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Scanning Black and White Negatives

There are many options when it comes to turning your physical negatives into digital art. In this article I am going to focus on the two most affordable methods and the ones that I use for my own photographs.


  • Send away to professionals that scan them for you. This is a great option if you send away your film for processing, because these companies will often include digital scans for a smallish extra charge.

  • Use a scanner. For some a film scanner may be an expensive purchase, and can be time consuming as they are often slow to upload each photo.

  • DLSR + Light Table: This is the method I most commonly use

  • iPhone + Light Table: Also a good option for quickly uploading photos for use on instagram

  • iPhone + iPad: Cheapest most easily accessible option.

DSLR + Light Table


This method will produce the highest quality results, but takes the most time and special equipment. I usually wait until I have multiple rolls to scan before setting up for this method. If sharpness or larger photos are your end goal, this will be the best way to achieve it.


  • DSLR or Mirrorless camera

  • Macro lens or tube extender for macro use

  • Tripod

  • Light Table

  • Remote shutter release

  • Computer with photo processing software

  • Canned air or rocket blower (optional)

  • Cardboard (optional)

tripod and DSLR with nikkor macro lens

Light Tables

Light box with flourescent tube used in viewing film negatives

Light box with fluorescent bulb 

  • Can be less expensive, or found used for very cheap

  • Great for viewing negatives

  • Uneven light in photos due to bulb placement

  • Problems scanning with faster shutter speeds due to flickering effect

screen shot of tracing table light box for sale online for viewing film negatives

LED light box 

  • Tables designed for tracing found inexpensive on Amazon, but might be low quality and not last as long.

  • Higher quality more expensive versions found on camera supply sites.

  • Even light throughout = great for scanning with DSLR and produces high quality photos. 

Camera Settings

Camera Settings

I use a Nikon D810 with an old manual 55mm f3.5 macro lens that I found in Hong Kong for ~$30. Any macro lens or regular lens with an extension tube will work for this purpose, although my results with extension tube + nice prime lens were not as good as my results with my old beat up cheap macro. 

  • ISO ~100 - 200

  • Shutter Speed ~ 1/15 to 1/60

  • Aperture ~8-16

  • Bracketing mode 3 shots 1 stop apart. 

Because we are doing macro photography, the depth of field will be shallow, and even though we are capturing a flat image, any curve in the film can throw parts of the image out of focus. So, I choose an aperture f8 or greater to help with sharpness across the frame. I try not to go over f16 where diffraction will start to affect the image. 

Negative Holder

It's important to keep the negatives flat directly against the light table. There are several ways one can accomplish this. I cut a square hole in a piece of cardboard slightly larger than the photo. I then tape one edge of the cardboard frame to the light table to act as a hinge. Once I've placed the negative under the frame I place small objects on top of the card board to help weigh it down and keep the negative flat. Not only will the focus be more accurate but this keeps the negatives aligned in the cameras view so in post processing you can quickly crop all the photos at one time.

The Process 

1. Set up your tripod with the center arm inverted, pointing down between the legs and adjust the ball head so when the camera is attached it will be pointing straight down.

2. Place the light table under the tripod, clean the surface with microfiber or dust rocket, and turn it on. 

3. Attach your remote shutter release (wireless or wired) to the camera, put the camera in manual mode with the settings listed above, and place the camera on the tripod.

Using Nikon d810 DSLR to take photos of film negatives
Nikon DSLR with marco lens scans medium format film negative on light box

4. Take the film out of its protective sheet and clean with blower rocket or specially designed cloth. Place flat on the light table under your homemade negative carrier.

5.  I use the bubble level app on my phone to get my camera as close to parallel the table as possible. Then use live mode to zoom in and manually focus on the negative.  

6. Step back and use the remote shutter to take the photo ( I usually take a 3 shot bracket for each). 

7. Slide the film to the next frame and repeat the process. I refocus the camera every four or five shots and if I bump the lens while moving the film.

Your photos are now ready to import to your computer and process! 

iPhone + Light Table


This method is great for people who do not own DSLRs or macro lenses. It is also great time saver if the end result is to publish on social media. The photos may not be as sharp as those taken with a DSLR, but may times, sharpness is not the goal of film photography and cool effects can be added with apps like snapseed.


  • iPhone or any camera phone

  • Light Table

  • Editing software on phone such as Snapseed or Lightroom Mobile

  • Canned air or rocket blower (optional)

  • Cardboard (optional)

The Process 

2. Open camera on the phone, get as close to the negative as you can and still have the camera focus. Touch the phone right on the image of the negative to let the phone know how to adjust the exposure, and take the photo.

Optional: Set up your phone under the accessibilty settings to use "smart invert" on triple clicking the home button. This will show a positive image of the negative! This is for viewing purposes only, as the camera will still capture the negative image which requires you to use software to flip it into a positive.

3. Take several photos as it will be using a slow shutter speed and any movement of your hands will blur the image. Out of three or four shots I usually have one that is sharp. 

1. Light table and negative set up are the same as above.

using iphone to photography medium format hasselblad 120 roll film negatives

Photographing the negative with an iPhone

using smart invert to view 120 film medium format negative

Using smart invert to preview the film as a positive.

Your photos are now ready to open in your favorite editing software!

Click here to see how I process my scans in snapseed.

iPhone + iPad

This is the least preferable method as the shutter speed on the iphone may not be long enough for the refresh rate on the iPad screen causing black lines in the scan. Also sometimes textures from the iPad screen will appear in the photo. But this is a good technique to have in your back pocket if you need to make a quick scan or preview of your negative.


  • iPhone or any camera phone

  • iPad or tablet

  • Editing software on phone such as Snapseed or Lightroom Mobile

  • Canned air or rocket blower (optional)

  • Cardboard (optional)

The Process 

1. Instead of using a light table, google for an image of a black white screen and turn the brightness on the iPad all the way up.

2. Set up the negatives as described above.

3. Use the phone to photograph the negative as described in the previous section.

Apple iPad with white screen used as a scanning bed for medium format film



After some light editing, which one do you think looks the best?

Hover your mouse over the photo to see which photo is from which method of scanning.

iPhone with Light Table

Nikon with Light Table

iPhone with iPad as light table

Zoomed out, they are all pretty comparable which goes to show that you really don't need any fancy equipment to scan and share your medium format photos. Zoomed in you can definitely tell the difference in sharpness, however most of the problems with the iPhone are from camera shake and could be solved by securing it rather than hand holding. The iPad is most definitely the worst zoomed in, not only do you have issues of shake but also with the screen giving off a bit of a textured pattern.

Taos Pueblo photograph with Hasselblad 500cm 50mm lens black and white ilford film

Nikon D810 w 55mm3.5 marco lens

f 11, 1/20sec, 125 ISO

Huion LED light box

edited in Lightroom 

scanned film image zoomed in to reveal sharpness
Hasselblad Taos photograph using 120 roll film

iPhone 7 

Huion LED light box

edited in Snapseed 

iphone photograph of black and white film, edited with snapseed

What is your preferred method for turning film into digital media?

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