Tag: digitizing film

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Digitising Film | The final solution – almost!

Digitising Film | The final solution – almost!

Over the past week or two I’ve been experimenting with ways of capturing digital images directly from film negatives. I’ve been trying to do this as cheaply as possible by using as much of the gear as I have to hand to keep costs down. I’ve already created a couple of posts on this topic and you’ll find these in the March archives if you want to understand more about this journey. So as not to duplicate what I’ve already written, I’ll just tell you that the most successful method I’ve found to date is to use a digital camera and a scanning mask. Now in fairness, you can pretty much stop there as this method really does work and the total cost, given that I already have the camera and lens, was just £32 for the scanning mask (including delivery). This ultra cheap method simply requires a decent lens, close focusing or macro if you have one, the scanning mask, this holds the film flat, and a window for the light source, ideally north facing as you need flat light for this job. This remarkably simple setup captures negatives quickly and accurately although you will need to do some basic post-processing on the captured images e.g. inversion, cropping, basic adjustments to exposure, whites and blacks etc.

The process is simplicity itself, just set the camera on auto focus, although manual works equally well, choose a shutter speed of at least 1/60s and set ISO to 200 or lower. That’s it really. Hit the shutter and you have your digital image in camera. With regards the light, a flat grey day is ideal for this job and you need to make sure that there’s no trees or buildings in the frame else they’ll show on the digital image. A perfect day for this job is a rainy, grey day where there’s no direct sun. North facing windows are perfect but this window is west facing and works equally well.

North windows provide ideal flat light. This window is west facing but on a grey day, it works just as well.
Holding the negatives against a flat light allows you to photograph them with relative ease using a tripod

Another approach that works well is to use your camera and lens with a light box, flash head, trigger and tripod. I made a simple light box from an A4 cardboard documents box with a lid. I cut a rectangular hole in the side, into which I pushed the flash head, a rectangular hole in the center of the top slightly bigger than a 35mm negative i.e. 45mm x 34mm works well. With the flash head pushed inside the box, I had already lined this with some silver foil to bounce the light around, I placed a piece of white paper under the flash head curving up the opposite side,somewhat like an infinity wall as found in a studio. I then popped a diffuser on the flash head. With that all done I set the flash power to 1/64 and, as the flash head is adjustable, I set the ISO to 100 and zoom to 14mm to help spread the light. On test, this setup was perfect for backlighting the negative.

My current digital setup. The flash head can just be seen protruding into the light box.

Moving on to the camera, I found that autofocus was problematic so I set the camera to manual focus. The next problem is that without any useful light on the negative surface, focusing was hit and miss despite focus peaking being available. An easy fix is to have a suitable light available to iilluminate the film surface but as I didn’t have one handy, I simply changed the shutter speed from 1/125s (set for the flash) to something really slow like 2s (this is good at night) or Auto if during the day. This lights up the scene allowing accurate focus to be set (using focus peaking) right on the plane of the film. You should also ensure that the mask is dead centre of your lens. Once set, I simply changed the shutter speed back to 1/125s and activated the shutter. The satisfying flash tells you the job’s done. Slide to the next frame and repeat. Here are some examples of images captured using this setup but please bear in mind that the resolution of these images is very poor because of the lens I was using. The best physical size I could create with this technique was 1080 x 760 and of course, dispaying on the web doesn’t help with quality as these are only 72dpi. However if you read on you’ll see I have some good ideas as to how to hugely improve focus, resolution and size and therefore capture the (almost) perfect digitised image.

Low resolution images. Enhancements to my setup will enable me to capture 6000 x 4000 images.

Before discussing “where to next” I just want to say something about converting the digitised images into positive images. I know many out there will be using Photoshop, Capture One or another pricey editor but I have been using On1 PhotoRaw a lot recently. Firstly, It’s a very capable editor and the more I use it the more I like it. It also operates now as a plugin to AffinityPhoto, my other favourite “heavy lifting” photo editor. In fact the two combined are a killer combination matching I would say, Photoshop and Lightroom, albeit Photoshop does have more add-ins and macros. That being said, why on earth would I want to shell out indefinately on a subscription when I bought a perpetual licence of AffinityPhoto and On1 2021 for just £70. On1 also has some really good features, not least image management, presets (and the ability to easily create your own presets) and of course it’s a 1st class editor. If there’s something I can’t do in On1, I simply pop over to Affinity calling On1 as a plugin if I need to in order to finess the final result. For the above images, given that this is purely a test, I created and saved a preset which inverts the negative, crops and levels it, applies a tone curve and then balances the whites, blacks, shadows and highlights. In a second I have my positive image practically finished and all I then need to do to finess it is to push up or pull down exposure or add some contrast and fine tweak the sliders. Getting to the finished image from the film strip takes a few minutes at most.

Having atained some success then with my “Heath Robinson” method of negative film digitising, my next project is to improve on this setup by engineering a more rugged, reliable and accurate light box. Now, I had considered buying a Skier Light box and 35mm mask, about £160 including shipping from Taiwan, but I’m finding that the flash method I am using is working OK albeit that I need to better control negative position and focus. For example, I need to be able to position the scanning mask much more accurately over the cutout so that every image is the same and is always in perfect focus. I also need to be able to capture a bigger image. At the moment I’m using the Fuji x-t1 with an 18-55 f2.8-4. This is capturing an image considerably smaller than what I ideally need due to the fact that this lens is not close focusing or a macro lens. With these points in mind I have purchased the Nikon 105mm f2.8 AF-S D which I intend to use with my Nikon D600 full frame camera. This will give me a full size 1:1 image reducing the need to edit every frame, especially if I engineer the positioning of the negative accurately. The 1:1 ratio will also produce a digital image with maximum detail and resolution. It’s not a cheap solution, £195 on Ebay, but it the best solution for my needs. To improve the light box, I’ve just purchased a wooden box from Amazon, this cost £14, to which I will fix an indexed runner that the Lomography Digitaliser will move against. This will ensure much more accurate positioning of the scanning mask and negative over the cutout in the box lid. While I recognise that the scanning mask is a weak link, and indeed, I have found a much better solution which costs £90, I’m going to stick with my solution for a while to try it out. If I need to upgrade, I know where to go.

That’s about it for now folks. Take care.

Digitising Film | Natural window backlight vs Huawei P20 Pro Backlight

Digitising Film | Natural window backlight vs Huawei P20 Pro Backlight

As I get more and more into using film again, I am learning something new every day. Today, I was trying to digitise some Ilford FP4 film negatives that i had taken yesterday and I was using my Lomography Digitalize 35mm Scanning Mask to hold the film strip over a white screen app on my Huawei P20 Pro. Now, the white light from the Huawei app looks very clean although of course, I knew that there are going to be some issues with colour as it’s unlikely that it’s a high CRI index and besides, I could see some magenta in the digitised images. What I didn’t expect was to be able to capture the actual screen structure, this looks like a patchwork of brush strokes, which was bleeding through the film negative and being captured by my camera. The easiest way to explain this is to show you a zoomed in area of the image, this is 500% zoomed, so that this all makes more sense.

As you can see, the cross hatching obliterates any detail in the image plus it destroys the grain. Now, I hadn’t noticed this previously on other images albeit I was seeing some significant degredation in the image which I put down to camera focusing issues when I took the image. Perhaps not! Now I realise that it is the Huawei that is injecting these artifacts into the image I can start thinking about ways to overcome this. The easiest and cheapest way to create a backlight, although not necessarily the most efficient way, is to use natural light through a window. Now, to get ths perfectly right we are going to need a very flat grey backlight or at the very least, non direct sunlight. That’s not always easy of course, although with the dull weather we have been having here in the UK recently, it’s probably a little easier for us. So, having had a few goes, this next shot, again zoomed in at 500%, is using natural window light to backlight the negatives. The difference is quite stark, far less interference with the base image so more detail.

Where’s this is leading me I dont know to be honest but it’s certainly taking me away from using Huawei P20 Pro as a backlight. I could knife and fork something together to hold my Lomography digitalizer and film against the window and then set up my camera and tripod to capture this this but I don’t feel that this is an ideal solution. I’ll be thinking about this a lot over the next few days so join me again then.

Part 2: Digitising film with a camera setup!

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.

Part 1: Digitising film with an office scanner

Part 1: Digitising film with an office scanner

According to Wikipedia, William Heath Robinson was an English cartoonist, illustrator and artist, best known for drawings of whimsically elaborate machines to achieve simple objectives. In the UK, the term “Heath Robinson contraption” gained dictionary recognition around 1912 and became part of popular language during the First World War 1914–1918 as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contrivance. My name isn’t Heath Robinson but I came close today! Here’s the story.

I’ve basically got two incompatible things that need to play nicely together. One is an old HP Office Printer / Scanner and the other is some 35mm Kentmere B&W negatives that I developed a week or so ago. You can read about that experience in another of my recent blogs (check the February 2021 archive).

Now, as everyone knows, a flat bed office scanner doesn’t work particularly well with negatives. That’s because it needs a reflective surface to capture enough light into the sensor to record the item being scanned.  Secondly, most office scanners, especially old ones like mine, can only scan at 600 DPI or, if you’re lucky, 1200 DPI so they are woefully inadequate for scanning small, semi transparent negatives. While for office work, 600 DPI is overkill, for film negatives, colour or B&W, the more resolution you can throw at it the better. To put this in perspective, the Epson Perfection V600 Photo, one of the leading brands of photo / negative scanners available today, can scan at 6400 DPI natively. That’s a huge difference to my measly 1200 DPI maximum and so my Heath Robinson approach to scanning negatives using the HP Envy is never going to procude stellar results. That being said, what I’m after here is simply to be able to view positive images of the film I’ve processed so that I can at least look at them in detail and choose any I want to process further. With regards a long term solution of transferring 35mm film into the digital realm, well, that’s another story!

OK, let’s look at my approach in a little more detail. First up, I made a circular cover, a bit like an old air raid shelter or pig pen, from carboard lined with metallic kitchen foil. The idea was to bounce the light from the scanner arm off the shiny surface and down on to the back of the negative. That was an epic failure in that it simply couldn’t reflect enough of the tiny amount of light on to the back of the negative to be useful. Other approaches I have read about, for example uisng an wedge might do better but I think the amount of light available is always going to be a limiting factor. Into the bin then with that idea!

Second up was my idea of shinning a light from a desk lamp from above down on to the negative. This however tended to create patchy light, strong in some places, weak in others which blew out some frames while leaving others darker. Putting a piece of white paper over the negative to help diffuse the light so there weren’t any hotspots worked but as I was scanning a length of six 35mm images each time, the curl of the negative caused the paper to lift resulting in the scanned image being out of focus in places and still somewhat patchy with regards lighting. I needed something transparent, and heavy, to hold down the negative! Fortunately, I have some LED light panels and these have transparent diffusers ideally suited to this task. One of these was placed directly on top of the negative, curling edges duly negated, and on top of this I put a piece of 80sgm white paper to help diffuse the light still further.  The light source at this stage was still from above. This improved things quite substantially so I thought I’d play around with this idea to see if I could improve on it still further.

The final pieces of the jigsaw finally fell into place once I realised that I could use the white plastic sheet attached to the lid of the scanner as a handy reflector. This is there to put pressure on whatever you are scanning, an A4 sheet of paper for example, in order to hold it flat to the glass. Ths meant repositioning the light to the front of the scanner so that with the lid propped half open (with a pair of scissors), the light illuminated both the paper and the white panel in the lid equally. This had the effect of making the lighting much more uniform across the scanning area. Reversing the plastic sheet with the white paper on top of the negative and the plastic sheet on top of that actually made things worse so I changed back to what I had previously. The final eureka moment came though when I laid the film parallel to the moving scanner bar rather than at 90 degrees to it as I had been doing. This meant that I could reduce the scanning distance; distance equals time taken to scan, plus the light from front to back was more uniform than from side to side.

This final setup seemed to give me the best of all worlds, faster scanning at the higher 1200DPI resolution and more uniform lighting. We should not forget though that this is never going to be a long term film to digital solution, it’s simply great for seeing what I’ve captured in more detail than holding it up to the light. Unfortunately, unless I change the scanner to something better, the quality is still poor!! One thing I do suggest irrespective of anything else, is cleaning all of the surfaces in contact with the film negatives as any marks on any diffusers you may use, or on the glass of the scanner etc will likely appear on your digital image.

One immediate question of course is can this setup be improved to give more acceptable results. I think the answer to this is yes, especially if you have a newer and higher resolution office or photo scanner. I did a bit of surfing on google and newer scanners can routinely scan at 2400 DPI and above. That will definately improve your resulting digital image resolution albeit the actual scan may be slower. The difference between scanning at 600DPI and 1200DPI in my tests was quite considerable visually although you can still see the individual LED tracks (banding) on the digital image. It likely that newer designs of scanning arm now exist too which will remove or at least minimase this effect.

I also think that the paper plays a role in final image quality. I can definately see the structure of the paper on the image, this being caused by both reflection and by the light shining through the paper leaving the paper texture as an overlay. What I need is something translucent with ultrafine grain!! That or somehow remove this from the mix or move it further away from the negative.

Another possible improvement is to change the light source. I was using a small halogen table lamp with a 3″ non-diffused circular screen but if you had say a flat LED panel, especially with a diffuser, I imagine that the light could be made much more uniform and brightness better controlled. A daylight colour bulb would also help as mine is a warm white so white balance is warm when viewing the digitised image.

Finally, holding the 35mm film strip flat using something purpose made would reduce curling of the film and thereby improve focus accuracy. It would also remove the need to use the plastic sheet to hold the negative down. Having looked around on the web, and having failed to secure two going quite cheap on Ebay, I finally circumed and purchased a Lomography Scanning Mask from Speed Digital for £30 which I am awaiting delivery of – see image below. As soon as that arrives, I will repeat this experiment and see how much improvement I get using all of the above enhancements as well as tryout a few other ideas such as using a white screen and photographing the negatives suing my phone and an app such as Google Photo Scan which looks promising.

In the meantime, here are a couple of shots of my test setup. As you can see, all pretty basic stuff.