How To Digitize Film Without A Scanner

How To Digitize Film Without A Scanner
Scanning film is tedious, time-consuming and expensive, and the results don’t always seem worth the effort. But since most photographers these days are armed with high-resolution digital cameras, that opens up a faster, easier and more affordable option to digitize film—and the results are outstanding. It’s the Nikon ES-2 Film Digitizing Adapter, and it turns almost any camera with a 40-60mm Macro lens into a film-scanning machine.

Retailing for about $140, this simple device looks a little bit like a lens with a frosted cover. But there are no optics inside. In fact, that frosted plastic cover simply provides even, diffused backlight for the film that’s inserted behind it. That film can be 35mm negatives in strips (black and white or color) or mounted 35mm slides. The adapter uses one of two film holders: a six-frame strip holder or one that accommodates two mounted slides. The film holders simply slip into place and are easy to advance from one frame to the next.

How To Digitize Film Without A Scanner

First, however, mount the ES-2 adapter to a macro lens.

Nikon specifies that its adapter is designed to work with three macro lenses: the DX format Micro Nikkor 40mm f/2.8 G, the AF-S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED and the AF Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D. The latter two rely on included adapters to fit the ES-2’s 62mm filter threads, with one adapter also providing the necessary extension to allow the last of the three lenses to achieve focus.

There’s nothing special, however, about the connection of the device to the lens; it simply screws on via a normal threaded mount. The adapter itself is designed in two pieces, with a locking screw that loosens in order to rotate the adapter or slide it in or out to achieve the ideal position in relation to the camera’s frame. In fact, there’s no reason the adapter wouldn’t work with any 60mm macro lens capable of focusing at about 7.5 inches and mounted on a full-frame camera. An APS-C or smaller sensor camera would also work, but you’d have to have a shorter—i.e. 40mm—macro lens. In any case, you simply need a step-up ring to match your lens to the 62mm threads on the ES-2.

How To Digitize Film Without A Scanner

With the device affixed to the lens, insert the film into the holder and then into the ES-2 adapter, taking care to position the emulsion side of the film (the duller, slightly textured side) toward the lens. This will make the image appear reversed, but it’s easy enough to flip it in Photoshop, and photographing the emulsion side is likely to produce better quality by minimizing scratches and errant reflections on the shiny side of the film. Loosen the locking screw in order to rotate and/or extend the film’s position relative to the sensor. Do this while looking through the viewfinder. In this way, you can fill the frame, crop accordingly or digitize the entirety of the film including the rounded corners of the holder.

How To Digitize Film Without A Scanner

Now you’re ready to shoot. You could use practically any light source as the ES-2 will diffuse it, but I prefer aiming at an already diffused light source. This could be aimed at a clear sky (and matched to daylight white balance) or a white wall indoors with the white balance set appropriately for the light source. I used a strobe bounced off of white paper and simply dialed in a manual exposure until it looked correct. One word of advice on exposure settings. Some film has a slight curl, so shallow depth of field might produce falloff at the edges, necessitating using a smaller aperture. I choose the sharpest aperture: a few stops from wide open, or just ƒ/8 just to be safe. I also want the lowest ISO for the cleanest signal (low noise). There’s no need to worry about shutter speed, in fact, because the film is affixed to the lens. That means handshake is taken out of the equation. With the exposure dialed in, simply click the shutter and voila, your film is digitized.

How To Digitize Film Without A Scanner

Oh, and if you’re shooting C-41 color negatives you’ll be faced with an off-color orange image file. The quick fix is to invert the negative in Photoshop (Command+I) and then use the auto-level adjustment (Command+Shift+L) in order to get close to the true color. For serious fine-tuning, however, you’d apply the same type of color corrections as if you had digitized the film the traditional way, with a film scanner.

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