How to Digitize Negatives and Slides With a Lightbox and Macro Lens

How to Digitize Negatives and Slides With a Lightbox and Macro Lens


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Any film photographer (and that includes those of us old enough to have shot with film before using digital) should be interested in ways to digitize negative and slides.

If you already have a scanner, that’s great. You’ll get reasonable results from most of them. But there’s a cost in terms of efficiency as the scanning process is slow. Scanning also creates TIFF files that take up lots of hard drive space.

Neither of these matter much if you’re only going to scan a few negatives or slides. But they matter more if you have a lot of film.

Digitized slide French window shutters

It’s much easier to use a macro lens and a lightbox, especially if you don’t have a scanner. Your wallet will thank you as it’s much cheaper to buy a lightbox than it is to buy a good scanner. As a bonus you can use lightboxes for other types of photography, such as photographing pressed flowers.

And of course you can use a macro lens for many things other than digitizing negatives and slides.

Digitized slide French cafe

Why do photographers digitize negatives and slides?

In the digital age we’ve got used to working at high speed. You can take a photo with your camera and view it instantly. You can import it into Lightroom Classic in a few seconds and start work in the Develop module right away. Digital photography has bought us speed and convenience.

Viewing slides and negatives is much more difficult. Back in the day photographers used lightboxes and loupes to evaluate their slides and negatives. Anyone who remembers squinting through a loupe to see which negatives were worth developing, or which slides were keepers, will appreciate how much easier things are now.

Digitized slide Peak district

Digitizing slides and negatives means that you can see your older photos on your computer screen. You can organize them into Collections in Lightroom. You can even print your favorites and create new artwork for your home.

If you have a good photo backup strategy (and you should!) those digitized photos get archived along with the rest of your photos. This is important because slides and negatives fade. They’re also vulnerable to mould or fungus if stored in damp conditions. As for surviving a fire or flood – forget it.

Digitized slide French tractor

Personally I love looking at photos taken a long time ago. I made all the photos illustrating this tutorial in France, Spain or the UK around 25 years ago. As well as being slightly shocked by how quickly time slides by, it’s given me an interesting glimpse into the past.

Digitized slide French flower pots

How to digitize negatives and slides with a lightbox and macro lens

Using a digital camera rather than a scanner has two advantages.

  • It’s quicker.
  • You can use the Raw format. You save hard drive space and get full control over developing settings, including assigning profiles and adjusting White Balance.
Digitized slide French chateau

What if I don’t have a macro lens?

If you don’t have a macro lens the easiest solution is to use a 50mm prime lens (if you have one) with an extension tube. It’s easier if you’re digitizing medium format film as you need less magnification.

Another option is to buy an inexpensive legacy manual focus macro lens from eBay and a lens mount adaptor for your camera.

Digitized slide French poster

How to digitize negatives and slides step by step

1. Set your camera on a tripod facing downwards. You need to make sure the camera is as level as you’ll get the best results when the digital sensor is parallel with the lightbox. You can do this by eye, or better still, using a hotshoe spirit level.

Note: A purpose built copy stand is even easier to use. Small copy stands are relatively inexpensive to buy.

2. Place your lightbox underneath your camera, turn it on and set the brightness to its highest setting. Place your slide or negative on top of the lightbox and focus on it.

Now you have to work out how to get your camera close enough to the lightbox to fill the frame with the negative or slide. It’s easy with a copy stand, more complicated if you’re using a tripod. You may have to splay the tripod legs out wide to do it.

3. The next step is to use some black card or foamboard and cut a hole in it. The card blocks out the light surrounding the slide or negative, which creates flare and makes it harder to get a good quality result.

Hole in cardboard for slide

4. If you’re digitizing a slide place it over the hole in the cardboard. If it’s a negative or unmounted slide place it underneath so the cardboard keeps it flat. Set the camera’s aperture to f8 or f11 for a combination of good image quality and depth of field. Set the ISO to the lowest setting your camera offers, and a shutter speed that gives a good exposure. Focus the lens (manually is best) and take the photo with either a cable release or the two second self-timer.

Macro lens slide copying setup

Now you can swap our your slides or negatives one by one. It’s a quick and easy process once you’ve set it up.

Things to note

  • I did this during the day, so that I could photograph the set up, but you’ll get better quality if you do it at night and turn the lights off once you start to prevent extraneous light hitting the front of the slide and reducing the image quality. Another option is to make a cardboard tube that fits around the lens hood and rests on the black card.
  • This process works best with bright slides and thinner negatives. I couldn’t get a usable result from my darker slides.
  • You may notice faults in your technique that you didn’t know existed. For example, for many years I used manual focus lenses and it’s obvious that I didn’t get sharp focus as often as I thought.
  • Slides are prone to odd color casts, so be prepared to do a little work in Lightroom Classic or Photoshop to correct them.
  • This method is easy if you have mounted slides but for unmounted film you’ll appreciate some assistance when it comes to keeping it flat.

The best tool I’ve seen for this are Lomography’s Digitalizer holders (available for 35mm and medium format film).

Digitized slide French street

How to develop negatives in Lightroom Classic

Slides are relatively easy to develop in Lightroom Classic, but what if you’re digitizing negatives? You have a couple of options. The first is to export your scanned photos to Photoshop where you can use the Invert function (Image > Adjustments > Invert) to turn your negative image into a positive one.

Digitized negative Cadiz street

The second option is to buy the Negative Lab Pro plugin. It costs $99 but works well and gives you a lot of custom options. Best of all it lets you stay in Lightroom Classic and work with your Raw files, potentially saving lots of hard drive space if you’re planning to digitize large numbers of negatives. A trial version of the plugin’s available if you want to test it.

Digitized slide French windows

Conclusion

As you can see from the photos in this tutorial the results from using a macro lens and a lightbox to digitize negatives and slides are good. You’ll get better results from a high end scanner, but it’s going to cost more money and take more time. If you’re looking for a quick and relatively inexpensive way to digitize negatives and slides, then this is it.

Digitized slide French building

Further reading


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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

Comments

  1. Nice article. Thank you
    Nikon makes a dedicated digitizing adapter (ES-2) to be used with a 60mm macro lens. I have recently done a few tests with slides I digitized some time ago with a Minolta Dimage Elite 5400 Scanner and in general the results are almost indistinguishable from the scanned ones. However, there is no ICE (spot and scratch removal) function when photographing the slides, but it offers the possibility of some kind of HDR to improve dynamic range.
    I am building an adapter to use my new 105mm, which is a much better glass than the 60mm, with the ES-2 adapter
    Of course I am using the direct photography method with the lightbox and black mask for my 6×6 slides.

  2. Thanks Andrew, helpful tips as usual. I wavered between a slide/negative copier and a macro lens, but the choice of a macro was easy, as a lens is much more fun than a copier that can only be used for one thing. Good tip about the card covering the light box, I’ll give that a try.
    I’ve used Lightroom 5 to reverse my negatives, but results are varied and lots of time spent getting decent results, a couple of basic presets have helped. Unfortunately, I don’t think Negative Prolab is compatible with my version of Lightroom, are you aware of any other plug-ins or standalone packages that would quicken the process?… thanks for the articles, always informative.

  3. Hi Andrew…I found your article on scanning slides and negatives very timely as I have been looking for a better alternative than my flatbed scanner that I thought would make the process easier.

    Can you recommend a lightbox? Some of the ones I have come across have mentioned that they aren’t the best if being used to scan slides or film.

    Thanks

  4. Great article. I just organized all of my slides and negatives (literally thousands and thousands of them) into Archival Storage Sheets, clear quality polyethylene – NO PVC – safe for long term storage. Each 8.5″ x 11″ sheet holds individual slides or negative strips. I then placed each sheet on my Light Table, blocked out the light around the sheets with solid tag board and took a picture of it like you just described for individual frames. I made a digital contact sheet for each sheet. I used a lens set to approximately 50 mm (normal). I now have large 3-ring binders holding all of my storage sheets that have been cataloged with a separate sheet number. These sheet numbers are the file names for my digital contact sheets. Now I can review the digital contact sheets to sort what I have. Then I can either take the time to make an exposure either with the camera like you just described or a scan of individual frames. This saves a ton of time as opposed to digitizing all of the individual frames first.

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