100 Megapixel IKEA Film Scanner

In late 2020 with a little more time on my hands as the reality of Pandemic shutdown settled in, I embarked on a few projects I’d been putting off for too long: baking bread and scanning film. The bread was easy (Daisy the sourdough starter is still going strong.) The film was another matter: I had about 30,000 frames of 35mm film and probably 1,000 frames of medium format still to get through, all dating back to about 1996, when I first started shooting photos in earnest.

The Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 film scanner, with SF-210 35mm slide bulk loader attached.

Luckily most of it was well-organized in binders, by date, along with a spreadsheet where I kept meticulous notes of each shoot. I got through the 35mm in about one year, using a Nikon Super Coolscan 5000. I have a bulk-loader that will take up to 50 slides at a time, and I had also had the scanner altered to be able to take in entire rolls of uncut 35mm negatives without cutting. I used VueScan software for the scanning, and I scanned negative film as positive, reversing it with a curve in Lightroom. This gets superior results than the negative reversal engine in the scanner. The downside was, with a reverse curve, all the Develop controls in Lightroom are reversed! Eventually I began using a Lightroom plug-in called Negative Lab Pro which gives me about the same results.

The medium format film was more involved. I used to have a Minolta DiMAGE Scan Multi Pro, which would take up to 6×9 film and scans using glass carriers. Pretty awesome scanner, but tedious to use. It would take all day to scan a couple rolls of 120. Some lucky rolls went to the National Geographic lab for drum scanning, a service provided to me when I was a member of the Aurora Select agency, but most of my medium format film had been simply stored away, with maybe a CD-ROM of low-res jpegs from the processor. I have an Epson V700 flatbed scanner which gives decent results, but not good enough for serious work. I realized the modern DSLR would be ideal for digitizing film, but the duplicating rigs out there are toys at best. There were a lot of technical hurdles to overcome, but I had time, so I built one myself.

For me, a serious film scanner needs to do 3 things well:

  1. Scan at high enough resolution and color depth to resolve film to grain resolution.
  2. Be able to handle a variety of formats, negative and positive, both cut and uncut.
  3. Be reasonably fast and easy to use.

A DSLR scanner is pretty simple in theory, you just shine light through film and take a picture of it from overhead, akin to the film copy stands of old. In practice, getting it right took a lot of experimentation. Without getting into all the trial and error, I will just show you the copy stand (“scanner”) I built that satisfies all three criteria, using an IKEA stool, a Nikon Z7ii, a strobe, a light table and some craft supplies.

100 Megapixel IKEA Film Scanner setup **

Let’s start with the “scanner” rig itself. The original IKEA MOLGER is a basic wooden stool with a cotton top with storage space inside.

I removed the top and cut the seat out, then removed a side panel, removed the middle 4 of the 8 slats, and glued it upside-down on the “top” of the seat. Then I put the top back onto the MOLGER.

MOLGER top with seat removed bonded to a side panel with middle slats removed.
Modified top of MOLGER. Note the side panel with slats removed is bonded to the top, with the crossbars sticking up. I think the tape was on here while the glue set and I just never took it off.

Then I removed the bottom panel of the MOLGER and cut pieces of white foamcore to the interior width (13″). They slide nicely between the slats to create the light cavity you will need.

So thats one for each side, one through the bottom slat and a fifth panel that creates a 45-degree reflector to angle the strobe light evenly upwards. This panel has a scored bottom that lies flush against the bottom panel with double sided tape. I’ve actually had fine results with or without this last panel. Depending on how you angle your strobe there will be plenty of bounce to make the light even within a fraction of a stop along the length of a frame of film in the middle.

What you DO need is a frosted glass top, to act as both the film support and to evenly diffuse the light. It just so happens that the 11″ wide frosted glass top from an old Porta-Trace light table fit perfectly between the rails of the side panel, which now acts as the top of the scanner.

Frosted glass top from a Porta-Trace scanner, slid into the top panel. Film and mattes are on top.

A note about the light levels: You will need full-spectrum light, and a lot of it. You could use Tungsten or Halogen but they will be too hot. LEDs are not ideal for color reproduction and would require longer shutter speeds than you want, so a high-quality quartz strobe is the best. With my Profoto D4 set to 75ws on an Acute head, I end up exposing at 1/125 at f/18, at ISO 64. You can adjust this to account for maximum sync, but either way there is plenty of light. I experimented with combining multiple exposures to eek out any extra latitude of the film, but 1) I was satisfied that the sensor exceeds the latitude of developed film and 2) you risk a softer image after combining.

Just as with a film copy stand, I needed a matte to sandwich my film frame to 1) make it flat and flag stray light and 2) create a matte for your camera for stitching multiple frames. You can buy really nice metal mattes and holders but they are very expensive. I just cut mine from black foamcore. I cut the bottom matte slightly bigger than the bleed areas of the frame. This allows me to easily position the mattes around the entire frame before I scan. The top matte I cut to the width (including border) of the 6x7cm frame.

The camera has to be positioned straight overhead. The easiest way to do this is by simply placing it on top of the mattes. But you will need a spacer. I am using a 50mm macro lens, so I need about 7 inches of space from the sensor in order to get the entire width of the top matte. I had an old Nikon HN-23 screw-on metal lens hood that fits the outer 62mm thread of the lens. The end of the hood is larger than that, and happens to be exactly the diameter of those old cardboard 120 film holders I’d sometimes get back from the lab. I cut one of those down with a hacksaw, lined the interior with black paper, and taped it to the end of the lens hood. You could do all kinds of math to figure out the exact spacing but just use your wits. It’s easy to change for different lenses by adding shims to your original mattes like I did above when I changed from the D800 to the Z system.

The resolving power and color depth of the modern DLSR far surpasses that of film, for the same frame size. A camera like the Nikon Z7II can record over 26 bits (14.7 EV) of color information per pixel, more than enough to capture all the information from a single frame of exposed film, but resolution wise, it’s “only” 47 megapixels The largest film I’d be working with is 6x7cm. To resolve film of that size you need roughly 100 megapixels of data*. Luckily, automatic panoramic stitching has become very sophisticated, so getting a 100MP scan was a simple matter of blocking off slightly overlapping frames and combining them using Lightroom’s Photo Merge engine. So, When you look through the viewfinder, the top matte gives you one 6cm wide frame at a time. You slide that top matte along the length of the medium format frame and take multiple exposures which overlap with enough image information to let Lightroom stitch them easily.

final matted and spaced setup. In the viewfinder you see 1/2 of the stitched 6x7mm frame.

I experimented with different kinds of stitching. For a 6x7cm frame, on the D850 with 60mm Nikkor Macro lens, the edges of the frame are not quite as sharp as I liked, so 3 shots across the length of the 6×7 was ideal to maximize sharp areas. With the Nikon Z7ii and new Z macro 50mm glass, Maybe 2 is sufficient. For the most part, stitching goes without any problems but you should check carefully for errors.

Since the field of view of the camera is now 6cm wide, I can lock focus and go through film pretty quickly. I made marks on the bottom matte to indicate where I needed to move the camera for each film type (6×7, 6×6, 6×4.5) to get my two stitching exposures, and I could scan frame after frame quickly, especially on uncut rolls. I can easily scan 20-30 rolls of 120 an hour once I get going. Since they are all in order, stitching is easy once I get the footage into Lightroom.

The results are phenomenal. Here is a 3-block stitch scan.

100 megapixel stitched scan, Chris Sierzant at Little River Canyon, Alabama, 2005. Mamiya 67II on 6×7 negative film.
Detail. Click to view 100%

Here is a comparison of another frame with a drum scan

stitched scan detail. Click to view 100%
Drum scan detail. Click to view 100%

This 2-block stitch is superior in every way to the (now very expensive) drum scan I had made of this frame years ago. Note these were delivered to me as jpegs, but even ignoring that, there is way more highlight detail and better color rendition in the DSLR copy.

* Footnote 1 : “Resolution” of film is something photographers love to debate. On the one hand, film resolution is extremely high. Here is an exhaustive discussion of film structure, resolution, grain, scanning techniques, and digital equivalents. Film is analogue, and therefore of infinite “resolution” but in practice there are limitations on what it can resolve through a camera, and more importantly, what you are interested in eventually showing from your film. I always keep in mind the final expression of my work, The Print. I am not making prints of film grain, but I do want to make a faithful print, with as much detail and color as reasonably possible. That process is an art, informed by science and experience. In my experience with many cameras, film scanners and print output methods, it’s clear that about 3200dpi scanning resolution is more than sufficient for resolving professional film, and 4800dpi is overkill. That puts us at about 100 megapixels for a 6x7cm frame. All of it is limited by light, glass and color depth at this point. That is where this “scanner” performs well. And of course, cost. If I had to send film out to get “higher resolution” wet drum scans at $100 each, I would never get anything scanned. Given the comparison above, I don’t think I am making any compromises. You could easily change up the capture device, to say a Phase One or Fuji GFX100s, and get “even better” scans, or at least make them as single shot scans.

** Footnote 2: I had to gush over this new piece of kit from Conway Electric, the Carrara Exto Surge 900 power strip. Hard power switch, surge protected, 15 ampresettable fuse, with USB A&C charging, industrial 14 gauge flexible cable and overmolded plug. Cast aluminum and stainless. It’s just a thing of beauty and critical to have between your expensive lighting and the wall.

Published on Jan 02, 2023
Filed under: Behind the Scenes,Climbing,Gear Reviews,Outdoors,Personal Work,Photography,Uncategorized
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