Analogue to Digital: Film Scanners

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of printing your digital photos, whether in books, zines or as photographic prints. It was mainly concerned with the ephemeral nature of digital files, but also the beauty of having your work in a tangible form. One option I neglected to mention was converting digital files onto slide film, but rather than go over that process again, you can read an article I wrote about it a while ago for the Photobite website here.

This three-part article is going to look at getting your analogue/film images into a digital format because, whether we like it or not, it is the way images are mostly consumed and viewed today and, apart from making darkroom wet prints, it is the only way to get them into print form. There are really only two methods of doing this, with a scanner or with a digital camera. With film enjoying something of a growing resurgence, as well as people finding old family films and wanting to get them onto their computers and phones, the supply and demand for solutions has significantly increased, leading to a boom in affordable “consumer” scanners and a rise in the prices of older, and generally superior, ones. There has also been a lot of ingenuity shown in the ways people can use their digital cameras to “scan” film. But first, let’s look at scanners. This is only a brief overview of some of the options available, and does not go into specific technical details of any of them.

Digital image scanners are still a relatively new invention in the history of photography, and it wasn’t until the 1980s, when computers were more readily available and capable that flatbed scanners became commonplace. In reprographics, drum scanners (the first of which was built in 1957) were the go-to choice, and they are still considered to produce the best scans from film, although many of the older ones, which still work perfectly well, suffer from having obsolete interfaces. The more common flatbed scanners proved to be a far better solution for reflective artwork, such as B&W photo prints, and that popularity drove down the prices and upped the resolution. Nowadays a 6400 dpi scanner, such as the Epson V600, can be bought new for £250-£300, complete with a hood and mounts to allow film scanning. Unfortunately, scanning 35mm with a consumer flatbed scanner doesn’t always produce the best results. 120 film fares a lot better, and large format film is no problem at all. But it is a good, intermediate solution of non-critical work. I remember buying my first scanner at the end of the 1980s, it was so expensive that it came with a full version of Photoshop, which wasn’t a cheap piece of software back then. Of course, there are professional-level flatbeds for scanning film. Back in the mid ’90s I worked in the repro house of a huge commercial printers and they used a Scitex flatbed scanner that produced incredible results. There are still models around today, although they are rebranded or co-branded, but you need to do a serious amount of scanning to justify the cost.

Kodachrome slide scanned with Nikon Super Coolscan 4000 ED

The best, affordable, option is a film scanner. There are a few expensive lab-level machines available with an appropriate price tag, such as those from Noritsu and Hasselblad. For quality home scanning two options that I am familiar with are the Minolta DiMage and the Nikon Coolscan. My first film scanner was the DiMage, and it produced quite impressive results. Models range from resolutions of 2800dpi up to 5400dpi. The lower resolution ones are still affordable but the 5400 models are now going for around £1000 on eBay. One advantage of the DiMage is they come with film holders that let you batch scan up to six negs or four mounted slides. 

Minolta DiMage Scan Dual II and Konica-Minolta DiMage Scan Elite 5400 II

Nikon Coolscan comes in various models with a variety of resolutions, all the way up to Super Coolscan 8000 or 9000, which scans both 35mm and 120, but go from around £1500 and upwards. Even the Super Coolscan 4000 model, which I have at the moment, commands prices of up to £1000. Both the 8000/9000 and the 4000/5000 are 4000dpi scanners, giving the equivalent of a 20 megapixel file, which is plenty for most use. The results are great but each image takes a while to scan and get to a good reproducible standard, depending on the original, of course. It does help that these scanners have Digital ICE, which removes dust and scratches during the scanning, except with Kodachrome. If you want to go to a higher resolution then it is much better to have it done on a drum scanner at a professional lab. The DiMage, Coolscan and other similar film scanners take up minimal desktop space compared with flatbed scanners. They usually have USB and/or FireWire connections. Because of the age of them it is usually USB-1 and FireWire 400. If you are planning to get one of these older scanners then it is probably also worth getting/using an older (pre-2012) Macintosh (MacMini, iMac or MacBook) that still has FireWire and USB-2 ports to use as a dedicated scanning machine. If you are using a more recent machine, there are FireWire to Thunderbolt adapters, and hubs for the pre USB-C peripherals. 

Nikon Super Coolscan 8000 ED and 4000 ED

Other film scanner options include Plustek (starting at £250) and Pacific Image, who both make new film scanners. I’ve not used them and only read mixed opinions about their use and image quality, but they are mostly cheaper than the DiMage and Coolscan, plus you get a warranty and bundled software. Plustek do have a new 120 Pro scanner that costs £1999, and is available from Amazon.

If you buy a used DiMage or Coolscan scanner, you will also need some scanning software, as the bundled dedicated software with these older models won’t work on anything beyond MacOS 10.4 if you’re lucky, although it will apparently work on most versions of Windows. I’ve never used a Windows machine so can’t speak about them. I recommend VueScan software (£80) for scanning as it works with just about every scanner available. It also comes with three different scanning ability options, from allowing the software to do most of the work up to where you have control over all the settings. Silverfast is another option, but this usually needs a version dedicated to the scanner model, and has its own share of fans and haters. It does come with a hefty price tag of €438. Both programs will scan to DNG RAW format, which will give you a bit of extra editing leeway, as well as standard formats such as TIFF and JPEG. The TIFF and DNG files can get pretty big though.

The compact standalone film scanners that are flooding Amazon and eBay at the moment aren’t really worth considering and are aimed at a very basic consumer-level usage, such as getting old family snaps digitised to post on social media. The image quality can be pretty bad and some are prone to scratching the film, but they are quick and models, such as the Kodak Scanza, that include 126 and 110 film carriers. As they range in price from £50 to £200 with promises of scans of 20 plus they can be tempting, but you get what you pay for and aren’t worth it if you want your scans printed or displayed anywhere other than online, where they are only going to get a cursory glance.

Using a film scanner can be a time-consuming process but, with patience and the right scanner, the results are worth the effort. And most of us have plenty of spare time on our hands at the moment. 

In the next post I will look at digitising film with a digital camera and some of the options available. In the final part I will go into more detail on the workflow and post processing options that bring the scans to life.

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