Digitising film negatives with DarkTable

Many of us who have lived for a while have lots of old negatives lying around in drawers and boxes in the back corner of a closet. And many of the younger generation have recently discovered a “new” kind of photography: Film photography, or analog photography as they tend to call it. Digging out their parents’ old cameras and loading them up with a very limited amount of “memory”, and no chance to see the result until the film is developed.

Once the film is developed, either by yourself or by a professional lab, you might want to get the images onto your computer.
This means that you can store them safely in the cloud, share them easily on social media and online sites and play with them using photo processing software like Lightroom and Photoshop. I recently did an advanced Photoshop course with these guys in London and learned a huge amount.  
The quick and dirty way would be to let the lab do this for you. The fun way is to do it yourself. This is where darktable comes into play.

I admit that darktable may not be the easiest application for converting negatives. For me, at least, it seems to be the best solution all in all, especially since it is a one-stop shop for the whole process from capture to finished image, and also because it is the RAW developer that I know the best.


Capturing the images can be done in two ways, either with a scanner or with a digital camera. So far I have had the most success with using a camera, and this is also the way that makes darktable a true all-in-one solution.

I start with tethering my camera to my computer. That way I have the Live View on the computer screen, so it is easy to check focus. This is essential, as we are working with a very narrow depth of field. It also allows me to trigger the camera with a mouse click, so I don’t have to touch the camera and potentially introduce camera shake and misalignment. And last but not least, I get the images directly onto the computer hard drive and imported into darktable, ready to be processed. To learn about tethering, go and watch this video:

There are many ways to do the actual capture, and I won’t go too deeply into them here. But you need a light source to shine light through the film, you need some way of holding the film in front of the camera, and you need a stable camera. You can see my own DIY solution in the video at the end of this article.


One of the great benefits of digitizing negatives is that you will get access to all of the information in the film. I remember I was often disappointed with the 10×15 cm prints I got from the lab. They were what they were. I had no control over the image after the shutter was pressed, and the limited dynamic range meant they often lacked detail in the shadows and highlights. When digitizing the negative you are in full control, and you can see just how much more dynamic range the film has. I’ll give you an example. The following image of a Galapagos Tortoise was shot in Honolulu Zoo on Kodak Gold 200 film. First the scanned paper print:

You can see all the detail in the shell, but who knows what is lurking in the shadows?

Then from the digitized negative:

Two more tortoises are relaxing in the shadow back there. And with a little more effort if I wanted to, I could have increased the local contrast to get even better definition in the shell of the main subject and in the sunlit grass. The point is, all the information is there, and you can do wat you want to it.

Well, I won’t keep you here any more, watch the video and then go and digitize your own negatives.


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