How to Scan Film Negatives using a DSLR


My Film Beginnings Project started shortly after I first had an interest in exploring and using film in my photography hobby. I was aware the process of capturing images on film had changed but I didn’t’ realize just how much the game had changed.

Welcome! As a long time digital photographer, I recently started a project that involves shooting 35mm film. You can find a few of my Street Photography digital images here: But what about film? Can the negatives be scanned and captured digitally with a DSLR?

Film is still readily available but getting it developed and scanned can be a cumbersome and expensive task. Because of this, I was about to abandon my adventure into film photography when I discovered the technique of DSLR Negative scanning. The purchase of even a used scanner dedicated to film just wasn’t appealing to me.

After doing some internet research it appeared that good to great results could be achieved using a DSLR and because I already own a DSLR I might have a shot at successfully doing this on the cheap.

Canon-70D-DSLR Negative-Scanning-FilmBeginnings

So why am I even writing about this if a lot of good information is already out there? I just wanted to add further confirmation that high-quality scans can be achieved using a DSLR, demonstrate that there are multiple ways to do it and let anyone reading know about the problems I faced along the way and how I overcame them.

So I have the DSLR but I have no 1:1 macro lens and with a little research I found that I was looking at a price of $300 – $400+ to obtain a high-quality macro lens for my camera. You already know what a cheapskate I am so it will come as no surprise that I started exploring another alternative. I immediately thought of extension tubes. I had never used them in my photography but it seemed logical that a tube of air shouldn’t degrade the quality of my capture. It would still be dependent upon the quality of the lens I used. I read that retaining the ability to autofocus would make the scanning process a little faster but the additional cost of extensions tubes that provide autofocus didn’t seem justified for the process of scanning negatives. I still check my focus for each frame before I scan it but it probably only adds an additional 2-4 seconds to adjust the focus if it is necessary. Non-focusing extension tubes for DSLRs are very inexpensive. With the tubes, I purchased I was able to use the Canon 85mm F1.8 lens that I already owned. Finding the correct extension tube combination to give me the correct magnification to have the 35mm negative fill the sensor of the camera took some time. However, once you have it dialed in you are set. I ended up with a Canon 70D + 21mm Extension Tube (14mm + 7mm) + 85mm f1.8 lens and the focal plane of the camera is 14.5″  from the negative. The combination works but I was unable to fill the sensor as completely as I would like. During processing, I have to crop a bit more of the image than I prefer to get just the negative. In the future, I plan to add the Canon 100mm 2.8 1:1 Macro lens to my system. I’m hopeful this will allow me to better fill the frame and in turn, I’ll get a higher resolution scan. In addition, I can always use the lens in my photography and the focal length is in a range that I don’t currently own.

Canon 70D-DSLR Negative Scanning-Lens & Extension Tubes-FilmBeginnings

The next necessary item away from the focal plane of the camera would be the negative holder. Again, I was shocked to discover the ridiculous prices of the various contraptions sold to hold negatives. In the beginning, I simply created my own out of a piece of stiff card stock and some gaffers tape. However, moving the negative from frame to frame was a little labor intensive. After scanning my first two rolls of film I discovered the reasonably priced Pacific Image 35mm Film Strip Holder and I incorporated this into my system. Using this carrier, sliding from frame to frame, is much easier. 

DSLR Negative Scanning-Negative Carrier-35mm Film-FilmBeginnings


I then needed to ensure that the sensor plane of the camera was parallel and equidistant to the plane of the negative when mounted. My first go around was using a tripod and placing my negative carrier horizontal on a table above an iPad used as a backlight. I was able to get that setup working but I didn’t like the fact that every time I wanted to scan negatives I had to get out my tripod, set it up and then level and adjust my camera to the proper height and alignment. This setup also made me realize that if you use an iPad (or anything with a touchscreen) as a backlight that you can’t place the negatives directly next to the light. Touchscreens have a microgrid below the screen that will be picked up in the final image because it falls within the focal plane of the lens if it is too close to the negative.  I felt that placing the camera, negative carrier and backlight on a horizontal mount (board) would allow for a quicker setup. By placing stops and spacers on the boards I am able to just set my camera down in position and load my negative carrier and backlight into a jig and guides. I went all out and built my negative carrier jig out of legos and used nails to provide guides for the lego jig and iPad backlight. The nail guides allow me to slide the negative carrier parallel to the plane of the camera’s sensor.

DSLR Negatvie Scanning-FilmBeginnings
DSLR Negative Scanning-FilmBeginnings


DSLR Negative Scanning-Live View-FilmBeginnings

My scanning process is as follows:

  1. Using the Canon EOS Utility, set the White Balance using the film rebate. 
  2. Take multiple shots of the negative at different shutter speeds. 
  3. Import these shots into Lightroom and check their histograms after cropping. 
  4. Choose the Shuter Speed that gives the best histogram and “scan” all negatives. 
  5. In Lightroom, I set all of the scanned images to a “Neutral” camera calibration. 
  6. Crop all negative scans and import them into Photoshop. 
  7. In Photoshop run my “Negative Conversion” action as a batch process on all of the negatives. 
  8. Close all images and let them return to Lightroom.
Lightroom-DSLR Negative Scanning-Camera Calibration-FilmBeginnings

The Canon EOS Utility allows me three main advantages. I can remotely trigger the shutter, I can focus in Live View at both 5x and 10x magnification and it automatically saves the scans onto my PC instead of my camera’s SD card. Once I have the exposure dialed in the process moves along pretty quickly. During this process, I use the camera’s 2-second timer to reduce vibration and I make sure that I handle the negatives with gloved hands and air dust each set after I place them into the negative carrier.  After importing the scans into Lightroom I set one of them to a “Neutral” camera calibration and then sync the rest of the scans to the same. Cropping the images to show just the negatives is the most time-consuming part of the process but cropping it is necessary so that the “Negative Conversion” action in Photoshop will work correctly.

Photoshop After Action-DSLR Negative Scanning-FilmBeginnings

In Photoshop it’s really just a few clicks. Once the batch processing is completed I usually just close the images so they are saved back into Lightroom. At a later date, I’ll go back and touch up any of the images that I might need. The primary touching up being dust removal but sometimes added contrast and noise reduction as necessary. I don’t take any credit for the Photoshop action and it is a combination of different techniques and actions I discovered. If anyone would like the actions (one each for black and white and color), don’t hesitate to ask and if you feel you have any ideas or advice that would improve my conversion process please share.

Photoshop Action Details-DSLR Negative Scanning-FilmBeginnings

I’m now over a week into my first roll of film and I’m looking forward to completing, developing and presenting a few of my first images from my Film Beginnings challenge.  I encourage you to please follow along. You can subscribe with your email or click the “follow” button in the bottom right corner is you’re a WordPress reader.

Camera Donation Page

My Film Beginnings Project has also intrigued me to try using other 35mm film cameras along the way. If you have a working 35mm film camera that you no longer use please take a look here to see what I’m thinking. Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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