A high-quality hybrid 35mm film stills digitising setup

Author: Max Browne

As any photographer knows after decades of shutter clicking, a huge backlog of archive work can develop. This occurs often with personal work which tends to get put aside until time is available to attend to it. In my case not only have I thousands of images to view and select but technology has moved on from the darkroom origin of my film negs and transparencies to require digital scanning which varies enormously in terms of speed, cost and quality of operating and processing.

I am sure that many would agree that a significant reason for such a backlog of personal archive work is the onerous and painfully slow mode of scanning 35mm slides and negatives using Minolta/Nikon/Canon box style scanners with film tray loading. This was never fun as it was both laborious and technically sub-optimal. Noting the past tense – it is not any more!

If you consider replicating the film grain, image detail, colour and tones of the originals as a base standard of working, along with digitising as fast as you can load and focus them, then you may be interested in the 35mm scanning setup I have put together recently: Nikon D800E camera, 55mm Micro-Nikkor lens with Extension Ring PK13, old Nikon F Slide Copier (via eBay) with custom made dovetail support post, Lanparte DSLR fully adjustable baseplate with support bars/adaptor and MacBook Pro laptop (figs 1,2). Using any suitable light source, this rig will provide a fast 8k raw NEF files workflow with either negative or positive screen images for optimising variables in real time as you adjust them on the laptop, once captured. Additionally, if you work tethered, then the camera ‘live view’ can display negatives as positives if you switch the computer screen mode to ‘invert’. In this way you can also use the system as an instant real time viewer for 35mm negatives prior to capture which is useful for both identification and assessment purposes – especially if there are no contact sheets for reference. For this reason tethered capture of negatives is a more efficient way of working since positive image tonality can be checked against a histogram and exposure adjusted as quickly as positive slides can via the camera rear screen.

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Perhaps I should add that this set-up is one for manual operation. Cleaning, loading, focusing, assessing and correctly exposing the originals need the practised eye of a photographer to get the best out of it. I don’t think it could be successfully used in any ‘auto’ mode. However I’d be interested to know if such a setup could be more streamlined – perhaps with an autofocus macro lens.

In practice focusing is achieved by sliding the camera on the base plate (which is easy as it is superbly engineered) rather than twisting the lens focus ring. A two second shutter delay works well to minimise any operator vibration. I generally shoot film emulsion side in so that any slight bowing of the film follows the natural curvature of the lens depth of field. This requires the extra step of left-to-right reversal of the image later but maintains more consistent centre to edge image definition.

As you would expect, digitising positives is straightforward and intuitive. On the other hand negatives take a little more time to get used to since the tonalities are in reverse – you need to adjust exposure to retain ‘shadow’ details that are actually highlights and vice versa. Once captured a great advantage is that any adjustments in ‘camera raw’ can then be made whilst viewing on a positive screen in ‘invert’ mode. Once the image files are opened in a Photoshop type programme they can be ‘inverted’ to positive themselves and the screen changed back to normal mode.

A long awaited project of mine has been to digitise my collection of 1960s-1980s Rock & Roll gig images and a great bonus is that many that were previously rejected in their film version are now usable in digital form after suitable manipulation. This enhances them as historical documentation as well as from an aesthetic viewpoint. Many just look better after digitising which is not surprising when considering the continuously variable club/concert/theatre lighting conditions under which they were shot. Under or over-exposed shots can be made acceptable now as can problem images such as the unwanted ‘protrusions behind heads’ classic which leads me to digress to a brief ‘documentary ethics’ consideration.

I am a freelance documentary hunter supplying captured images for client display. Thus my work ethics are pragmatic not purist. If a subject has a floral arrangement growing out of their heads then one of the three of us (problem-object, subject or me) must move in order to provide a non-distracting image. Such was the problem recently with an otherwise nice and historically interesting shot I have of Eric Clapton onstage in London about 1980. Since Eric famously became teatotal a few years later the beer shot provides something of a conversation piece. The intriguing but highly distracting object in the background was easily disposed of, after digitising, by some quick surgery in Photoshop (ills.3,4). My fledgling website for these images is http://www.rockshots.co

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Almost all the equipment is readily available including the aging but excellent Nikon F Slide Copier bought for less than £100 on eBay. The exception is the small but very necessary dovetail post to connect and adjust the Slide Copier onto the baseplate support bars. This was made for me by a local machine shop and again cost less than £100. The Lanparte adjustable baseplate unit is inexpensive and a joy to use and is necessary to update the otherwise obsolete Slide Copier which will not fit most modern DSLR cameras as their fronts protrude further than the original SLR film cameras they were designed to fit. In short this kind of rig gives these otherwise excellent copiers a new lease of life. If you are interested in using a similar setup I’d recommend acquiring one of these key items soon before word gets out!

Do get in touch if you have any queries.

Max Browne, DigitisingArt.Co

The very helpful Lanparte UK agent can be found at http://www.fastforwardtime.co.uk