The Franken-Scanner Slide and Negative Digitizer

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Despite several semi-successful attempts at purging my archive of more than four decades of color slides and negatives, I still have a good number of analog images I need to digitize and archive. After completing this process, except for maybe 10% of my very, very best negatives and slides, I plan on bagging the lot and hauling it off to a nearby shredding center.

I parted with my darkroom long ago. I’ve since had a few spins around the block with a succession of film and flatbed scanners, but these days the only way I can view film images is by peering at them through a loupe on a light table. That, or send my film to a lab for scans and prints, which is costly.

Considering the growing interest in analog photography these days, I know I’m not the only loupe-peeper out there.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2019

Just a few of the thousands of slides and negatives I plan on digitizing over the coming winter months

Once Upon a Time Film Scanners were a Dime a Dozen

When the industry began transitioning from film to digital, there were many affordable film scanners available from a range of manufacturers, including Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Epson, and other name-brand companies, and most proved to be quite good. Drum scanners were the best option for digitizing negatives and transparencies, but the costs were beyond the budgets of most common folk.

Today, quality film scanners range from several hundred dollars for a 35mm film scanner to upward of $16,000 to $25,000 for the best multi-format film scanners from Hasselblad Flextight.

Film scanners costing $100 and less are also available, but the files sizes and image quality are best suited for use on Instagram and Facebook.

1940s-era gas pump, near Watertown, NY. Nikon F3; 15mm f/3.5 NIKKOR AI-S; Kodachrome 64 (personal work)

The Seeds of the Franken-Scanner

I’m not the first person to try using a digital camera with a bellows and macro lens to digitize film images—the components have been around forever. When I purchased my first DSLR—a Fujifilm FinePix S1 Pro (6.13MP!)—I tried digitizing some of my favorite Kodachrome slides using my new DSLR with a borrowed bellows and slide copy attachment. My makeshift slide duplicator worked, but the image quality was so-so, and there were odd color shifts across the image field. I quickly focused my energies elsewhere.

Double-page spread, Yachting magazine. Nikon N90; NIKKOR 25-50mm f/3.5 AI-S; Kodachrome 64

Soon after, I purchased a demo (and since discontinued) Nikon Coolscan 4000 ED. This scanner captures 4000 dpi 14-bit converted image files and outputs 67MB (8-bit) JPEGs good enough to easily output high-quality 16 x 20s, or larger, depending on the IQ of the original slide or negative. Included with the Coolscan was state-of-the-art scanning and dust-removal software, which is a true time saver when scanning older, scuffed negatives and slides.

The downside of the Coolscan 4000 was that when you had all the bells and whistles running, it took forever to scan a slide. I ultimately sold it on eBay for about the same price I had paid two years earlier.

Alvin Beal, Boatbuilder, Beal’s Island, Maine. Nikon F3; 24mm f/2 NIKKOR AI-S; Nautical Quarterly

With winter upon us once again, I decided to take another shot at further clearing out my film files. Not wanting to pay the price of a top-quality scanner, I decided to revisit the idea of using my current digital camera—a 42MP Sony Alpha A7r II, for digitizing my film images. I figured if a camera can capture image files almost twice the size of the files I got from my Nikon scanner (120MB versus 67MB), how bad could the results be? As it turns out, the files are beyond my initial expectations!

Floyd Walker Motor Company, Belton, Texas (left), & Millers Smokehouse, Waelder, Texas (right), Esquire magazine. Nikon F3, 28mm f/3.5 PC NIKKOR, Kodachrome 64

The Components of the Franken-Scanner

In addition to my camera, I needed a bellows and slide copy attachment. A trip to the B&H Used Department netted me a clean Nikon PB 5 Bellows & PS 5 Slide Copying Adapter for $99. I also purchased an “Open Box Special” Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 for $248, to replace the worn, dust-infested 55mm Micro-NIKKOR I purchased new 30-plus years ago. I already owned a Metabones Nikon F to Sony E-mount T Adapter II, so I crossed that off my list.

To support my DIY slide converter, I mounted the unit on a desktop-friendly Platypod Pro Camera Support with a Benro B1 Double Action Ball Head. It all sits neatly alongside my light table, making it easy to edit, clean, and digitize images, and move along in a neat and tidy manner.

While the camera’s tilt-screen came in handy for critical focusing, I find the EVF to be a better choice.

From 1959 through 1983, Nikon produced a series of bellows and slide/negative attachments for shooting close-ups and copy work. The PB-5 and PS-5, which were manufactured in the late 1970s, were the fifth in a total series of six models produced. Nikon bellows and slide copy attachments are easy to find used.

My Franken-Scanner consists of the following components: Sony A7r II; Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 AI-S; Nikon Metabones Nikon F to Sony E-mount T Adapter II; Nikon PB 5 Bellows & PS 5 Slide Copying Adapter; Platypod Pro Camera Support; Benro B1 Double A

For a light source, I wanted to use continuous, daylight-balanced illumination, and decided to try a shoe-mounted Bolt VM-210 Flexible Macro Light that I had purchased for outdoor macro photography. Bolt’s VM-210 is a compact, AA-battery-powered light source featuring a pair of flexible gooseneck arms with round disks at the end, each containing 24 LED bulbs. I found that by slightly overlapping the two LED panels about 2" away from the surface of the slide holder’s opal diffuser glass, I was able to light my slides and negatives evenly from corner to corner.

Eastern Box Turtle. Nikon F3; 200mm f/4 Micro-NIKKOR AI-S; Ektachrome 100; (personal work)

From personal experience using the VM-210, I know a fresh set of AA batteries can maintain a steady, seemingly color-consistent stream of light from lamps for several hours before the batteries need to be swapped out. Early tests found little difference in color fidelity between image files captured in Daylight and AWB modes, and considering I was capturing RAW files, I ultimately set the camera to AWB.

Even though I refer to my Franken-Scanner as a “scanner,” in practice that’s not an accurate description. Scanner sensors physically travel across, or scan, the slide or negative to digitize it. The Franken-Scanner is essentially a fixed-sensor, single-shot capture device, or as it’s more commonly called—a camera body.

North Shore, Long Island, NY, for New York magazine. Nikon F3; 24mm f/2 AI-S; (left); Nikon F; 500mm f/5 Reflex NIKKOR; both Kodachrome 64 (right)

Camera Settings

To maximize the image quality of my film-to-digital conversions, I set my Sony A7r II to capture JPEGs and RAW. The ISO was set to 100 for low noise, truer color, and optimal IQ, and I programed the shutter for a 2-second delay to further minimize any camera shake.

With the macro lens secured in place between the bellows and slide copy attachment, I adjusted the slide stage along with the front (lens) and rear (camera) bellows standards until the full-sized image of the slide or negative came into sharp focus. To ensure I wouldn’t crop any live area, I included the edges of the slide mount in the frame, and then cropped them out when editing the RAW file. Even after cropping the edges, I’m still left with image files exceeding 100MB, which is plenty to work with.

Nikon’s 55mm f/2.8 Micro-NIKKOR is known for its high level of resolving power. To get maximum optical performance from the lens, I set the aperture to its sweet spot, between f/8 and f/11.

Macro lenses are preferable for copying flat artwork because, unlike standard lenses, which have curved focus fields, macro lenses have flat focus fields, in which the corners are as sharp as the central portion of the frame even when shooting at the widest apertures. At wide apertures, the corners of photographs captured with conventional lenses tend to be soft and do not come into sharper focus until the lens is stopped down several stops. Macro lenses also tend to have less curvature and distortion issues compared to non-macro lenses.

Dust and Scratches

One of the advantages of film scanners is that, unlike my Franken-Scanner, they come with time-saving dust and scratch-removal software. Digital conversions made with the Franken-Scanner require hands-on retouching. Assuming your slides and negatives haven’t been totally trashed over time, a few minutes with the Clone or Healing tool in Photoshop is all it usually takes to clean things up. I also make a point of checking the camera sensor for dust before each shooting session to help minimize my editing time.

Detail, Late Afternoon Light, Drumthwacket, the New Jersey Governor’s Official Residence. Nikon N90; 105mm f/1.8 NIKKOR AI-S; Fujichrome Velvia 50

Kodachrome 64 or 42MP CMOS Sensor: What’s Better?

One of my biggest takeaways from this project has to do with the differences in image quality when comparing film and digital. Kodachrome transparency film may still be the gold standard in terms of realistic color fidelity, but the level of detail, along with the expansive exposure parameters of digital, make the best of my Kodachrome slides pale in comparison. By capturing RAW files of my slides and negatives, I can easily open shadows while maintaining highlight details, optimal contrast levels, and color fidelity. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that my digital files contain greater latitude than the originals.

Kodachrome has unique qualities you don’t get in a digital file—or other color film for that matter, but all things considered, digital imaging is where it’s at, in my book.

What’s your experience with digitizing slides and negatives? We’d like to hear about it.

24 Comments

Hello Allan,

thanks for this helpful article. I don't have enough knowledge in macro photography, but I have been struggling with this for months now without coming to any solution.

I have basically the same setup as yours:
- Sony A7R ii full frame body;
- Nikon 55mm f2.8 macro lens;
- Nikon PB-2 bellows with slide copier;
- Generic Nikon to NEX adapter.

I have tried many different lenses and a Canon bellows as well, but the result is always the same: although the bellows + slide copier are designed for 35mm, I don't manage to fit the full image on my sensor: I always need to allow a 20-30% crop or it's impossible to focus.

The presence of the bellows (even if not extended at all) shifts the focus range too close for the image to fit the sensor: in other words, the bellows is an obstacle instead of a tool, and its unique function is to provide the slide copier and keep the camera body stable and parallel.

However, by looking at your same setup, and dozens of other people who don't seem to have such problem, I feel completely lost as I seem to be the only one who can't focus.

Does anybody have any hints? Thank you very much in advance

Mick

We’re sorry to hear that you’re having trouble. There could be a few things going on there. We invite you contact us via Live Chat or e-mail to askbh@bhphoto.com so we can review the options for you.  

Very impressive work, Allan.

Great photography and a really well thought out, long-form discussion about your scanner setup. Very helpful and a pleasure to read.

Thanks!

Dear Allan,

Thanks for this great article and for bringing back and sharing your wonderful images taken on Kodachrome 64 and the great Nikon F3.  Further, I loved seeing your pictures of some very good, old days in landscapes, seascapes, buildings, and portraits.  Maybe the technology has changed, but great images - like yours- stand out, no matter what the medium...

I'm using a Nikon D750 in a similar setup for quick and easy slide copies. But for full frame 35mm and larger formats, I have a cool thin light table from B&H, where I place the negative or transparency, and the D750 with a macro lens on a copy stand. I have the camera tethered to a computer so I can check framing and focus on a large monitor. the files go directly to the computer so no dealing with copying cards. works great and the "scans" compete with those from high end scanners.

Wow! Thank you for this tip! Is it possible to scan 35mm panoramas? 

I've been using a Nikon ES-1 slide copying adapter with a Nikon 105mm f2.8 micro lens on a full frame camera – I use it on both a D610 and a Z6. The trick is that you need to move the copying adapter further away from the end of the lens – I use extension tubes (simple black anodized aluminum 52mm diameter screw on tubes) that total 98mm in length along with a 62-52mm step-down ring (lens has a 62mm filter diameter and the copying adapter has a 52mm diameter). With the extension tubes attached you have plenty of latitude to use the copying adapter's extendable collar to adjust the framing of the slide or negative. One suggestion: when you've adjusted the framing to your liking, secure the copying adapter's collar with a piece of gaffers tape or blue masking tape so that it will remain in place as you place new slides into the copying adapter. I've copied slides, color negatives and black and white negatives with this set-up.

Dust and Scratches: There is a very simple and effective tool for removing dust and scratches using this workflow that does not require "hand retouching" for 95% of issues. In Photoshop simply go Filter->Noise->Dust & Scratches it is specifically for this kind of work.

I would like to expand on Wade's question as I am in the same boat. I have tried various methods of using my Canon and a light box to digitize and have had mediocre results. It's time consuming and lacks easy standardization. So let me be very specific. I need to digitize both 35mm and 120 slides and negatives. I can use a 5D MK4 or EOS R camera. My lens choices are the  100mm Macro, version 1 or the Macro setting on a 24-70 F4 L lens, version 2. Assuming no other available equipment other than a sturdy tripod, what accessories do I need in order to have a successful result assuming properly exposed and sharp shots? I would probably buy everything new, as I do not have the time or inclination to comb used offerings.

I'm already set up to digitize 35-mm. and 120 with my Epson V600.  First, is there anything available for Canon?  I have a D80.  I have a bunch of oddball film formats that need to be digitized, such as 116, 4x3, 126 and 127.  What is available to scan those formats with my D80?

Hey Wade,

Canon manufactured similar extension bellows with slide/negative carriers. Check the B&H Photo Used department or eBay for used units - these products are no longer available. Add a compatible macro lens and light source into the equation and you're good-to-go.

AW

Does anyone know if the Franken setup will work with a Nikon 55mm f3.5 as opposed to a f2.8 lens?

Absolutely. No reason why it shouldn't.

The ES-2 is not directly compatible with a 55/2.8 Micro-Nikkor - not enough extension. I use the longer, 62 mm ES-2 tube with a 52-62 mm filter ring adapter for the extra few millimeters needed.

This article is right on point. I have a Nikon LS-4000 (and 8000) scanner, but they're too large, slow and noisy for my current, mostly digital, needs. I have hundreds of old slides and film strips that need archiving, and a growing bucket list (and shrinking bucket) to compete with that task. I too purchased an used Nikkor 55/2.8, plus a PK-13 extension tube (for 1:1) and Nikon to E-mount adapter. Rather than cobble together a rig with hard-to-get bellows and a rail, I chose a Nikon ES-1, then later the ES-2 film holder. The latter handles both slides and film strips easily. I use an LED=replacement bulb in a desk lamp, but the Bolt macro light is probably better. The rig is solidly screwed together in use, so shutter speed is irrelevant, typically 1/4" at f/5.6. I can do up to 5 rolls/hour without breaking a sweat. Slide images can be used as-is, but negatives require detailed attention for conversion. I have done the conversion manually, but the back end of programs like Vuescan or Silverfast are easier to use and more consistent.

To copy slides with my D500, I use a Nikon PB-6 bellows with a PS-6 slide copier, Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5, and LED light panel.  The DX format throws in a few wrinkles—the camera stage and bellows are removed from the PB-6 because the minimum extension on the PB-6 is too long, and the lens mount stage is reversed.  The lens is mounted on the stage so the stop-down levers continue to work.  A 52 mm filter, without glass, is used to attached the slide copier’s bellows to the lens.  My Frankenstein arrangement is between the camera and the lens stage:  a 12 mm extension tube is attached to the camera, there’s a Nikon BR-2A on the extension tube, and then another glassless 52 mm filter is used between the BR-2A and the threaded flange on the lens stage.  It looks weird, but it works and allows full-frame copying of 35 mm-format film on a DX camera.  I've been using this to copy a number of slides, including Kodachrome slides dating from 1939, using Photoshop to blend multiple exposures of a single slide to expand the dynamic range of the final product when necessary.

Any chance you could post a link to a photo of the rig you're using.  With a cropped sensor Nikon D5100 I'm trying to determine the best way of avoiding too much cost in constructing a system like yours that will work for me.  The Spiratone option seems to be problematic (without some sort of alterations) as it is best suited (out of the box) to a full frame system.  I'd considered buying a Epson 550, but the time it would take to process all the slides I want to convert would make me obsolete before I'd finished...

Thanks!

I've been using a similar setup:  Minolta bellows and slide copier with Minolta Bellows 50mm macro lens with a Fotodiox MD-A mount adapter to attach my Sony a99.  My light source is a 5000K LED light box.  I find the in-camera meter does an excellent job with exposure most of the time.  Brushing and blowing with a bulb suringe cleans up most of the stuff on the slides.  I shoot RAW and post-process with Capture One.  I've thrown a lot of slides out, but have been pleasantly surprised that images often end up looking better than the original Kodachrome and Ektachrome.  With slides dating back to the 1970s, I still have at least several hundred to go, but have finally reached the current century! 

Allan, one thing you didn't comment on was software to process color negatives. How do you do this?

I have an old Nikon bellows unit and attachment to photograph slides. I sold  my old Nikkor 50mm Macro [Micro] lens and bought a Tamron 90mm lens. That required that I build an extension to move the slide holder farther away. It works.

I use a flash to illuminate the slides, with enough ambient light to allow focusing. I find flash to have better color than LEDs.

Hey Charles, 

I didn't talk about color negs because i haven't had any opportunity to try it out - most all of my 35mm color work is transparencies.

I know there's info out there but I personally haven't tried it yet.

AW

Hi Allan,

I also had the notion that this was an idea worth exploring, and built my own device that relies on Omega D negative carriers and accommodates up to 4x5 negatives.  I'm using a Canon 5DSr, and getting very high quality high resolution results.  I have a kickstarter going right now if anyone is interested in learning more  - go to Kickstarter and search for KP3000.

A couple of tips for slide copying: 

LED lights have wildly varying color accuracy.  One small light that's been tested for accuracy and shows good color is the Aputure AL-M9 Amaran.  I use it with external power as the battery life is a concern.  With other lights you can overcome much color accuracy deficiency by creating a custom ICC profile if you have an X-rite iPro 2 with the appropriate i1Profiler software option.  You also need a target IT-8 slide from Wolf Faust or Silverfast.  I use my camera-slide copier setup tethered with Lightroom, and for quick capture I immediately open an unmodified image in Photoshop where I assign the profile I've created with i1Profiler.  I then save the image as a Tiff for later editing.

Thanks.  What is the bottom line?

Hi Allan,

I bought the Plustek OptiFilm 8200i AI film scanner in December 2018. So far, I have scanned 24 rolls from 1981 and 9 rolls from 1982; 1981 should be closed out with about 30 rolls from 1982 remaining. Because of the sheer volume of film to scan, I haven't used Silverfast's software to edit in place; I'll use Lightroom or Photoshop for editing dust and scratches. Looking at images from that far back is history, old friends, former coworkers, family, past pets.

Kodachrome? Oh wow! The scans of Kodachrome 64 from the 8200i are incredible, but I don't have a 42MP DSLR to use for comparison.

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