Alan's Blog

 

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Digitising Your Medium Format Photograph Collection

Note: This article does not deal with scanning prints which is a totally different topic. It is also aimed at a transparency / negative size obtained from medium format film cameras (120 roll film). When digitising other sizes of transparency / negative you may need to use different equipment although the same principles apply.

Some time ago I described how I am digitising my 35 mm collection of transparencies and negatives (refer to URL: http://www.alsblog.co.uk/digitising_photos.html). However, at that time, I hadn't worked out how I was going to do likewise with my medium format film images – again, a collection of many thousands of images, mainly in the 6 cm x 4.5 cm format.

The theory for copying the larger film format is much the same, however, I've used different equipment because of the different film size.

My first thought on how to copy these images was to spend a considerable amount of my hard-earned cash on a good flatbed scanner. I soon abandoned that idea, mainly because of the poor image quality that would have been the result. This was brough to my attention by avidly studying the website at URL: https://www.filmscanner.info/en/. What was revealed was that the scanner resolution specified by the scanner manufacturer bore no resemblance to the 'real' figure that was actually obtainable. The other factor, which was a factor we'd previously encountered in our scanning many years ago, was just how long it takes to scan even a small number of images. Think of several hours to scan, say, even 50 images. This is just not on when one has thousands of images to digitise.

As when digitising my 35 mm images, I decided to use my digital SLR. This time the setup would be the same in principle, but use different equipment. As a starting point, I decided to buy a new light source which would be many times small than the original light box I'd been using previously. I bought an A4 size LED illuminated Tracing Light box – a slim panel, which is only a few millimetres thick and produces a very white light (this is important or you'll have a yellow / orange colour cast on your copies. The colour temperature of the LED panel I bought, which is adjustable, is in the range of 9000 K to 12 000 K, which is ideal. The power it needs is only 4.5 W and it gets this from one of the USB ports on my laptop computer.

The next piece of kit that I needed to obtain was something that would hold the film in place, either as individual frames or as a strip of frames. For this I bought a medium format film holder that was an accessory for a flatbed scanner.

To take the copy of the piece of film I was copying, I needed to be able to near-enough fill the frame of my camera with the image I was copying. This meant I could use a macro lens (expensive!) or a standard 50 mm lens with automatic extension tubes fitted between the lens and the camera body (quite inexpensive).

Now to the camera and lens combination. When I was digitising my 35 mm film images, I used a set of bellows and a very good film holder which stopped any extraneous light from entering the area where the image was being help – that is no light shining on the front of the film, the only light source being behind the film being copied. Using this equipment meant that focussing and aperture settings had to be carried out manually – adding to the complexity as well as the time taken to take each photograph.

In my set-up for medium format I don't have the 'light-proofing' facility but I haven't found it to be an issue just as long as I keep the room ambient lighting at a lot level. I even screen excessive light from the LED panel to reduce this.


The advantage of using auto-extension tunes (over bellows) is that they directly couple to the electronics of the camera which means that the autofocus still works, and the camera and lens combination can be adjusted directly from the keyboard and monitor of your computer (assuming you have the correct software that allows you to do this). Connecting your camera to your computer and controlling everything remotely is a great asset.

Another small but useful piece of kit is a small spirit level to ensure the camera is level with the LED panel, and hence the film being digitised. Depth of field at these short distances between camera and image is very shallow, even when using very small apertures such as f16 or even f22, so getting the camera to be exactly parallel with the film being digitised will ensure more accurate focussing and hence higher quality results.

Another tip when digitising your film images is to always shoot using your camera's RAW facility. JPEG images are next to useless for this process and you will get much better results after processing your RAW files than you will any other way. Also, when taking the photograph, it is a good idea to block out any light that can enter the viewfinder of your camera as this can affect the exposure setting. As, I hope, you'll be controlling your camera using your computer, you won't need to look through the viewfinder anyway, so this isn't a problem when you're working.

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