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Using your film scanner as a microscope

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Using your film scanner as a microscope

Low power (x50-60) microscopy

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One afternoon Keith got bored with scanning film negatives, and decided to see if the Canon FS4000 film scanner he was using would make a good microscope…

bee wing

Photomicroscopy on the cheap!

A WARNING! Putting things other than film into an expensive scanner is not a good idea, unless you are very careful! Keith or Northlight Images takes no responsibility whatsoever if you damage your scanner.

This is one of our earliest articles, from September 2003. A decade later I can put our MP-E65 macro lens on a camera and take highly detailed pictures. Even cheaper is to make your own macro lens.

Scanning small objects

The film scanner I use for most of my film landscapes is a Canon FS4000US.

Note – 2014 and the FS4000 still works fine, even if using film is a fairly distant memory – I used it when reviewing the Epson V850 film scanner

It scans film at up to 4000 dpi (dots per inch) which is good enough to show the tiny grains of silver that create the image in conventional black and white film, clumps of these show up in pictures and are known as grain (some people hate it, some love it)

Your monitor displays images at about 70-90 dpi, so taking the example of my Mac monitor at about 75 dpi, we get a magnification of 4000/75 which is about x53.

It’s not a lot and isn’t going to show the likes of blood cells, but it should give an interesting view of small transparent objects.

For reflective objects you could try a flatbed scanner, but most have a real (optical) resolution much less than the film scanner. If your scanner has a transparency adapter you could try transparent things as well.

Thing to scan also need to be very thin, since the scanner is designed for film and has a very limited depth of field (the thickness of the object that is in focus) I had a walk round the house and came up with the objects below.

The objects are sandwiched between two bits of developed unexposed film and placed into the film holder for scanning. You could use a transparency mount just as well, but it would take a little more care in preparation.

The pictures below all have a small bar on them to give an indication of scale. This was added using Photoshop’s ruler tool which will allow you to measure things on the screen if your images are still at the original scan resolution.

I’ve also had the suggestion that old Microfiche readers make good low power display microscopes for classroom use (typically x25 to x40) Unfortunately I haven’t got one in the office to try :-(( –Thanks to Bruce Butterfield

First try – some onion cells

Onion skin - full film scanner output Have you ever noticed that very thin almost transparent film that you can peel off the inside layers of onions?

A very thin bit of onion. This is the whole 35mm film frame

Onion cells

An enlarged section, showing individual onion cells

Notice the scale bar – these are big cells

A Honey Bee Wing

A dead bee donated one of its wings. There are some fine filaments visible which might be fungal growth, since the bee had been on the window sill for some time.

honey bee wing

You can even see some of the tiny hairs on the wing (I didn’t know bees had hairy wings before).

Magnified view

Hairs on bee wing

Note that I’ve subsequently been told that this is not actually a honey bee, but a different species of (UK) bee.


The feather was a white soft downy one which had blown in the window…

feather tip

Feather tip.

Notice that since this is not a flight feather there are no barbs to hold it together

feather core

The core of the feather

Wind born seed

This is the fluffy bit of a seed that also blew in the through the window – the actual seed has fallen out leaving the hole (bar is 0.5mm)


Sugar and salt crystals

sugar and salt

Sugar and salt crystals (and some dust)

Be very careful with ones like this!

Eyebrow hair

Eyebrow Hair

It would seem that a hint of greyness is developing :-))

Notice how the transparent bit refracts the image of the hair below it.

This picture was increased to 8000 dpi in ~10% steps and sharpened quite a bit in Photoshop. It’s probably about as detailed as you will get with the FS4000.

All the scans were made using Vuescan, and have been processed to varying degrees in Adobe Photoshop. The pictures have been somewhat reduced in quality compared to the originals for putting on the web. A discussion about this and other matters relating to web image quality is in the ‘Webphotos’ section.

This page was mentioned on Slashdot on 10 September 2003 – The site took over 150,000 hits in the following hour.

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More experimental and How-to articles

All articles and reviews are listed on our main Articles and Reviews page, or use the search box at the top of any page. Experimental items, hacks and how-to articles are all listed in the Photo-hacks category Some specific articles that may be of interest:

  • Using old lenses on your DSLR
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  • Canon View Camera An adapter ($20) to use an old MPP 5x4 view camera with a Canon 1Ds. Article shows details of construction and just what it can be used for. Could be adapted for any DSLR and many old large format cameras.

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