I was telling a friend of mine last month about “film startups,” new companies that produce film photography products—development kits, scanning solutions, film cameras, peripherals, etc.. He was genuinely surprised that this niche space has enough demand for new companies to crop up.
His reaction reminded me how lucky we film photographers are in 2023 to have active investments in this space. The entire film photography pipeline is being reinvented for the digital era, and one of the most interesting of which is scanning.
Ever since photo processing has moved out of darkrooms into Lightroom in the mid-2000’s, digitizing solutions like flatbed, dedicated, and drum scanners served various consumer and lab needs. But when everyone ditched film for digital, all scanning innovation ground to a halt for almost a decade and half. A lot of these machines are difficult to use or outright incompatible in today’s computing environment. More importantly, they are not going to last without servicing and software support.
But during the decade and half that film scanning technology saw no progress, digital sensor resolution exploded. Naturally, scanning with a digital camera became the most promising, future-proof way of scanning. It’s fast, sharp, serviceable, and most film shooters today already have a digital camera lying around.
But digital camera scanning is still in the earliest stages of maturity. Solutions tend to be finicky, requiring numerous workarounds and DIY. Like the early days of building PCs, there’s a learning curve to get everything working decently.
Companies like Negative Supply and Valoi are doing an impressive job at providing an ecosystem of parts to make this integration more seamless. This is my setup from Negative Supply, for example. Works great, looks great, but it’s by no means what I’d consider the peak of digital camera scanning.
Although everything is designed to work with each other, you still have to worry about a lot of routine overhead, such as:
- Film and sensor plane alignment
- Cropping and focusing
- Vibration dampening
- Stray light proofing
Moreover, these solutions takes up a lot of space! Here I have an entire side table dedicated to hosting this setup and all of its parts. Doesn’t that remind you of the early days of PCs where you had a dedicated space in your desk for a PC tower?
From modularity to integration
The thing about scanning with digital cameras is that it’s not a process with a lot of creative potential. It’s more of a chore. So, the less overhead, the higher the ROI from a creative energy standpoint.
This is why dedicated scanners were invented: they took the important but uninteresting operations out of the way. They came with a fixed-aperture lens optimized for flat-field scanning. They optimized the focus distance and alignment so you never had to worry about it. The whole system was one unit so vibrations didn’t affect scanning quality. You simply fed film in, and got images out. And then you moved on to the actual creative stuff.
Now that we’re re-inventing the scanning process around digital cameras, many of the closed-box details are suddenly in full manual mode again, subject to errors.
And this is why the Valoi easy35 is so interesting. It’s a right step toward integration that turns digital camera scanning into a more hassle-free experience.
It takes care of 3 annoying overhead:
- The film and sensor plane are always parallel because the carrier is fixed to the lens
- No need to worry about vibrations for the same reason as above.
- There is no light leak because the whole thing is a closed box
The only thing you have to do is cropping and focusing. With a little research on the right tube length, you can immediately start scanning without the need for an expensive and large setup like mine. When you look at this design, you just know that this is going to be the future of film scanning.
Today, copy stand setup’s like mine still have a major advantage in that many of the parts are interchangeable and upgradeable. But anyone who’s seen the progression of technology knows that modularity and integration are not mutually exclusive.
I can easily imagine that future iterations of this could have a detachable light source, perhaps offering brighter options with better CRI or bigger batteries. It could also include a length-adjustable tube, eliminating the need for tube adapters. For those who like to scan sprocket holes, it’s not hard to imagine being able to flip a mechanical switch to open and close border coverage. After all, it’s not unlike the “pano” mode in cameras 4 decades ago. Even for medium format scanning, where you’d probably need some sort of surface support to not overload the lens with heavy weight, I can’t imagine that being bigger or pricier than a full on copy-stand setup.
Negative Supply has some serious competition.
Wait and see
For all the same reasons I’m optimistic about the future of film scanning, or more specifically Valoi’s lens-mount carrier design, I won’t be buying this — yet. For one, there’s no medium format version. Most importantly, the light source in this iteration doesn’t measure up to the color accuracy and brightness of my Negative Supply unit. But I genuinely believe that my current setup will soon be unnecessary in a few years.
What a time to be shooting film.