Film scanners let you convert slides, negatives and even prints into digital images for yourself or your clients. They’re a great way to convert your old film archive into digital form. Mastering scanning takes a while, and if you just have a few film images or prints you want digitized, it’s probably best to have a pro lab like Duggal (www.duggal.com) do it. But if you have a lot of images to scan, enjoy controlling the process yourself, and have the time, a good film scanner is the way to go.
Film scanners are available used for $100, but for pro-quality results, you’ll want one of the higher-end models. There are two basic types of scanners, dedicated film and flatbed. The latter operates somewhat like photocopiers, and can do prints as well as slides and negatives. Dedicated film scanners do a better job with negatives and transparencies, but can’t scan prints. We’ll look at both types in a bit, but first, here are some general scanner considerations.
Scanner manufacturers provide resolution figures for their products. The important one is the optical (hardware) resolution; that’s the maximum the unit can deliver without quality-reducing interpolation. Some scanners have different optical resolutions, depending on the size of the original you’re scanning: higher for 35mm, lower for 120.
More resolution (more ppi) means you can make bigger prints without seeing the pixels. But take into consideration the size and quality of the original being scanned: The scanner can’t pull out more detail than the original image contains.
Most higher-end scanners can deliver 48-bit scans (16 bits each in red, green and blue channels). This means, in theory, that they can deliver up to 65,536 different shades of gray or color tones—better than the 16,384 tones of a typical 14-bit DSLR, and way better than the 256 tones of a JPEG image. In practice, the number of tones will be less, but still sufficient to accurately reproduce a transparency or negative.
Manufacturers list the maximum density their scanners can deliver, which affects dynamic range. These figures should be taken with a grain of salt, but higher is better, and you should look for a scanner with a Dmax of at least 3.6. A higher Dmax means potentially smoother gradations and better shadow detail.
A scanner will deliver decent results right out of the box, but you can fine-tune your particular scanner by creating a custom profile. Essentially, you scan a test target containing color patches and a grayscale, and the profiling software guides you through the process. The IT8 Calibration feature in LaserSoft’s SilverFast Ai Studio makes this a simple two-step process (see the "Scanning Software" section).
Of course, you want a scanner that can handle the slides, negatives and prints you want to scan. If your archives are all 35mm, a dedicated 35mm film scanner is ideal. If you have medium-format originals, you’ll want a scanner that can handle those. If you have 4×5 sheet film, you’ll need a scanner that can handle that. Scanners that accept larger originals cost more than scanners that don’t, so consider your needs and budget when choosing a unit.
Most newer scanners use LED light sources, which warm up quickly and are energy-efficient. Other light sources can be good, too; the most costly scanner discussed here uses a cold-cathode source. But if you’re choosing between two scanners of equal price class, the one with LEDs would likely be the better choice.
Each scanner comes with scanning software, which you use to operate the device and make scans. SilverFast Ai Studio (now in version 8.5) is an excellent third-party scanning product that works with many scanners, provides more capabilities (including easy profiling) and is a worthwhile investment if you’re going to get into scanning seriously. Some scanners come with a version of SilverFast; if it’s not Ai Studio, there’s usually a discounted upgrade path included. Estimated Street Price: $299. www.silverfast.com
Some scanners are easier to use than others, and some are faster than others. When comparing speed specs, make sure they’re for the same parameters (same size original, highest-quality scan mode, etc.). As for ease of use, check out user reports, or get a demo at your local dealer. Some manufacturers have demo videos on their websites, which give you an idea of what’s involved in using a given scanner.
Some scanners have batch-scanning capabilities—they will accept a stack of slides, or filmstrips, rather than just individual slides or frames. Keep in mind that you’ll probably want to adjust scanning parameters for each image individually for optimum results, but if you have a lot of slides of similar images, batch processing can be a time-saver.
You can scan black-and-white originals in monochrome or in color. You should try both ways with your scanner to see which produces results you prefer. Note that color scans will be larger (three channels vs. one), but may deliver better results when converted to monochrome using Photoshop or a dedicated monochrome software solution such as Nik Silver Efex Pro (www.google.com/nikcollection), onOne Perfect B&W 9 (www.on1.com), Alien Skin Exposure 7 (www.alienskin.com), Topaz B&W Effects (www.topazlabs.com) or Tiffen Dfx v4 (www.tiffensoftware.com).
This article is about film scanners, although the Epson Perfection V850 Pro can scan prints, as well. A variety of print scanners are available, too, including many that can do slides/negatives and prints. As mentioned, dedicated film scanners generally can deliver better scans from slides and negatives. If you have both a print and the negative, you’ll get better results from scanning the negative, as a negative holds more information than a reflective print can. If you’ve done a lot of work to make the print—dodging, burning, toning, etc.—you may want to scan the print. But you can do a lot more working from the negative digitally than traditionally in the darkroom. If in doubt, try both ways, and see which works best for you and that specific image.
A Selection Of Scanners
Braun FS120 Medium-Format Film Scanner. Braun’s FS120 is a good choice for those who have both 35mm and medium-format film images to scan, as it accepts 35mm slides and filmstrips through 120/220 films (up to 6×12 format). Its optical resolution is 3200 ppi, Dmax is 3.6+, and bit depth is 48 (16 bits per RGB channel). The light source is white and IR LEDs; the sensor is a 3-line CCD. Built-in technology automatically removes dust and scratches. The unit connects to a computer via USB 2.0 (or 1.1), and requires Mac OS X 10.5+ with 1.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or better and 1 GB of RAM, or Windows XP, Vista, 7 or 8, Intel P4 2 GHz and 1 GB of RAM. Dimensions are 15.7×8.1×6.7 inches; weight is 11.7 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $1,995. www.braun-phototechnik.de/en
Epson Perfection V850 Pro Photo Scanner. The Perfection V850 Pro is a flatbed type that can handle sizes from 35mm slides through 8×10 transparencies and negatives, and prints up to 8.5×11.7 inches. It’s also the lowest-cost unit presented here. Optical resolution is 4800×9600 ppi (6400×9600 ppi with Micro Step Drive technology), maximum Dmax is 4.0, and bit d
epth is 48 (16 bits per RGB channel). ReadyScan LED technology provides fast scanning with no warm-up time required. The Perfection V850 Pro connects to a computer via USB 2.0, and requires Mac OS X 10.6.x-10.10.x or Windows 8-8.1, 7, Vista, XP or XP Pro x64 Edition. Two sets of film holders speed up batch processing, and hold up to 12 mounted slides or up to 18-frame 35mm strips, one medium-format frame up to 6x20cm and one 4×5-inch frame. There’s also an 8×10 film holder. Dimensions are 19.8×12.1×6.0 inches; weight is 14.6 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $949. www.epson.com
Hasselblad Flextight X1. The X1 can handle film sizes from 35mm through 4×5 inches. Its unique design features a vertical optical system that provides a glass-free optical path between your original and the lens. Flexible holders keep the film flat. Dmax is 4.6, and bit depth is 48 (16 bits per RGB channel). The X1 can deliver a 6400 ppi scan from 35mm in 7.15 minutes, a 3200 ppi scan from a 60mm original in 6.02 minutes, and a 2040 ppi scan from a 4×5 original in 5.08 minutes. You can save a 3F "raw" scan and open it later and make any desired modifications, a history of which will be embedded in the 3F file for future reference. A cold-cathode light source and a power supply located outside the scanner both reduce heat. Dimensions are 25.6×15.4×9.1 inches; weight is 45.2 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $13,400. hasselbladbron.com
Pacific Image PrimeFilm 120 Pro Multi-Format Scanner. The quick PrimeFilm 120 can handle films from 35mm through 120/220 (up to 6x12cm), delivering 3200 ppi, 48-bit (16 per RGB channel) scans with a Dmax of 3.6+. The light source is white and IR LEDs, and the sensor is a 3-line RGB CCD. Unique Magic Touch technology removes dust and scratches. The PF 120 connects to Mac (OS 10.5+, Intel processor) and Windows (XP/Vista/7/8, Intel P4 2 GHz or AMD 2 GHz or better) computers via USB 2.0 (not USB 1.1-compatible). Dimensions are 6.3×7.8×15.78 inches; weight is 12.3 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $1,399. www.scanace.com
Plustek OpticFilm 120 Film Scanner. The OpticFilm 120 can handle films from 35mm through 120/220 (6×4.5cm through 6x12cm). Dynamic range is 4.01 (with SilverFast Multi-Exposure; the unit comes with SilverFast Ai Studio 8), theoretical Dmax is 4.8, and bit depth is 48 (16 bits per RGB channel). Input (CCD) resolution is 10,600 ppi; output (lens) resolution is 5300 ppi. The light source is LED. Patent-pending adjustable-pitch 120 film holders hold the film flat, while motorized transport speeds workflow. Features include quick and simple Auto IT8 profiling and iSRD dust and scratch removal. The OpticFilm 120 connects to Mac (OS 10.5+, Intel processor) or Windows (XP/Vista/7/8) via USB 2.0. Dimensions are 8.3×14.7×7.4 inches; weight is 12.6 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $1,999. plustek.com