DIY: Shoebox Negative Film Scanner

Have lots of negatives stored away that you’d like to see on your computer so you can decide which negatives are worth developing—but negative scanners are too expensive for you? Make your own scanner in a shoebox. It’s cheap, quick, and easy.

There are lots of former film photographers out there who would appreciate having a negative scanner. But these scanners are nothing cheap. So in this article we’ll take a look at how to quickly and easily turn a shoebox into negative scanner.

The things you’ll need for a shoebox scanner:

  • shoebox (pick a tall one)
  • standard sheet of white paper
  • flash
  • camera
  • ruler
  • pencil
  • precision cutting tool such as an X-acto knife
  • glue
  • tape
For your scanner you’ll need a shoebox, a sheet of white paper, a flash, a camera, a ruler, a pencil, a precision cutting tool, glue, and tape.

For your scanner you’ll need a shoebox, a sheet of white paper, a flash, a camera, a ruler, a pencil, a precision cutting tool, glue, and tape.

The way a scanner works is relatively simple. It exposes an “analog” surface and transforms it into a digital image. For documents and printed photographs, that’s all there is to it. For film it’s more complicated. Film is relatively dark, and so in order to be scanned properly, it also needs lighting from the other side. Special scanners with a film scanning function are used for this.

Prepare Your Box

Step One is to prepare the box. You’ll be cutting two holes into it—one for film and one for the flash.

Prepare the film hole first. Just like modern camera sensors, film comes in different sizes. So start by measuring the frame size of your negatives. And then cut precisely that dimension into your shoebox.

Be precise, because it will save you editing work—you won’t later waste time cropping away “dead zones” in your digital images from scans.

Measure your film negatives’ frame size.

Measure your film negatives’ frame size.

Mark your negatives’ frame size on your “scanner.”

Mark your negatives’ frame size on your “scanner.”

Cut the frame width into your box.

Cut the frame width into your box.

The box after preparations.

The box after preparations.

In the next step you need to measure the film again—but its whole width this time. This is so that you can add film-holding “rails” to the window you’ve cut into the box. This will prevent the film from bending.

Measure the film size and the difference between the image frame and the edge of the film.

Measure the film size and the difference between the image frame and the edge of the film.

Mark the difference on the box.

Mark the difference on the box.

Cut thin strips of hard paper.

Cut thin strips of hard paper.

Attach thin strips to the marked spots—they’ll hold your negative in the place where it needs to be.

Attach thin strips to the marked spots—they’ll hold your negative in the place where it needs to be.

Done.

Done.

Adhere twin strips of paper at their top and bottom ends on both sides of the hole. Thread the film through these.

Adhere twin strips of paper at their top and bottom ends on both sides of the hole. Thread the film through these.

Position Your “Lamp”

The hard part’s over. As the next step you need to create the back light that illuminates the film so that you are able to photograph it—that is, “scan” it. For this, use a flash that will be illuminating the film by firing into the box. So measure your flash’s size and cut a hole for it into the back part of the box.

The most important part of your “scanner” is ready. Now you need to make room for the lamp.

The most important part of your “scanner” is ready. Now you need to make room for the lamp.

Use a flash to produce your lamp. First measure the flash to know what size of hole to make in your box.

Use a flash to produce your lamp. First measure the flash to know what size of hole to make in your box.

Sketch out the hole for the flash onto the back part of the box.

Sketch out the hole for the flash onto the back part of the box.

Cut the hole for the flash into the back part of the box.

Cut the hole for the flash into the back part of the box.

Check to see if the flash actually fits in the hole.

Check to see if the flash actually fits in the hole.

A Neutral Background

In the next step, add a neutral background to the box. You’ll need your sheet of white paper for this. The flash illuminates it, turning it nice and white and making it reflect enough light to expose the film.

Turn your white sheet of paper into an “endless background.”

Turn your white sheet of paper into an “endless background.”

Above all don’t shine the flash straight onto the film, because that will overexpose it. Your digital images would then show nothing but the output from the flash, instead of nice negatives.

After you’ve placed your neutral background in the box, add the film and the flash.

Place your film and your flash inside your “scanner”.

Place your film and your flash inside your “scanner”.

Then all you need to do, is to focus your camera on your film and photograph it. Use a cable or a remote trigger to fire the flash.

Focus the camera on the film you’re photographing. Fire the flash using either a cable or a remote trigger.

Focus the camera on the film you’re photographing. Fire the flash using either a cable or a remote trigger.

Creating Your Positives

Now you’ve created your negatives. They will look like this when viewed on a computer:

Your photo now looks like this.

Your photo now looks like this.

Now you just need to invert the negative into a positive. Do this via the Zoner Photo Studio Editor. Use: Menu > Effects > Negative.

In ZPS you can also go on and fine-tune the photo as you’re used to doing with any other digital image.

Make a “negative of your negative” using the Effects menu’s Negative item, and your final picture is ready. Now you can fine-tune it like any other picture.

Make a “negative of your negative” using the Effects menu’s Negative item, and your final picture is ready. Now you can fine-tune it like any other picture.

Tips in Closing

  • Use a small aperture—really small. That will increase the depth of field, so that your picture is sharp throughout.
  • Also try various combinations of flash strength and aperture size until you find the best combination to give you a balanced image.
  • Use a diffuser on the flash for softer light. That way your whole film will be illuminated evenly.
  • I also recommend going for a taller box over a shorter one. Otherwise your flash “lamp” could end up interfering with the film, giving you unusable pictures.

These Scans Are Previews

The photos you create this way will serve you best as previews; they’ll let you know which photos from your film are worth developing.

They’re not completely limited to just that; you can publish them on the Internet—but first retouch them, remove the dirt from them, etc.

We’ve deliberately left our sample picture untouched so that you can see that a shoebox scanner has downsides, too.

Last updated 15. February 2016

0 0
Thank you! Please share this article too, so that it can also help other people.

Author: Majo Elias

I’ve been taking pictures since 2004. When I was starting out, I photographed almost everything. Later my style solidified and I began photographing people almost exclusively. At the moment my main genres are fashion and advertising.

Read All Articles.

Comments

  • TerryB

    Majo, you’ve been watching too much Blue Peter, a very popular BBC TV series for children. Just kidding. Although there are a number of relatively inexpensive ways of easily copying negatives, these are all related to 35mm. Your DIY copier can at least do roll film cheaply when one considers the price of a bespoke roll film scanner.

  • Kadir

    To buy a dia & negative scanner is much more simple & CHEAP way than this Way!
    Also, I did an eguipment like this on a wood chassis. There is no need DANGEROUS, “Sensor Killer” direct flashlight. A 5 Watts white small “econo type” 220 VAC bulb to back side is enough.
    Shooting mod is “A = Aperture” f stop is 7.1 – 8, AF is Macro… With cameras timer or remote control! That’s all…