How to make digital photos from film negatives

Saturday, July 14, 2012

How to make digital photos from film negatives


Have some negatives you want to turn into digital images? Follow along as I show one way of accomplishing this task. This episode shows what to make, how to setup your camera and basic post-processing steps to convert those old negatives into files ready for the digital age.

For alternate ways of doing this:


Hi Makers, Builders, Do-It-Yourselfers and Photographers. Harley here with another House of Hacks video. I know this one is supposed to be part two of making soft jaws for the vise but I'm currently in the process of working on that, as evidenced by my red fingers. And last night I was talking with my Dad about scanning some negatives to convert them to digital and that kind of inspired me to do this video where I go over some of the details that I've done in the past for this project. So this video is going to be about converting negatives into digital pictures.

I got this idea a couple years ago online from somewhere. I thought it was but when I went to look for it, I couldn't find the original article. I did find two other interesting articles though on that sight about how to do the same task using a different manner, so I'll put a link down in the description if you're interested in some alternatives, go check them out. is a great resource for do-it-yourself photography ideas. Anyway, this is one I put together a couple years ago and that's what I'm going to be showing today.

Ok, we have a pretty simple setup here. We just have a cardboard box with holes cut out on both ends and a camera pointing into it with a means of holding the negative. In this case I have my camera here setup with a radio trigger on top and I'm using a holder for an enlarger to hold the negative. You could just as easily use a piece of cardboard cut out with a hole in it. On the other side of this box there is the flash with the other end of the radio remote. And inside the box there's a piece of paper. Get some light inside there. So you can see it's just taped to the top of the box, about halfway back, and that acts as a diffuser so we don't have a hotspot coming from the flash.

To get the best image possible, you want the negative to be as large as possible in your image, on your sensor. To do this, typically you need to zoom in as close as possible and get the lens as close as it'll focus in order to maximize that image.

In my particular case I have four lenses and two bodies that I can choose from. One of the lenses won't fit on one of the bodies. That reduces me down to seven possibilities, or potential lens / body combinations that I can use in order to try to maximize the number of pixels horizontal and vertical for the final image.

So I took some test shots just to see which combination would give me the largest final image. First of all I checked my full frame 5D and I couldn't fit the 18-55 lens that only fits on my crop factor sensor camera. But I tried the nifty 50, and I tried the 75-300, and I tried the 24-105. In testing the 24-105 I noticed that the auto-focus would only go down to a certain range. That lens also has another focus range called "macro" but you have to manually move it into there and focus it. I actually took two test images with the 24-105 and you can see the difference between the regular that the auto-focus goes to and the macro mode, which isn't really a true macro.

My other body is an XTi crop factor, and so I tried that with the 18-55 and also the 50, the 75-300 and the 24-105. And out of these seven combinations, surprisingly, the one that gave me the largest image on the negative, the largest image of the negative was the 18-55 on the XTi. So that's the one I used.

If you have access to a true macro lens, that's actually better because a true macro will give you a one to one recording of whatever your subject is onto your sensor. And so if you have a 35 mm film and you have a full frame camera then a one to one is going to be a perfect match for the film size to the image sensor. If you have a crop factor, then you don't necessarily need to go all the way to one to one but the macro lenses are design to focus very, very close to the lens. So you really can maximize the image usage with the macro lens. You can rent those if you don't have them, they're not terribly expensive to rent.

Now that we have the box made and we've chosen the camera and lens setup, the next thing is to actually physically set it up to start taking pictures.

The first part is to make sure that you have the distance correct to make the image as large as possible on your image and still be able to be in focus. That's going to be controlled by which camera and lens setup you have. Once you have things setup and in focus, the next thing is to make sure things are plumb and level. You want to be able to get the film plane on your camera to be plumb and parallel to the negative that you're taking the image of, this way you eliminate parallax errors in your images.

The way I did this on mine was to use the bubble level on my tripod to get my camera plumb and level and then I just assume the floor and everything up from there is close enough for the purposes I have here. If you really wanted to dial it in, you could put another bubble level on top and use shims to get everything exactly right.

Next is to make it parallel this way. And to do that, I put a straight edge across the back and measured with a tape measure to each side of the box and got that so it was exactly the same. That should get things dialed in pretty well.

The last thing is to make sure the image is centered as close as possible in the viewfinder. That way you don't have distortion from the edges of your lens.

Next you need some sort of remote for the flash. I'm using cheap Cactus radio triggers. You can get them on eBay for about thirty bucks. You can also use more expensive ones. Use whatever you have. Also, a corded, where you have something that fits on the hot shoe with a cord going around, as long as it's long enough, that would work too. You just need to be able to trigger your flash from your camera remotely.

And finally, it's not required, but it makes things much easier is if you have a trigger for your shutter release remote for your camera.

That's it for the physical side. Next to setup your camera.

First thing you want to make sure you're shooting in raw mode at your highest resolution. You want to be able to have full control of color balance and exposure and your highest bit depth possible for post processing. The only way to do that is with raw. JPEG just won't cut it. You lose too much information when things are saved to JPEG.

Next is the exposure. For the flash that I have, I have quite a bit of flexibility on controlling the intensity of the flash and so I just set my f-stop to be in the middle of the range for the lens to eliminate the most defraction from either wide open or shut down. Then I adjusted the exposure on the flash itself. If you have a cheaper flash that only might have two power levels, like my other flash, then you'd have to adjust your f-stop accordingly to kind of dial things in.

Shutter speed has to be below your sync speed. I just use 125, it makes it easy. And ISO, I just use 100 as a standard rule.

That's it for the physical setup. That's it for the camera setup. At this point you're ready to just start taking pictures.

Ok. At this point I assume you have taken all your photos you want to take of your negatives and you're ready to do some post processing. This is all going to be in Photoshop and Bridge because that's what I have. The concepts are transferrable to other applications if you have them. You just need to figure out which commands they are to do the same types of things I'm doing here.

The first thing is to rotate and crop the image. This is going to open it up in Bridge where up here at the top we'll have our straighten tool. I'm just going to drag this across the top here, like so. And then we can crop this down. I like to give it a little bit of extra head room on the outside so I can do final crop in Photoshop. This is just a first pass to make the file sizes manageable. You can see here I didn't get the negative quite square in the holder when I took this particular image. That's pretty much all I need to do here in Camera Raw. I'm going to do everything else in Photoshop where I can put things on layers and that kind of thing.

This base cropping is going to be the same for all you images so you can actually apply this, in Bridge anyway, you can apply this once and then tell it to do it to all the files that have the same setup. So it makes it easy.

These first several steps, they're going to be the same for all the images in a given shoot, for a given set of negatives so you can actually make actions out of these to repeat, so you don't have to sit there and continually go through clicking on all these different things repetitively.

So we've got it rotated, we've got it cropped. The next step is to go up to Image, and go to adjustments, and under Adjustments you have Invert. That will convert this from a negative image into a positive image.

And you can see our color balance is a little whacked out so that's going to be the next thing we tackle. I like using curves because it's a one button adjustment. I just use this middle eye dropper tool which sets a grey point. So I can click on that and then click on something that should be a neutral white / grey color. I'll use my brother's pajamas here and our colors get pretty nice. It's a little whacked out but not too bad. Much better than it was before.

One thing I notice is these images are always really soft. To fix that I like to use a high pass sharpen. So I duplicate the background layer with a control J. And then I go up to Filter and choose Other and then High Pass. The radius you use is going to depend on the size of your image. Smaller images you want a smaller radius. Larger images you want a larger radius. Use just what works well. For images of this size, I like 4, that works fairly well. Then we go into our blending mode and change it from Normal to Overlay. And we have a sharper image. It's still not super sharp, but it's better than it was. This is what it was out of camera. And this is what it is now with an overlay, a high pass overlay. It's quite noticeable. That's before and that's after.

That's pretty much what you'd do to every photo in a given set. Anything after this is probably going to be done on a per photo basis rather than across the whole batch.

The next thing I'm going to do, I noticed on my histogram that it's kind of dark. There's a lot of area over here that we can bump up. So I'm going to go in here and add another layer. This time I'm going to use the Levels. And I'm going to just drop this white point down to where we're just starting to clip some of the bright highlights. Like so. And that kind of brightens that up. Before it's darker and now it's much, much brighter, a nicer exposure.

Now with that being brighter, it's more noticeable that this couch is kind of blue. I remember that couch. That was originally a black leather couch that my parents purchased long ago. I'm going to use the hue/saturation, this is just going to be a quick change. I'm going to go in here, since there really aren't any other blues in the image, I'm just going to select the blues and desaturate them. That fixes up that couch pretty nicely. It's still a little on the blue side but not too bad. I guess I could go into the cyans and play around with more, but, for this it's good. I did lose some of the blues in my brother's pajamas so I'm going to go in on the layer mask and paint in some black to bring those back in, kinda like so.

And then I'd do a final crop on this particular image. Something sort of like this. Get rid of all this yucky stuff on the outside edges. About like so. And you end up with a final image. Actually I think I missed something there at the bottom. Let me do that crop again. Bring it in here. I think I took it down too low before. Trim off the yellow on the top right and the grey on the bottom right. Then get rid of the yellow on the bottom left.

And there we go. There's the finished image. Like I said, the first several steps you can put in an action and save yourself a whole lot of hassle. And then each individual photo is going to need a little bit of touch-up, like I did on this one.

That's pretty much it for post-processing.

That wraps up this House of Hacks episode. If you liked it, hit the thumbs up button. Next episode we should be back on track with part two of the soft jaws project. To be notified, you can hit the subscribe button up here.

Until next time, go make something. It doesn't have to be perfect, just have fun.

Update: Fixed typo.