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How to Scan Photographs, Negatives and Slides
Digital Scanning of Photographs, Negatives and Transparencies
Do you still use a film camera, or do you have lots of 35mm negatives, slides or photographs from years ago that you want to get onto your computer?
This article is about my experiences with digital film/slide scanners, a couple of scanner reviews, tips and advice about scanning, scanners and photoediting software.
Is scanned 35mm slide film still better than photographs from a good digital SLR or are the days of analogue photography completely over? I have included some examples of my photographs taken using slide and print film. Which is better digital or analog photography?
What Are The Options?
If you have a few old negatives or photos you want to get in digital form on your computer, then the best bet would be to take them or send them away to a specialist to scan them and put them onto a disk for you, but if you have a lot, or are still using film cameras (I am some of the time) then you may want to get a slide or film scanner.
There isn't much choice, now, because most people have moved to digital cameras, but there are some excellent second hand ones around, and some very inexpensive, but very high quality scanners available.
It is also possible to scan negatives using a flat-bed scanner, but the results will not be as good as a proper slide/film scanner. Flat-bed scanners are however excellent for scanning photos if you don't have the negatives.
Plustek Opticfilm 7200i
I bought this scanner in 2007. It seemed too good to be true. Good quality scanners from companies such as Nikon and Canon etc. had always been very expensive, costing several hundred pounds and yet have lower resolution (dots per inch) than this remarkably inexpensive device (I paid about Â£150 - $300 and I have seen it even cheaper in Jessops although they no longer seem to stock it) At this price level of course there has to be some compromise, and this is build-quality. It really is quite light-weight and flimsy in construction and the slides or negative strips have to be manually clicked through the device in their rather cheaply constructed mounts. No motorised transport here.
The software provided was only available for PC (I mostly use Apple iMacs and Macbooks, but I do have a PC as well) and is easy to use and install, but was quite prone to crashing causing me to have to restart the PC a few times, but the speed was fantastic. My old Canon FS-4000US scanner is so slow taking 10 minutes per full-resolution scan, the Plustek takes a minute. In fact I spent more time fiddling with the slides putting them into the mount than actually scanning. The resulting scans, while slightly noisier than other lower-resolution scanners I have used are wonderfully high resolution. Colours are also perhaps more subdued than the Canon, but of course, a few adjustments in Photoshop or Gimp soon fixes that (see section on photo-editing software)
The bad news however is that it turned out to be unreliable, occasionally making some very strange noises and stopping completely (turning off the power usually fixed it) I returned it and got my money back in full, although would have been happy to get another one, as the speed and quality were so good.
Would I recommend this scanner? At this price I probably would if you only want to scan a few of your favourite negatives or slides, but not if you are a professional. I am a very heavy user archiving my full back catalogue of 20+ years of wildlife and travel photography. I've gone back to my trusty old Canon scanner.
Summary: Very inexpensive, good image quality, but only for light to medium use
Advantages: Very high resolution
Disadvantages: Slightly cheap build quality
New Plustek Scanners
Canon FS 4000 US
When I bought this scanner a few years ago it was quite expensive at more than Â£700 although at the time scanners of this resolution were in general even more expensive. It is quite an old design and most likely now to be found only on the second-hand market, but due to it's sturdy construction could make a sensible second-hand purchase when compared to the relatively cheap and cheerful scanners available now.
It is very robust and fairly large with approximately a 35cm x 10cm footprint to accommodate the full length of the film holders, but the build quality of mine has stood the test of time and it is still working after scanning about 500 films (I am gradually archiving my wildlife and travel photographs from more than 20 years of adventures) It is equipped with two sturdy metal film holders: one that takes strips of up to 6 35mm negatives and the other takes 4 mounted slides. The scanner detects which one is being used and sets the default scanning settings accordingly (although if you use unmounted slides in strips it assumes you are using negatives). There is also an APS film feeder that can be attached to the front and allows whole APS films to be scanned.
The scanner comes with scanning software: a copy of photoshop LE 5.0 (a cut-down version of Photoshop, but more than adequate for general photo retouching, level adjustment, curves etc.) for post-processing of the scanned data and a photoshop "plug-in" called FilmGetFS 1.0, for controlling the scanner. I use an Apple imac and the only way to use the scanner is with this plug-in (although there are other programs for PCs which can be used instead) This means that photoshop is not available for use while the scanner is running. The run- time for a full-resolution (4000 dpi, 140MB) scan is more than 10 minutes per slide, so in excess of an hour for 6 negatives. This is very slow compared to some of the competition, partly due to the use of USB 1.0, but partly just because it's a slow scanner. Alternatively the fast SCSI interface may be used, which improves things a bit. Another limitation is that each scan is not saved to disk automatically after completion but just left open on the screen, so if you run out of memory and the application crashes you could lose hours of work unless you save regularly e.g. between batches of 6. Each time you come out of the scanning application, then restart, a calibration is run on the scanner which takes a random amount of time somewhere between five seconds and five minutes (I have found no obvious reason for this) There is also dirt and scratch reduction software included called FARE (Film Automatic Retouching and Enhancement) which can be run during the scan which slows things down even more and for full resolution scans uses a huge amount of memory, but does however give very useful results.
The software and scanner are easy to install and use with the option of previewing a scan and cropping, rotating and some other adjustment before the actual full scan is performed.
The results are extremely good both in terms of the actual resolution and sharpness of the resulting image, but also the colours which are vibrant and realistic. The maximum colour-depth is 42 bits which adds flexibility although many applications and file formats do not support this (e.g. JPEG) so 24 bit output can be used to save space and time. Resolution can also be reduced to 2000 dpi,1000 dpi or lower to really speed things up. Dropping the resolution and colour-depth gives very reasonable scan-times even as low as a minute or less for the lower resolution setting, at the expense of quality, although there is still that random calibration step to slow you down.
I would certainly recommend this scanner. There are higher resolution scanners around, but then who really needs more than 60 Mega-pixels? The relatively slow scan-rate is the only real issue with this scanner.
Summary: A good sturdy reliable work-horse with good quality output
Advantages: Very good quality scans
Digital vs Analog (i.e. film) vs compact
So, which is better digital or analogue?
Unfortunately it is now difficult even for analogue enthusiasts to argue that film is significantly better than digital, but we still need to get the best out of our old photos, and that usually means scanning them and turning them into high-quality digital pictures.
The only argument for film now, is that it has a higher resolution (i.e. more Mega-pixels) Film consists of small random sized grains of light sensitive material, whereas digital pictures are of course, regularly spaced pixels. The highest resolution DSLRs have more than 20 Mega pixels covering the same area as a 35mm slide, but most have nearer 10 million covering a smaller area (in reality they actually, usually have 5 million green pixels, 2.5 million red and 2.5 million blue, then some software turns it into 10 million RGB pixels, but that's perhaps not so important) Some people like the grain on old photos, some do not, but if we equate grain to pixels you could argue that the very best low-speed high-resolution slide film has a lot more than 20 mega-pixels. To really get the best out of slide film with a scanner, I scan at 4000 dpi (dots per inch) or 7200 dpi, which equates to 60 to 150 mega-pixels and allows you to see the grain in the scanned photo (i.e. the scan is at a higher resolution than the film) but this is not equivalent to a 60 mega-pixel digital camera, but better than a 10 mega-pixel camera.
Unfortunately digital SLR cameras win when it comes to convenience, the ability to change "film-speed" instantly and see the result straight away and the "colour-depth" (the accuracy of colour rendition) is as good as slide film and better than print film. The results are usually displayed on a computer screen which is only 1 or 2 mega-pixels anyway, so unless you blow the picture up and print out at more than a foot wide you will not see the extra pixels.
Why is an SLR better than a compact with the same number of pixels?
Compacts are wonderful. They can go in your pocket or handbag and many good compacts will create great pictures that will look good on the computer screen. I don't have one, but I want one. The reason I don't have one is they results are usually noisier that an SLR (random electronic noise that gets worse in dark pictures) because the pixels are far smaller and more susceptible to electronic interference on the chip and in general they are not as easy to control as an SLR. The results can be very good, but I never feel like it is my photo, but the photo that the camera decided to take for me (an SLR can do this for you too, but at least you have more control if you want it)
I have written a more detailed recommendation of cameras here:
but here is some good kit:
These scanner do not come up very often, so I here is a selection of scanner available on eBay (possibly including the FS 4000 US)
Photo Editing Software
Once the photographs have been scanned you may wish to crop them, adjust the colours and brightness, or even remove scratches, dirt and red-eye, in which case photo-editing software may be required (check to see what comes with the scanner as you may already have some software included)
There is a good photo-editing software package, called GIMP, which is available for installation for free. I have written a review about it here, giving details of how to get it and how to install it:
Alternatively there are several other very good options: Adobe Photoshop
Selling Your Photos Online
When you have scanned your photographs you can start selling them online. There are many ways of selling photos, such as professional photo libraries or even eBay. Alternatively there are web-sites that pay you to upload photos and you get paid for internet traffic to your photos, but perhaps the easiest way to create an income directly from your photos is by selling products featuring your photos, such as postcards, greeting cards, fridge magnets, T-shirts etc. and Zazzle website allows you to upload your photos and automatically general virtual products in your gallery, which then can be made available for sale (the products only get made physically when someone orders them) and you can choose how much commission you would like to receive (e.g. 10%, 15%, 20%...)
Here is my Zazzle Gallery which makes me a nice steady extra bit of income.