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Digitizing Film Part 1: Copy Stands, Film Holders, Medium Format

DIGITIZING STATION

[ MY DIGITIZING STATION ]

I often get asked by other photographers how I digitize my film. Explaining the tools and my digitizing process would create too long of a post, so I will start with what tools I use in this post and share my process later. The information I share about the tools I use is not meant to be a commercial for selling these products. If you choose to purchase what I share in this article, I hope it is only after you have done product research. I will not talk in great length about the specifications of a product. Still, I will include the manufacturer’s web address or contact information so you can research the exact specifications.

With all that said, pictured above (and below) is what my digitizing workstation looks like. I dedicated an office in my home to preserve and catalog my film, stored in three-ring binders and Print File pages. I started storing film in this manner decades ago, and it has proven to be a successful storage solution.

The necessary equipment you will need to digitize film is a copy stand, a camera, a lens (a quality macro lens designed for 1:1 reproduction is best), a light source, and film holders. Depending upon your camera, a computer for tethering may or may not be necessary when digitizing. Let’s get started.

DIGITIZING STATION

[ MY DIGITIZING STATION ]

COPY STANDS

Before I talk about cameras, light sources, and film holders, it is essential to understand the necessity of a quality copy stand. This is an area I have seen other photographers not prioritize until after they have used whatever gizmo they created, only to find nothing compares to the stability, precision, and versatility a quality copy stand provides. Some photographers successfully converted an analog enlarger to a copy stand, and enlargers can be found at garage sales and auction sites.

I use two copy stands, the Beseler CS-21 (pictured above), which is made for medium format cameras, and a lighter copy stand with a payload of 3.3 pounds, the  Kaiser RS 2 XA. I use the Kaiser in my studio with my Fujifilm X-Pro3 for copying flat art and macro work. The Kaiser is probably one of the most popular copy stands on the market and has served me well for many years. It is small, lightweight, and handles all tasks I need it to do, except it cannot handle my medium format cameras.

On each copy stand, I have placed a ball head to help with the squaring of a camera. On the CS-21, a Kirk BH-3 has been installed, and on the Kaiser, I use a Really Right Stuff BH-25. These ball heads have been in my gear closet for years and work well in the squaring process, which I will explain in the next post.

FLEXBODY + CFI 120/4 + CFV-50C

[ FLEXBODY + CFi 120/4 + CFV50c ]

CAMERAS

I recently acquired the Fuji X-Pro3 (shown in the Digitizing Station photo above) after using the X-Pro2 for a few years. I usually skip over next-generation upgrades, but once I saw how the X-Pro3 screen was oriented, I thought it would operate perfectly on a copy stand, and it does. I gave up my full frame cameras once I felt the Fujifilm APS-C sensors were good enough for my needs, including images for the web, blog postings, and fine art prints. If I need more pixels, I shoot my medium format tech cameras with a CFV-50c digital back or stitch with the X-Pro3. Stitching is a tremendous tool that I utilize for creating larger digitized files.

When I digitize film with a digital back, I tether it to a computer. I brought life back to an old MacBook Pro that collected dust for several years. After replacing the MacBook’s battery I purchased from Other World Computing, the old MacBook found its new home at my digitizing station. I tether the CFV-50c using Hasselblad’s Phocus software and save the files to a card. When my digitizing session is completed, I upload the files into Lightroom on my studio’s iMac workstation. I will discuss the various software and techniques I use in the next post.

LENSES

The lenses I currently use for digitizing film with the Fuji X-Pro3 are the Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M macro lens for individual film frames and the Fujinon XF23/2 R WR for contact sheet making. When digitizing with my medium format cameras, I use the Hasselblad 120/4 CFi Makro lens and the Schneider 120/5.6 Apo Digitar M lens for individual film frame digitizing. The X-Pro3 does not require extension tubes when used in my workstation with the lenses mentioned above; however, using the medium format cameras does require extension tubes, and I will talk about that in the next post.

6X17 + 6X12 NEGATIVES + MULTI-FORMAT FILM HOLDER

[ 6×17 & 6×12 NEGATIVES + MULTI-FORMAT FILM HOLDER ]

LIGHT SOURCE

There are a few options for a light source, from an inexpensive tracing lightbox to better and more costly options. Differences appear in output levels, color temperature, and CRI (color rendering index) values, so do your homework if you want to know why one light source is more expensive or highly recommended over another. I initially began digitizing my film with a tracing lightbox and film holders from my Microtek ArtixScan 120tf; the lightbox was not very bright, nor was the color temperature consistent. The film holders did well, but there was no option to digitize an entire uncut roll of film. I made contact sheets by digitizing my Print File pages on top of the lightbox, but as I continued to shoot film, digitizing an entire roll of 120 at one sitting was appealing.  I will do it if I can eliminate any extra steps without compromising quality. Around 2018, digitizing film using a digital camera was finally recognized as a high-quality option within the photography community. It was time for me to begin researching what other tools may be available.

SUNRAY BOX + FILM HOLDERS

[ SUNRAY COPY BOX II + FILM HOLDERS ]

SKIER SUNRAY COPY BOX II

After some research, I found other photographers recommended the Skier Sunray Copy Box through a Facebook group I belong to. I waited a little while as I heard there would be an updated version, so when Skier announced their Sunray Copy Box II was in production, I went ahead and placed my order. Skier is located in Taiwan, and the delivery time was about six weeks. The company updated me via email to inform me of delays and delivery times. I felt doing business with Skier was a pleasant experience and would not hesitate to order from them again (customer service speaks LOUDLY to me). The advantages I have gained using the Sunray Copy Box are well worth its price. Going from a 1/2 second to a 1/60 second exposure does not sound like much unless you digitize hundreds of film frames! Saving time in post-processing is always a winner, in my book. Remember the struggle of using a scanner and all the time it took to scan and then have to mess with the color balance? Do yourself a favor and get the best light source you can afford. Whether you use a tracing lightbox or purchase a light source designed specifically for digitizing film, film holders will become an essential deciding factor. My needs extend past the typical 135 and 120 films, and with the Sunray Copy Box, I can digitize all my film formats with the addition of a scanner and enlarger film holders.

FILM HOLDERS REVERSE

[ FILM HOLDERS REVERSED ]

FILM HOLDERS

Because I shoot multiple film formats, I need to digitize different sizes of film and require various types of film holders. I digitize single frames, film strips, entire rolls, mounted and unmounted slides, and create contact sheets. My film archive goes back forty years, and I have a family film collection over eighty years old that contains odd sizes of film. Since I continue to shoot 120 films in the 6×12 and 6×17 formats and an occasional 4×5″ project, I require film holders for these sizes as well. The Sunray Copy Box comes with 120 and 135 film holders that work well for film up to 6×9. For 4×5″ film I use a film holder from an enlarger and find it works better than what came with my Epson V700 scanner. The multi-format film holder from my Microtek scanner works well for my most challenging formats to digitize, 6×12 and 6×17. All of my film holders fit over the Sunbox’s light source. For contact sheet creation, I continue to use the tracing lightbox.

SKIER 120 FILM HOLDER + FILM ON SUNRAY BOX

[ SKIER 120 FILM HOLDER + FILM ON SUNRAY COPY BOX ]

DIGITIZING UNCUT FILM

The Sunray Copy Box’s 120 film holder includes an adjustable gate that holds 120 films in 645, 6×6, and 6×9 formats snuggly. Running film strips and rolls through both of Skier’s film holders does an excellent job. If you run high production long roll digitizing, the Negative Supply Film Carriers 120 and 35 might be a better option, but you would still need a light source. When you reverse the Sunray film holders, they have areas designed to hold mounted slides. I find this not only a convenient way to save space so as not to have another set of film holders but also well designed to hold the slides flat. The only slide mount I found that does not work with the Sunray film holder is the Polaroid 135 slide mount. When I encounter slide film that has been re-mounted (not original) in one of these, I remove it and run it through the 135 film holder using a scrap piece of film – problem solved! I get asked about film flatness and will say I do not have a problem with most of my film, but when I do, it is with 6×17 film. I find some film is curlier than others, and I will explain how I deal with this occurrence and how I use the tools outlined here in Part 2.

DIGITIZING UNCUT 6X7 SLIDE FILM

[ DIGITIZING UNCUT 6X7 SLIDE FILM ]