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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Getting Negatives Digital

Recently I have been shooting a reasonable amount of film. This is both as part of a personal project that I started two years ago as well as for the fact that shooting film is fun. I started shooting film back in the early 90’s as a teenager so there is no problem with understanding how to use it. Back then though I had access to darkrooms where I could develop and print the images. At University I had an almost unlimited supply of film and chemicals as well as unhindered access to an excellent darkroom that gave me both black and white development as well as E6 development for transparency film. At that stage the best way to get your film onto a computer - if you needed it there in the first place - was to scan the film on a neg scanner or send it off to a lab where you could get a proper drum scan. A friend and I bought a Nikon Coolscan 5000ED together which I still have and which to this day is still considered the benchmark for desktop scanning (I still sell images through Getty Images of transparencies that were scanned using this scanner).

An image from last year's Composing the Dunes workshop with Natures Light. It was shot using an old Nikon FE2 camera with 40mm f2 Voigtlander lens on Ilford FP4 film

Unfortunately time has moved on and Nikon has not treated it’s loyal customers with the support that they really need. The software for the scanner is all but dead, meaning that users now have to purchase third-party software just to use the scanner. In my case VueScan, which works relatively well. What surprised me was how much my criteria for a scan had moved on in the intervening years. Couple this to the fact that most of the film work I am currently shooting is actually on a Bronica ETRS shooting 120 film, and it became apparent that the Coolscan was not going to cut it. 

My first thought was to purchase a slide duplicator and simply photograph the films that I was shooting. The first problem was again that I was predominantly shooting medium format film and also had a few large format transparencies that I wanted to digitize. The cost of a Coolscan 9000 was simple exorbitant (even if I could find one) and this still didn’t take care of the large format negs that I had. Another option was one of the excellent Epson V series scanners, with the best one’s going all the way up to a sort of quasi wet-scan ability for large format negs and transparencies. Again, cost came into play. As affordable as the Epson scanners are, they are still not particularly cheap. Having scanned a few transparencies on a friend’s scanner a few year’s ago, I was also not necessarily sold on the workflow.

A quick handheld grab-shot of the famous doorway at Namibia's Kolmaskop - shot on Ilford FP4 using a Voigtlander 40mm lens on my trusty Nikon FE2

Then I came across an old article on photographing negatives using nothing more complex than a flash and macro lens. Slowly I started to cobble together my digitizing kit, which ultimately cost me nothing as I used existing equipment that I have collected over the years. First I started with my Nikkor 105mm f2.8 (the older ‘D’ version) and the negatives placed on a glass with a diffused flash firing into them. This worked quite well but I often found myself struggling with plain of focus and the lighting through a flash and diffuser was a bit hit and miss. To get the lighting more accurate I cannibalized an old setobox from a Durst enlarger. The setobox is essentially a rectangular box with semi-reflective innards and a white semi-opaque matt screen that was used to get even lighting onto a negative in the enlarger. This worked brilliantly and allowed me to fire flash through the negative and get even and consistent results. The next piece of kit that I picked up was a donated lightbox that ended up replacing the flash. This made focusing considerably easier. I also used the actual negative carrier from the old enlarger to hold the negatives in place.

As I started to use more and more enlarger cast-offs I decided to even use the lens from an enlarger which has a far better reproduction flatness than a conventional lens. This was married to the camera (a D800) courtesy of an enlarger bellows which I had modified years ago as an impromptu bellows for close-up work. This means I can get far greater than 1:1 reproduction ratio with the field flatness of a reproduction lens. A problem I quickly came across was how much light is bouncing around as a result of the light-box. First I used a  discarded lens hood from an old Sigma zoom lens which acted as a dark tunnel theoretically ensuring less reflectance from the light source. I still didn’t quite get the results I needed and ended up with a home brew solution of toilet rolls. I now get a perfectly dark tunnel so absolutely no light spill to mess up the contrast of the image. A final piece of kit was also an iPhone for it’s level app. I suspect the next step will be to further cannibalise the enlarge and turn it into a copy-stand for the camera. So the setup that I currently use consists of a D800 camera with modified enlarger bellows and a Meopta 50mm f2.8 enlarger lens. The negative is held in a Durst Negative carrier with optical glass and is rested on the setobox which in turn lies on the lightbox. The lens hood rests neatly on the neg carrier and sits comfortably between the the neg and the lens, shielding the lens from oblique light from the lightbox itself.

The basic setup for digitizing negatives. The toilet roll lens hood ensures there is no loss of contrast caused light-spill from the large lightbox.

Setting up is done pretty simply. I first make sure the that the camera and the neg carrier are exactly level using the iPhone and its level. Focusing is done via live-view and zoomed in. I focus on the grain rather than the image at f2.8. I then stop down to f8 to correct for focus error and meter pretty much so that the camera gives an 18% mid-tone exposure (you can fiddle this a little if the development of the film was too little or too much).

To get the most out of the negative size I shoot different sections of each frame in order to stitch them together. This means that for a 6x4,5cm negative I shoot up to 9 frames and get a final stitched image of roughly 13000x9700 pixels (a 126mp image). This doesn’t mean you get the same resolution as a Hasselblad or Phase One with a 100mp back though. A lot of the detail is lost in the grain of the film, but nonetheless there is a lot of detail. Just realise from the start that most film looks slightly soft and grainy when viewed at 100%.

The basic stitch used for a colour 4x5in negative showing an 8 image capture. I could have gotten in closer but 8 images still produced an enormous file of 161mp!
One of the criticisms of this multi-image approach is the time cost. Oddly enough it is faster for me to photograph the negatives in this way than it is to scan and get similar results (not including the post production though). As an example, scanning on my Coolscan 5000 takes approximately 4 minutes per image to get the best possible scan results out of a 35mm transparency. This doesn’t include the time in post to remove dust, any film scratches or to try and mitigate against film grain. Shooting single frame copies of 35mm film takes about 15 minutes for an entire roll of film. If you want to zoom in and double image stitch of a 35mm film will probably double the time spent in camera, and then obviously add some time in post.

Speeding up the digitizing workflow can be done by first creating a contact sheet. This was essential in the days of film. Basically you would lay your negatives on a large piece of paper in the darkroom, place a piece of glass over it and then switch on the darkroom lights for a couple of seconds. The same effect can be recreated by placing the negatives on the lightbox, using a conventional lens and simply photographing them as is. This gives a fantastic overview of all of the negatives so you can decide which ones are worth going through the effort of digitizing.

A basic contact sheet of a set of 6x4,5 negs. Simply put the negative strips on lightbox and photograph them with a simple camera and lens setup - process in lightroom by inverting the curves dialogue (incidentally the scratched film was a result of the worst film spindle I have ever worked with - it taught a valuable lesson on cleaning your darkroom equipment thoroughly after use). 

Once everything is photographed you can ingest your images into lightroom and start the post-production. The first step is to invert the tones so that you are looking at the image as if it were a conventional black and white print. This is easily done by going to the curves panel and inverting the black and white tabs (grab the black point on the left bottom corner and shift it to the top left corner, then grab the white point at the top right corner and bring it down to the bottom right corner). I have turned this into a preset so that when I import black and white negatives I can have this done as the images come into Lightroom.

The next step is to join the images together as a panoramic. Simply select the images of the negative and hit Control+M to bring up the panoramic dialogue. I find the ‘Perpsective’ option works best for these stitches. The basic negative is likely to be quite dull and grey at this point. Nothing like the rich tones that most people associate with good film photography. This is because black and white film actually has a an extraordinarily wide latitude (same as dynamic range). In the past to get more contrast the the negative would be printed onto a ‘harder’ paper. Or, when multigrade paper came out, you would use the appropriate colour filters to increase or decrease the contrast.

Effectively I use Lightroom to create my negative and Photoshop and Silver Efex Pro to do the ‘printing’. Once the stitched image is ready I open it in Photoshop to do the very necessary part of ‘spotting’. Like digital cameras, film often picked up dust and scratches which had to be ‘spotted’ or ‘etched’ out (or if you are digitizing old negs or trannies, the dreaded fungus spider webs). So you have to spend some time removing the muck from the file. This can take some time as you are now working with a 120+ megapixel file. Once this is done I open up the image in Nik’s Silver Efex Pro (which is free!) and tweak the tones to my taste. I have found that the reproduction between films is so consistent that I have been able to create presets for different film types and that pretty much takes care of the image. This is very different to the digitally captured black and whites which I find have to be done on an image by image basis.

The before and after results of inverting the curve in the Lightroom Curves dialogue (admittedly I have also tweaked the black and whites sliders to get the contrast to something similar to a grade 4 or 5 paper in traditional printing parlance).

The final results, I think, are fantastic. I am getting the look of traditional black and white film photography along with the experience of shooting film coupled to the quality and flexibility of digital. Working with film has the definite effect of slowing the workflow down, which is actually a good thing. It goes back to the days where firing a frame cost money, so you thought more about it.

100% pixel view of the header image of this article. The grain is obvious, but this is 400ISO film and enlarged way beyond anything one is likely to print at (quite frankly film grain is a lot less visually jarring than digital noise).

Ultimately there isn’t an argument about film or digital being better than the other. My Nikon D800e seemingly out resolves the film that I am shooting in a 6x4,5 medium format camera (this is not the case for larger format fine-grained film though). Rather it is about process. Photography has become a hobby for me again through shooting and processing film once more. It also doesn’t require robbing a bank to do so. I managed to digitize my films with existing equipment (admittedly I have a nice selection of kit to cobble together a digitizing setup) and create images that I feel are closer to the results from a high-end wet scan process. Even if they aren't, for me the process of traditional photography has given me a hobby aspect to my full time work which I think I needed. Admittedly I'm not sniffing developer and peering through the hazy red glow of a darkroom light, but this has given me what I believe is the best of both worlds.

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