This article originally appeared over at Addicted2light in November 2012 and has been kindly updated by author Gianluca Bevacqua. Gianluca’s taken a bit of time to update his initial findings with his updated DSLR “scanner”, a Sony A7r. For the impatient amongst you, you may jump on over now.

Did someone say “scan”?

If you shoot film and you don’t are much into chemicals, or don’t have a basement in which to keep a gigantic 5×7″ enlarger, you’ll soon end up with the need of a way to import those beautiful pictures you’ve taken on the computer. What? Why I didn’t say straight on “you will need a scanner”? After all it’s not 1987 anymore, and scanners are common like toaster ovens.
Well, I didn’t say “a scanner” because this it’s not the only way you can digitize those negatives. Indeed, turned out, even though it’s the first, and often, only way most people will think of, it is the most inefficient and time consuming. And it can loose a lot, i mean A LOT, of the quality of the original slide or negative.
But now there is a much better alternative…
Let’s cut to the chase: I’m proposing here to use a digital camera of high pixel count – full format / dx format doesn’t really matter – mated with a good macro lens to scan the film using multiple shots, like in a panorama. “A good macro lens” that it’s like saying “a macro lens” because, with the possible exception of some russian misassembled lemon, they all range from really good to exceptionally good. And if you have a bellows you can use, instead, an enlarger lens (an Apo-Ronar, for example, will put you back of only 60 / 70 euros).
But what about the quality you say? That it’s what this post is for!

Contenders, READY!

First a brief overview of what I’ll be using for this shoot-out:

Flatbed scanner: Epson V700

The film-holder height has been calibrated. I did not use fluid mounting, but I taped the films to the film-holder and / or used a glass to keep the films flat; so fluid mounting should only make a difference in terms of absence of dust, appearance of the grain clumps and, possibly, slight better tonality

Drum scanner: Dainippon Screen DT-S 1045Ai

The films have been professionally scanned by an external service.

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DSLR: Canon Eos 5D Mark II

In addition I will be using a Contax Zeiss 60mm f/2,8 Makro Planar (for medium and large format); Canon Eos 5D Mark II + Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/2 O non-Ai version inverted (for 35mm films). the methodology I used to capture my “scans” using the Canon is described in further detail here: how to scan film using a digital camera.
Given that the Canon 5D Mark II it’s the challenger we will compare it separately against each of the opponents.

Ready,set, GO

So let’s check first how this setup fares compared to the Epson V700, an excellent flatbed per se (still a flatbed though).
The images below are all 100% crops. First the “usual difference” between the output of the two systems: those crops belongs to a 6×4.5cm negative shot with an ultra-sharp Fuji GS 645 on a sturdy tripod and with a soft release. The Epson crop has been sharpened, the Canon one NOT (no kidding).
Epson 700V

Canon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar
Canon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar

Yes, the Epson (or any other flatbed scanner, for that matter) looks like an old man who is in desperate need of new glasses…
And now the best possible case (I saw the Epson behave so well only in rare occasions, like once or twice in a blue moon). The crops below were shot on a Hasselblad 500C/M with mirror up and using the standard 80mm f/2.8 Planar, tripod etc.
Epson 700V
Canon 5D mkII Makro Planar
Yep, you just witnessed the death of flatbed scanners as film-scanners. So buy the cheapest all-in-one or LIDE model you can get, just for bills and invoices, and be done.
But surely a drum scanner–a thing that costs more than many cars, and whose scans can cost 60/200 euros a pop–will put the Canon setup to shame?
Let’s see.
These crops were shot on a Linhof Technika 13x18cm with a Symmar-S 240mm f/5,6 lens. The drum image has been sharpened by the photo service, the Canon one is unsharpened:
Drum scanner Dainippon pre sharpened
Canon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar crop
No, I’ve not made a mistake.
Actually, I made one when I loaded the files in Photoshop. I gave both the same name – putting them in different folders – to make a sort of “blind test”. Well, I saw immediately that there was no contest, even though I made all the tests anyway. Boy oh boy I was up for a surprise…
This surprise came when I was saving the files: I used “Save as…” because I wanted to change back their names to something meaningful, and then I discovered that the file I was absolutely sure was of the Dainippon drum scanner, because obviously superior, was in fact the one shot with the Canon!
I even double checked the EXIF data, because I could not believe my eyes.
The amazing thing is that I did NOT used the lens at 1:1, or at 2:1 or 3:1 magnification like I do on 35mm film. So, in exceptional cases of extremely sharp negatives–say ultra sharp lenses and microfilm like films–I would be able to pull out even higher resolution!
And, just to clear any doubt you may have, here the two crops above after a good dose of sharpening:
Drum scanner Dainippon with more sharpening
Canon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar sharpened
To put things in perspective: those crops are from a 660MB greyscale file; seeing it like this on a monitor it’s like peeping at a print of 5.2 x 3.7 meters…meters.
At 240dpi I could still print it as large as 2.3 x 1,65 meters!
As I mentioned above, by increasing the reproduction ratio you can extract even more detail; see for yourself. All the following 100% unsharpened crops came from a 6x6cm negative shot like the ones before with a Hasselblad 500C/M, mirror up, standard 80mm f/2,8 Planar, tripod, etc.
The final crop has been resized at the 50% (at 3:1 there is more grain than detail, so keeping a gigantic file is pointless). And please ignore the tonality; this is a shot from a color negative, and I’m struggling a bit to find a suitable curve:
Hasselblad - complete image
Epson 700V
Canon + Contax Makro Planar
Canon + Nikkor 35 inverted
I showed here only few examples, but I tested this thoroughly with many images, colors and black and white, slides and negatives, and I consistently found the same results.
Even the tonalities of the films were much better preserved with the Canon than with the scanners. And, as an added bonus, including the picture borders or importing into the computer some odd format shots – 6×17, for example – it’s a breeze.
Summing up: forget about scanners.
Yes, if you have 3,000 euros laying around and you need to scan 100 shots a week by all means buy a Coolscan or an Imacon – but in this case, and for the sake of your own sanity consider going digital and lose film!
Instead, if you need just to scan your best shots, you may follow my advice and use the system described above.

Updates as of August 2016

I figured out my “scanning” procedure (documented here), while I was still shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II (21Mp).
This was in 2012 and since the arrival of much higher megapixel cameras my workflow has changed a bit, though not that much. Please keep in mind that a 36MP file prints at over 1 meter with ease, and that taking multiple shots of a piece of film as per my original procedure is more for the need to oversample the film than for the actual presence of so much detail on the film itself.*
Basically I now shoot with a Sony A7r and my process has been updated as follows:

Medium format

For medium format, I tend to take just 1 shot for the bulk of my frames. To do so I had to add another metal lens hood as a spacer. The new hood fits snugly inside the old one and for added security they are also taped together.
For the very special pictures, I now take between 2 and 4 shots, depending on how detailed they are to begin with.
I could maybe extract a smidgen more detail taking more “sectional” images, but the results are something that would be hardly visible in a very large print, if at all, so why bother?
Besides, if you read the article linked at the foot of this page you’ll see that most of that added detail would be grain / dye clouds.

35mm film

For 35mm film, even just 1 shot is normally way more than enough to extract all the detail, even accounting for oversampling. If I really want to be sure (super detailed films like Velvia, that I don’t shoot anymore anyway, or Adox CMS 20), I take 2 shots.
That’s it, all the rest has stayed the same. For a short time I substituted flashes for the light table (using an LED flashlight to focus), but honestly there wasn’t any/enough difference in terms of sharpness to justify the added complexity.
On the software side, I use Photoshop CS6 or Lightroom 6 indifferently to stitch the files together should I need to. I tried Autopano, and while it is a tad better in the trickiest situations, these don’t occur often enough for me to justify the expense and the disruption of my Lightroom-centric workflow.
*You can find wildly different values on the internet for the resolution of a piece of film. In my experience, even a medium format slide shot with perfect technique doesn’t have much more than 40Mp, at most. Should you be interested, you can see how I reached my conclusions, with 8.500ppi scans to back them up, here:
FEM: Film Equivalent Megapixels – redux

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About the author

Avatar - Gianluca Bevacqua

Gianluca Bevacqua

Gianluca is a fine art photographer based in the beautiful South of Italy. and runs

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  1. Definitely things to consider the next time I’m scanning for a billboard.
    Since I’ve never printed larger than 13×19, and almost no one outside of the graphics trades has, this quest for unneeded perfection baffles me.
    These film/print blowups have been going on since I was a teen……….six decades ago. In hindsight, I realize how foolish it is to seek perfection when a lesser standard is all one might – and usually does – need.
    I’d be more interested in the alternative scans printed out to, oh, 11×14, and have disinterested parties see if there is a difference.

  2. I’m sure that if you happen to have a FF DLSR and a macro lens then it’s a viable way of digitising film images; but the assumption that all readers of this film-based site have a FF DLSR is strange. I don’t have a digital camera other than a smartphone, and I have no plans to spend £2-3k to get one just to substitute for a scanner.

  3. Sorry, dude, your Epson is broken. I get MUCH sharper 100% crops from mine.This is a 50% crop from a 4×5 Polaroid Type 55 negative.

    1. I agree. My v750 is awesome and I make A1 prints that look great. I do use the betterscanning holder and spent many hours with a micrometer getting the height spot on, and I wet mount. I too have used a dslr, the D800 with a 60 macro and it was no better. This article is very misleading.

  4. @ Bill Blake (the reply button has disappeared!)
    I don’t know if this can help, but the only time I had a similar problem in terms of color consistency it had to do with the light I was using to “scan” the files.
    My guess is that it was flickering or something alike, and so changing its chromatic spectrum a bit between frames or when using different shutter speeds. When I swapped to another light table the problem disappeared.

    1. Addicted2light,
      That’s probably it. I’ll have to try an older light table I got with my drum scanner. I might have a drum scanner, but I’m still lazy and don’t want to go through that much work just to show something on twitter. Thanks for your input.

  5. My exeperience with DSLR “scanning” has not been good. Even when the sharpness is adequate the colors are atrocious.

    1. If we’re talking negative films the colors are often horrible because usually the scanning software (especially if you use something like Silverfast) makes corrections in the background, corrections that scanning with a DSLR you’ll have to do on your own.
      That said, with a bit of experience they are fairly easy to do with most films just using the color “Curves” in Photoshop or Lightroom. Generally you’ll need a fairly aggressive blue curve (to cancel out the orange mask), and a more gentle slope for the red and green curves.
      I say with most films because: a) if you or your lab screw up the development than the colors can be way off, with strange dominants all over the place; b) some films, like Ektar, exhibit sometimes different color casts in the shadows or in the highlights, and to correct these you’ll have to resort to “Luminosity masks” in Photoshop or to an equivalent system.

      1. I’m pretty good with tone curves, but by “atrocious” I mean that the colors don’t come out consistent across each frame, especially in the shadows. Something is physically wrong with the set up I used to scan the photos. It doesn’t matter much, however, since I now own a drum scanner. Actually, I’ve had it for a year, but I finally found a decent mounting station for the drum.

  6. I agree with my fellow commentard-wot no pictures!
    Seriously, why bother with the whole thing!? All you have to do is :
    1.Shoot a roll(s)
    2.Develop & PRINT your roll(s)
    3.Select the print(s) which you like the most/takes your fancy/shows of your skill & creativity as a photographer
    4.Scan print(s) using your common-as-muck MFD(Multi-function Device) printer
    5.Upload resulting image(s) to your favourite site/gallery/blog/social media platform
    6.Spend the resulting time saved by going out & shooting more film!

    1. Hi guys, there is some kind of problem with this site. The pictures are there on the original article (i.e. on my website). I’ve just sent an email to the admin, so hopefully this snafu shouldn’t last long.