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How To Do Macro-Capture of

Color Negatives

  2014 March    Film   Scanning


In a previous article I talked about macro capture of slides.  Since they're color positives, slides don't require much (if any) processing on the computer once you acquire the images.

Color negatives are a little bit more tricky.   There are at least a couple ways to achieve the desired result.  

This is going to be a basic method to get you started.  I have developed (no pun intended) some methods that are even more advanced... and which provide even better results.  (These are all detailed in the film-scanning ebook, available for purchase here.)

In the meantime, you'll still be able to do a better job than you can get with your typical "Photo CD".

Let's take a look.  

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In This Article

Good Prints Are Still Important

Stuff You'll Need

The Basic Challenge

Inverted Colors

The Best Method


Good Prints Are Still Important

There is still nothing like a nice matted-and-framed photo print.  You probably don't hang your computer monitor on the wall, and neither do I.  Even if so, many of us want to see a nice, traditional piece of wall art.  

When you scan negatives, it makes sense to have the best scan you can get, so you can make the best print you can make.

You also might want to do enlargements bigger than 8x10.   That calls for quality that most automated scans cannot offer.

"One-hour photo" prints have their uses.  They're passable to hand out to your family who want pictures of the new baby.  That said, I would never use one-hour photo prints for a wedding customer or commercial art.  The machines can't possibly do as good a job as a skilled person.   Usually the one-hour stuff looks way too dark and contrasty, but it's not contrasty in a good way. 

Even if you're not doing prints, though, you'll still benefit from knowing how to optimize your scans for the look you want.  Photo website, blog, or whatever... good pictures matter.

In another article I've already talked about how the Nikon Coolscan (etc) is no longer available.  Any other pro-quality film scanner that hits the market is going to be expensive.  If you're really after great prints, macro capture is the way to start.  Color negatives require some special technique, but it's not terribly difficult.

Stuff You'll Need

First (obviously), do your macro capture with a DSLR.   I recommend something with at least 14 megapixels;   this is really one area where megapixels matter.  (Elsewhere, they don't, quite so much).    In the film-scanning book, I explain how I arrived at this number.

The Nikon D5100 is a good choice.  You can pick up a used or refurb D5100 body for well under 400 bucks here.  Or, get the Nikon D3200 with kit lens here.  (In a pinch, you can even get by with a bridge camera, but DSLR with macro lens is my first choice.) 

Either way, use a copy stand that's adequate for the job.  If you're looking for something economical, I'd go with the Albinar High-Load copy stand (review here).  For a look at some other choices, see "Don't Forget The Stand!" in my first article about macro capture of slides.

Along with the copy stand, your lens is probably the most important thing for DSLR negative capture.  For Canon DSLR's I prefer this lens.   If you think you're only ever going to use APS-C cameras, then the Canon EF-S 60mm macro is also a good choice.  I'd really go for the EF 100mm, though, because it works on both formats and you can use it for a lot more than just negatives and slides.

Another good one is the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di SP, which typically goes for between $425 and $500.  (Nikon version here;  Canon version here.)   If you use a Nikon D5100, 7000, 7100, etc., there's also the Nikon 60mm f/2.8G AF-D

Assuming you have a light pad, and your negative is flat against it with a homemade frame mask to block out the excess light, here are some guidelines.  Your macro lens should be set to f/11 if you're not as good at focusing, f/5.6 or f/8 if you are.  Your camera's ISO setting should be 80 or 100, the lowest one available.  (On some, it's ISO 200.)  White balance should be either "cloudy" or "fluorescent light".  At ISO 100 and f/11 with a light pad, the correct shutter speed is probably going to be anywhere between 1/1.3 and 1/4 of a second for color negatives.  On a D5100, I've been bracketing three shots: 1 second, 1/2 a second, and 1/3 of a second for color negatives.  Again, this is at f/11. 

The Basic Challenge

So now, you've got the macro-captured negative on your memory card.  Unlike a scanner with software such as Vuescan the macro-capture method has no presets to correct for the negative stock. 

So, what can you do to get from negative image to a decent-looking positive? 

The basic idea is to correct for the color of that negative stock.

Here's a loaf of homemade bread, photographed with Kodak 400 film.  You can see the heavy overtones of tan, brown, and orange in the as-captured negative:

Let's try something to fix this situation. 

Inverted Colors

If you just flip the colors in your software, you're going to have something like this:

Wow:  that's a heavy color cast, huh?

In the time since I first wrote this article, I've been formulating a number of different methods to get a useful end-result with color negatives.  The following picture shows what it could look like with one particular method:

Kodak Ultramax 400 film (35mm)

Nikon 50mm Series E 1.8

f/1.8 @ 1/60th (I think)

This one required a grain-extract layer, followed by some Hue adjustments.

The light leak, by the way, happened because it was from a roll developed at one-hour photo.  (Or it might be an artifact of uneven development.)  If you have any experience with that, you'll know that the first few pictures on a roll often have this effect, because of the way they develop film at most one-hour places.  This doesn't happen as often, if at all, at pro labs.

There are actually numerous ways to do negative conversion.  The thing is, if you don't already have a roadmap to do it, the task will seem really tedious and annoying. 

It doesn't have to be tedious, and believe it or not, it can actually be fun.    I've put together a roadmap, and then some.  

The Best Method

... or at least the best one that I've found, is camera scanning.  And once you learn the basics, the key is to know your scan processing.  With negative film, this is even more important than for slides.

You'll find all this information in my new e-book on film scanning.  In it, I talk about several different techniques for color negatives.  The book will teach you:

- How to get the "right" colors for almost any color negative film, even without color profiles

- How to adjust the colors while minimizing artifacts (blotching, highlight clipping, etc).

- How to do this in JPG mode, if you prefer not to deal with RAW.

- How to accomplish virtually all of it with FREE software!

The book contains at least seven different methods for color negatives alone,  plus a wealth of knowledge for scanning slides.

You will also learn

- Why slide film has more dynamic range than you probably thought!  (And how to get this into your scans!)

- Why you're probably throwing away sharpness, and how to fix it

Take the guesswork-- and much of the chore-- out of your film scanning. 

In fact, you can turn this whole phase of the process into a new opportunity for creativity.  Purchase the new film scanning e-book here


Is it too much fuss to capture color negatives?  I don't think so at all.   Post-processing of digital images can have just as many steps.  (Either way, it's work, which is a good reason not to give your photography away for free.) 

At the same time, "macro scanning" of negatives is not so much work that it would be unrealistic to do it in the first place.  And, as I said, you may find it becomes a new opportunity for creativity. 

I do my own C41 captures all the time... using the techniques in the film scanning book, which is available for purchase in the Kindle store. 

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Thank you again.


I hope you get many hours and years of enjoyment from shooting and scanning film.

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