Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How to scan film negatives or slides without a film scanner

In today's world of digital media, developing film at home comes with one giant question -- how do I get it into the computer?

Obviously, if you're also creating prints in the darkroom, this isn't a complicated project. Any flatbed scanner can import a nice 8x10 print for display on the web. However, I don't have a good dark room or an enlarger, so I thought, why not just scan the negatives. Once they're digitized I can either print them with my photo printer or upload them to the web.

I was in a hurry to display the results of my instant coffee experiment, so the first way I digitized my negatives was to tilt my softbox toward the ceiling, lay the negatives across them, and then take macro photos of them. That resulted in something that looked similar to an iPhone Instagram or Hipstamatic photo.


It's got a "look," but the texture of the softbox fabric shows through the negative and a photo taken with $1000 of camera equipment is reduced to looking like it was made with a crappy camera phone.

I decided that scanning was a must.

If you've never attempted it, laying a 35mm negative on a flatbed and just hitting scan doesn't work. I read in various places across the internet that the negatives need to be off the glass and to have a backlight. All I had was a cheap Canon Pixma MP495 3-in-1 Printer/Scanner/Copier and both of those things proved problematic.

First off, raising the negatives didn't work. I tried using a metal bracket and clothespins clipped onto the film, but the cheap flatbed scanner on my 3-in-1 only focuses on the glass. Creating a film holder to raise the negatives just made them blurry. That was out.

Then, adding any backlight at all overpowered the scanner creating a huge white area. I kept moving the light further and further away or to the side, which was still producing terrible results. Then I thought, instead of moving the light, why not diffuse it with some of the printer paper sticking out of the back of this machine? I started with a couple sheets but found I had to use quite a stack before my scans started coming out with the correct exposure.

Super ghetto 35mm negative scanning

With around 25 sheets of paper and a light sitting on top of my film, I finally had recognizable images appearing on my computer screen. Then came the next issue -- resolution. I had never worried about my scanner resolution before because I had only used it to scan forms or make an occasional copy of a receipt or document.

The Canon Pixma MP495 literature touts 1200 x 2400 dpi. (That's pretty dismal considering the current CanoScan 9000F photo scanner has an optical resolution of 9600 x 9600 dpi.) The MP495 scanner will not scan at a setting higher than 600 dpi. Generally, 300 dpi is print resolution. Therefore, if I got a good scan of a 35mm negative at 600 dpi, I would only be able to print it at roughly twice the size of the negative -- you can forget going 4x6 or 8x10!

At the full 600 dpi resolution, here's the best scan I could get.

Scanner Fail

(Ignore the water spots on the negatives. That's my fault for washing them with tap water instead of distilled water. I've since re-washed them and resolved that problem.)

In conclusion, there's good news and there's bad news. If you have a flatbed scanner with no film-scanning attachments, yes, you can still scan your negatives by placing them under a stack of printer paper and setting a light on top. Just add or remove paper from the stack until you get the proper exposure when you scan. However, your results will be limited by the resolution of your scanner.
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