Scanning Film Negatives With Your DSLR Camera :: Digital Photo Secrets

Scanning Film Negatives With Your DSLR Camera

by David Peterson 6 comments

It's a digital world. Our books are digital, our visual entertainment is digital, and our pictures are digital. But if you've been taking photos for more than a decade, you probably also have files full of old film negatives that don't fit into the same mold as all of your digital-age images. And if you're like most busy people, you probably haven't done anything with them in years. So the question is, how can you get them out of that old, archaic storage system and into the real world with your other photos? Digitize them, of course! Here's how.

Yes, decent film scanners can be pricey, and services that promise to do the scanning for you are frightening - sending those one-of-a-kind, absolutely cannot be replaced film negatives out into the great unknown via the not-so-trustworthy post office is an act of courage rivalling a 170 foot bungee jump except that on the bungee jump nothing bad is likely to happen!

But don't worry, there is another way. And if you already own a DSLR camera it's 100% free, not to mention free from peril. Best of all, with a little practice and a perfected technique, it can give you better quality, higher resolution results than what you'll probably see in those images that may or may not come back to you from an outside lab. There are other advantages, too, including the freedom to control factors like color and tonal range. Let a lab do this for you, and you may not like the results--and it won't be easy to fix, either.

What You Need

Besides a good DSLR, you will need a macro lens or an extension tube. You will also need some DIY skills, since you'll have to build your own film holder. Never fear, though, film holders can be made out of a number of inexpensive materials, from old toilet paper rolls to shoeboxes.

For a simple version, try taping a slide mount to the end of a toilet paper roll, which is in turn fastened to your extension tube. Or, cut a film-sized hole in the back of a shoebox and place some white paper behind it to help diffuse the light. A hole cut in the top of the box can be used for your light source (an off-camera flash will work well with this kind of set-up).

A good setup from TutsPlus

Alternately, you can bypass the film holder altogether and place your negatives on a plain piece of white photo paper, and then on a glass surface (such as a coffee table). Put your light source under the glass, aimed directly at the negative, and set your camera up on a tripod so that it is pointing down at the negative. This method is a little fiddlier than using a film holder since you will have to carefully reposition each frame on the strip for each shot (you may even need something non-abrasive to hold down the ends of the strip and keep them flat) but it does bypass the need to build something custom in order to digitize your negatives.

How To Do It

Set your camera to the lowest possible ISO - this will prevent additional noise from introducing itself into the scanned images. Now set your shutter speed to 1/125 and your f-stop to somewhere in the f8 range. Most lenses are at their sharpest in this range, and since you are aiming for a final image that is as close to the original as possible, you want to make sure you use your equipment to the best of its ability. Finally, switch to the RAW setting, which gives you as much flexibility as possible in case you need to tweak the final image in post-processing.

If you're copying color negatives, you may also need to set the white balance in your camera to the warmer side (choose incandescent light or just turn it up manually). You may find that the color in the final image requires less manipulation after the fact if you're shooting with this setting, since color film has a brown tint and the incandescent setting will help counter that.

Place your camera with its film holder (if using) on a stable surface. For a light source, you can use a wireless flash or any kind of table top studio equipment positioned so that there is plenty of light shining through the negative. Now switch to manual focus. Since your film will be the same distance from the camera every time you take a shot, you won't need to change the focus once you've set it up, and auto focus will just become an annoyance.

Now zoom in or position your camera so that a single frame of the negative fills up most of the viewfinder. From there you just need to record each frame, moving the film strip through the film holder (or across the photo paper, if you aren't using a holder) as you go.

Post Processing

Your images are likely to require at least some post processing once you've captured them. To turn them into images that are comparable to the ones you take with your digital camera, you'll need to invert colors, which will give you the positive version of the negative image. You will also need to crop each image to remove any unwanted stuff you have outside of the image itself, such as the frame number and the borders (unless of course you want to leave it there to give your final image a retro look).

If you're scanning black and white negatives, the first thing you'll want to do after cropping is desaturate them, that way any unwanted color is removed. If you're working with color negatives you'll probably also need to do some tweaking (the white balance setting in Lightroom, for example, will help you remove color cast).

Honestly, this is not a very practical way to scan a lot of negatives, so you probably aren't going to archive all your images this way. But it's a great way to get those important shots onto a hard disk and/or backed up onto DVD, and in many cases this method produces a comparable image to what you would get if you sent those negatives off to a lab. And you don't have to spring for that expensive negative scanner either, or buy yourself a year of therapy when the lab fails to return those priceless images.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Claude says:

    David. You mentioned having to inverse the colors on negatives in post but you didn't mention how? Is there a simple way of doing this?

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Claude,

      Use an image editing program to inverse your images. I don't show how because each editor does it slightly differently. Look for an 'inverse' or 'invert' menu option.

  2. Paulo Araújo says:

    Hi! I am doing this with lots of slides my deceased father shot in the '50s. Although I am not able to restore the perfect colors (they look more like Instagram stuff after post processing in Lightroom) I am very glad to get it back to life (the slides and, why not, my late father).
    My setup is quite simple: a glasstop dinner table, a D5100 on a tripod on it (facing down, of course) a simple speedlite (Yongnuo) set up with no zoom and low power (1/128) on the floor, facing up, and a sheet of plain white paper as a diffuser in the middle of the path, between the floor and the glass. The table height is about 2 feet 6 inches. The aperture is something about f11, and the shutter speed is about 1/80, but I change this depending on the slide quality, as some are in poor condition. It's working pretty well. If someone needs a picture of everything just email me (

  3. willie geyser says:

    Thankyou for the amazing help you give to us. May you and your family have a wonderfull newyear.

  4. Terri says:

    David, I have several hundred old slide negatives that a now deceased relative of my husband had. They are all b/w. Would this method work with slides as well? I'd love to suprise hubby with some of these old pictures of his aunt's travels.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *