Scanning Your Negatives
Nothing like a Museum Restoration

Cut and flatten the negatives

So now we start to enter the second half of the process, in which you scan the negatives and digitise them. You need to find somewhere soft where you can safely place the long uncut negative strip down and proceed to cut it. A bed or a sofa is ideal. Get a sheet of negative storage paper for each film you have and a pair of scissors. Make sure you have the strip face up and start from the beginning of the film. You will see frame numbers on the film. Use these to get the strip in the correct orientation. Cut six frames per cut, strating from the first image and put them into the storage paper immediately, to keep them safe.

You may be thinking that a craft knife, cutting mat and cork backed metal ruler would give you a more accurate cut, and you would be right. However, do be careful not to scratch your negatives if you decide to do it that way.

At the end of the strip, you may have up to one frame of unexposed film. Leave it on as it can be useful for white balancing and digital negative inversion.

Once the strip is safely cut up and in the storage paper, place it on a flat, clean surface and put a heavy hardback book on it. If this is your first time developing film, you will naturally be wanting to digitise them as soon as possible so you can have a look. However, I advise storing them for 24 hours first under a large heavy book to fully flatten them. If you don’t do this, you are likely to have trouble getting the negatives flat for a scan, especially if you are following my advice and digitising them with a digital camera.

Digitization - Scaning the negatives

Now you need to use your choice of scanning hardware to digitise your negatives. Here, I will present only my method, which is to use a digital camera. Before you start this process, you will need to prepare you digital camera settings. I suggest the following:

  1. Turn RAW on. You will use the RAW images later on. RAW+JPG is a good choice too.
  2. Turn off image stabilization. This is not needed and may reduce quality.
  3. Optimise the image size. I set it to maximum, which is 4:3 and crop later to the 3:2 ration of 35mm film.
  4. Change exposure and focus to wide area/entire frame. Do not set it to spot.
  5. Enable the macro mode.
  6. Set the aperture to the sharpest for your lens. In practice, this will mean a smaller, but not too small aperture. If you don’t know, use f8.
  7. Set the white balance.
  8. Also make sure the lens and body of the camera is clean.

Note that white balance does not really matter since you will be using RAW images. However, I do a sample-based in-camera white balance using a blank frame. This makes it easier and more enjoyable to view the negatives with the camera during the process. If you have your camera set to RAW+JPG the you will get better JPGs from your camera. If your camera can’t do a manual white balance then set it to coldest for B&W and warmest for colour negatives.

My own modest scanning camera, an Olympus XZ-1, offers a custom preset via a physical control dial. This is very handy to have setup as a scanning preset. When I want to take a contact sheet photo, I simply switch back to aperture-priority on the dial and take a more normal photo (i.e. not in super macro mode).

Now assemble your equipment in one place where you will do the scanning.

  1. Your glass A4 LED lightbox.
  2. Your adapted digital camera with settings adjusted as above.
  3. The sheet of negatives you are going to scan.
  4. Lint free white cotton gloves, absolutely clean. I work with just one gloved hand.

The scanning process is exactly as you would expect it to be. Working with one six frame negative strip at a time, simply wipe it and the lightbox surface clean with your gloved hand, place it in the centre of the light box, place your adapted scanning camera over the frame, centre it and take the photo. Move to the next frame and carry on. Try to keep the image centred in the same place each time. This will make cropping easier during processing.

Note that it is very easy to get dust in the photo and very hard to completely avoid it. Since we are not going to be working in a lab grade clean room, you just have to do your best to have clean negatives for the photo. We will remove some imperfections in the digital darkroom step.

I do not put the negatives immediately back into the storage sheet when scanned. Instead, I leave them on my light box, out of the way of the centre where I do the scanning. Once I have done them all, I rearrange them into a ‘contact sheet’ photo in the correct numerical frame order and then I take a photo of it.

Store the scans

Physical storage

When you have scanned all your negatives and taken a contact sheet photo, you can put them back into their storage sheet and file away to your folder. Make sure you file them in ascending numerical frame order, from top to bottom. This should be the same order that you took of the contact sheet. The general advice is to store them in the dark. To keep your negative album dark, you can fit a flap of thick cloth on the front such that it folds over the top when on a shelf (photo).

Once your digital darkroom work is completed, you can print out the processed contact sheet photo you took and use it to make a nice cover in the storage album. Just pop it into a standard clear document sleeve and put it in front of the correct negative sleeve in your storage album. This makes it nicer to look through and much easier to find a photo that you may want to rescan in the future. If you have filed them in the same position as your contact sheet, then the negative is in the same relative position on the sheet.

Digital storage

Now that your negatives have been safely stored, you can get on with the challenge of digital storage, processing and ultimately publishing your photos. The primary destination for my photos is my network attached storage (NAS) device. Many of you are likely to have one. If you don’t then you can still follow my advice regarding folder structure and ignore the parts about copying files locally on the laptop in darktable.

My preferred folder structure is simple and looks like the below. I’m not saying you have to do it like this. You just need to work consistently and be able to find what you want quickly. if you start just dumping them about with no plan hoping to do it properly later, then I’m willing to bet that you never will. Do it properly from the beginning. Design a folder structure that works for you.

/photos/negatives/colour/ /photos/negatives/black-and-white/

Copy all the digital scans up to the correct directly, including the contact sheet photo. if you have RAW+JPG, copy them both. Darktable can be set to ignore JPGs, which we will do later.

previous: Developing Your Film

next: In The Digital Darkroom

James Burton on 10 August 2017