Saturday, 2 May 2020

Converting negatives to digital format

As mentioned previously I have rediscovered my interest in film photography. I last used film regularly about sixteen years ago and so since then have taken thousands upon thousands of digital images, both professionally but also recording family life and events, holidays etc. Most of those images are stored on a separate hard disc drive and catalogued in years and subfolders within each year.

However, I also have countless numbers of negatives in files and elsewhere. I have sporadically scanned negatives in the past with my Nikon Super Coolscan 8000ED, a fantastic piece of kit which scans to a really high standard. Unfortunately at the beginning of this lockdown period a few weeks ago I came to use it and I was unable to load the Nikon Scan software which basically controls the scanner. This was frustrating as I had just processed my first black and white film for many years and wanted to see the results on the computer in order to include them in my last blog post. After several hours trying I just couldn't get it working and so eventually after searching the internet I found another way of digitising my film negatives. It involved taking a digital photograph of a negative and processing that image using software. There are different ways you can go about this, here's how I did it......

I had a spare LPL 7700 enlarger. I was able to remove the enlarger head and screw on to the remaining carriage an old Manfrotto tripod head. This makes a perfect copy stand. I use a negative lightbox on which the negative is placed, preferably in a negative carrier to make sure it is sitting flat. As long as the camera, screwed into the old tripod head, is horizontal and on the same plane as the negative below it then it will fit nicely into the camera frame. I use the grid on the camera screen to also make this easier. For the best results it's necessary to get as close to the negative as possible and so a macro lens is important.  The white balance WB on the camera is set to 2500K and the ISO is set to the lowest, in my case that is 200. My exposure is 1/30th second at f11 but this will vary according to the light source. There are many flat LED lightboxes available, mine is an older traditional lightbox. I also use a shutter release so I'm not having to touch the camera. I have 35mm and medium format negatives, 6 x 6 and also 6 x 4.5. For that reason I have marked on the vertical stand the correct position for each negative format.

The digital imaging software I use is Adobe Lightroom 6. For black and white negatives after importing into Lightroom it is possible to convert it to a positive image by using the curves in the opposite way in which they appear. There is plenty of information on the internet that shows you how to do this.

For colour negatives it is considerably more difficult to achieve a good result with Lightroom alone. This is where Negative Lab Pro comes in. It was developed by Nate Johnson in the States and can only be used in conjunction with Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC. It is a downloadable plugin which enables you to carry out colour negative conversion. The website gives full details on how to download it and the steps needed to achieve superb quality results, the link is below. There is a free trial available which lets you use it with twelve negatives and then after that is costs $99 plus VAT. I think it is a brilliant piece of software and I have been having a lot of enjoyment this week going through and scanning old negatives I have had stored away for years. I have only had it a few days and I have been concentrating on aircraft negatives taken during my time as an RAF Photographer. There are images I just haven't seen before, it has been really thrilling discovering these old photographs and jogging memories of the time and place they were taken. This will be an ongoing project and one that will certainly keep me occupied during this period of social-distancing.

LPL enlarger with camera and lightbox below

Negative Lab Pro Plugin within Lightroom


Copied negative of a Handley Page Victor 


The converted negative of the Victor, RAF St Athan 11th July 1988



Negative of a Jet Provost T3


The T3 flying over Yorkshire 1991 in new display colours


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