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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.