Using a DSLR to scan Negative film by Stefan Schmidt

Using a DSLR to scan Negative film by Stefan Schmidt

Hi again folks! This is a follow-up article about how I’m using my Canon Eos 5D MkII to shoot backlit slides instead of using an ordinary flatbed scanner. (See previous article HERE) Now I will show you how I go about “scanning” my negative films using the film holder from the flatbed scanner and the light box I nailed together. Shooting the negatives is only half of the story though, the second half is actually developing the negatives to positive pictures and getting a decent result in the end. I have experimented a lot and I will share my workflow with you. That being said, I do not guarantee that my way is the “right” way. I just hope to get you all going!

The Rig:

For those of you who did not read my first article, here is a picture to show you my setup. I have a piece of MDF-board with a slide-projector at one end, a lamp-cover act as a diffuser and finally I have my “box” with the glass from an A4-photoframe inserted into it. In the lower left corner of the picture I have included an image of how the box look when I shoot slides. The white elastic band that is used to keep the slides from falling off the wooden strip is not used when shooting negatives, I just pull it down under the strip.

I use the same settings as for slides, ISO 320 , halogen light WB, Aperture priority and I set the aperture to 4,5. Finally I use a 2 second self-timer and after each shot I have a 2 sec preview. If the negatives have really high contrast like flash-exposures I venture into the menu and reduce contrast but typically I have all settings in there set to neutral. You may notice that I have a lot of small wooden strips and what not under my camera in this shot. That is because my box was designed (yes it’s ugly as hell but I use that word anyway) to be used for slides. The frame holding the negatives are wider in all directions and that makes the negatives end up higher than the slides. That is also why I needed to put a higher piece of wood behind the camera to keep it aligned. Finally I also put some of these strips of wood under the MDF-board in order to raise the end where I sit shooting just a little bit. This way the large film-holder will not topple down on the lens hood. Keep it simple.

You shot the negatives, now it’s time to enter the darkroom and get developing!

Let’s start with Photoshop. I myself use CS5 and by now you will have lots of pictures looking like this in bridge:

When I open a picture the RAW-converter will start. Before I choose to open the picture in photoshop I look at the histogram to see if there is a “burnout” in the black or white end of it. If there is I use exposure to adjust the curves to my liking. I also want the RGB curves to stretch out over as much of the Histogram as possible and I choose this setting for the picture in this example:

When the picture is opened it will still be negative. Press Ctrl + I to invert it (or CMD + I on a mac) and do not panic when it looks like crap! The colors are way out of sync. It will look something like this:

To start fixing this I usually add an adjustment layer with levels in the adjustments tab on the right. Clicking on the adjustment layer open up the ADJUSTMENTS panel and as standard it allows you to set levels for all three RGB-colors at once. Now however, you do not want to do that. You will need to click on the drop down menu and set the levels for Red Green and Blue.

Photoshop has an advantage over Capture one in that it seem to be programmed to “sync” the color-channels and that enables you to get a fairly good result pretty quickly. In the screenshot below you can see an estimation of how the picture is turning out better and better as I go through the channels and trim their levels. At the far left of the image is the altogether blue picture that looks just terrible after I inverted the negative. Notice how tuning each channel increase the quality of the picture. When the final, blue, channel is adjusted the far right of the picture looks pretty natural and we are on our way to get a nice picture.

Please also notice that by moving the middle “handle” under each channels diagram you can fine-tune the color balance of each channel. Now all that remains are repairing the scratches that is evident from the film itself, cropping and maybe reducing some noise with the filter “Despeckle”. Of course this can be tedious to do with each picture, that’s why I try it out on one picture and when I’m satisfied I go to the HISTORY-panel and click on the top action that is opening the picture. Then I click the ACTIONS tab and in that panel I click the icon next to the waste bin to “Create a new action”. I name the macro I’m about to record “Kodak negatives 100 iso”, for example, and redo the steps above on the channels adding the despeckle-filter and maybe even the crop. When I’m finished I stop recording, load up another set of pictures and apply the macro onto each of them. That saves a ton of work!

As different films have a different character and base color I have built myself a small library of actions for different brands and iso. Very handy to have.

In this example I had a small blue tone that was hard to get rid of, I finally solved that by adding a warm standard photo filter on a new adjustment layer and that hit the spot! I am mostly using levels but there is an adjustment layer using curves and that works just as well but I had to choose what I believe to be the easiest way to go about this for the article. I would also like to point out that Photoshop remembers that there is a negative picture as a foundation for the final picture and many tools can go haywire. In those cases, save your picture as a TIFF and load that copy into Photoshop again and you will be all set. No more misbehavior.

Developing negatives using Capture One

I’m not going to cover this in detail as the general idea is the same, I open my picture and after inverting it I begin to work the channels the same way as in Photoshop. (That is partly why I showed that method.) The trick is to invert the picture as Capture One Pro do not have a command or tool for it. I do this by going to the level-tool:

I then pull the black handle to the right and the white handle to the left and the picture is inverted! I am pretty sure you can do the same thing in lightroom but I have not tried it. Your levels-tool will now look like this:

Now you’re ready to work those individual Red Green and Blue channels in the levels-tool. Please note that Capture One really turns on it’s head a little when working with negatives like this. After inverting the picture all controls for adjusting light or color is inverted as well. For example, if you increase the light in the image it will turn darker! Just as it does in an old-school darkroom. The more you exposed the photo paper, the darker it got when it was developed. Call me crazy but I actually get a little nostalgic when my computer all of a sudden behaves like my old analog darkroom. (Except for the smell.)

Some of you will not enjoy this 😉 and will therefore be better off by saving your picture as a TIFF as I mentioned above. When you work on that TIFF you will have no problem.

I create development recipes to apply on many pictures in Capture One and they make batch-developing a bunch of images super easy.

Examples of developed pictures from negatives.

As my article comes to an end I would like to show you a few pictures I developed from my negatives.


 That’s me in the middle of the picture above, it was taken 1988 in the Swedish alps. Below is a picture of my wife from around the same time. Kodak film above, Agfa below.

This is shot in Halle Hunneberg in 1989 just before sunset. I was there looking for elk but I did not see any. The film is 200 iso kodak and the negative was somewhat underexposed.

If you have read this far I salute you! Well done! i realize this article got a bit long however I tried to shorten it. I hope this will inspire you people out there to dig out your old favorite negatives and give it a go yourself!

With my best regards

Stefan Schmidt




  1. HI, Thanks for the post! I was just wondering if you set the color balance to tungsten because the light source is tungsten? Or does this have a ‘negative’ color effect when using a 5600K light? Thanks,

    • some d-slrs have an option to create your own (custom) white balance setting (using a special diffuse white lens cap or just a grey card). When you have a fixed source of light and a blanc (that is: orange) image, the combination of those two make up the white balance setting. If you use the custom setting, the setting for tungsten or daylight is overruled automatically.

      If you use slide film and do not want to use the custom white balance setting, I would try to set the white balance according to the source of light for a start, but experimenting can be very rewarding.
      Succes, Kees

      • Thank you for this article:)

        Regarding the white balance and color profiles – profiles like standard, landscape, etc. (RAW workflow), which are not flat, enhance certain colors – in negatives they enhance opposite colors and that doesn’t look good . I discovered that profiling the light source using the ColorChecker gives very good results very quick:)


  2. Thanks!

    I use an pentax belows slide copier on the pentax K-7 (with a P-K adapter). This has the milky white diffussor built in.

    Maybe a tip for photographing color negative film: if there is a blanc image on the film, use that to adjust the white balance settings to. (other type of film: re-adjust). Don’t forget to return the camera to a normal setting when finished.

    For difficult negatives it might be easier to do the rough adjustments from the RAW files, then process to TIFF 16-bit. Then use this new output from capture one as a base to start the fine adjustments.
    A solid state disk in the computer might also be helpfull…

  3. Hi there,
    Getting a lot of grain in my image.
    Iso-100, f 16, shutter- 1/125

    • Hi! Are you sure you have a diffuser for your lightsource? I got some very harsh pictures at first and the grain looked incredibly distinct before I realised I had to put the milky white plastic lampcover between the projector and my box with the negatives and slides.
      I really must stress this! You need to have something that diffuses the light behind your slide or negative. Otherwise it will be as if the grain cast shadows in the emulsion of the film and it will look terrible. If you have ever oversharpened a jpeg picture you must have noticed a “halo”-effect around all contours in the picture. With no lightdiffuser, that is the effect you will get on each grain in the film. You may also need to reduce digital sharpening in your camera.

      Good luck!

  4. You´re making disappear your photographs? At least you´re making ghost copies of your photographs. Your negatives, film, material images are the real RAW. You´re just copy them and turn it into “electric copies”. In a blackout you´ll loose everything.
    Photography is light. Photography is also light catch in a paper (or other surface).
    What is this digital world/electric world of images? Ghosts?
    Paper dies too.
    Am I crazy? Am I a ghost too?

    • Hi! I’m not throwing any pictures or negatives. My purpose from the start was to digitize my favouriteslides and negatives to get them availible for a photobook I’m planning to produce.

  5. Very interesting way of thinking, Stefan. And your tips for color processing seem to work fine.
    Still I wonder about detail and sharpness of the images. Your camera produces 21MP files, which in digital gives incredible detail and sharpness. Of course, when scanning negatives, you’re limited to the grain of the film. But I wonder how big the images really can get, realistically speaking. And how they compare to scanned images with for instance an Epson V750. Can we see larger versions or full size crops of these images somewhere? Isn’t it possible to put them on Flickr?
    Anyway, thanks a lot for your contribution, Stefan. Articles like yours give this site an extra value!

    • Hi!
      I feel that my 5D mk II outresolve the negatives. i can easily see the grain of the film in 100 pixelpeeping view 😉

      • Yeah, I can imagine that. But I’d really like to see how this looks at maximum enlargement. That why I asked if you don’t have (or can put) any cropped image on Flickr… Thanks anyway, for your response.

        • Hi!

          I just opened an account on Flickr to show you how they look. I created an open set so everyone who want to can go there looking for themselves how the pictures are. Just search for “Camerscanned with 5D MkII” on Flickr and you should find the pictures from my articles. Hope that works for you!
          You can also seach for my name Stefan S2012.


    • You’re getting about 4000 real dpi with the 5DII and III and capturing the full dynamic range of the negative. So long as you’re using good technique with a sharp lens at its optimum aperture, no flatbed, even the V750, can match that. Honestly though, there’s not really a practical advantage to this level of resolution if you’re only working with 35mm.

  6. Stefan,
    these have been two amazingly stimulating articles! I have a few boxes of slides that I haven’t sent off to be digitized and a light box. Now I am certain I will play around with my D700 and 105mm Micro lens and see what I can do myself. That’s what I love about this blog –the sharing of ideas!

  7. If your flash will do remote, then you can set this up on the far side of the slide and have a nice predictable light source, and fast shutter speeds

  8. Nice idea if you have the kit and a few negs to scan but quality wise the results are much better even on a cheap PlusTek scanner

    • My scanning experience was about 200 rolls of mostly colour neg over a three year period up to 2003, on a Minolta dual scan (still have it, be the scsi interface is long obsolete.)

      For neg’s, with their limited density range, I am not so sure a cheap scanner gives better results than a D-SLR. The killer for me was time. You can set up a D-SLR and scan a roll in about 20 minutes easily, and additional rolls in about 10min. Dedicated scanners take forever.

      If you find that one killer shot, that you want to print to it’s limits, you can get single images professionaly scanned and still be ahead in my opinion.

    • I work in a small camera store and we digitize thousands upon thousands of slides, negatives, and prints every year. In the film era we did good business producing copy negs and slide dupes, and the like, but once digital came to dominate the consumer photo industry all of our old copy equipment sat and gathered dust. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after plodding along with various scanners, that we realized that possibly replacing our old film bodies with a DSLR might be acceptable for consumer work. To our surprise, this setup was at least as good as the best dedicated consumer film scanners, but also much faster and more flexible. I’ve compared this setup with the nicer Plustek scanners and while the Plusteks might maintain a slight edge in some situations, as a whole, the DSLR copy-rig is much quicker, works with any size of film, and the files hold up better to extreme manipulations. Compared to flatbed scanners, even the Epson V750, it’s no contest, especially with 35mm negs and slides. The only caveat to all of this, is that obviously there’s no digital ICE or any dust reduction software in the mix, so good old fashioned darkroom methods of cleaning negatives and slides is a must. Working this way, I generally average about 100-150 slides per hour start to finish–maybe about half that for negatives–and it turns out to be a very profitable part of our business.

      The only thing I’d mention is that, just as with shooting images in the first place, technique is key with doing this method, and once you’ve worked out the kinks it’s surprisingly efficient.

      • Hi!

        Thank you for commenting! It is interesting to read that you yourself have been using a DSLR to “scan” slides. I agree with you on the retouch-part as well. Dust and scratches must be taken care of manually and I find that especially true on my negatives. On my slides I simply do not get much of either but the negatives are very unforgiving in this department.


  9. Will this technique convince me at last to buy an old film Leica camera?
    I own a 5DMII and macro lenses ,-)
    The problem is that film is disappearing so fast… Kodak, Fuji, etc.

  10. Thanks for the informative article. I have been testing out how to scan colour negative with my camera a few times now, and I get quite a lot of veiling flare (white haze) once I’ve inverted and adjusted RGB levels. I use the LCD screen of my tablet as back lighting (5cm away from the film) and my camera settings are f/7, 1/10 shutter, ISO100. Not exactly sure why this happens, any insight would be helpful.

    • Hi Benny!

      Do you have a lot of surrounding light? If you look at the top picture you´ll see that I do my shooting in a dark eviroment. In the lower left corner of that picture I have put a small image of how I mask the excesslight around a slideframe with a black paper to prevent straylight to illuminate the slide from the front. That will cause a milky, low contrast image. The trick is to keep the film backlit only.

      I hope this will help.

    • A great thing about writing articles and posting them is that you get to learn so much new stuff!

    • Hi Mark!

      Your comment got me thinking… I realized that I get the blue cast in my pictures due to the yellow tone of the negative fimbase-color. This weekend I took out some negatives I had already scanned and shot a blank pice of film. I went into the camera menu and selected the user selected whitebalance-option and pointed the camera to the blank shot as referens. After that I set the WB on top of the camera to user WB mode and viola! The negative looked neutral gray in the live view.
      Then I shot a set of negatives again and this is what I found:

      1. The negative was very clean in color and barely got a blue tinge at all after it was inverted in photshop although the contrast was a bit low. I got a much better starting point!

      2.Looking att the histogram I could easily see that I had gained more tonality in all three (RGB) curves.

      I am not convinced that I will need filtering but I am convinced that trimming your whitebalance as well as contrastsettings will pay off and I will continue my crusade to find the optimal settings for me. I’m glad that you commented!


  11. Nice article Stefan, I am in the process of making a slide/negative holder jig to do the same thing for 35mm and 6x7cm. I was thinking of the colour balance due to invert giving rubbish. This has helped sort it out for me. Thanks.

  12. Hi Stefan,

    I’ve never done this but how far would an auto WB get you after turning the picture from negative to positive? Tweaking RGB channels looks like more of a hit and miss if you’re not familiar with it. The snow picture is an easier one because you know it has to end up being white but I can imagine pictures where getting the color balance right that way can be time consuming.


    • Hi!

      Auto WB will not help you unless you first save the picture like a positive TIFF and open that copy because photoshop will be using the original negative picture when doing it’s magic.

    • Hi again!

      I fiddled a bit more with whitbalance in the camera, please look at my reply below to Marks comment.

  13. Inspiring article.

    More details on the actual hardware setup would be good. I mean, what is the size of the mdf, and how does the projected light get through it? How does a lamp cover act as a diffuser – surely a lamp cover is solid?

    • Hi!

      If you look at the top picture you see that the MDF-board is just a 150 cm long board of wood. A kitchentable would work just as well (although my wife disagrees on that one). In the basement I have fluorescent light in the ceiling and those have a long milky white plastic cover (looks a little like frosted glass). When I go into the basement to shoot some negatives I just pull down that cover from a lamp and place it between the slideprojector and the box where I put my negativeholder and it difuses the light very well. In fact, that’s the purpose of the cover to begin with since fluorescent light can be very harsh. I hope that helps.


  14. Nice work Stefan. I’m glad to see this followup to your first article on slides. For color balancing of negatives, I use Colorperfect from CF Systems. It has a database of hundreds of films, taking a lot of time and guesswork out of the workflow. There is a trial version with watermark so you can see if it performs to your expectations.

    • Hi!

      That’s a great tip! I was almost heading for bed but I guess this will turn out to be an “allnighter” now…


        • Hi!

          I haven’t more that scratched the surface yet. I had some problem with getting the colors I wanted in my first tries but I will probably get there. I just found this thorough description on how to work it:

          It got so late that I did not have time to try it out though but I will! I´m also looking into getting a bluefilter for my old cokin-filterholder. I’m planning some experimenting in other words 🙂

  15. Wow, that is extremely impressive and innovative makes the neg pics look like they were taken only yesterday!
    Stefan you might be onto something big here!

  16. Most excellent post, Stefan. The screenshots are especially helpful and it was exciting to see how final your images turned out. Good job! Thanks!

  17. When you say Swedish Alps you actually mean Swiss Alps? The Alps are between Italy, Switzerland, Austria and France…

    • The Alps is not a registered trade mark. Here are some Swedish alps.:

      “I Sverige tillhör skidresor som skidresor till Åre, Sälen, Idre eller vaför inte Branäs de mest populära skidresorna, de ”svenska alperna”.”

      • Indeed, in New Zealand we have out “Southern Alps” also…..:-)

        Great post, I will also be giving this a try at some point.

        Cheers, Jason.

      • Maybe you are right but you should complain with Wikipedia (and other thousands of encyclopedia…)

        Alperna är en bergskedja i Centraleuropa. Den sträcker sig från området kring Nice och Genua vid Medelhavet, norrut mot Schweiz och sedan österut mot Wien. De länder som helt eller delvis ytmässigt utgörs av Alperna är Frankrike, Italien, Schweiz, Liechtenstein, Tyskland, Österrike och Slovenien.

        “The Alps, one of the great mountain range systems of Europe, stretch approximately 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) across eight Alpine countries from Austria and Slovenia in the east, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, France to the west and Italy and Monaco to the south.[1] The Alps were formed over hundreds of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided; the extreme compression caused by the event resulted in marine sedimentation rising and folding into high mountain peaks such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Mont Blanc spans the French–Italian border, and at 4,810.45 m (15,782 ft) is the highest mountain in the Alps. The Alpine region area contains many peaks higher than 4,000 m (13,123 ft), known as the “four-thousanders”.

    • Hi!

      As Christer says, we have lots of mountains and mountainranges in northern Sweden, this particular shot was taken in “Sälen”. A lot of people who enjoy trekking, iceclimbing, skiing and fishing etc visit the Swedish alps every year. The autums are absolutely spectacular and might remind you Canada if you have been there. Since we have some very large mountainrivers a lot of people like to go rafting och canoing as well. Also, many photographers like to visit the Sami people that are a native nomad people that herd deer in the mountains and live their tents (looks like american indian tipis). Åre is another popular skiresort and they have hosted the olympic wintergames. Sweden is 1800 km (or 2880 english miles) from south to north and there is just SO much to see.

      • Sorry to be pedantic, but the relationship miles to kilometers is the other way round. One mile is about 1,6 km.

        Wikipedia states that Sweden is 1572 km “high”, which is a bit less than one thousand miles, not almost three thousand miles.

        Still, there is a lot so see. 😉

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