The Digital Darkroom – Digitizing Analogue Film with a Digital Camera

The Digital Darkroom – Digitizing Analogue Film with a Digital Camera

Analogue photography and digital technology in perfect harmony

Introduction

This article is about the excellent method of digitizing analogue film material with a digital camera by simply photographing the negative (or positive). Because of the similarities with classic darkroom work I nicknamed it the “digital darkroom”. The following article should help you to run your own digital darkroom and enjoy the many benefits of the method.

Analogue vs. Digital

If you have the required space, we definitely recommend setting up your own darkroom. Nowadays, even high-end darkroom equipment can be obtained at insanely low prices and making a basic analogue print is not very difficult. The distinct look and feel of analogue photography is – at least from my point of view – best created in the darkroom and not via a digital print.

Reasons for the Digitalization of Analogue Film

We at pantarhei.photography run our own darkroom, but we also utilize digital scans for the following applications:

  • checking sharpness and the overall quality without ordering a relatively expensive contact sheet at a lab or firing up your darkroom for just one print
  • showcasing images on the internet
  • producing relatively cheap (high-quality) digital prints for various applications
  • the convenience of a searchable (and “tagable”) digital archive and the advantage of quickly locating the desired negative strip in our vast analogue archive (via a simple reference system)
  • digitally manipulating the image (for various reasons)

Digitalization with a Digital Camera

For me, the main criteria for choosing the digital darkroom over the manifold other scanning options (e.g. professional drum scan, flatbed scanner, high-quality scanner) is the unique combination of uncompromising image quality together with relatively low costs. I do not want to go into detail about the different other methods and their respective quality, as it has been done very professionally by fellow photographers in the past. Just let me emphasize that a properly done “scan” with a digital camera as described below can rival a top-notch drum scan at a fraction of the cost.

Basic Hardware

  • A Digital camera (capable of taking RAW images) with a high-quality macro lens – the better the camera-lens combination, the better the result
Note: I use an OM-D E-M5 with the superb Olympus M.ZUIKO 60mm 1:2.8 DIGITAL ED to my full satisfaction; I also highly recommend Olympus cameras (OM-D E-M5II and PEN F) with the "High-Resolution Shot" functionality for even better results
  • A Copy stand or a tripod – to mount the camera like an enlarger head
Note: I use a vintage Velbon Mini Tripod or my regular tripod with the column reversed. There is no need to purchase a dedicated copy stand.
  • A Light table

Note: Even lighting across the light table and stable colour temperature of the light source is indispensable, the latter being especially important when digitizing colour negative or colour positive film
  • Anti-Newton glass (to keep the film flat) and/or a negative mask (to avoid ghosting)
Note: I recommend using anti-newton glass inserts from an enlarger in appropriate size (e.g. Kaiser 6x7 spare anti-newton glass for the Kaiser V-System enlargers). In my case properly masking the negative has proven to be almost irrelevant because my lens-camera combination seems to be 100% immune to ghosting caused by stray light
  •  A (Hot-Shoe) Spirit Level – for precise alignment of the camera
  • Exposed Film :-)

Basic Software

  • RAW-Converter
Note: For B&W scans I use RawTherapee, which is a fantastic program 

Optional Software & Hardware (highly recommended for scanning colour negative film)

Note: When digitizing colour negative film, the biggest challenge is to remove the orange mask and properly colour balance the image. After very intensive testing I recommend using ColorPerfect for the job.
  • Colour Test Chart (it8)
Note: For best results a proper it8 target is required as a reference; check out http://www.targets.coloraid.de/ for high quality yet cheap targets 

Optional Software for the best image quality

  • Stitching Software
Note: I use Microsoft Image Composite Editor for stitching; more about stitching read below

Setup

Schematic setup

Clean the film material and the anti-newton glass thoroughly in advance – otherwise you have to remove each dust particle manually during post processing. If you have a big enough bathroom, set your digital darkroom up in there after taking a shower. The humidity reduces dust flying around to a minimum. A dark room is also advantageous for highest possible quality (note that a quick scan can be done in daylight as well without affecting the image quality too much). Make sure that the camera and film are aligned perfectly horizontal to avoid a loss of sharpness due to out-of-focus areas. I further recommend scanning the emulsion side of the film and reverse it in post processing for sharper results.

Basic Camera Settings

Here is the bad news – finding out the best camera settings requires a lot of controlled trial and error. I can give you a few guidelines but there is no way around proper testing. To determine the correct exposure, you have to keep in mind that it depends on the negative density, the digital camera’s dynamic range as well as the camera’s noise performance. Underexposing a picture will result in noise in the highlights of the final image as the dark parts of the negative represent the light parts of the image. Overexposing will blow out the shadows of the final image. I recommend the following parameters as starting points:

  • Set the camera’s base ISO
  • Set white balance to the colour temperature of the lighting table
  • Choose a small enough aperture to maintain equal sharpness across the whole image
Note: If you want to stitch several sections of an image together into one high-res picture, equal sharpness across the respective images is absolutely necessary. Otherwise sharpness will vary across the final stitched image, effectively rendering the scan useless.

Now you just have to take a RAW-picture of the desired analogue material on the light table.

Correct Exposure - Example

The sample image was exposed correctly; additionally, I added two crops of the same negative deliberately exposed wrong below for you to compare

Under-exposed image - notice the visible noise

Over-exposed image

Under-exposed image - notice the visible noise

Over-exposed image - notice the colour shifts

Post-Processing B&W Scans

Post processing B&W is very easy. The following basic corrections should be done with a suitable RAW-converter:

  • De-saturate the image (very important to avoid colour tints)
  • Crop
  • Adjust the black point
  • Adjust the white point
  • Increase the contrast
  • Sharpen

Post-Processing Colour Scans

Post-processing is a lot more difficult when scanning colour images, as the orange mask is very difficult to remove. I think it is impossible to achieve proper results without using software similar to ColorPerfect or spending hours on adjusting the colour curves of each single negative. I recommend you to follow the process described http://www.colorperfect.com/colorperfect.html?lang=en for best results.

Advanced Techniques for the best possible Quality

Stitching four captures together for one final high-resolution image

If you desire to capture the complete information of the film material, you can stich several shots of the same image together to create an ultra-high resolution digital scan as I mentioned before. I want to outline why this might be necessary although your digital camera might be able to capture more detail than film. The reason on the analogue side is film grain. Film grain is a desired imperfection and crucial for the final analogue look and feel of the digital image. Even if the single “piece of grain” does not contain any detail, you might want to see it resolved in the digital image, especially for large prints. The reason on the digital side is the sensor. Noise is always present on the digital image but can be indirectly reduced by stitching images together. Also, issues with demosaicing of fine grain structures are reduced when stitching images together.

Before you start shooting different parts of the film material make sure that your lens is stopped down enough as I mentioned earlier (see Basic Camera Settings). Apply exactly the same post-processing corrections to all of the single pictures before sending them to your designated stitching software- otherwise the resulting stitched image is unusable. Note that the corrections can also be applied afterwards, like removing the orange mask. With this method I was able to easily create digital files with 70 mega-pixels and more of an image taken with a 135mm camera. Keep in mind that going beyond a certain resolution - depending on the film and lens used to capture the analogue image – leads to bloated files without real benefits in terms of quality.

Roundup

The virtues needed for digital darkroom work are identical with those needed for classic darkroom work, namely patience and practice. Once you have mastered the required techniques, you can create scans with superior quality.

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.Thomas

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