I recently stopped sending out my film for processing and scanning. That raised the question of how to digitize it. I have a dedicated slide scanner, but scanning each frame is time consuming. I purchased an Epson Perfection V550 Photo scanner, which offers quality nearly as good as the Plustek OpticFilm 8200i Ai film scanner while scanning up to twelve frames at a time. However, there were three problems with my Epson-based workflow.
Problems with my flatbed film scanning workflow
First, the depth of field of the scanner is relatively wide, so dust anywhere between the sensor and the backlight appears in the scan. No amount of canned air and microfibre cloth could save me from scans filled with dust. This is no doubt largely due to my pre-war walkup and my penchant for keeping the windows open.
Second, when the EPSON software previews the film, it automatically breaks the previewed image into frames. This is extremely convenient. The problem is that with thin negatives, the software gets confused easily. It’s looking a for a 2mm clear gap between frames, and thin film can provide many opportunities for deciding that a new frame has begun. I’ve also found that the software will decide to crop into frames for reasons unknown to me. Lifting the scanner lid, spraying some canned air, re-seating the film carrier, and re-previewing sometimes fixes that problem.
Third, and most frustratingly, the frame carrier is an unmitigated piece of garbage. It consists of two pieces: a large base and a small insert that covers the film and is intended to keep it flat. The insert does not positively lock onto the base, in part because the base flexes out of the way of the locking tabs. There are no frame dividers, so ached film will bow significantly, causing variation in sharpness and adding barrel distortion.
If the film carrier was not so horrible — if it were designed with a hinge and with frame separators and built from more substantial materials — I would have stuck with the flatbed. I considered designing and 3D printing (and selling) an alternative 35mm film carrier, but life is short, and I had previously read about a compelling new way to digitize film.
When the Nikon D850 came out, a Nikon also announced a new accessory: the ES-2 Film Digitizing Adapter, designed to be used in conjunction with several of Nikon’s macro lenses. The D850 even has a special mode in its firmware for capturing negatives. When I heard about the ES-2 I was intrigued, but it wasn’t yet shipping, I didn’t have one of the three supported lenses, and I was hesitant to buy a D850 to use exclusively for digitizing negatives.
The ES-2 is now shipping. It occurred to me that with the right adapter, I could fit a Nikon lens to one of my Leicas and I’d be off to the races. I purchased the digitizing adapter, along with a used Nikon AF Micro-NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8D lens, cheap at about 380USD —dirty cheap by Leica standards!
For a lens adapter, I purchased a Novoflex F to L mount adapter for about 220USD. I was open-minded about mounting the Nikon lens on either one of my digital Ms or my SL, and the F to L adapter is what B&H had in stock.
I also purchased a light table to deliver sufficient light for illuminating the film. For shooting individual frames, using my computer monitor would have been sufficient, but the light table comes in extremely handy for shooting contact sheets.
The process of using the ES-2 is extremely straightforward. The film carrier has frame dividers and possesses a substantial heft laking in the film carrier of the Epson scanner. Once you’ve adjusted the adapter and the focus on the lens, you can quickly shoot six frames. I set the lens aperture to f8 and the camera’s exposure compensation so that the light through the film base nearly clips, which allows the maximum shadow detail to be extracted from negatives.
After shooting, I take the images off the card and open them in Photoshop. I created an action that converts the image to greyscale, inverts and flips the image, and applies an adjustment curve that represents a sane starting point for further adjustments. I precision crop each image individually, as the slide carrier can shift somewhat in the adapter from frame to frame . I then save each image as a TIFF, which I then add to Lightroom CC.
The D850’s built-in support for shooting negatives with the adapter nagged at me, but upon further investigation, I learned that it saved images as JPEGs, not raw or DNG images.
I have noticed that light can reflect off of the film carrier and lighten the image at the edges of the frame. To counteract this, I am planning to buy a bottle of Black 3.0 when it becomes available and painting the vertical surfaces surrounding the film frames.
Contact sheet workflow
The above process assumes that you either want to digitize every frame you shoot or that you’ve already decided which frames you care about. Clearly, you’ll also want to make contact sheets. I take a page of film protectors, place it on my light table, cover it with a piece of museum glass — to flatten the film and reduce the possibility of glare from incident light — shoot it, and then apply a very similar workflow the one I use for individual frames. Et voila! Contact sheet!
I don’t want to disturb the lens setup for shooting individual frames, so I shoot contact sheets through a Summarit-M 75mm 1:2.4 on my SL via an M to L adapter.
I am extremely happy with the quality of the results this method produces. To my eye, they are superior to the results of either my dedicated film scanner, flatbed film scanner, or the medium resolution TIFF scans provided by my local lab, Color House NYC, which they refer to as “24MB scans,” which corresponds to about 8.5 megapixels.
There isn’t much else to say. I highly recommend trying this workflow.