider going so far as focus-testing their scanner (since it is not really designed to be adjusted), I decided to do little bit of additional testing with my V550 as requested, and for the sake of completeness.
Because the stock film holders of the Epson V550, unlike that of the V7XX and V8XX series, do not offer the ability to make height adjustments, I took the advice of another commenter and used sticky notes adhered to the underside corners of the stock film holder to achieve incremental height adjustments of ~0.5mm (as an FYI to those interested, it takes seven sticky notes to achieve a ~0.5mm height adjustment).
Here is a comparison image showing 100% crops of 4 different scans of the same 6×6 image at stock height versus raised from the scanner bed by ~0.5mm, ~1mm, and ~1.5mm. All scans were done in the same manner using SilverFast 8 SE without any adjustments or edits and exported as TIFFs.
In my opinion, there is no significantly discernable difference in sharpness across all scans, and further height adjustments are unlikely to change this, given the limited allowable space within the scanner bed with the lid closed and the fact that aftermarket products such as Betterscanning holders are designed to allow no more than 1mm of height adjustment, suggesting that further adjustments are unlikely to be considered necessary or beneficial. Users who have reported any differences in sharpness through adjustment of focus anecdotally have noted these results on V7XX and V8XX scanners, which have height-adjustable stock film holders and also advertise using a dual-lens system for optimal sharpness and focus for both prints and negatives.
Many thanks to Tony, who was kind enough to do this good work and to allow us to publish it here. Another article on converting color negatives digitally will be published next week. Look forward to that.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]