Let’s talk about how to get the best results when scanning film negatives outside of a professional photo lab.
The resurgence of shooting on film has dominated the photography and filmmaking conversation in the past five years. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon-regardless of prices or limited supply. If anything, that probably adds to its allure. That’s why it is more important than ever to the proper method for scanning film negatives.
Let’s say you get your hands on an old 35mm camera or medium format camera. You send your film to the lab. What’s next?
Film labs will most likely have the option to scan the negatives for you, and they will then send you the photos in a downloadable folder at a resolution of your choosing (the higher the resolution, the higher the cost).
If you opt out of scanning at the lab (I usually do), you can scan them at home once you receive the negative back from the lab. It’s a huge cost-saving measure in what can be a very expensive endeavor shooting on film. Let’s dive in for the key considerations when scanning your film negatives at home.
1. Buying a New Scanner
At-home scanners are still available on various sites with a plethora of options to choose from. Whether it’s buying an old Noritsu, a newer Epson model, or using a mirrorless/DSLR camera, there are plenty of ways to convert your negatives into digital files.
There are also programs to check out that help you scan, convert the negatives, and edit the photos. Let’s dive into a number of tutorials from the photographers leading this space on YouTube.
The first and probably easiest option is to buy a scanner online. Surprisingly enough, there are still new Epson scanners available for cheap, allowing you to plug right into your computer and start scanning.
Most of these Epson scanners come with a software download included, so you’ll need to look out for that once you start setting it up. These scanners come with film holders for 35mm and medium format. These holders allow you to place the negatives right on top in their allotted slot, which you will then place down on the scanning bed.
From here, you can choose how you want to scan the film negative—you can add warmth and contrast, and tweak the highlights and shadows. It’s almost like pre-editing the photo. You will have a live view of the image before scanning the negative.
You can also choose the size you want the image to be. By selecting the DPI (dots per inch), you determine the image’s overall quality and file size. The larger the file size you wish to scan, the longer it will take to scan your negative.
Here is a list of some of the best and cheapest scanner options to consider:
- Epson V600 (the best option) – $299
- Epson V850 (most expensive) – $1299
- Plustek OpticFilm135i Scanner – $399
2. Using Your Mirrorless Camera
A relatively newer way of scanning film negatives is with your digital mirrorless or DSLR camera. The “how” is pretty simple:
- Position your camera above the negatives on a light bed (or an iPad).
- Take a photo.
- Then, convert the image in Photoshop, Lightroom, or a photo editing program.
You might be wondering, what about lens distortion and focal lengths? How do you ensure the cleanest photo/scan for your negative? The general rule of thumb is that you need a macro lens to shoot in relatively low light to avoid unwanted leaks and noise from your camera.
The best part is there are products designed to help us with this process. A new company called Negative Supply created stands to mount your camera, with a negative film holder allowing you to streamline this scanning process in the simplest way possible.
I haven’t personally used one of these setups, but it’s on my bucket list because I’m tired of my scanner taking up so much space on my desk. The whole process just seems so streamlined. You can check out various gear packages to see what looks best for you.
Check out Negative Supply Here.
Film photographer and filmmaker Brae Hunziker recently published a guide on how to use their products, and it’s one of the most thorough walkthroughs on scanning film available. Check it out below.
In my opinion, this is the best way to scan your negatives. I’d be willing to bet if you are just now getting into film photography, you might already be in the photography space. This would offset the cost of having to buy a bulky new scanner and the software that you’ll be required to use.
Also, before we move on, I just want to say you can use a tripod with your digital camera, and lay your negatives over an iPad or light panel with the brightness turned up.
3. Software You Can Use
There are two ways to approach scanning film negatives. First, use scanning-specific programs like the Epson software included with your scanner. There are even programs that are compatible with specific scanners (like the ones listed above) such as SIlverfast.
Silverfast is software that gives you more control over the image before you scan it.
The software includes film stock-specific profiles to ensure you’re scanning in the correct color space. You can even fine-tune it to fit a specific stock speed. You also have more control over the individual elements of the image, like controlling exposure, saturation, contrast, etc.
Perhaps the best part of using software like this is the inclusion of tools like “Dust Removal,” which finds dust, hairs, and whatever else might be lying on top of the negative once you place it in the film holder. Dirty negatives are inevitable when it comes to home scanning, and this little feature in Silverfast remedies that instantly. You can try out Silverfast for free here.
Check out photographer and YouTuber Nick Carver’s tutorial on using Silverfast with Epson scanners below:
Negative Lab Pro
The second option for scanning film negatives and editing is the program Negative Lab Pro.
Now, this program is specifically designed for use once you’ve scanned or photographed your negative without converting it. By this, I mean if you’re using an Epson scanner, you can scan the negative as is (not converting it to a positive) and then take that negative image and bring it into Negative Lab Pro.
This program is meant to invert the negative while allowing you to assign a specific color profile based on Film Stocks, similar to what I described in SilverFast. Negative Lab Pro is a plugin for Lightroom that allows you to stay in Lightroom for the entire editing process.
This is where Negative Lab Pro shines. Not only are the conversion profiles beautiful and accurate to the film stock’s color, but the ease of staying in Lightroom for the entire post-production process truly can’t be beaten.
Many photographers use Negative Lab Pro, which also uses tools like Negative Supply. After all, when you take a photo of your negative with a camera, you’re going to get a negative image that needs to be inverted, so it just makes sense if you’re not using scanning software.
Film photography is the best, and while it may seem like a significant barrier to entry it’s all worth it. There’s nothing better than getting your film back and seeing those images for the first time. Good luck shooting out there, and remember to try and have fun!
Cover image via PintoArt.
For more on film photography, check out these articles:
- Is Buying a $1,000+ Point-and-Shoot Film Camera Worth It?
- Video Tutorial: 5 Simple Tips for Shooting Instant Film
- Film Stock 101: The Cinematic Magic of CineStill 800T Photography