I have been asked regularly to show my setup for DSLR scanning of negatives. The first thing I must emphasize is that the “devil is in the detail” and if one doesn’t get the detail right, the results will be poor. My present setup , with a full frame Nikon D610 (24MP) and Nikon 60mm Macro lens gives me 1:1 magnification for 35mm raw files 20 by 13 inches ( which I reduce to 18 by 12 inches to print on A3 plus paper).These prints are very sharp but one needs to get all the steps right along the way.

I was given an old 35mm Meopta enlarger base and column which a mate made up a  bracket for with a very strong mounting screw for – note the clamps which hold the base securely to the table removing any chance of vibration

This  is very important as you will be working with 1:1 magnification ratio.

The next step was to build a box for the lighting source and white perspex on which the negative would lay ( although not directly)-  pay attention to getting the  box as level as possible  .The reason the box was deep was to avoid too much heat transfer from the LED light to the negative – if anyone has seen a negative “pop” in the enlarger they will know  exactly what I mean-

The light source I eventually settled on was a 240volt Yongnuo YN300  95 CRI video light – you can adjust the colour temperature from 3200 to 5500K although for B&W this is not important. What is important is NOT have the light at full power  as it will burn the highlights and reduce tonal range- somewhere between 20 to 30% power is fine. I then had a piece of white perspex  cut to fit the box , rebating it around ¾ inch from the top of the box. Again you may ask why?   I did not want the negatives resting on the Perspex as they could show up any dust or imperfections on the perspex.

The next step was to cut a piece of smooth metal ( purchased from Bunnings) the size of the top of the box and in the middle a  gap for 35mm ( or 120).I found the metal sagged a little so screwed it onto some MDF ½ inch MDF which improved its rigidity. So why did I use metal for the scanning process ?  

Officeworks has A4 sheets of “fridge magnets” which I cut into two and these are used to keep the negatives perfectly  flat ( as flat as an Imacon scanner).This completes the work on the box.

The next step is the camera – at first I used a 36MP Sony A7r  , bellows and enlarging lens but the trouble with mirrorless cameras is they are not through the lens  focusing and what occurs in low light is one sees plenty of digital noise on the screen so its near impossible  to focus on the grain. I ended up buying a good near new Nikon D610 and a excellent second hand Nikon 60mm macro lens – with through the lens focusing I can actually watch the grain “snap” into focus exactly the way it used to in the old darkroom. To complete the  setup I bought a remote shutter release although when I am tethering the camera to Lightroom, this cannot be used.

Now comes the part to refine the whole process- the trouble with a normal spirit level is the floor eg may not  be level and you need to level up the top of the box with the negative in place to the camera and that’s very hard to judge with a conventional spirit level .My mate made me up this adjustable spirit level- first you put it near the negative and adjust it until it is level, lock it  in place then put it ACROSS the camera –

and adjust the camera so it is level. That got everything level one way but its highly unlikely the camera is level to the box with the negative vertically as the enlarger column may be slightly out so put the adjustable level in a vertical position on the  camera and level the bubble-

the reason for doing the camera first is you can’t move  it so if anything moves it has to be the box below.With the negative in place on the lightbox, put the spirit level vertically on the  box and check.

In my case it did  not line up exactly so I had to glue some shims  in place on one side of the box until  it did .You now have the negative perfectly aligned with your camera.

I would have liked a permanent setup but that was not possible so I  have to do the  levelling  steps everytime I  scan negatives – only takes a couple of minutes.

Its important to do this levelling procedure with the negative in place  roughly focused as the box can move on the base board.I haven’t locked it in place as I  also scan 120 negatives .

I shoot in RAW aperture preferred F11 as every negative  will have a different density.I don’t like using manual exposure as I have to touch the camera slightly to do this and this could alter the focus slightly .Just to be  on the safe side I check focus ( use a big magnification ) every negative  I copy just in case something has  moved slightly. Even doing this , I can scan a 36 roll of 35 mm film in under 20 minutes.Naturally I would like a 36MP camera so I can do 20 by 16 prints but  for now the 18 by 12 prints are perfectly fine and besides the equivalent PPI of 35 mm film is 5300 PPI or close to 18 inches on its long side

This is the little leveller that plays such an important part of perfectly aligning the negatives to the camera and without something like this it will not be as efficient.You could make these up yourself if you are handy or have one made up for you
It is able to be adjusted in infinite positions, something that a normal spirit level cannot do

It took me around 6 months to perfect this setup and until I had the above level, the results were only average.Like I said, the devil is in the detail.

Next blog will cover DSLR scanning on medium format negatives.