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Jul 20, 2021

35mm film scan quality & resolution

Old Negatives

I was recently tidying some old negatives and came across some from an overseas trip in 2018. I had the film scanned at a lab in Japan, and looked at the scan of a particular image and thought there was so much going on, but, it was limited by the low resolution of 35mm film and the original scan.

The scene which was captured from the rooftop of a building in Dhaka, Bangladesh had a "Where's Wally" quality about it; teeming with detail and allowing you to look at any particular part of the image and find something. Although the lab scan had nice colours and detail at an overview, it lacked the fine detail when zooming in and areas of the image looked muddy. I was hoping to make a print, so I thought to find the negative frame and re-scan the frame with the setup detailed in my recent guide to see what the potential was. 

Despite having re-scanned negatives in this manner a number of times, I was still pleasantly surprised at the amount of detail actually available in the negative. Simply taking a single image with my 5D MKIV and a macro lens had opened up so much more of the potential of the image. Stitching multiple shots might have produced an even better result, but this was more than enough resolution for an A3+ (13" x 19") print. I used the Essential Film Holder (check out my original article here) which is why you see the full film frame right to the border, whereas the original lab scan cropped into the image. Conversion was made with Negative Lab Pro v2.2 in Lightroom, using the "Linear Deep" profile, and manual white balance by picking a neutral grey from one of the buildings.

Unlocked potential

As I've mentioned before, sometimes a low res or low quality scan is what really holds back some 35mm photos. Sure, 35mm is relatively low resolution when compared to larger formats like 120 so on, but you might be surprised what you can squeeze out of it. A good lens and a scan will allow you to easily make large prints with plenty of detail to get up close and personal.

Check out some cropped insets of the re-scanned frame to see what I mean below! Film was Superia Premium 400, exposed in the Leica M4 with Zeiss Biogon 35mm f2.8 lens.

35mm scan with DSLR and Essential Film Holder
Despite being a 400 ISO film with substantial grain, there was plenty of detail in the scan
35mm scan at high resolution
The DLSR scan also opened up a lot more detail in the shadows, with improved dynamic range over the original Frontier scan

Being a 400 speed film, there is noticeable grain. But despite this, I was very pleased with the result considering it was a handheld shot taken spontaneously! I can only imagine what a medium format frame would have offered here. The following is another example, from a 100 speed film exposed in the Nikon FE in 2017:

35mm frame originally scanned at low resolution on a Frontier SP-3000
35mm high resolution scan
The same frame re-scanned. Ektar 100 at Bondi Beach, Sydney

The above image taken on Kodak Ektar 100 is another example of a "rescued" negative. Although the Voigtlander 40mm lens used here doesn't resolve quite as well as the Zeiss Biogon mentioned previously, you can still see a huge amount of potential compared to the original scan.

So, the main takeaway here is don't dismiss those old scans and negatives- in case there might be some hidden potential in them! When it comes to shooting film, the final stages of scanning and/or printing are where you often get to see the true result of your photography. Small postcard prints and low res scans are generally good for proofing or home albums. But, high quality enlargement is where you really let 35mm negatives shine.

For more on my method, check out the variety of videos and articles I've written on the topic:

The Essential Film Holder; upgrading my DIY film scanning

Guide for Batch Scanning Film with a Digital Camera

Scanning Film with Borders

Essential Film Holder review on Youtube

Thanks for stopping by, and Happy Shooting!