Scanning Negatives the fast way (Part 1)

If you want to scan negatives at home there are few options. The most common these days is to use flatbed scanner with a negative attachment (which is basically a light inside the lid and some sort of plastic negative holder). Then there are dedicated film scanners that usually produce sharper results such as Canon CanoScan FS, Nikon CoolScan, Minolta multi Pro etc.., most of them being produced 20 years ago when the thing of scanning negatives was on everybody list which brings up the pesky issue of old drivers and new operating systems…

Both of these methods have one thing in common – it takes a very long time to scan number of frames, not even speaking about whole film rolls. Each frame scanning and processing would be measured in few minutes. Minute by minute and it can take easily few hours per roll of film. The worst part is that you have to sit next to it to attend it. If you have many rolls to scan the amount of actual time adds to a very boring weeks or even months.

Here I am describing a popular method of the past that has been largely forgotten and with modern digital cameras it produces results easily comparable to professional film scanners. But the biggest difference is that you can scan a whole roll of film in less than 2 minutes.

Enter the forgotten world of Macro Bellows

Having all on a single rails ensures that everything is is lined up, parallel and perfectly centered.

Macro bellows were commonly produced in the past for extreme close up photography by all major companies. (We are talking about 1970’s) Most of them would also offer some sort of film attachment for duplicating slide films and negatives.

Pictured on the left is a Vivitar bellows version with the copy atachement. Bellows are something like adjustable macro rings. By adding space between the lens and the camera we are able to focus much closer to the subject.

The best part is that you can find these dirt cheap (mostly because they need to be adapted to modern cameras and lenses before they can be actually used). In case of my Vivitar Bellows (which cost me whole $12 bucks with the film copy holder) that means adapting the camera and the lens to a T2 thread. The process of adapting may be much easier with bellows made by a single maker for their system such as Nikon which would then use Nikon mount with Nikon lenses.

Adapting camera and lens to the bellows may be a little challenging, depending on the mount – while there are sold adapters that allows attaching various old lens mount to any modern camera system, they are made for mirror-less cameras where the camera chip is much closer to the lens than it was on 35 mm cameras. That means the adapters are much thicker as they need to set the 35mm lens further from the mirror-less body. This may prove challenging as stacking those thick adapters on the bellows could make the whole system simply too long and unable to focus.
There are few solutions: Find bellows for mount that don’t need adapters – such as Nikon bellows or use mounts where old thin 35-mm adapters are still available. For example Pentax PK mount. Or make your own adapters.

In my case I want to mount Fuji X-T1 on T2 bellows which is probably the most challenging combination. The X mount is a new mount made for mirror-less cameras so there will be no way to find a thin adapter from FX to T2. I needed an adapter that is about 10mm-15mm thick but any adapters for fuji X would be twice that thick.
A simple solution is to 3D print the adapters. The 3D printed adapters works quite well with lighter cameras. The downside is that they will not last very long and the treads will wear very quickly.

On the left is a 3D printed adapter ring, on the right is a DIY metal adapter made by cutting down and gluing FX-T2 adapter.

More permanent solution is to make the adapters from metal parts if you are not afraid of some DIY. For the camera mount I’ve bought the thick FX-T2 adapter, removed the T2 insert, cut the barrel down, then glued the two parts with JB Weld making a 10mm thick adapter.

Old Pentax lenses are plentiful and great quality

As for the lenses, for 35mm frame you want to use a prime lens that is about 50mm – 60mm, best if it is macro capable. The 60mm is preferable as it allows bigger spacing between the bellows. the 50mm is pushing it even with the thin adapters.
There is also a trick which can be used with many other lenses – reversing them (yes you put the filter end towards the camera or another lens for a high quality close-up). This adds more complexity and more variables and I won’t go there. Fortunately there is a whole market for old used manual 50mm lenses that do not cost much.
I opted for pentax mount since it is very easy to find old PK lenses. I paid for the one on the left about $10 in a thrift store

Manual aperture ring is another thing that is found on old manual lenses and it is necessary otherwise you have no other way to set aperture. And you don’t want to use it wide open on fast lenses like the f2.0 above.

For the lens side of the bellows to mount the Pentax lens to T2 I could probably find some old thin T2 to PX adapter if I look hard, but I had some spare parts and a few minutes to spare.
I managed to use an old T2 to M adapter and a lens mount from old thrift shop Pentax film camera – aligned them all together, drilled thin holes and use small screws to put it all together.
Disassembling Pentax camera got me a bag full of miniature screws and parts for many future projects. Of course you have to be a bit handy as the precision needed to assemble one of those ring adapters feels more like jewelry making.

Some patient DIY work to create T2 to PK thin adapter from various camera parts.

It seems a lot of work to make the metal adapters and I won’t lie to you, it is. Instead, the 3D printing method is a quick and painless option to make semi-permanent adapters of any size. 3D printed adapters will not survive constant mounting and dismounting – the fine plastic thread will wear down fast. So it is more like mount it and forget it. But on the plus side you can make infinite combinations in any sizes. With my bellows journey I started with 3D printed adapters first until I found what would be the correct setup, then made the correct metal rings as a permanent solution. I have collection of STL files that can be used to whip such adapters together without much of 3d skills. I will post it in other article.

In my “production” version I actually ended up using a little beaten up Super Macro 50mm f4 Takumar lens that I found in the local ads. It even included M42 to PK adapter so I could just directly swap it with the previous Pentax 50mm without making new adapter ring. (Phew!)

The advantage of using macro lens is that you can use the lens itself to fine tune the focus to the film plate as it offers much wider focusing range. With non-macro lens you would probably use the bellows itself to focus since the non-macro lens can focus only in a very short range when mounted this way.

Macro lenses offers much bigger focusing range 

The last part is a light source behind the copy atachement which shouldn’t be a problem these days with plenty of LED photo lights. In my case the F4 of the lens was a good aperture that evens out any of old film curvature. I could set ISO 200 and shoot with about 1/30 to 1/60 shutter. The focus peaking on X-T1 makes precise focus very easy.

So what is the final word? The above contraption offers an incredible speed. “Scanning” entire roll of film is under 2 minutes – just basically how long it takes to advance the frame and press shutter button. As for quality it easily beats scanning on flat bed scanner – both for resolution and the sharpness and likely match dedicated film scanners.

In the next part we will create a process in Photo Reactor to quickly turn the negative images into properly adjusted and toned positive images.

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