Scanning Rigs: The Architecture of Inception

Do I really need a camera scanning rig?

While it's technically possible to digitize film without a specific rig, using a camera scanning rig can considerably simplify and improve the process. A rig ensures consistent alignment between the film and the camera, improving sharpness and image quality uniformity. It also provides a secure, stable platform that can reduce vibrations that would otherwise affect image quality. A good rig can accommodate various film formats and allows you to easily replicate settings between scanning sessions.

Simplest scanning rig with metal pieces from junkyard.

Can I build my own scanning rig?

Yes, a DIY approach is entirely feasible if you are comfortable with hands-on projects. There are a multitude of online tutorials and forums where experienced users share their designs and insights. The materials can be as simple as cardboard and duct tape or as complex as 3D-printed parts and precision-engineered components. Your rig's complexity and sophistication will depend on your comfort level with DIY projects, the tools you have available, and your desired end results.

One of the popular designs for DIY cheap copy stand is known as "pipe stand" and uses pieces from home improvement store. The overall details cost may be less that US$50. The real cost though, comes from the super-clamp and other pieces of photo gear to which camera is actually get attached. 

Sample "pipe" copy stand

Pipe 3/4 24"

Flange 3/4

Four 1/4-20 1 1/4 " machine screws /nuts pairs

Manfrotto 2909 Super Clamp with 2907 Reversible Short Stud

Manfrotto 208 3/8" Head Mounting Plate with Lock Screws

Laminate Base Plate

Vlads Test Target ;-)

Benro 3D Geared head *)

NiSi Macro Focusing Rail NM-180 With 360-Degree Rotating Clamp

SmalRig Cage for EOS R

FeelWorld F6 Plus 5.5" 4K HDMI Monitor

Valoi 360 Advancer + Valoi 35 holder + Raleno light

Manfrotto Table Stand

Canon EOS R Refurb from Canon

Sigma 2.8/70mm Macro Art lens

Canon EF to RF adapter

Canon Remote control

*) Items in italic are not essential for 'pipe' copy stand.

What are the essential components of a camera scanning rig?

The core components of a scanning rig include a camera mount, a film holder, and a light source. The camera mount, often a copy stand, holds the camera steady and allows for vertical movement to accommodate different film sizes. The film holder secures the film flat and parallel to the camera sensor. The light source should provide even, diffused light to uniformly illuminate the film. Depending on your setup, you may also need additional elements like an anti-static brush to clean film, a remote shutter release to minimize camera shake, or a test  target for fine tuning the rig at the beginning of each session.

How do I ensure my film stays flat on the scanning rig?

Flatness of film during scanning is critical for consistent focus and sharpness. Film holders or carriers are typically employed to maintain flatness. These can be either commercial products or DIY solutions, depending on your taste and budget. Majority of film holders use glass-less design but employ different techniques like s-channel to force film stay flat for the length of the film gate. Some film holders use glass or anti-newton ring (ANR) glass to ensure absolute flatness, but care must be taken to avoid dust or scratches. We will review film holders in details elsewhere.

Can I use a copy stand as my scanning rig?

A copy stand is a great starting point for a scanning rig. It can provide a stable, adjustable platform for your camera. However, a copy stand alone may not have provisions for a precise and finely-adjustable camera mount,  a film holder or light source, so you'll need to come up with solutions to securely mount camera and correctly illuminate your film. Some users have created effective setups by modifying and adding to copy stands. Given significant weight of camera + lens you always need to be on the look-out for any sort of camera tilt .

What kind of light source should I use in my scanning rig?

The key qualities to look for in a light source are consistency, diffuseness, and a high color rendering index (CRI). LED panels are often used due to their long life, low heat output, and ability to produce a consistent, flicker-free light. The light should be diffused, often with a light box or diffusion material, to avoid hot spots and ensure even illumination of the film. Light source need to be masked so to suppress all stray and non-image forming light. 

Halogen lamps with their continuous spectra  or trichromatic light sources  are also find their way into scanning rigs. 

Electronic flash or strobe is also great source of light, as well as sunlight at noon.

Should I consider a pre-built scanning rig?

If budget permits and DIY isn't your thing, there are pre-built scanning rigs available in the market. These rigs often include integrated solutions for film holding and light provision. They offer consistent, repeatable results with the convenience of a plug-and-play solution. However, they can be costly compared to a DIY approach. Setting aside professional setups like Digital Transition, the best known and reputable manufacturer of scanning rigs is California-based Negative Supply Co. The more affordable still very high quality rigs make Finland-based VALOI. There are also some bits and pieces produced in different countries, but they all require one to integrate all things into single, well-stabilized assembly, so certain engineering skills are must.  Note that all rigs come in mail densely packed to save on postage. You will have to follow manufacturer's instructions and common sense when assembling them in your lab. One way or another all of them require certain tuning and aligning before they can be used.

How much should I expect to spend on a scanning rig?

The cost can range significantly depending on your approach. A basic DIY rig could be assembled for under $100 using household items, plumbing store supplies  and a bit of creativity. However, a more sophisticated DIY rig with a high-quality copy stand, high-quality light source, and well-executed film holders could easily run a few hundred dollars. Commercially available rigs vary widely in price, with high-end solutions reaching several hundred up to two thousand dollars.

What maintenance does a scanning rig require?

Keeping your rig clean is the most important part of maintenance. Regularly dust and clean your film holders and light source to avoid dust spots on your scans. Moving parts should be checked and lubricated if necessary to ensure very smooth operation. Additionally, periodically check the rig for any loosening components, and tighten them as necessary.

Is it possible to travel with a scanning rig?

Traveling with a scanning rig is possible, especially with more compact rigs or those designed with portability in mind. However, you must consider the fragility and value of the components you're transporting. Secure packaging is a must to prevent any damage. Some scanning enthusiasts prefer to build a separate, more portable rig for travel, using lighter and less expensive components. The recent (as of July 2023) addition to the roster of the portable rigs is excellent VALOI easy35. See more here.