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I recently bought my first (5x4) glass negative on an auction site. I assumed it would be trivial to scan the plate then invert the negative on gimp. Well, it is trivial, but I'm not getting results I like. I scanned with emulsion down and up, at 600 DPI, and also photographed it with my DSLR on a tripod (timed release) with a light board. I can never get the image as sharp as the apparently casually photographed image used to sell it which has someone holding the plate with apparently just bright ambient light behind it. Anyone have any experience with this?

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  • Thanks much for the time and detail in your answer. I experimented some more and found that indeed a macro lens makes a huge difference. I don't have the flash setup you mentioned (I'm more of a hobbyist). The flatbed scanner did not work well I suspect due to refraction in the glass negative. Taking a digital picture of the negative may add some parallax, but can't be helped.
    – Trenton J
    May 15 at 22:59
  • Flash makes a big difference. Godox flash and transmitter aren't too expensive. They would be worth getting for the ability to also use bounce and fill flash. Alternatively, you can get a cheap pre-thyristor flash (full power only) and put it on a cheap wireless transmitter. (But don't put old flashes directly on modern cameras because of potential for high-voltage damage.)
    – xiota
    May 16 at 0:05

2 Answers 2

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I have not scanned glass negatives, but this is what I would do based on scanning ordinary film.

With the flatbed (with transparency adapter): Emulsion down, lifted off the scanner bed with sheets of paper or card stock. Look at existing film carriers for your scanner for an idea of how far the image has to be from the scan bed. The space is needed because the scanner is focused slightly above the glass plate. Emulsion up won't work because the thickness of the glass will hold the image above the scanner's DOF.

With an interchangeable lens camera: I would prefer using a mirrorless over a DSLR because mirrorless cameras have focusing aids, like magnification and focus peaking. Some newer DSLRs might have similar features or custom firmware (Magic Lantern) to add them.

  • Use a macro lens. This is needed for the flat field.

  • Set the negative holder far in front of a reflector, white wall, or soft box. Set up a flash unit with remote trigger. Imperfections in the reflector will show up in the image if the negative is too close.

    While you can use ambient lighting with longer exposures, the quality of light from flash is significantly better. Flash also eliminates any effect camera shake might have.

  • Set the camera parallel to the negative holder. Put a mirror in the negative holder and center the lens view of itself in the mirror. Then lock everything down so nothing moves. Replace the mirror with the negative. Depending on your camera, you may have to turn image stabilization off.

  • With aperture wide open, focus on the grain. Hard light at an angle can make grain easier to see.

  • Shield the area around the negative to prevent stray light from reaching the lens. Lens hood may also be helpful.

  • Stop down to F5.6-8. Shut off ambient lights. Take photo. There shouldn't be any stray reflections because the only light reaching the lens is passing through the negative from behind.

As for whether to shoot the emulsion or base side, with ordinary film, I've tried both. When shooting the emulsion side, the image is sharper, but lighting isn't as even and color can be off because the base reflects light. When shooting through the base, imperfections in the base soften the image, but lighting is better because the emulsion scatters light.

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    Many DSLRs have a "liveview" mode allowing you to focus on a zoomed image of the sensor on the rear screen.
    – xenoid
    May 14 at 6:47
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    Newer....My ancient 450D (announced 2008) already has it...
    – xenoid
    May 14 at 14:20
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    With my EOS 70D (a bit more recent) I have phase detection even in liveview ("dual pixel"). Don't even need to zoom (when I use the zoom I'm doing the focus manually).
    – xenoid
    May 14 at 15:15
  • @xenoid On the cameras I've used phase detect doesn't focus accurately on the film grain. So manual focus is needed when photographing film.
    – xiota
    May 14 at 16:44
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A macro lens would help at the close focus distance needed. Or alternately, a cell phone camera will be fairly sharp up very close if you can hold it still.

But the basics are that film and glass plates are to be viewed when lighted from behind. Scanning on a flatbed would just see light reflected from the plate, instead of light coming through the image emulsion. However some flatbed scanners offer a film option (lighting from behind, from a light in the scanner lid above) which would be satisfactory.

Or you might just tape the negative to a window pane, illuminated by the outside diffused light from sky, and photograph that from the indoors side.

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    Many modern flatbeds have a "transparency lid" that backlights film etc. I've been using flatbed scanners to scan my negatives since 2003 (the one I had then was a 1998 model).
    – Zeiss Ikon
    May 17 at 17:43

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