Nikon D850: Digitize Your Negatives as Positives
Updated: Aug 10
One of the more obscure features offered by the Nikon D850 is the ability to directly convert your color or black and white film negatives into digital positives. There are of course companies that still offer to convert your film to digital, but many people want to do this activity themselves.
The file output format created by the D850 when using the “negative digitizer” is strictly jpeg, even if your camera is set to record as NEF.
A word of caution: this feature is unavailable if your camera settings are configured to use live view “silent photography”. The “Negative digitizer” option will be greyed-out if this mode is active.
D850 with Negative Digitizer active
You don’t have much control over the photograph in-camera; you can’t even control the colors. You’ll need to provide good lighting, such as normal daylight, for the conversion to be successful for color negatives. You can adjust the brightness, if needed.
Please, please dust off your negatives first; the healing brush in your editor gets really tiresome.
Nikon PB-4 Bellows and PS-4 slide copy adapter
I have the Nikon PB-4 bellows and the Nikon slide copy adapter PS-4 that fits onto it; this is still the Cadillac system for copying filmstrip negatives and mounted slides, in my estimation. I also use my old Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 pre-AI lens, which is absolute perfection for life-size copying of film with this bellows and slide copy attachment.
I had to remove my vertical battery grip from the camera to mount it onto the PB-4. I also had to place the PB-4 camera mount into vertical orientation to attach/detach the camera; once attached, I could rotate the camera into the horizontal (landscape) orientation. Additionally, I had to move the rear bellows back to its end of travel on the rack to attach or detach the camera.
You need diffuse, even lighting to illuminate your film; the slide copy adapter provides exactly that with milky white glass behind the negative, which also keeps the film flat.
I use a wired remote release, to eliminate any vibration concerns.
Once your have your negative mounted in front of your camera, you’ll first need to switch into Live View.
Make sure you’re using a good full-spectrum, “daylight-balanced” light source.
Zoom in (the “+” button) to make sure that your negative is properly focused (with a wide-open aperture). I like to use the Live View “focus peaking” feature to make manual focus much simpler.
Step down the aperture to the sharpest setting (e.g. f/8.0) after focus is confirmed.
Next, press the “i” button and choose the “Negative digitizer” option, which will either have a “CL” or “MC” icon displayed to indicate this option. Press the “up/down” multi-selector to get to the icon. The camera remembers the last digitizer mode you had selected.
The two options for using this feature are “CL” for “color negative” mode or “MC” for “monochrome”.
Press the “right arrow” to select the color/monochrome screen, and then press the “up/down” arrows to select which CL or MC option you want. Press “Ok” after the color/monochrome is selected.
Your exposure mode will be automatically set to “A”, and you cannot change it.
Press the “Ok” button, when prompted, to adjust the brightness, and then press “Ok” after finishing your brightness adjustment.
Take the shot.
Live View with an old “orange film” color negative
I always thought that the old orange color negative film looked particularly terrible. I never fully understood the necessity to add the awful orange cast to everything, including the film edges.
Negative Digitizer “CL” mode
When you enter the CL mode, the view you get is worlds better than the orange and purple “negative” view.
Live View with a black-and-white negative
Notice the little red “focus peak” marks on the LCD; this makes critical manual focus much simpler.
Negative Digitizer “MC” mode
The “positive” view of your negative in MC mode is slightly different than the recorded image; the recorded image is definitely better.
Finished photo from color negative conversion
Color negative film doesn’t age nearly as well as black and white film. The shot above is from 1993. There’s not a lot that can be done to fix fading, but at least the digital version will stop any more fading.
Maynard Ferguson, 1976. Converted from film negative.
I’m impressed by how faithfully the black and white negatives get converted into positives. The tonal range seems excellent to me. That being said, working with these film negatives reminds me how modern digital sensors totally smoke film. More tonal range, more sensitivity, and more resolution.
I made the shot above with a Nikon F2 and Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 lens (and these still perform as well today as the day I bought them). If black and white film is properly developed and stored, it can last multiple lifetimes. There doesn’t appear to be any change to this negative over the 44 years of its existence. I remember that I used Tri-X pushed to ASA 1600 for this concert (ISO used to be called ASA).
The Nikon D850 provides a simple way to see and photograph your negatives as positive images. Since it only provides jpeg output, you don’t have as many knobs to adjust the output as you may be accustomed to having available when shooting Raw.
Most of my old color film work was done with slides; I always disliked color negatives. If all you have is color negatives, here’s your chance to convert them to digital before they fade away. Go ahead and convert those slides while you’re at it, even if you don’t need the “Negative Digitizer” feature to do it.
I have always had an affinity for black and white, and I have a huge body of work done with film. I think that this D850 feature works really well for converting those negatives into digital positives, without much loss of sharpness or tonal range.
I’m really glad that Nikon added this little-advertised feature to the D850. We need to praise and encourage the Nikon engineers for thinking up new ways to expand the power and usefulness of their cameras.
It’s a comfort to finally have some backups for my film negatives. I admit that I’m way past due in getting this done; my video tapes got digitized years ago, but I neglected my stills.
And rest in peace, Maynard.