We all need to somehow scan our photos. This will be a comprehensive guide to scanning - From scanners for every budget to having alternatives to traditional scanning.
So we all love film, but I’m willing to bet that few of us have darkrooms. Do you shoot slides and only show your photos to your friends in your living room with an ancient projector? I doubt it. We all need to somehow scan our photos. This will be a comprehensive guide to scanning. I’ll talk about scanners for every budget, and even some alternatives to traditional scanning.
Types of Scanners
When you decide to make the investment in a scanner, there are three basic types from which to choose. Each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. While I don’t like endorsing specific products, I will mention the scanners in these categories with which I have had personal experience. I think you’ll find that the cameras and films you use plus amount of scanning you do will factor in to which scanner you choose. Here’s a scanned slide and as you can see color and clarity look great.
The flatbed scanner is the dark horse of the scanning world. It is often overlooked and underrated. The flatbed scanner that I own is an Epson 4490. It has a light in the lid and comes with two different film trays. There are a variety of scanners from different companies that are built like this, and these features are what make it possible to scan film. Over the last five years or so, scanners have come a long way. The Epson scans at 4800 dpi natively (I’ll define that later), which is pretty typical for most scanners of this type. Most printers work best around 300 dpi, so that means a 35mm negative can make a 21×14 inch print. Here’s a 100% from the image above.
In my experience, this type of scanner gives you the best bang for your buck. It can scan slides and negatives to produce high quality fine art prints with little trouble. When scanning 35mm negatives, you can usually load two strips of negatives 5-6 frames long. You can preview all of the negatives easily and quickly. The versatility of these scanners is also great. The different trays allow you to scan medium format film as well as 35mm. The tray the Epson uses allows you to scan up to 6cm x 12cm which is the size of wide angle pinhole Holga and the 3D Holga. Some scanners also have trays that allow for 4×5 negatives and even larger. Almost all these scanners also act as regular document scanners as well. A decent flatbed scanner costs between $100-200 USD. Here’s a 6×12 cm negative from the Holga wide angle pinhole camera scanned with my Epson Flatbed.
The biggest disadvantage of flatbed scanners is the control. There is one light that usually isn’t adjustable. For well exposed negatives and slides, this isn’t really a problem. If you’re trying to bring out extra detail in the extreme shadows or highlights, you may run into some trouble. Likewise, if you’re trying to correct for more than a stop of so of exposure, you may also have issues. Another thing that many people experience when using flatbed scanners is the appearance of Newton Rings. This are rainbow colors ovals that show up when the negative touches the glass of the scanner. I’ll talk about correcting this later. I’ve zoomed in on some Newton Rings to show you what they look like in the image below.
Dedicated film scanners are the next step up in the hierarchy of analog to digital transfer. Sorry if that language sounded over-sophisticated, but these scanners are just that, sophisticated. The scanner in this category which I have experience with is the Nikon Coolscan IV. This scanner is pretty old, but the general principles still apply. These scanners typically produce a higher resolution image by actually performing a focusing process with a lens. Most film scanners have automated processes that allow for an entire strip to be scanned at one time. Generally they are powered with halogen lights that can be adjusted in intensity either by actually reducing the power or using automated filters within the scanner. This gives you a lot more control. Nikon scanners actually don’t use halogen lights, they use three LED lights, which won’t weaken in intensity over time. The three separate LEDs are three different colors allowing for even more control with color balance, saturation and other adjustments. The following image was scanned with the Coolscan IV.
These scanners are precise. They offer the user complete control of the exposure and color in the scanning process. The loading mechanism and lack of a glass plate means that curved negatives are not a problem. Logically, flatbed scanners were never really designed to scan film, dedicated film scanners were so they do a much better job. There is no arguing that the quality of the scan that you’ll get from a film scanner will be a lot better than a flatbed scanner.
The main problem with most film scanners is that they are touchy. Flatbed scanners are a lot easier to use. Although, the software film scanners use now is much better than it used to be you should really read up before diving into your first scans. Knowing how to use levels and curves to adjust both exposure and color is important. Another issue is that most film scanners are built for 35mm film. Buying a film scanner for medium format will cost you a lot of money. Good 35mm film scanners start at around $200 USD and go up into the thousands.
I’m not going to talk about drum scanners too much because, frankly, they are ridiculously expensive. Drum scanners use a laser and a photo multiplier tube to produce crazy high resolution images with great quality. The photo multiplier tube is a lot more sensitive than the CCD chips used in the scanners mentioned above. They actually mount your photo to the tube with a liquid. It’s a pretty intense process. If you have money to burn, you can send your negatives in somewhere to have them drum scanned. It will only cost you $20-$30 USD for SINGLE 35mm frame, $40-50 for a 6×6 medium format negative, and over $100 for a 6×12 negative.
Resolution and Dynamic Range
I don’t want to say that resolution and dynamic range are the most important aspects of a scanner, but they are the factors that will cause the most visible differences to the user. I’m going to break down these terms as they are used in scanning. BUT I’m going to preface this entire section by saying a couple things: 1) most modern scanners have more than enough resolution and a fair amount of dynamic range, and 2) scanners are actually priced pretty fairly, so when all else fails remember the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”
Resolution is something anyone who has even heard about a digital camera knows about. It will also probably be proclaimed in large letters on the box of the scanner. Like I said, most scanners on the market today have more than adequate resolution. With that in mind, any resolution over 3000 dpi is fine. Be careful as many scanners will fake you out with interpolation. Interpolation is the scanner guessing at what the pixels are supposed to be; it’s making up pixels that aren’t really there, so just ignore it. In the following photo, you can see a 100% crop of an image shot on medium format film. With the Epson 4490 at native resolution, a 6×6cm negative can be scanned to produce an image that’s over 10,000 pixels wide.
Dynamic range relates to how much detail a scanner can pull out of the highlights and the shadows. One of the best reasons for shooting film is that it has much greater dynamic range (or latitude, in film speak) than digital. You know those HDR photos? Shoot black and white film and do a good job scanning and your photos will look the same because black and white film has a huge dynamic range. You want to be able to take advantage of this in the scanning process. Dynamic range is measured on a scale from 0 – 4 and is usually called Dmax. You’ll want a scanner with a Dmax of at least 3. As you can see in the following image, the details in the brightly lit grass are still visible. This might not be the case with a flatbed scanner.
The software you use to scan is almost as important as the scanner itself. The interesting thing about scanning software is that you can often purchase a third-party software that is better than the software that comes with the scanner. Nikon and Canon both use their own software and they both work great. Epson also has a good software program. VueScan and SilverFast are both third-party software solutions for scanners. They are both highly customizable, meaning that you can set up the scanner to do things easily using auto exposure, or you can utilized advanced features to have more control.
How to Properly Scan
Properly scanning a photo is little like using a digital camera and a little like using the first version of Photoshop. Keep in mind that your scanner is basically a specialized digital camera. If you’re working with a tricky exposure, it’s better to underexpose slightly that to overexpose. Most scanning software will have a some type of control settings for levels, curves and color balance. Treat these adjustments more like a hammer than a paint brush. They are for major adjustments, not fine tuning. Don’t overtone your images in the scanning software. For example, when adjust the highlight in the levels panel, take it to a place where it looks alright, and then back off a little bit. Don’t clip off too much information. The more you mess around with the scanning software, the less you’ll be able to do in your real photo editing software.
This tips has two meaning. The first is this: flat is term used to describe an image with too little contrast. When you’re in the scanning software, you want the image to look a little flat. Again, fine tune your image in Photoshop or another kind of dedicated photo editing software. Flat images have more information that high contrast ones. The second meaning of “scan flat” is literally that, make sure whatever you are scanning is physically flat. Curly negatives or strips of film are going to be harder to scan than flat ones. Dedicated film scanners do a lot to fix this problem, but flatbed scanners can really cause you problems (like Newton Rings). To help with this, the do sell special thin sheets of glass that your negatives actually can touch with out making the circles.
Always and I mean ALWAYS scan at the highest native quality possible. Don’t go all the way up into the interpolated resolutions, but do use the maximum regular resolution and use the highest bit depth. Most scanners use 24 or 48 bits to capture the color information. Some sites will tell you that an increased bit-depth can allow for more dynamic range, other site will tell you bit-depth is all hype. What it really means is how specifically the scanner can define a given pixel of color. Basically, old low bit scanners might be able to say a pixel is one of 200 shades of red, newer high bit scanners can say a pixel is one of 4000 shades of red. So the higher the bit depth the more specific the colors.
When you buy a scanner, buy a blower. While some newer scanners have ICE technology that will use different scanning technology to eliminate dust from your negatives, but overall, it’s better to just get it off of there in the beginning. I have a Giottos Rocket-Air Blower, it has a bulb that you squeeze that shoots air out of a nozzle. You can also stock up on the cans of compressed air used for dusting electronics. You can use these blowers for keyboards, sensors in digital cameras and all types of film so your purchase will not go to waste.
So maybe you don’t have an extra $200 lying around, or maybe you just like experimenting. There are a couple interesting ways to get images into your computer that don’t require a new piece of machinery on your desk. Two require a digital camera and one requires a regular flatbed scanner. All three can produce very interesting results.
The Close Up
I own a digital SLR, some macro filters and a light box, so this technique is pretty easy for me. Basically, you’re just taking a photo of the slide or negative. I find that this works better with slides and black and white film because color negative film doesn’t invert as well in photo editing software. Having flat film is very important and getting that film in focus when shooting is critical. I would suggest using a tripod and making sure the light behind your film is also as even as it can be. The following image is a slide shot on a light box. The colors and contrast are a little harsh, but it doesn’t look for a web image. If I were to print it larger than a 4×6, I’d probably have some issue.
This technique also involves simply taking a picture of a picture. Get out that old slide projector and put those slide up on a flat (preferably white) wall. Then set your digital camera up on a tripod and shoot away. Be sure your projector is on a steady surface, you may even want to put a few books on top of it to minimize any shaking caused by the fan. For an extra artistic twist, project the image onto some with texture like a brick wall or a door. The following image was scanned from a wall projection. Again, the colors and contrast aren’t perfect, but the image is pretty sharp.
Regular flatbed scanning
If you have a regular flatbed scanner, you can slap your film right on there to get a scan. It won’t be always be pretty, but it always makes for some interesting photos. This technique makes images look aged and deteriorated. The focus is never quite there; the film bends the light and can throw it in strange directions creating flare and blur. The following image is a color negative scanned using a normal flatbed set up, and then inverted in Photoshop. Color negatives are the most drastically affected by this technique.
Scanning doesn’t have to be intimidating or expensive. A brand new scanner can be very affordable and if you use as much film as I do, the savings will add up. Good luck out there and I hope that this guide will help you with all of your analogue to digital conversions.
This comprehensive guide to scanning is by Cameron Knight, a photojournalist from CityBeat at Cincinnati, Ohio.