What is the best way to digitise film photos?

By Geoff Harris

If you have a box of old film prints in the garage or loft, here’s how to drag them into the digital age

With the lockdown looking likely to remain in place for quite some time, keen amateur photographers can react in two ways. One, bemoan the restrictions and how they’ve ruined your photography plans for the year, not to mention any commercial opportunities to sell pictures or socialise at the camera club. Two, and this is the most productive option, to accept the things you cannot change and try and put all that free time to good use – sorting out your photo archive, for instance.

Many readers will still have a lot of old film prints and negatives that they have been put off digitising for a while. They could be personal images, images from a professional career, or just family snaps with sentimental value. Whatever, now’s the time to get them on the computer so they can be shared and enjoyed online for many more years to come. But what are the options?

Film scanners

This seems the most obvious path, but as with printers, you very much get what you pay for. The Epson Perfection V series is a good starting point for around £200 to £250. Be wary of cheap alternatives from less well-known names; you need a unit offering high resolution, higher Dmax (image density / greater shadow detail) and good sharpness.

Here’s a very important tip. Don’t assume that the highest resolution offered by the scanner will generate the highest-quality scans. The higher the resolution, the longer the image will take to scan and the bigger it will be – but sometimes bigger will not always be better in terms of quality. So you need to experiment with the settings. Another big advantage of buying a decent dedicated film scanner is that will usually have holders for most film formats, which greatly reduces the amount of faff.

Digital cameras

Presumably many readers will already own a digital camera with a decent sensor resolution, so why not just use that? This can work really well, but before you get too excited, it’s not just a question of putting film prints on a sheet of white paper and snapping away.

First, you’ll need to illuminate the negative from below with a light source, but you can use an iPad or similar tablet, or an LED panel or light box. Then, you will need something to hold the camera directly and firmly in place above the film image. You may be able to get away with a tripod, but to save time and frustration, a copy stand, such as Negative Supply’s ‘Pro Riser,’ is a better choice. Or you could try using an enlarger if you have one.

The other big challenge is keeping negatives flat. Try the great value Pixl-latr which costs £39.99. It uses an ingenious series of gates to hold the negatives in place (135, 120, up to 4x5 inches).

If you want something more heavy duty, try Negative Supply’s 135 and 120 film carriers. Once that is all sorted out, you can get away with using most mirrorless or DSLR cameras released over the last 10 years, whether full-frame or APS-C sensor; you will need a good-quality macro lens, however, rather than a cheaper zoom. A 90mm macro lens offering 1:1 image magnification is ideal, or macro extension tubes offering 1:1 image magnification.

Getting ready to scan

The first step is to ensure the images to be scanned are as clean as possible, so blow away dust or fluff using an air blower. In terms of camera settings, it depends on your camera and lens, but an aperture of around f/5.6 is a good starting point: too wide and you will lose depth of field and possibly sharpness towards the corners.

Keep the ISO relatively low too, to avoid noise, and make use of manual focussing aids like Focus Peaking. You can use AF but it might get fiddly. The faster the shutter speed the better, but the original image isn’t going anywhere so don’t go over 1/500th a second or something, as you might underexpose, or increase the ISO for no real benefit.

Using software

It has to be said, a lot of film scanner software is not particularly good, and might not run very well (if it all) on very new computer operating systems. Try third-party software tools such as SilverFast and VueScan, or the Lightroom plugin Negative Lab Pro, which you can try before you buy.

Once the film image is scanned, you can edit It in the normal way – or more accurately, according to your creative intent. You might want a very ‘pure’ digital scan of the original, you might want to fix creases or tears or you might want to do something quite radical, like hand colouring.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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