Part 2: Digitising film with a camera setup!

The Creative Camera > Digitising Negatives > Part 2: Digitising film with a camera setup!

If you are familiar with this blog you’ll already know that in recent times I have been experimenting with film, film developing and more laterly, trying to get my film negatives into the digital domain. Now, the constraints I have set myself for this experiment has been to use what I have readily around me. I no that to do a professional job I need to spend money but the brief here is to do it with the bits of kit l have easily to hand. If i go down the route of spending money to achieve 1st class results, I will document this with another blog. On y va (let’s go!)

If you have read Part 1 of this blog you will already know that I pursued the scanning route as an easy first option. For these experiments I used an old HP flatbed office scanner and a home made back lighting system to digitise the image to my PC. You can find out how this went by visiting the article here . This second part then is to photograph my negatives using either my Fuji x-t1 or my Nikon D600. Now, I’ve tried various lenses with the x-t1 with the most successful so far being the Fujinon 18-55 f2.8-4 albeit that the magnification of the image is pretty poor as you would expect. That’s primarily because the closest focusing distance is a tad under 12″. Other lenses for the x-t1 that I have tried include the Samyang 12mm f2 and the Viltrox 23mm f1.4, both of which focus closer but the short focal length is tending to cause problems. Before I go on to discuss the inadequacies of these lenses in any more detail, I just want to talk a little about the negatives I am trying to digitise as the quality of these is hugely pertinent to this post.

With regards working with film, in this case Kentmere B&W film, I have noticed several key factors that are going to affect the quility of the digitised results irrespective of the digitising method used. These issues are:

  • The film stock chosen (not all film is created equally)
  • The camera used to capture the images
  • The lighting / exposure associated with the film at time of capture
  • How well the camera focused on the subject at time of capture
  • The quality and consistency of the development process

Developing the film aside for one moment, one of the the bigger problems I have found is that what I thought were good negatives on initial inspection were in fact, incredibly variable across the roll. The biggest factor in this was thinking that my old Pentax SLR was going to behave in the same way to light conditions as my newish Fuji x-t1 digital camera. If I thought that, I certainly need to rethink that now! In addition, I am using a manual camera, the Pentax KM is fully manual, with a manual lens and so nailing bank on exposure and focus, especially with these old eyes, is not as easy as I remember it. I haven’t used this old Pentax KM seriously in about 40 years. As such, it is possible that the Pentax is showing it’s age as much as I am!  The two lenses I have for this camera are a Vivitar 35-70mm f2.8-3.8 zoom and a Pentax 50mm f1.7 pancake. Now, I’m prety sure that these lenses are probably more than acceptable if I have been using them at anything other than f8, which I am pretty sure I have, then I am likely to be on a hiding to nothing with regards image sharpness. For example, trying to use focus peaking on an old SLR is proving somewhat more of a challange for these old eyes than I imagined it would be. This all being said, my concern is that irrespective of the camera and lens setup that I use to digitise the negative, that setup is going to struggle if the base image is poor. More on this later.

Going back now to the lenses I do have access to, while the Samyang has the closest focusing distance of the three, it’s about 9″, it’s really difficult to focus manually especially in a setup where you can’t easily access the viewfinder. The Viltrox 23mm f1.4 has improved on this situation in that it has automatic focusing and is tack sharp at f8 but it’s closest focusing distance is about 11″ so i moving further away from the negative, not getting closer to it. That leaves me with the 18-55mm which has improved on the situation again, especially at f8. The down side to all these lenses is that the shooting speed has been down around 1/4s when I really want to be shooting at 1/30 -1/60 so as to avoid any shutter shake which will undoubtadly make the situation even worse. This is because I really don’t want to push the ISO up, I am using 200 for these experiments, as this will degrade my images. Besides, in order to achieve 1/30s I’d need to increase ISO by 3 stops which would mean an ISO of 1600 and that will mean a degredation of the image and a big injection of noise and that is not something I want to do.

So, given all of this playing around, am I getting anywhere? Well actually yes, I think I am. The results of using the 18-55 @ f8 despite the slow shutter speed produce the best IQ I have managed to achieve so far. Substantially better in fact than the Heath Robinson scanner experments I outlined in my first blog a day or so ago. It’s clear from what i am finding that, irrespective of the quality of the image I am starting with, that using a mirrorless or DSLR camera with a good close focus lens and a suitable, high quality light source and negative holder is going to yield dividends.

The images above are part of a 6 image strip that I have been playing with. I have digitised them using the Fuji x-t1 and 18-55mm setup discussed above. While they do suffer from the shooting defects I have been talking about e.g. poor focus and highly variable lighting conditions, they are better than anything else I have so far managed to digitise. Here’s the gear I used for this experiment.

  • Fujifilm x-t1 mirrorless camera with Fujinon 18-55mm f2.8-4 lens
  • Manfrotto tripod with multi-adjustment ball head
  • Huwaei P20 Pro with a downloaded white backlight app
  • Lomography Digitalizer 35mm Scanning Mask

So, what next? Well, I feel at least that I am on the right track using a camera rather than a scanner to transfer the images from negatves to digital. The problem I have is that it’s becoming clear that I am going to need a decent close focus lens, ideally a 1:1 macro lens. I also need a more robust light source so that I can shoot at higher shutterspeeds as well as maintain f8.  The images above were back lit by my old Huwaei P20 Pro which although doing an admirable job, is not ideal so I need to find a more consistent, high CRI rated light box. Finally, I’d also like to use the Nikon D600 purely because it’s a good quakity 35mm digital camera so the IQ of the image with the right lens should be much better than from the Fuji x-t1. Another reason for wanting to use the D600 is that it is sitting in the cupboard gathering dust so this would give it a new lease of life. Besides, with a decent macro lens it might prompt me to take it out a bit more as it shoots great photos.

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