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Scanning 1920's medium and large format negatives

Audrey Vivian , Jun 27, 2009; 10:27 p.m.

I am relatively new to the field of negatives, slides and converting them to digital. My grandma has between 300-500 old 1920's era negatives, black and white, that she would like to have converted to digital. I have a scanner (Canoscan LiDE 80) that has a 35 mm film adapter but it obviously can't hold bigger negatives. Can I scan large negatives without a film adapter? Does my scanner have a built in transparency adapter, therefore making it capable of scanning them without any additional adapters? Any other advice or scanner recommendations will be greatly appreciated!

Responses

Guido H , Jun 28, 2009; 03:29 a.m.

The LiDE 80 is a very basic scanner which produces only modest tonal range and resolution by today's standards. Its film adapter is suitable for strips of 35mm negative or slide film only; there is no way to scan transparencies or larger formats. Even the 35mm scans don't really look good.

For your application, I would recommend a better scanner along the lines of the Epson V700/V750, which has a full set of film holders for 35mm, slides, medium format, and 4x5", plus a holder for negatives of non-standard size.

Ben Bangerter , Jun 28, 2009; 07:14 a.m.

I have recently been digitizing a variety of b/w negatives from the 1920s, '30s and '40s handed down from my father. The negatives range in size from 1 5/8"x2 1/2" to 3"x4" and are from a variety of cameras (unknown to me), most presumably inexpensive "box" and folding camers of that era. I have been taping the negatives to a small lightbox (a ~10"x~12" Porta-Trace) and photographing them with a Canon 300D (6.1 MP), using an old Takumar SMC 50 f/4 macro lens (m42 mount) at f/11 with manual focus and exposure.

Once everything is set up (on a sturdy table top, camera on a tripod and carefully leveled and aligned with the lightbox) the process is very fast. It takes ~30 sec per exposure, with most of that time spent dusting the negative, taping it to the box, and removing it after the shot So I can "scan" more than 100 negatives an hour in this manner. I shoot raw and process in Adobe Camera Raw and PS CS2. The resolution resulting from this method is obviously not high but most of the negatives are not high-quality and my need is for prints of 5"x7" or smaller. An example is attached.

My alternative would have been to buy a new flatbed scanner with a transparency adapter, and the inexpensive ones capable of 2 1/4" wide film would not have been adequate for the larger negatives. I already had everything I needed for the method I have described. You really do need a true macro lens for this I think, for the close focusing and the flat field.


Lightbox "scan" method

Eric Luden , Jun 28, 2009; 10:06 a.m.

HI Audrey. I would agree with Guido. I'd invest in the Epson V750 scanner. You can get very high quality scans and the SilverFast scanning software that comes with it is very good. You can set some basic parameters and set up a fairly automated workflow. We use this scanner for the large format negatives and the Nikon 9000 with a glass carrier for our 35mm & medium format film.

Marc Bergman , Jun 28, 2009; 10:34 a.m.

I would measure the size of the negatives. For 120 sized roll film you could do fine with the Canonscan 8800 or the Epson V500. They cost about $200.

Michael Hendrickson , Jun 30, 2009; 05:08 a.m.

The older Epson 4870 will scan up to 4x5 with the holders that come with it and does a great job. If you can find one refurbished or good used condition, that could work really well and would save you a few hundred dollars.

The 4990 seems to be the same but with a larger light lid; I think it'll do up to 8x10 but I don't recall what film holders it comes with.

As noted above, it does all depend on the size of the largest negatives you'll be scanning. The larger the film, the more the scanner will cost.

But regardless, it would pay for itself, scanning that big a project, even if you go for something like the newer Epsons.

By the way, I really like the Epson line (I supposed you guessed) not only for the high quality but also because the software it comes with is nicely intuitive and works out really well.

Tom Halfhill , Jul 02, 2009; 03:53 p.m.

Audrey, I have scanned more than 1,000 old box-camera negatives that my grandmother made between 1914 and the 1960s. The advice that others have given here is pretty good. I have used an Epson 4870 and Epson V700 flatbed scanner with transparency lids. I haven't used an Epson V500 but I hear it's a good low-cost scanner.

One thing no one else has mentioned is film holders. Most scanners come with holders for 35mm, 120/220, and 4x5 negatives, but not for some older film formats. Most of my grandmother's negatives were Kodak 116 format, introduced in 1899 and discontinued in 1984. This obsolete box-camera format is 2.5 inches wide, not 2.25 inches like 120/220. The negs were too wide for the scanner's film holders. I had to make my own film holder -- first of cardboard, later using the wooden sticks that come in frozen corn dogs.

You can improvise a film holder using almost any materials. The important things are keeping the negatives flat and holding them slightly above the scanner's glass, without touching. A little experimentation will confirm the best focus point. You can adjust focus by adding or removing shims.

Don't underestimate the time required for your project. It took me a few years, working whenever I had time. Start with the most important negatives or those showing evidence of deterioration.

I scanned my grandmother's negs at 1200 dpi, which yielded images of about 25 megapixels. That's actually overkill for these negs, which are not high quality.

Mary Phillps , May 28, 2012; 02:19 p.m.

After reading this blog I purchased a Porta-trace on ebay for $20.00. I filmed my negatives on automatic with my Canon Rebel EOS. I then used Picasa 3 and cropped the pictures/used the inverted color option and watched my pictures come alive... With Picasa 3 you have lots of options and found it wonderful.


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