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Scanning Negatives with your Digital Camera

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This post is part of a series called Film Photography.
A Guide to Russian & Soviet / Former Soviet Cameras
Going Instant: A Guide to Instant Cameras, Film and Photography

Twice a month we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in October, 2009.

This tutorial will show you how to "scan" your film using a Digital SLR. The reason for using a digital camera instead of a film scanner is to save money and ensure that your film is safe. A good film scanner is not cheap, so the investment is only worth it if you scan a lot of film. Your other option would to have your film scanned by a lab, but many people are not comfortable sending off film in the mail.

We're the first to admit that this technique won't give the same quality result as a professional scanner. That said, it's a fantastic idea and a great way to easily convert your negatives to digital images at home.

What you need

Before getting started, it's worth checking that you have everything required for the process:

  • A digital SLR
  • A piece of raised glass, such as a glass coffee table or a picture frame, set on top of books or boxes to raise it up.
  • A piece of glossy photo paper without writing on the back. Generally off brands don't have any writing on the back.
  • An off camera flash or a very bright desk lamp.
  • A tripod.
  • Macro lens recommended but not required.
  • Photoshop or another graphics editing package.

Step 1

First, you will need the glass surface that we will be shooting on. I used a glass coffee table, but a picture frame can be equally useful. To set up the picture frame simply take out the photo and backing to leave the glass and frame. Next, you will need to find something to use as a stand to set the frame on. Try using some books or boxes. The glass will need to be about 1ft. (30cm) high.

Picture FramePicture FramePicture Frame

Step 2

Now that we have our shooting surface, it's time to set up the camera and tripod. The lens you are using will determine how close to the glass you will need to be; if you are using a macro lens you may need to be several feet away, whereas with something like an 18-55mm you may need to be very close. No matter what lens you are using, the goal is to fill as much of the frame with the photo on the film as possible.

The most important step when setting up the camera is making the plane of the digital sensor parallel to the glass surface. The best way to do this is to extend the back leg of the tripod more than the front two, so that the camera is directly over the glass. Beware that if you extend it too much the tripod will become unstable and could fall over!


Step 3

Now you will need a piece of photo paper without any writing on the back. It doesn't need to be a large piece, a 4x6 is fine. Place the photo paper on the glass directly below your camera.

Now place your film on the photo paper. You will probably need to use something to hold it down - two rolls of fill should do the trick. When positioning it, try not to slide the film around as it could cause scratches and damage.


Step 4

For this step, you can use an off-camera flash or a very bright desk lamp. Be careful when using a continuous light as they create a large amount of heat that may damage your film. Place your light under the glass, pointing directly up at the film. If you are using a flash you will need to do some testing to find the right settings. The aim is to have the white photo paper slightly over exposed. I used 1/2 power on my Canon 430EX at about 1ft. away.

You will need to set your camera to the manual mode now. Your aperture is the most important setting for this, it should be around f.7.1. Shutter speed is not quite so vital - somewhere around a 1/10 or 1/20 should work. You should set your ISO as low as possible to reduce any noise or distortion. You're then ready to shoot your film!


Step 5

Open your image in Photoshop. If the photo is not orientated correctly, select Image > Rotate Canvas and make the required change.


Step 6

Duplicate the background layer by pressing Command-J on Mac or Control-J on Windows. This is not necessary, but a good habit to get into so as to preserve the original image.


Step 7

If you are not working with a negative skip this step. With the duplicated layer selected press Command-I on Mac or Control-I on Windows to invert the image.


Step 8

If you are not working on a black and white image, skip this step. Go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate to ensure that your image is black and white and all colour is removed.


Step 9

Select the crop tool and delete all of the measurements at the top.

Crop tool menuCrop tool menuCrop tool menu

Step 10

Drag the crop tool around your photo, but don't worry about lining up the edges perfectly just yet.


Step 11

Align one of the corners of the crop as closely as possible to the corresponding corner of the photo. You can use the arrow keys to nudge it into place.


Step 12

In the center of your crop there is a small circle - the pivot point that the crop rotates around. Click and drag the pivot point to the corner that you aligned in the last step. The pivot point should snap to the corner.

pivot pointpivot pointpivot point

Step 13

Next, we will rotate the crop to line up with the photo. With your mouse, go to one of the neighboring corners of the pivot point and move your mouse just outside of the crop to see a curved arrow. Click and drag until the side between the pivot point and the side you are rotating lines up with the edge of the photo.


Step 14

Now adjust the rest of the crop to fit the photo by clicking and dragging the squares in the middle of the sides. Press enter when you have your crop where you want it. You can then export the image to your favourite photo library application, or send it off to order a few prints!



This technique may not be replacing film scanners any time soon, but it's a great alternative if you don't need to scan large quantities of film. If you'd like to see a few examples of the results it can give, these three images were scanned using the technique:

Have fun, and let us know if you have a similar technique of your own!

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