Making Digital Contact Sheets From Negatives; A Hybrid Solution For The Film/Digital Photographer

With labs charging from $8-$12 or more per color contact sheet, you can save the cash by doing them in your own computer darkroom studio. Moreover, this process gives you working digital images of entire rolls that you can inspect close-up on your monitor. As digital image files you can mark them up on screen, adjust orientation (horizontal/vertical), excerpt selections to send as JPEGs, and of course, adjust the image quality. You can also print them out and treat them like normal
contact sheets.

Step 1

You'll need a large enough light box to cover the complete surface of your negative or slide page on the scanner. The thin kind work best. I'm using a Promaster LP-400 Light Panel, with an 8x12" lighted surface. The scanner is the Microtek ScanMaker V6UPL.

For those of us still processing our black and white at home, but who have abandoned the chemical print darkroom in favor of digital scanning, this is the answer for making contact sheets. And it's also a great way to archive all your old color negatives that might have become separated from the prints.

What You'll Need
You'll need a flat-bed scanner and a light box. Both should be at least 8x10.5". Most flat-bed scanners are this size or larger. The choice of light box is a bit more tricky. The mini light boxes are too much trouble, since their small size requires two (or more) passes. The big bulky ones are useable but impractical. The best ones for this purpose are thin and have the required lighted surface size. I use a Promaster LP-400 Light Panel. It is 3/4" thick with an 8x12" illumination surface. My scanner is the Microtek ScanMaker V6UPL, which has more than enough scanning surface. Most other flat-beds will, too, since they're used for at least letter-size documents.

Step 2

Place the light box very carefully over the negative page. You may have to make adjustments after one pass to avoid cutting off edges of images.

Setup Procedure
Cut your negatives and sleeve them in letter-size clear storage pages. PrintFile stock number 35-7B or its wider cousin, 35-7BXW (extra wide) will both work fine for 35mm; also Clear File's 11B (holds 20 frames), 12B (35 frames), or 12D (35 frames with data panel). Just remember that a five-frame strip is a little less than 7.5" long, and a six-frame strip is nearly 9" long, wider than most scanners. The extra wide page will accommodate six-frame strips, but you may not be able to use its full width. For 120 negatives PrintFile's 120-4UB works fine. It will not work for sleeved negatives or transparencies, however. For that you'll have to go to products by ResFile or Clear File's 16B or 17B. If you're working in 4x5, Clear File's 18B or PrintFile's 45-4B will work.

This will make life much easier than if you lay them out on the scanner individually, since you'll waste time aligning and realigning them. Don't worry about dust at this point. If you get your negatives back in long continuous sleeves from your lab, keep the sleeves on when you cut the negatives, if they'll fit into the pages. This will reduce dust. If you're using 120 film you can buy pages that will accommodate sleeved film.

Step 3

You're ready to scan. No need to close the lid.

Lay the negative page out carefully on the scanner. Place the turned-on light box on top, light side down. Adjust the scanner controls on your computer to handle negatives, transparencies, color or black and white, whatever you're using. I usually increase the contrast to halfway between default and maximum. I leave the color balance at default, though I often find that the color comes out much truer after the individual scan. If color is critical at the contact sheet stage, you may have to experiment to find the most accurate color for your combination of film and scanner. The light source of most light boxes and scanners is supposed to be close to daylight, but you still may have to make adjustments. Use the preview function to get the positioning just right, since you may not have a lot of tolerance on one side or the other, and you don't want to lose any part of your image.