Scanning 135 Film

For the last couple of years, i have wanted to get back into film.  Yes, film.

I know, i must be crazy to want to get back into a media format that has long seen it’s day – well, almost.

What could possibly posses me to want to get back into buying film, having to develop it and to top it all off, having to buy a whole new camera?

Actually, buying the new camera part is very attractive.  Don’t we all like getting “new” things in boxes?  I certainly do.  I’m like a kid in a candy store when i get a box with something new in it.   

Actually, my plan is to not necessarily take the normal route with this venture.  As a matter of fact, i am planning – and researching – on developing the film myself and then taking the developed negatives and scanning them myself in order to publish them on my blog or print them.

Does anyone really print their photos anymore?  Many people still do i think, but it is certainly not the norm as it once was when we were all shooting film.  But, in the end, with film, we really did not have many options but to print the photos, unless you wanted to hold the developed negatives up to a window or watch a slide show.  Honestly, there is just something so organic about being able to look at a photo album, instead of swiping across the screen of your “smart” device.

This is not something that i am taking lightly and that is the reason why i am not simply diving into this.

First of all, i need to find the right camera.  As of now, i have it narrowed down to a few Canon models (I have a 50mm FDn lens, so that is why i settled on a Canon).

I really don’t have a shopping list of specifics that i want, but i do want  two things: for the camera to manual in function and for it to be in fairly good condition.  There are several places online, such as B&H and KEH, where you can purchase used film cameras that are in good condition.

Most reputable online stores will have a grading system that you should pay attention to.  You should really try to purchase a camera that is graded pretty high, even if it does cost you a few extra dollars.

I personally have four cameras, three of which i purchased used from a store right here in Montreal.  It’s really a great advantage when you are able to inspect and use the equipment before buying it; however, sometimes you have to put your trust into the company that you are buying from when purchasing online.  If you are purchasing used equipment online, make sure you understand any return policy and make sure that there is some sort of warranty attached to the item.  You don’t want to be stuck with a fancy paperweight.

Now that i have figured out the most important factor in all of this, i am going to move onto the part of this venture that intrigues me the most: scanning the film.

I have some old, developed strips of 135 film lying around my house and one day, i got to thinking, “How can i scan this?” or more specifically, “If i got back into film, how easy would it be to scan this and make my own prints or publish it to my blog?”

This is where my experimenting began.

I have a scanner at home.  It’s actually part of one of those multi-function printers that makes you regret buying it in the first place, when it comes time to buy new ink for it.  Though, the scanner is not suited to scanning 135 film, because you need to have light coming from not only below the film, but also from above the film.  

Seeing as the scanner that i own is not designed to scan film, i had to find other means of scanning the film i had – buying a new flatbed scanner was out of the question for this experiment.

After some searching, i came across two solutions: 1) using a lightbox and a camera. 2) using a dedicated film scanner.

Wait a second, did i not say that buying a scanner was out of the question?  Well, let me explain.

I’m not talking about a flatbed scanner, which can cost you hundreds of dollars, if not more for higher end models.  What i am talking about, is dedicated scanners that are designed to only scan film and nothing else.  You can find these sorts of scanners on Amazon and at various online camera shops.

They look like little boxes and essentially, you feed your film into them in order for it to scan and take a “photo” of the negative, giving you a positive rendition of the negative or in laymen’s terms, an actual photo that you can print out or post up on your blog.

That’s one solution and depending on what film scanner you buy, you just may end up spending as much money as you would have on a flatbed scanner.

I have done some research on these dedicated film scanners and reviews are very mixed.  What i found was that people complained mostly about the software being used by the scanner or the fact that the software was not compatible with their computers OS.  In regards to the compatibility issues, that is an end user problem, where the buyer should have made sure that it would work with whatever version of OS they were running.  

The other solution that i came across in my research, was to scan the film with your camera.


I heard about scanning film with a camera some time ago, but i never really bothered to learn what it was all about.  Well, this time around, i dug in and learnt what it meant to scan film with your camera.

Basically, when you scan film with your camera, you are taking a photo of the the negative and then taking that photo of the negative and developing it into a “positive” using Photoshop.

That is the very simple, “in a nutshell” explanation of it, but there is more to it than just that.

What you will need to scan film with your camera:

  1. A camera
  2. Developed 135 film
  3. Tripod – somewhat optional.
  4. A lightbox – explained a bit later.
  5. Photoshop or any other photo editing software that is functionally similar.
  6. Something to hold your film flat – explained later.

Let’s deal with the lightbox first.

When you are scanning film, you need light to enter from below and above the film.  That is why not every flatbed scanner or MFP printer with a scanner built in, can scan film.  If you do try to scan film on your MFP, well, the results will suck.

This is where a lightbox comes in and before you go spending money on one, please stick around to read what i am going to tell you next.

Sure, you can go out to a number of websites to buy a lightbox, but you most likely have a “lightbox” at home already.  I’m talking about your smartphone and/or your tablet.

To use your smartphone or tablet as a lightbox, you first have to download an app – yep, there’s an app for this – that will make your screen all white.  Once you get that done, you have yourself a lightbox!

I have Android devices, so i am not to sure what’s out there for you hipsters that use Apple.  In reality, anyway that you can have a blank white screen will suffice.  

The next thing that you want to do, is take your film and lay it flat on the screen.

My film was somewhat curved, so i had to use some dead 9v batteries to get it to lay flat on the screen.  

Now, because the film is right on the screen, you are going to pick up the pixels of the screen in your photo; therefore, you will need to put some white plastic (a piece of plastic bag or other thin white plastic) between the film and the screen.  This will “filter” out the pixels of your tablet/smartphone screen.

I was able to find a free lightbox app in the Google store, which i loaded up onto my smartphone.  It worked out fine; but of course, a bigger screen area would of been better.

At this point, this is where your camera comes into play.  You can use pretty much any camera to do this, but you will want to be able to get your camera as close as possible to the film – a camera that has a macro function or using a lens that has “macro” capability, is advisable.  Of course, an actual macro lens would be the best option.

Try to get the whole negative in the frame of your camera, but don’t worry about leaving some dead space around the negative, you can crop that out later.

Take your photo.

When i first did this, i used my Olympus TG3.  It has great macro capabilities and can get within centimeters of the subject.  I did it handheld, since i was able to get good shutter speed.  Using a tripod is a good idea if you are going to take numerous photos and don’t want to continually reposition yourself over the negative.  

What you end up with, is a photo of the negative.  From here, you need to bring it into Photoshop in order to turn it into a “positive” or a photo that you can print/post to your blog.

For now, i will stop here and show you some of the results i got by scanning some negatives with my camera and using my smartphone as a lightbox.

I took the above photos with a small, compact 35mm camera back in 2002.  The results of “scanning” the negatives and developing them in Photoshop are not the best, but this is merely an experiment for now.

In my next post, i will talk about using Photoshop to turn your negatives into positives.  I will also talk about some of the issues i came across doing this, as well as discuss some best practices.

Who dares wins.

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