Tips and Tricks

Digitizing Film Ⅱ, Master Class: Digitizing Negatives and Positives

Narrated by YAMANO Yasuteru

Basic Techniques (35 mm Slide Film)

Photographing slide film is basically run-of-the-mill macro photography, differing only in that the subject is a frame of film, so you need only take the same care that you would in accurately photographing any other small object. The biggest difference between slide film and most other subjects is that the colors and tones have already been adjusted to create a finished work.

1. Inserting Slides

Mounted slides can be inserted into the FH‑5 slide mount holder (below, “FH‑5”). Unmounted slide film can be inserted into the FH‑4.

After removing dust and lint from the film with a blower, insert the holder into the ES‑2 holder insertion slot.

A slide inserted in the FH‑5
The ES‑2 film digitizing adapter with supplied accessories

2. Adjusting Camera Settings

Given that your subject is, as noted above, a finished photograph, it is important that settings be adjusted so that its colors and tones can accurately be converted to digital. Colors and tones can be regulated using Picture Controls, and exposure modified appropriately by adjustments to metering mode and exposure compensation. Effective use can also be made of white balance in compensating for the light source. Choosing NEF (RAW) format lets you use NEF (RAW) processing for precise adjustments to white balance and Picture Controls after shooting. Exposure must however be tuned before shooting, regardless of the option selected for image quality. The description that follows provides settings for recording JPEG or TIFF pictures for immediate use.

The recommended settings are given below. See Sections 2.1 through 2.3 for details.

White balance: Keep white (reduce warm colors)
Picture Control: Flat
Metering: Matrix metering or Highlight-weighted metering

2.1 White Balance

Turning first to white balance, choose Keep white (reduce warm colors) for slides featuring subjects that vary widely in color and brightness. Keep white (reduce warm colors) may not however have the desired results if the slide is dominated by a single color (as when the subject is a blue sky or a green field); better results can often be achieved by selecting Preset manual and measuring white balance without the slide inserted. Given the above, it would probably be best to try Keep white (reduce warm colors), switching to Preset manual if you are not satisfied with the result.

2.2 Picture Controls

When photographing slide film, experiment first with the Flat Picture Control. Slide film is processed to emphasize contrast and saturation, and it is therefore desirable to keep any further in-camera image enhancement to a minimum. Although there will of course be situations in which Standard or Vivid would better match your artistic intent, it seems more efficient to first view the image with Flat selected and then adjust Picture Control parameters or choose Standard or Vivid only if you feel that contrast and saturation require heightening.

Choosing a Picture Control (matrix metering)
Choosing a Picture Control (highlight-weighted metering)

2.3 Metering and Exposure

One approach to metering is to choose matrix metering and adjust exposure compensation as necessary, but you can instead select highlight-weighted metering if you would like to preserve details in highlights. Given that highlight-weighted metering adjusts exposure to preserve details in highlights, it may however not produce mid-tones with the desired brightness or dynamic range, in which case you can get the desired results by adjusting exposure compensation or the contrast and brightness Picture Control parameters.

When adjusting exposure, you can choose and adjust Picture Controls and hone exposure while viewing the histogram in live view to ensure that highlights are preserved. To enable the histogram display in live view, press to preview exposure and then press the info button a few times. I encourage you to try it, as being able to judge whether tone information is preserved in highlights or shadows before shooting can be a tremendous confidence booster.

Live view
Exposure preview with histogram
The histogram shows that highlights are preserved (highlight-weighted metering).
You can see here that highlights are washed out (matrix metering).

3. Taking Photographs

Insert the film in the ES‑2, point the diffuser screen at the light source, and frame the shot.
After that, you need only focus and shoot. Photographs are recorded in the format selected for Image quality and, when an NEF (RAW) option is selected, NEF (RAW) recording.

More on the Negative Digitizer

  Features That Cannot Be Used with the Negative Digitizer

While the negative digitizer is very useful, there are a number of features with which it can’t be used; I’ve listed these below so that this won’t be mistaken for a malfunction. While the explanation is obvious in the case of features that disable live view altogether, in other cases it can be confusing to press the i button to select Negative digitizer, only to find it grayed out. As a regular user of silent photography, my first instinct is to check whether silent photography is enabled. Frequent users of bracketing, HDR, and silent photography should take note, as the problem is easily solved once the connection between these settings and the negative digitizer is understood.

(1) Interval timer shooting (live view not available)
(2) Multiple exposure (live view not available)
(3) Focus shift shooting (live view not available)
(4) Bracketing (Negative digitizer not available)
(5) HDR (High Dynamic Range; Negative digitizer not available)
(6) Silent live view photography (Negative digitizer not available)

  Handling Old Color Negatives

There’s something I’ve noticed since the D850 came out with negative digitizer and I started using it as a handy tool for keeping my film in order: readers no doubt remember the “vinegar syndrome” that degraded the base material in film of a certain age, rendering it unusable, but while my store of film fortunately was unaffected, I have noticed uneven colors caused by color changes and fading in many of the color negatives I have processed using the D850’s negative digitizer. Given that the film is over 30 years old, such decay is hardly surprising, but it escaped my attention because the color of the base makes slight changes in color hard to detect. When I first encountered this phenomenon I thought my camera was at fault, but once I noticed that a substantial amount of film exhibited no noticeable fading and that specific makes of film showed a tendency to fade, I realized that film degradation was the culprit. Although I cannot offer a universal solution, as film degradation is widely known to heavily dependent on storage conditions, I can give a few examples of how to handle it.

While these are not by any means perfect solutions, here are a few examples of how I have dealt with the color fading that occurs as film ages.


Color changes caused by film degradation vary from one part of the image to another in both type and degree, resulting in uneven colors that produce a sense of dissonance. Color changes wouldn’t be a problem were they consistent over the entire image, as the camera would handle them as it would a base of a different color. It follows that if you can restrict the scanned area to a portion of the frame where the degradation is consistent, the dissonance caused by uneven colors would be lessened or eliminated entirely. While this method cannot be used if the degradation has produced inconsistent effects within the area you want to scan, feel free to try it where conditions permit.

Converting to Black-and-White

While admittedly it seems a waste not to use color information when digitizing color film, this is a solution that can be applied where age has caused colors to deteriorate and cropping cannot be used. I employ it myself when dealing with color negatives marred by spotty colors, as it is better than not digitizing the image at all. Even if color data cannot be recovered, heritage images can still be preserved in black-and-white. It may even be appropriate to use this not only as a way to rescue faded pictures but as a new and unexpected way to enjoy ordinary images by converting them to works of art.

Film with spotty colors caused by aging
Spotty colors rendered almost undetectable by conversion to black-and-white

  When Colors Don’t Look Right

For reasons having to do with ease of use, the D850’s negative digitizer supports only exposure adjustment and lacks more challenging color and level controls. While it produces good results with most film, it may fail to produce the desired hues in photos dominated by a single color, for example pictures in which a bird or the like occupies a small part of the frame with the remainder consisting entirely of blue sky.

In cases like these, I choose not to use the negative digitizer but instead digitize the film as I would a slide; I then use image editing software to reverse and adjust the colors, including correcting for the color of the base. I shoot the images in NEF (RAW) format, which can withstand extensive editing.

Column: Applied Techniques Ⅱ

Readers are probably curious as to the quality of images digitized by this method. To the key question of whether the image information recorded on the film is preserved in the digital image data, we can answer “Yes”.

With over 45 million pixels, the D850 has an input resolution of over 5000 dpi with respect to a frame of 35 mm film, high enough to reliably capture the individual grains in most film. Resolution, then, is not an issue; the next concern is color reproduction and tone range. The reproduction of color negatives can be safely left to the D850’s negative digitizer, while with slides one need only adjust Picture Controls to accurately capture color and tone. The key to the latter is choosing the Flat or Neutral Picture Control and adjusting the individual parameters with reference to the histogram.

The image data so obtained can, if the original on film is sufficiently sharp, be printed at A1 size (594 mm × 841 mm, or 23.4 in. × 33.1 in.) with an output resolution of about 250 dpi, quality sufficient for display. I encourage everyone to bring their existing film assets into the digital age via digitization.

Tips and Tricks > Digitizing Film Ⅰ, the Basics: Digitizing Negatives

Profile of YAMANO Yasuteru

Photographer and researcher of photographic techniques. Born in 1954 in Kagawa. Has been publishing photos and articles in astronomical journals since the 1970s. Has published many digital photos and articles relating to digital astronomical photography since the year 2000. Member of the Society of Photography and Imaging of Japan (SPIJ).

Functions Used for Digitizing Film Ⅱ, Master Class: Digitizing Negatives and Positives
View detailed information on the settings and procedures used.

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