Ultimate Guide to Digitizing Prints and Negatives

In How-To, Photo Taco Podcast by Jeff Harmon5 Comments

Chris Marquardt talks with Jeff about everything you need to know about digitizing prints and negatives/slides using scanners and cameras.

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Beginning Tips For Digitizing Prints

Chris, a while back you answered a question on your show about digitizing photos that really struck me.  I think at the time I had a few listeners asking a similar question in our Facebook group and this is something I don’t personally have a lot of experience with.  I loved the advice you gave in few minutes on your show and thought it might be good to have you come on Photo Taco and go into more depth on the question. I reached out and you were so kind to agree to be on the show, so thank you for that.  It took a little work to get our schedules to line up but here we are.

The idea of Photo Taco is to dive deeply into a topic, starting with tips and information for photographers closer to the starting end of their photography journey and then building forward to things that might help photographers a bit further down that path.  

With that in mind, what tips and advice do you have for photographers who have a digital camera and let’s assume a basic understanding of exposure for getting started with digitizing old photos or negatives?  Maybe a less expensive approach.

Chris: There are two ways to scan prints.  A flatbed scanner, which is fundamentally different from using a camera.  Then there is a much faster way using your awesome digital camera. So much resolution it works well, can even use a smartphone.

You need a physical setup.  A tripod to hold things still and point the camera straight down.  Be aware of the direction of light. Make sure there aren’t weird reflections.  Could be uneven light too, better to get away from natural light or other light sources.

Can use glass from a picture frame to keep the prints flat since they may want to curl.  Have to be very careful of the light. Use lights sources at 45 degrees on either side of the print, put some lamps there.  Do it in the evening to avoid having extra light reflecting off things like the ceiling.

You also want to go as close as possible with the camera, don’t want to waste any pixels and crop in post.  Fill the frame with the photo. Probably can use auto exposure.

Jeff: What about a tripod that goes straight down then?  A lot of tripods can’t do that, so what do you do then?

Chris: Makeshift setups are fine.  Use a chair, a stack of books. Really anything.  It is about the result and not how you get there. Just make sure the camera is parallel to what you are shooting.

Jeff: What about using some of these small scanners where you can run the photos through them and have them written as JPEG files on a memory card?  How does that compare to using your digital camera?

Chris: Depends on what you really need.  If the goal is an on-screen video/slide show then lower resolution and quicker process in a scanner is fine.  You get much higher resolution with a camera and if you try to scan at a high resolution then it takes a lot longer without actually getting the same resolution you can out of a good camera.

There are many ways to optimize things, but unless you are an archivist doing this professionally as a service then just do a simple setup and get going.  Watch the light, watch the reflections.

Jeff: Could you get away with hand-held instead of a tripod?

Chris: I scanned a 50 page family history book that showed up at a family event and hand-held digitized the entire thing with my smartphone in about 30 minutes.  As long as the light is decent you get really good quality. A good app for your phone that helps automate is called scannable.  Don’t know if it is available on Android.  It corrects angular problems. That might be built into iOS 12 natively now too.

Jeff: The other app I have used is the one from Microsoft called Office Lens.  Does the same thing in finding the edges of the photo and straighten it out.

Chris: The other thing I have is a Fujistu Scansnap scanner.  Fast two-sided scanner that spits out a PDF of the scan in like 2 seconds.  Has a sheet feeder. There is software that can help you digitize photos that way pretty much automatically.  Not as high quality but will get the job done very quickly.

Tips for Digitizing Negatives/Slides

Jeff: What about doing negatives/slides?

Chris: Those are different.  A little tougher problem. Not just scanning, have to overcome technical challenge with them being smaller and so you need better resolution.  Two kinds of scanners, the flatbed with a backlight unit and then specialized pull through scanners that pull a full set of negatives through and scan them.

This takes time.  Scanning a print is about 300dpi.  If we want to scan negatives we are looking at 1500, 2000, 3000, 6000dpi.  Will take much longer with a scanner. Flatbed scanners are not very expensive, like $250 and they come with holders for negatives.

Have to be clean.  Static free. Dust will be huge on a negative.  Scratches on the negatives will be there. Scanners usually have dust/scratch removal software, usually called ICE.  Works really well on color negatives and slides. Doesn’t work with black and white.

Problem with flatbed scanners, they don’t give the resolution that you need.  Might have 7000dpi on the box, but real resolution is about 1500dpi, which is about 5 megapixels from a camera.  Can be good enough for some things for onscreen, but if you want to do a large print then not enough.

Takes a long time with a scanner, like several minutes per negative.  I recommend getting a service to help with large digitization projects with negatives.  Businesses offer it as a service and they will get it done quickly at a very high quality.

Now to the camera method.  It is faster. You get decent resolution.  For that, find a way to point the camera straight down.  I use a copy stand for that, kind of a table with a vertical column coming out of it and a quick release plate mount for the camera.  Puts the camera perfectly straight down.

Then you need some sort of a backlight.  There are $25 LED light tables out there now.  Look for a “tracing” table.  Designed to put a piece of paper on there and trace something but works really well for this.  USB powered, so easy to power. Put your negatives there and take the photos.

Do have to use a macro lens for scanning negatives.  Will give you a full size photo of the negative with a macro lens.  That way if you have a 50 megapixel camera you get a scan of a negative that is that high in resolution.

Jeff: Focal length of a lens?

Chris: I use a 100mm macro because it is the one I have.  Doesn’t really matter. You can use an extension tube with a normal lens and make it into a macro lens.  Not exactly the same image quality out of it, but close enough.

Just get the camera as close as you can to fill the frame.  Try auto exposure, tends to work well. Though you have to be careful with the backlighting behind the negative/slide.  Don’t let your camera exposure be fooled by that light. To fix this you can make a mask. Get some black paper and cut out a hole for a single negative so that you can cover that backlight.

Jeff: What about holding the negative with them wanting to curl.

Chris: Flatbed scanners come with a holder.  There are negative holders out there. I just supported a kickstarter called pixelator.  Not a light source, just a universal holder of negatives/slides.  Like $35 or so. Not a huge investment. Worst case, I have seen people carefully tape the negative down with scotch tape on the backlight.

Jeff: What about negatives getting brittle?

Chris: Negatives that are not older than 80 years ends up being pretty good.  Under a microscope a negative has a base and the emulsion on top. That base is plastic, used to be a nitrocellulose that was kind of explosive and brittle.  The plastics that have been used since the 1950s things should be fine and not too brittle.

Have seen some really old film that was stored in a capsule in a fireproof safe so that the nitrocellulose wouldn’t explode and that was pretty well impossible to digitize our use in any way.  But anything newer is going to be pretty good to work with and not too brittle.

Tips for Failed Digitization Projects

With those tips done, now let’s open it up a bit and talk about anything you might advise differently for photographers who are more experienced.  I am thinking specifically about advice you might have for photographers who may have tried to digitize photos in the past and gave up on the project.  Maybe it was taking too much time or they weren’t getting consistent quality.

Chris: Get going.  If a smartphone is all you have, do that.  If you have a better camera, well the lines are getting really blurred these days because of how good the smartphone cameras are getting at this point.  Light is important. Reflections are important. Then something to post process them.

Depends on the frustration a photographer has run into, but in general don’t overthink things.  Smartphone is pretty good and might be your best bet to making it through a digitization project.  There is a piece of software that takes a picture of a negative and you get a live preview of the inverted photo.  Looks like it is going to be pretty good. Might need a macro lens for your phone. It is called Film Scanner Lite.

Advanced Digitization Tips

Finally, what kind of tips do you have for the more advanced or well seasoned photographers?  Something that might surprise them or help them to be just a little more efficient in taking on a project like this?  Maybe some specific pieces of equipment that are helpful and a bit more expensive? What settings for those shooting manual?

Chris: Lowest ISO possible.  Aperture, with full frame I would go like f/8 to f/10.  Gives you a bit more depth of field in case there is curling.  Image quality of the lenses is best in the middle aperture range.  Then do shutter as needed.

Use live view and turn on the histogram.  Change the shutter speed so that the histogram doesn’t touch the edges.  The smaller the aperture the more you have diffraction that starts to hurt the image quality.

Use a high CRI light source, gives you good color rendition.  Good copy stand, about $300 to $400. Get a dark room, like one with black curtains.  Learn about good exposure. Good white balance.

Have to invert a color negative too.  Not going into too much detail, that is another entire episode.  When you look at a negative you will see the edges are brownish/orangish.  There are these color masks or orange masks that cause a problem. Can’t just invert in Photoshop because you end up with a weird blue tint in the photo.

There is software called color perfect that can do this.  Also a more manual Ps method to make it happen. If that is too involved, then the scanner method is best.  Scanner software has this built in.

Jeff: 50mm macro better than 100?

Chris: No real advantage to anything there.  3rd party lenses are fine.

Digitization Services

What about a photographer who has decided that they like other forms of photography but don’t want to do the digitization project themselves.  Is there a digitization service you can recommend? If not, do you have any tips on what to look for in a service and how you could prepare things so that you have the best chance to have things go well?

Chris: No, I do this myself and haven’t used any of them.  I would check local businesses. Very often they have had to provide a service like this to survive and have to be pretty good at it.

Jeff: Are there any things people should do to protect their photos as you send them off to a service?

Chris: Look into local businesses and you don’t have to ship them off.  If have to be sent out, then send them insured and do a test to see how things go.  Just like I have done for print services to see how they handled printing my photos, do the same here.

New Book and Workshops

Chris, you just recently published a new photography book.  Why don’t you take a couple of minutes and tell the listeners about it?  

Chris:

How about the workshops you offer? What do you have coming up?

Chris:

Besides tipsfromthetopfloor.com, where else can listeners find you and your work?

Chris:  Wide Angle Photography Book by Chris Marquardt: https://tfttf.com/wabook and Chris Marquardt Central: https://chrismarquardt.com/

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Comments

  1. Great topic. I have a decent scanner and the canners method is appealing.

    Any ideas about how to associate data with the photo, more than will fit in a file name, such as names of persons in a group photo. Sometimes I want to name the event, date or a description.

  2. Although I generally use the Camera – I have found PhotoScan App by Google to work really well on IOS. It requires 5 shots, overall and four corners then it stitches the final product.
    Great for on the go or mounted images etc.

  3. A great reference is “Digitizing Your Photographs with Your Camera & Lightroom” by Peter Krough. He covers the topic from end to end. His website is http://www.damuseful.com but books also available on amazon.

  4. For people looking to outsource their digitizing locally as suggested in the podcast, the Association of Professional Photo Organizers (www.appo.org) has a member directory that can help you find a nearby organizer that can take on your scanning project. Yes, I’m a member. 😉

    I second Peter Krogh’s book as a great guide for digitizing yourself with your DSLR. His website links to some videos that show how he uses a copy stand and light table with his camera.

    One more resource to consider is http://www.slidesnappro.com. This company utilizes vintage Kodak slide projectors accompanied by new tech build around it for digitizing slides via a DSLR that’s tethered to the projector. I rented one for 3 days and got over 2200 35mm slides captured. They also are advertising an upcoming product that will scan negatives fast also using the DSLR capture. It’s very expensive but looks interesting.

  5. Pingback: Wet Scanning Developed Film - Master Photography Podcast

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