This is a supplementary article to a video I made over on the YouTube channel, showing my personal workflow when it comes to digitising rolls of film with a DSLR and converting them with Negative Lab Pro v2.2.0 in Adobe Lightroom. If you haven't seen the video, you can check it out below. I will be updating this article, as new and useful information becomes worthy of adding in. The general idea is that you can refer to the the tips, settings and other bits of information as a supplement to the guide I gave in the video.
Equipment I use
As mentioned in the video, the equipment I use may change as time goes on. The below list shows what I used in the video, but I will add amendments or updates if I have started to use something new that I think would make a good alternative or upgrade option. I'll also link some of the products if available as affiliate links. If you choose to use those links it doesn't cost you any more, but helps support the channel and blog with a small commission per purchase. Obviously you may be able to find some of these items cheaper elsewhere, or choose to use something which suits you better; if either is the case, I highly encourage you to do so. Better yet, share your thoughts and own knowledge over on the Pushing Film Discord Server, where I have added a channel for film scanning discussion and advise.
- Camera- I use the Canon 5D MK IV, but you have a lot of freedom here. Higher resolution sensors will allow you to make bigger enlargements if printing is your main aim.
- Lens - I use the Canon 100mm Macro L 2.8 lens. I happened to already have this lens since buying it many years ago, but for the purpose of scanning the non-stabilised older version would be better value. Whatever camera brand you use, Macro lenses will generally work best as opposed to extension tubes and such, as they offer inherent advantages when it comes to this application.
- Stand - The Manfrotto 055 with horizontal column has been serving me well for many years. A dedicated copy stand would probably be a better option, if you can justify the cost. I have an older version of the above linked Manfrotto 055. I also use the Manfrotto 410 Geared Head since also buying it years ago for real-estate photography work, and it functions perfectly for making micro adjustments here with macro photohraphy.
- Film Holder - I've tried a few, and still use the Essential Film Holder. I've made a video on the channel reviewing and comparing it, as well as some articles here on the blog.
- Light - In the video I showed the Viltrox L116T, and mentioned some workarounds and tips. I would recommend the larger Raleno LED if you prefer to spend a little more for the advantage of the flat back and rechargeable built in battery.
- Remote Trigger- You don't have to use a wireless one, but I've used wired ones in the past and found that they can still tug at the camera enough to introduce shake when it comes to macro work, so I switched to using this Wireless Trigger instead. There should be alternatives available for other camera brands and models.
- Blower - I use the large size Giottos rocket blower, but there are plenty of other options out there for something similar.
- Gloves - I always recommend using gloves to avoid fingerprints and oils on your film. Low linting Nylon Gloves are better in my experience as opposed to cotton ones, which drop tiny fibres. My favourites are the Ansell 76-200 which I wore in the video, but they're getting a bit hard to find lately.
- Mirror - For aligning your camera with the film holder. Any small flat mirror will work, I just jumped on eBay to find the one I currently use.
Remember, there's a whole world of options you can go with when it comes to all this stuff, but this list is simply what I use for my workflow!
My tips for digitising
These are some of the tips I can give when comes to the actual process of photographing the film (I hope to do some guides for positive film some time down the track). You essentially want to follow the process in the video, and keep some of these tips in mind when exposing.
Reduce dust - Wipe your working surface with a damp cloth or sponge, as well as your film holder, light source and other nearby equipment if they're dusty. This will reduce stray dust floating around and landing on your film. I also use the blower periodically to remove dust from the film while digitising.
Turn off other lights - and close the blinds/curtains of any nearby windows. Basically you want to reduce stray light causing issues. You'll probably get away with ambient room light without much issue, but whatever light you can control, turn it off to isolate you scanning light source as the main one. This will help reduce the chance of stray like hitting the film or holder and creating unwanted reflections.
Emulsion side up - This means photographing the negatives on their non-shiny side. You'll know because everything on the film frame will be mirrored (you simply flip the images horizontally later in Lightroom). By scanning on the emulsion side, you'll capture a little more of the grain itself rather than the shiny film base for a better image. This only makes a small difference generally speaking, so you don't need to bother if you don't want to.
Use the hood - if your lens came with it. Again, to shield from stray light hitting the lens.
Align the camera - Using a mirror on the film holder, align the camera until the reflection of the cameras lens and sensor in Live View shows perfectly in the centre. II ascertain centre by resetting my AF point to the middle, or bringing up the level display on the screen. The image below should give you an idea of what you're looking for.
Border or no? - I sometimes like to intentionally leave the border around the film frames. This can make it a little bit tricker to perfectly position all the frames equally in your live-view, but it isn't too bad if you find it worthwhile. If you crop right into the frame in-camera to have no border captured, you can take an extra frame at the beginning, with some of the blank/transparent part of the film to make the white balancing step in LR (as shown in the video) a little easier. Check out my guide to specifically scanning film with the full border linked at the bottom of this article.
Turn off stabilisation - In the case of my camera and lens, using the Image Stabilisation while the camera is on a tripod, actually results in a softer image. Do your own tests for your system if you like, but since we don't need it for this kind of work, I turn it off.
Manual settings- You can get away with something like aperture priority, but I use Manual mode for more control and consistency. I set my White Balance to Daylight so that it stays the same with every frame, ISO to the the lowest setting on my camera (100), Aperture to somewhere between f5.6-f8 to get sharpness and focus across the frame, and Shutter Speed to whatever I need to create a balanced exposure as shown in the next tip. With the Viltrox light at 100%, this usually ends up being somewhere between 1/8th - 1/30th of a second.
Focus - I usually use the autofocus in Servo mode with back button focus, this way it it doesn't re-focus every time I press the shutter. I set focus on the first frame, and generally leave it for the whole roll or maybe re-grab focus if I think I need to. You can use manual focus too, the idea though is that you set and forget it, and that you are focusing on the film grain itself. Magnifying with live-view helps you check.
Metering - I use the matrix/evaluative metering mode. Following the tips above, open the histogram on your camera and use the shutter speed to adjust your exposure until most the data is spread nicely throughout the histogram, as with the image below:
Notice that the exposure meter here shows a bit of overexposure when following this method, since it is accounting for the bit of border and black edge of the film holder (little chunk of data on the left end of the histogram graph). Keep this in mind when looking at the exposure meter, especially if you leave a significant amount of border.
You don't need to be perfect with metering, and you can just use aperture priority if you like and see how it works for you; allowing the camera to choose the shutter speed for you.
Capture away! - As mentioned in the video, I turn off the image-review in the camera's menu to speed up the process here. I just advance and capture one frame at a time, while keeping an eye on the general exposure. You shouldn't need to really change your exposure from frame to frame, and there it doesn't need to be perfect with every shot. Some frames on your film might be more than a stop or two underexposed though, and you can increase your shutter speed accordingly if you like. If the histogram is showing clipping in the information representing the actual film frame, this is where I usually adjust shutter speed a little.
For this part I use Negative Lab Pro, and at the time of making the video the version I had was 2.2.0. I've found that the software has come a long way and continues to improve with each iteration. It a a bit pricey, but I think it's still the best option on the market and worth it if you scan regularly. I can now count on it to get results that hold up to lab scanners; with more dynamic range as a result of capturing with a modern full frame camera sensor. The colours can really be tweaked to your liking, and they include some nice accompanying LR profiles to fine tune the images post-conversion.
As for going about this process I would refer you to the relevant section of my video, where I show a desktop recording with a voiceover as I go through the process of batch converting an entire roll.
I also plan to do a livestream Q&A while converting negatives using NLP over on the YouTube channel, as a follow up to the initial video and will update this article with a link to that once it's up!
Feel free to ask any specific questions in the comments section here, on the video, or over on the Pushing Film Discord server. Otherwise, I would highly recommend checking out the video guides on the Negative Lab Pro website, as well as the wealth of knowledge being shared on the Forum over there. Just about everything has been covered there or on the NLP Facebook page, and both were key in helping me troubleshoot and tweak my workflow along the way.
Some other articles on my blog related to film scanning:
Related videos on the Pushing Film Youtube channel
Negative Lab Pro review (old version of NLP, I'm hoping to do an updated look!)
Other useful links