I’m a big fan of black and white photography, and have tons of negatives from pictures I’ve taken over the years. Unfortunately, the prints I’ve had developed were not well made, and I don’t have a darkroom anymore, so scanning the slides is my best option.
There are special scanners you can buy that have a light-source built into the top of them for scanning slides or negatives. This device lights the negative as the scanner passes underneath. I’ve managed to rig up a similar system using a regular scanner and just a piece of Canson Pro Layout Marker paper without any special lighting. Color slides or negatives, by the way, won’t scan properly with this system, only black and white.
Scanner with negatives
To make a print a light source is projected through the negative or slide onto emulsion-coated paper. The reason a regular scanner is not recommended for negatives is it doesn’t have that back lit source, so you’d only be scanning the front and not lighting the negative properly. You could just scan a print, but scanning the negative itself directly will give you better resolution.
What got me started on this project was reading an article about a guy who claimed to get decent scans using a florescent light and a plastic cover to light the negative as it was scanned. The white plastic sheet creates a diffused light through the back of the negative that gave him a proper scan, sort of like how a projection screen works. Unfortunately, my first test of that gave me poor results. The light was too bright. What needs to be controlled is the amount of light coming through the negative. Too much light will blind the scanner and give an image that is too bright. Not enough light will make it too dark.
After trying a series of different screens from paper to plastic and different light sources, I found what worked the best for me was the layout paper and dim daylight. The room was dimly lit by sunny daylight through closed blinds. I left the scanner top open, and placed the negative on the glass covered by the paper. After scanning you’ll need digital software that can invert the colors in the image. My scanner only goes up to 1200dpi, and if I reduce that to 300dpi I’ll get a good 4 x 6” print. If your scanner has a higher dpi that’s even better.
The Negative Inverted
Another problem you need to be aware of is negatives curl from the emulsion that’s on them which causes them to not lie flat on the glass, and that gives a blurred scan. The paper alone won’t be enough to keep them flat. Slide scanners come with a plastic frame holder that keeps the negatives flat, and to do the same with this customized setup you need to press down the paper and negatives flat, but not block the light passing through or cast a shadow over the negative. I found that I could only manage to scan one or two strips at a time this way but that was okay with me. Also make sure that everything is clean and dust free.
If you want to scan in color, you’ll likely have to get a slide scanner. There are light tables that have special lamps in them for photography (I assume the scanners use these too,) and you could then shoot them on the table instead of scanning. Those tables aren’t cheap though, and you’d need a high quality camera with a macro lens, so a scanner may be more cost effective.