Digitizing Film

As I wrote before, usually the film is scanned into digital files, so I do not treat analog photography differently from digital.

There are many reasons to digitize film, and one is to unify the post-production workflow, including backup.

So far I discovered the following approaches to scanning:

  1. Let the photo lab to do it.
  2. Use a dedicated film scanning device.
  3. Scan at home using a scanner.
  4. Take a picture of the film using a digital camera.

Before I just asked the lab to provide me the scans, and they asked the question which resolution do I need. Since I was new to film photography and scanning, I asked which resolution is the most popular. The answer was a medium res, $10 for 36 frames. In two days I had an email with the link to download my scans. Each JPG file had 2205 × 1470 pixels and around 1 MB size. The quality was good, and I was happy.

After watching some YouTube videos, I found out that people prefer scanning at home, and use scanners or digital cameras to get high-res files. One point was really interesting – to get a RAW image of the film frame. The RAW image means much more information to play with to get the best results possible.

Since I had my Canon DSLRs already, I tried the lenses I have already. The image of the frame was too small. I used a set of cheap close-up filters to boost macro capability, but distortion was too great to fix it in post. Then I ordered cheap macro tubes, and it did not work either.

Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro

There are two versions of this lens: the new Art version, and the previous, non-Art version. I was looking for something cheap, hence non-Art. Both lenses have a special flat design to take pictures of the prints and film.

Negative Lab Pro forum has a whole showcase of DSLR film scanning setup. People are very creative in ensuring that the light source is bright and even, the focus is sharp, and the rig is stable. There is no right or wrong way to do it.

I use Capture One tethering to take a picture.

There is no good solution for film conversion inside of Capture One yet. People use Negative Lab Pro plugin for Adobe Lightroom Classic, that is expensive and requires Adobe Creative subscription.

My decision is to use Film Lab for Mac.

Film Lab converts negative RAW image into JPG or TIFF. The adjustments are basic, but auto settings work just fine. This is a really good alternative to Negative Lab Pro for Capture One users.

I keep RAW negatives (true Digital NeGatives DNG!) in Capture folder, and converted JPG/TIFF in Selects folder.

The next steps are identical to the normal digital images Post-Production.

Post-Production Workflow

The workflow ideally should be simple and stable, independent from various gear and software changes.

  1. Pre-Production
  2. Production
  3. Post-Production
  4. Publishing

Let’s talk about step 3, Post-Production.

Usually the film is scanned into digital files, so I do not treat analog photography differently from digital.

The digital camera always records the image in the RAW format, which is the Digital Negative analog of the film. Some cameras hide the RAW file and allow to get the processed JPG file instead.

My understanding is that the RAW file is what we are talking about here.

Task 3.1 Import Original Files

Usually people choose Adobe Lightroom Classic or Capture One software.

Adobe Lightroom Classic

Capture One

Capture One offers Catalog or Sessions for the library function. I prefer Sessions. The copied files are saved in Capture folder.

Capture One Import Window

Adobe Lightroom Classic offers Catalog only in the Library module.

Adobe Lightroom Classic Import Window

Task 3.2 Backup Original Files

Making two backup copies in addition to the one that was imported.

Get Backup Pro

Get Backup Pro

I use two G Drives 4 TB each, PROD and BACKUP 1

Task 3.3 Select Images to Process – Culling

Both applications offer Contact Sheet View, which is how the analog photography editors looked at the film to decide which image to choose.

Magnum Contact Sheets

Capture One in Sessions uses a special folder called Selects, and has menu items and a keyboard shortcut to move a file from Capture folder to Selects folder.

Capture One Contact Sheet View

Lightroom has a special flag called Pick and a keyboard shortcut to mark the file as Selected.

Adobe Lightroom Classic Contact Sheet View

Task 3.4 Process Selected Images

This step is the most complicated, and can be expanded to the infinity.

The main idea is that the photographer before taking a picture has a visualization of the end result in mind. The camera cannot capture it exactly, and therefore, the captured image needs adjustments to reflect the original visualization.

Usually a camera has a low dynamic range, problems with the white balance, gives flat looking images that need some crop.

The assumption is that all the things that can be done right in the camera itself are done in the camera. The post is not for making an image, just for the modest corrections.

Lightroom Classic has a whole marketplace of presets and plugins, Capture One not so much.

My favorite plugin is Nik Collection, which works with Lightroom and Capture One

One thing about Lightroom Classic – you do not need a subscription to process the image. The Library module still has access to the adjustment controls after the subscription is expired.

My preference is Capture One. It has that high end experience that Lightroom lacks.

Task 3.5 Export Processed Images

The export requirements are given by the client or publishing provider.

Instagram requirements – 1080 pixels

Capture Pro has a built in Instagram optimized export recipe (preset). The exported files are saved in a separate Output folder.

Capture One Instagram Recipe

Lightroom has also some Export presets.

Adobe Lightroom Classic Export Presets

Task 3.6 Backup Processed and Exported Images

In this case not only files need to be copied, but also a Catalog backup needs to be done, because all the changes to the RAW file are preserved in the Catalog or Session file only.

Capture One Catalog allows to import Sessions, so all the adjustments can be saved as one backup. This is how the backup folder looks like after being created by Capture One or Lightroom Classic. Usually it takes less space than when you copy the entire catalog manually.

Capture One Catalog Backup
Adobe Lightroom Classic Catalog Backup


That’s the major steps that I would take for any film or digital photography. The mindset and concepts should be the same regardless of the gear or software. The idea of the workflow is to stop thinking about the post-production steps, but rather free yourself to focus on what matters – the image itself.