Camera Scans

December 20th, 2007


The above image was shot twice. First in 1989 on Tri-X film, then again yesterday on a 21 Megapixel Canon. Amazingly the model hasn’t aged a bit. Click on it for a larger view.

Camera scans are an extremely fast and efficient way to convert film to digital. They aren’t really scans, they’re “Film Captures.” The concept is pretty simple: Use a digital camera with a macro lens to shoot pictures of film. There are many advantages to Camera Scans over traditional methods of scanning film. These scans are not 100mb drum scans like I would get from NancyScans, but they don’t need to be. The process was originally intended to be a simple way to have a digital contact sheet of my film archive. As it turns out, the Canon 1Ds Mark III with a Canon EF 180mm 3.5L Macro makes a really nice scan and is suitable for printing very large work.

I’ve been testing a piece of hardware that Peter Krogh is developing with Really Right Stuff (RRS). Here are Peter’s pictures of the prototype. I’ve made my own contraptions in the past, but the RRS prototype is real nice. It’s got all of the movements you need to line up the film and it’s all hooked together which eliminates most shake issues.

Camera Scans have SPEED and WORKFLOW advantages over traditional film scanning methods. I can do 1,000 images a day including color correction, applying basic metadata, and cataloging in Expression Media. Besides blazing speed, the real advantage of Camera Scans is that the technique produces a RAW file that can be converted to a DNG. This workflow is 100 times more efficient then the Tiff file workflow you get with a scanner. It’s also the same workflow and archiving methods I use for all my digital photography projects.


I’m using a continuous daylight balanced light source behind the film so that I can shoot using Aperture Priority. My film densities vary and Aperture Priority gives me a standard exposure. Adjustments for unusual image content are still necessary; the world is not 18% gray, so exposure needs to be subjective. A Flash with TTL (Through The Lens) metering and a diffuser on the front will work for slides. Negatives require a modeling light for proper positioning in the film stage, where slides lock into the same position every time. The TTL metering would regulate the flash exposure for different slide densities, but you would not have a live preview for positioning and exposure compensation.

Holding the film in place and flush with the camera is the tricky part. The really right stuff equipment is nice, but you can also rig something up using slide copiers or negative carriers from enlargers. The key is to have the camera and film mounted together.

Dust is a big issue, and that’s the one place a good scanner can help you out. A scanner with Digital ICE technology shines angled lights on the film to create shadows from dust spots; then the software locates and fixes those dust spots.

Another issue is that negatives need to be made positive. This is done by flipping the curves upside down. Doing this causes the RAW processing software’s sliders to be backwards. I.E. highlights are shadows and shadows are highlights. It’s really confusing, but fortunately DAMuseful.com has a great add-on for Adobe Bridge called RapidFixer. All the backwards settings are available for you. This is an essential tool, not just for B&W, but for all quick RAW edits. You’ve got to “Pimp your Bridge” with RapidFixer if you want it to work fast and smart. RapidFixer controls Adobe Camera Raw(ACR) settings on files from Bridge. There is no need to open a file in ACR just stay at home in Bridge and adjust on the fly. The only part I miss when I use RapidFixer is having a histogram to look at. RapidFixer has a black and white module with presets for negatives.

My film archives date back to the mid 80’s and much of that work has never been published. Having these 20 year old images in a workable digital archive is amazing. The Kodachrome captured memories of my wasted youth converted into a modern DNG archive is a good thing.

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