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Segal, Shaner Publish Free PDF On Camera-Based Film Scanning Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

11 November 2014

If a scanner is just a lazy camera, can a camera do a good job scanning film? It's an old question (we described using a Nikon 990 and Nikon Slide Copying Adapter in 2000) but authors Mark Segal and Todd Shaner suggest it's now became an urgent one, too.

In a free PDF available at the Luminous Landscape which describes their two individual approaches to using a camera to scan film, they write:

The digital revolution has been so quick and so thorough that even the mediating hardware of the 1990s -- the high quality scanner -- has been rapidly passing into history. Yes, you can still find some truly high quality dedicated film scanners, but the scarcity is real and prices range from several thousand dollars upward (really upward!). And for those of us who are fortunate enough to own these discontinued scanners, what happens when they expire?

Of course, that probably just means there's a Kickstarter scanner project just around the corner (hey, Ed Hamrick, wouldn't a VueScanner make your life a lot easier?). But until then, exploring your camera as a solution has become a lot more rewarding than it used to be.


While our circa-2000 experiment was restricted to the 8-bit channels of a JPEG and an interpolated RGB file of 3.1 megapixels, today's dSLRs can easily match the resolution of dedicated film scanners (although still interpolating the color).

In fact, as part of our extensive OpticFilm 120 review, we shot the USAF target with a 12.3-megapixel Nikon D300, achieving a resolution of 2896 dpi compared to the 4500 of the OpticFilm 120.


One advantage a camera solution has always had is speed. The capture, for one thing, is significantly quicker. It takes just a fraction of a second with a camera compared to several seconds and often even longer with a scanner.

But getting through a stack of slides, for example, can also be significantly quicker. Earlier this year, we pointed you to a DIY slide digitizer using a slide projector to illuminate and advance the slides. But even manual methods can move things along at a brisk pace.


Interpolated color isn't the only disadvantage (minor though it is) of this approach. The other is dynamic range.

A scanner might actually capture 16-bit channels while a camera might only capture 12-bit channels in Raw mode. But even if your camera captures 16-bit channels, it may not match the dynamic range of a scanner.

That's because most scanning software offers an option to make two passes at the image, one optimized for highlight information and the other for shadow information. That greatly extends the dynamic range -- like a high dynamic range image made from two exposures.

And you can, in fact, do HDR captures of film with your camera to mimic this capability. Just bracket each exposure.


Segal and Shaner present an up-to-date and compelling argument for using your camera. They navigate the trickier aspects (like mask removal, negative conversion) using two physically different setups, two different camera/lens combinations, different light sources, different software (including SilverFast HDR8, Photoshop and Lightroom) and even provide one Photoshop action to help out.

They also walk you through two conversions of two color negatives. The corrections may seem daunting but they can, as the authors say, be automated.

Shaner concludes:

The key point we want readers to retain from all of this is that as the availability of high quality, affordable scanners passes into history, the use of cameras with viable software techniques can fill the void very satisfactorily.

In fact, Segal compares a high resolution medium format film scan from an Epson V750 to a Sony a6000 and macro lens capture, concluding, "the camera capture is preferred." He pushes the contest into extra innings by comparing prints made by both process and a third print made from the original film.

Examining the three prints, it's a close race. The Sony a6000 camera capture comes out the winner, but not "hit you in the face" -- it's slightly sharper and cleaner. Digitization, whether in a scanner or by camera, given our present day editing tools, certainly improved shadow detail relative to that in the historical darkroom print.

But that isn't the whole story, he cautions. The Epson scan took six minutes and produced a 570-MB file while the camera capture was much more efficient. He concludes:

Once again, my general conclusion is that the camera is at least as good as a high-end prosumer scanner for making prints within the target size range.


One thing is clear after devouring the 36-page PDF. It's no longer necessary to apologize for using a camera to digitize film. And even better, you may already have all the tools you need to digitize that old film archive gathering dust.

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