Film Scanners: A Buying Guide
It's been a while since darkrooms have played an integral part in the art and craft of taking pictures, professional or otherwise. Enlargers, sinks, chemicals, safelights, print tongs, and makeshift doo-dads for burning and dodging have long been replaced by app-enhanced smartphones, tablets, Wi-Fi enabled you-name-its, and desktop printers... wireless, of course.
While all this technology is marvelous and, more often than not, fun to use, it also means an untold number of slides and negatives taken by the previous generation or two may never see the light of day, let alone an enlarger bulb or slide-projector lamp. And considering how culturally ingrained image sharing has become over recent years, it's ironic that many of these pictures may never be shared.
"...the end results are greatly determined by the level of sophistication of the scanner's optical system and, equally important—the sophistication of the scanning software."
The best tools for converting slides and film negatives into digital image files that can be edited, enhanced, and easily shared with others are dedicated film scanners. Unlike chemical darkrooms, film scanners can be used in bright sunlight and don't turn your fingertips yellow.
The lowest-cost dedicated film scanner can be had for less than $50, which for some hobbyists with modest needs, might be sufficient. From there they inch up in staggered levels of quality and advanced features until you come to the state-of-the-art, multi-format standard bearers that will set you back upward of five figures.
It's important to note that there's a big difference in image quality, i.e. sharpness, contrast, and D-Max (the maximum absolute density of a piece of film) you get using the slide and negative copying features found on many consumer flatbed scanners and the level of image quality you get from a dedicated film scanner. Flatbed scanners work in a pinch for non-critical needs, but unless you are using one of the pricier, more sophisticated flatbed scanners, most pale beside the image quality you can get from even a modestly priced dedicated film scanner.
Most film scanners, regardless of cost, work on the same principle. A slide or negative, illuminated by a calibrated light source (usually an array of LEDs or a cold cathode lamp), is held flat in a frame, and is recorded as an electronic file after passing through, by, or around an optical system and a scanning sensor. The specifics vary by brand and model and the end results are greatly determined by the level of sophistication of the scanner's optical system and, equally important—the sophistication of the scanning software.
Some of the key attributes that determine the imaging abilities (and cost factor) of film scanners include bit-depth: 8-bit (256 colors per channel), 12-bit (4,096 colors per channel), or 16-bit (65,536 colors per channel); Dmax, or the amount of shadow detail the scanner can record; and the number of file format choices—JPEG (it's OK), TIFF (better) or RAW (best).
Most bundled scanning software should prove adequate once you figure out its unique peculiarities (which they all have), and if the software that comes with your scanner fails to meet your expectations or needs, there is plenty of reasonably priced, third-party scanning software available online.
"The ability to produce digital conversions from film-based originals that are faithful to the color and tonality of the original slide..."
The ability to produce digital conversions from film-based originals that are faithful to the color and tonality of the original slide or negative rests largely on the number of film-type profiles in the software database. In the simpler range your choice might be restricted to bare-bones generics as simple as “Slide” and “Negative,” which invariably require a bit of tweaking in Photoshop or other photo-editing software before they’re suitable for posting or printing.
The more sophisticated scanner software applications contain profiles specific to the looks of many popular film types, which offer more accurate color rendition and invariably cut down on post-production tinkering.
Many film scanners—even some of the least expensive models—feature dust reduction, which as anyone who has printed from slides or negatives can tell you, can be a major chore to achieve manually with a brush, electronic or otherwise.
Even if your scanner has a dust-reduction system in place, cleaning your slides and negatives should be standard protocol. Most dust particles can be removed easily using a camel-hair brush or a baster-style air blaster. More stubborn particles and smudges can be removed using film cleaner (or denatured alcohol) and a cotton swab (cotton only... avoid look-alike synthetic swabs).
Canned air can also be used for removing dust from the surface of your negatives and slides, but from a distance of at least one foot from the image surface, in order to avoid denting it. When using canned air, it's also a good idea to shoot one or two pre-bursts of air off to the side in order to clear the valve of the oily bits of residue that occasionally sputter from the spray nozzle.
As with most things in life, the higher your expectations, the higher the price, and scanners are no exception. But if all you need is a scanner that will enable you to share images of the good old days with others online and the occasional small framed print for the living-room mantle, there are a number of reasonably priced options.
Do keep in mind the scanners listed below are only a sampling of the number of dedicated film scanners that are available at B&H, and we recommend you review all of your options when shopping for a film scanner that best fills your particular needs.
Entry-Level Film Scanners (less than $100)
For basic analog-to-digital conversions, there are a number of small desktop film scanners capable of turning slides and negatives into JPEG or TIFF files suitable for online sharing and/or photo-quality prints up to 8 x 10", depending on the resolving power of the scanner and the resolution of the original slide or negative. In addition to film scanning, several of these under-a-hundred dollar models can also digitize prints up to 4 x 6", which can be a godsend if the negative has long gone AWOL, or you never had one to begin with.
Without exception, all of the following entry-level film scanners are about the size of the proverbial breadbox and take up little real estate on your desk or workstation.
Lomography Smartphone Film Scanner
One thing inexpensive scanners need not be is boring, and the Lomography Smartphone Film scanner is proof enough. Simply download the free Lomoscanner app (iOS and Android) to your smartphone and you’re good to go. The scanner portion of the device is a AA battery-powered backlight that illuminates 35mm film negatives or slides, held firmly flat and in place using the supplied film holders.
Negatives are automatically reversed, panorama images can be stitched together, and 35mm movie frames can be animated using the Lomoscanner app. The Lomoscanner is compatible with most smartphones measuring 1.85"(47mm) across or longer. If the phone has a centrally located lens, it should be no wider than 3.7" (94mm). If the lens is in the corner, it should be no wider than 2.44" (62mm). Additionally, the camera’s shutter-release button should be accessible via the touchscreen as opposed to side-mounted buttons.
veho 3.0MP Slide & Negative Scanner
The least expensive dedicated film scanner we sell at B&H is the veho 3.0MP Slide & Negative Scanner. You get a USB-powered scanner than can digitize 35mm and 110-format film originals. Using a host computer, image files can be edited from the host computer using the included MediaImpressions software.
ImageLab FS9T 9MP Slide & Negative Scanner
For a few dollars more you can get the ImageLab FS9T 9MP Slide & Negative Scanner, which as the name implies, delivers 9MP image files from 35mm slides or negatives. Featuring a 2.4" LCD for previewing and viewing the image, the ImageLab FS9T 9MP Slide & Negative Scanner can be used as a stand-alone unit or connected to a Mac or PC via USB 1.1 cable (included).
Also included is a pair of negative holders and a pair of slide holders. No additional hardware or software is required and final image files are stored on an SD card (up to 32GB). The ImageLab FS9T 9MP Slide & Negative Scanner can be powered by AC or batteries.
veho Smartfix Slide & Negative to SD Card Scanner
For digitizing 110 Instamatic and 35mm slides and negatives, veho offers the Smartfix Slide & Negative to SD Card Scanner. Powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery or through the USB cable, the veho Smartfix Slide & Negative to SD Card Scanner features one-touch operation in one to two seconds per scan. The scanner, which can operate in stand-alone fashion or be connected to a PC or Mac, records image files to an SD or SDHC memory card (up to 8GB). A 2GB card is included.
For previewing final images, the veho Smartfix Slide & Negative to SD Card Scanner features a 2.4" LCD. Exposure and color balance are controlled automatically and there are manual controls for mirroring, flipping, and rotating the images. Included is Media Impressions capture and editing software.
Pacific Image Memor-Ease ST Film & Slide Scanner
One of the least expensive options for digitizing medium-format (120) slides and negatives is the Pacific Image Memor-Ease ST Film & Slide Scanner, which can convert both 35mm and 120-format slides and negatives into digital image files. The Pacific Image Memor-Ease ST Film & Slide Scanner uses a 9MP CMOS sensor to capture 2200 dpi-equivalent JPEGs. Final images are saved to SD cards (up to 32GB) individually and/or as a slide show.
Pacific Image ImageBox Plus CMOS Scan
Despite its just-under-a-hundred dollar price tag, the "3-in-1" Pacific Image ImageBox Plus CMOS Scan, can digitize 4 x 6" prints at up to 400 dpi and 35mm negatives and slides at up to 1800 dpi. Mac and PC compatible, the ImageBox Plus CMOS Scan has a Magic Touch Dust & Scratch Removal feature that automatically removes scratches and residual dust marks from the original image. There's also a full-color image preview screen for pre-scan viewing of color negatives. The Pacific Image ImageBox Plus CMOS Scan is powered by a host computer via USB, which can be utilized for retouching, resizing, cropping, and other image editing tools.
Wolverine Super F2D 4-in1 Film to Digital Converter
Question: What's bright yellow and can convert color or black-and-white negatives, slides, and movie film into digital image files?
Answer: The Wolverine Super F2D 4-in-1 Film to Digital Converter. Boasting 20MP output files from 35mm, 126, 110, and Super 8 movie film, the Wolverine Super F2D 4-in-1 Film to Digital Converter can be operated as a stand-alone device or linked to a Mac or PC via USB 2.0 connection.
Included with each scanner are film/negative holders, and there's a 2.4" color LCD for previewing images. The Wolverine Super F2D 4-in-1 Film to Digital Converter can store up to 40 images in its internal memory, and has an SD/SDHC card slot for transferring images to memory cards along with a TV-Out jack for playing the scans back on your TV.
Midrange Film Scanners ($100 to $999)
When you get into the category of midrange scanners, the resolving power starts to exceed the Web-optimized status of the simpler entry-level film scanners. In addition to one-touch auto control, several of these film scanners also allow you to control exposure, white balance settings, and other advanced exposure features manually. The optical and operating systems of these midrange scanners are also more advanced than the entry-level models, and several of these scanners can be used as a component of your computer system or as computer and software free stand-alone devices.
Depending on the make and model, almost all of the following midrange film scanners produce digital image files containing enough resolving power to produce large-format, i.e., 20 x 24" and beyond, photo-quality prints. All of them pack more resolution than you’ll ever need for Internet applications.
ION Audio PICs 2 SD Image Converter
For digitizing 35mm slides and negatives and prints up to 5 x 7", we recommend the ION Audio PICs 2 SD Image Converter. Using a 5.1MP imaging sensor, the ION Audio PICs 2 SD Image Converter is strictly stand-alone—no computer is required. Scanned image files are automatically transferred to an SD or SDHC memory card (not included) from the unit’s built-in memory card slot.
The ION Audio PICs 2 SD Image Converter works with iPad and iPad 2 via Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit (not included).
Pacific Image ImageBox MF 4-in-1 Slide, Film, and Photo Converter
If you like the features found on the Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Stand-alone Scanner but need a scanner that can also handle medium-format (120) film, check out the Pacific Image ImageBox MF 4-in-1 Slide, Film & Photo Converter, which can digitize 35mm & 120 slides and negatives, as well as prints up to 4 x 6". Like it's 35mm-only sibling, the Pacific Image ImageBox MF 4-in-1 Slide, Film, & Photo Converter is totally stand-alone, features one-touch dust removal, a 2.7" LCD color preview screen, USB 2.0 connectivity (cable included), the option of playing digitized images back on your TV, and can save final images to SD/SDHC memory cards.
Wolverine SNAP 14MP Digital Image Converter
Looking all pretty in red is the Wolverine SNAP 14MP Digital Image Converter. Featuring a 14MP CMOS sensor for outputting image files fine enough for sharp 5 x 7" prints (approximately 4600 x 3100 px), the Wolverine SNAP 14MP Digital Image Converter is totally stand-alone and also does its job without the need for software or a computer.
The Wolverine SNAP 14MP Digital Image Converter can be powered via USB cable, a 5.0 V adapter, or dual-voltage 110-240 VAC power. For previewing images, the scanner features a 2.4" color LCD, and there’s an SD/SDHC memory card reader for transferring image files. Files can also be transferred to a Mac or PC via USB cable for further editing and sharing. You can also view your newly digitized images on your TV using the TV-Out jack.
Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Stand-Alone Scanner
Pacific Image’s ImageBox 9MP Stand-Alone Scanner features 9-megapixel resolution for a maximum of 2400 dpi when scanning 35mm slides and negatives, and 560 dpi when converting 4 x 6" prints into digital image files. As its name implies, the Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Stand-aloneScanner is a stand-alone device and does not require a PC. Images can be previewed and cropped using the scanner’s 2.7" color TFT LCD. Once scanned, image files can be saved on SD/SDHC memory cards (up to 32GB).
Other features found on the Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Stand-Alone Scanner include a flip-top lid for easy placement of scan-ready prints and Magic Touch dust and scratch removal technology for clean image files.
Included with each Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Stand-Alone Scanner are negative and slide holders, a USB cable, a 5V, 1A DC adapter, and a user manual.
Plustek OpticFilm 8100 Film Scanner
With 48-bit input, 7200 dpi optical resolution, a choice of scanning modes, and Silverfast SE Plus 8 software on its "Includes" list, the Plustek OpticFilm 8100 Film Scanner is a lot of scanner for the money. An LED light source guarantees evenly lit exposures with a reliable white-balance control. For advanced editing of scanned images, Silverfast is the choice of software among those who scan images as part of their job. For quicker and easier scanning, the Plustek OpticFilm 8100 Film Scanner also includes Plustek QuickScan software, which enables quality one-touch scanning of slides and negatives.
Also included is a copy of NewSoft Presto PageManager 7.23, a document management software for OCR, PDF creation, format conversions to Microsoft Word or Excel, and file sharing, by converting files to portable file formats such as PDF (Portable Document Format), and Presto! Wrapper.
The Plustek OpticFilm 8100 Film Scanner comes with a padded carrying bag for the scanner, two film holders, power adapter, and USB cable.
Plustek OpticFilm 8200i Ai Film Scanner
A notch up from Plustek’s OpticFilm 8100 is the Plustek OpticFilm 8200i Ai Film Scanner, which in addition to all of the features found in the OpticFilm 8100, features an IT 8 calibration slide to better ensure accurate color results and reduce the need for repeated scans or extensive post-processing color correction.
Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 Film Scanner
Another notable midrange film scanner is the Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 Film Scanner, which like the above-mentioned Plustek scanners, can output scans at 7200 dpi resolution at 16-bits per channel (total output 48-bits) with a dynamic range of up to 3.6.
In addition to scanning individually-mounted slides and negative strips, the Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 can also batch-scan roll films and filmstrips, which can greatly reduce the amount of time you have to babysit the scanner when converting large numbers of originals into digital files.
Pacific Image’s PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 is bundled with CyberView X scanning software, which enables you to custom-adjust the color, contrast, white balance, curves, levels, and other tonal parameters of your slides and negatives for optimized image files.
For managing dust and scratch-related issues, the PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 is bundled with a copy of KADC’s Digital ICE, a well-known dust and scratch-removal application that neutralizes blemishes while maintaining the overall sharpness levels of the film original. Other image-enhancing software applications included with the Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 are Digital ROC, for restoring color to faded prints, Digital GEM, for managing grain and reducing noise levels, and a copy of Photoshop Elements.
Professional Film Scanners ($1,000 to $24,995)
The following film scanners represent the best film-scanning devices available today, and as such, the key guiding factors in determining which scanner is best for your needs should include the number of film formats you plan on scanning (35mm, medium format, 4 x 5", etc.), the degree of control you wish to have when tweaking the details of your scanning efforts, and of course, your budget.
Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 CCD Slides Scanner
The Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 CCD Slides Scanner makes easy work of scanning 35mm slides and negatives individually or batch-scanned in groups of up to 50 mounted slides. With a top optical resolution of up to 5000 dpi, 48-bit data conversion, and a Dmax rating of up to 3.8, the Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 is well worth considering for producing high-fidelity scans on a moderate budget.
The Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 contains a 2MB buffer and utilizes a combination white and infrared LED array for backlighting your film. The images are recorded by a linear-array CCD. Connectivity is via USB 2.0 cable to your computer. Though the Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 lacks a built-in LCD for viewing your scans, it does feature a convenient Quick Slide Viewer that enables you to inspect your film original before scanning it. The PowerSlide 5000 also comes with Magic Touch dust- and scratch-removal software, cleaning your film during the scanning process.
Pacific Image PF120 Pro Multi-Format Film Scanner
Pacific Image’s big gun is the Pacific Image PF120 Pro Multi-Format Film Scanner, which features optical resolution of up to 3200 dpi, 48-bit color, a 3-line CCD sensor, up to 3.6 D-max for recording the finer details in the shadows and highlights, digital noise reduction, and automatic dust and scratch removal.
As for versatility, in addition to 35mm slides and negatives, the Pacific Image PF120 Pro Multi-Format Film Scanner can also handle medium-format negatives and slides in formats up to 6 x 13.2 cm (2.36 x 5.2")
Braun MULTIMAG SlideScan 6000
If the thought of being able to stack up to 50 slides together and hit the scan button so you can spend your precious time doing other things appeals to you, check out the Braun MULTIMAG SlideScan 6000.
In addition to up to 5000 dpi resolution and 48-bit color, the the Braun MULTIMAG SlideSCan 6000 features Magic Touch dust- and scratch-removal software, Scansoftware Cyberview X 5.0 for post-scan image enhancements, and a backlit preview window for pre-scan image editing.
The the Braun MULTIMAG SlideSCan 6000 also includes a copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0.
Hasselblad Flextight X1
It’s not an exaggeration to say Hasselblad’s Flextight film scanners are the "Hasselblads of film scanners"… because they are. Hasselblad Flextight scanners are as good as it gets. Period. Hasselblad’s Flextight X1 is designed to convert 35mm, medium format, and 4 x 5" negatives and transparencies into the highest-definition digital image files you’re ever likely to see. In terms of resolving power, the Flextight X1 can scan 35mm film as high as 6300 dpi, medium-format film up to 3200 dpi, and 4 x 5" film at 2040 dpi, and all three formats with a Dmax rating of up to a truly impressive 4.6. In addition to single scans, the Flextight X1can also be programmed to batch scan up to 6 frames automatically, leaving you time to address more pressing issues.
For maximum bang for your buck, films can be scanned and saved in Hasselblad’s unique 3F file format, which automatically scans the image at a predetermined resolution at 16-bits per channel while embedding all exposure and scan settings within the file’s metadata for easily repeatable output results.
Compatible with PC and Mac, the Hasselblad Flextight X1 contains three CCD optical sensors (3 x 8000) that squeeze 16-bits worth of data from your film originals, which is transferred to your computer via FireWire connectivity at speeds up to 60MB per minute. Although the Flextight X1 allows for advanced control of all scanning functions, you also have the option of going the 3F Auto-Scan route, which enables scanning your film originals with one-touch simplicity.
Hasselblad Flextight X5
The Hasselblad Flextight X5 contains all of the pro-quality features found on the Flextight X1, but with the added advantages of quicker data-transfer speeds (up to 300MB per minute), a Peltier cooling device to divert excess heat levels that can affect image quality if left unchecked, and a light condenser that works in concert with the scanner’s software-based, dust-removal technologies to better ensure blemish-free image files. The Flextight X5 also offers dual batch-scanning options, compared to the single option offered on the Flextight X1. Additionally, in a bid to keep dust marks from mucking up your workflow, the X5 utilizes the efforts of the scanner’s Flextouch dust-removal technologies.
When it comes to dedicated film scanners, there’s no shortage of options, regardless of your budget, technical needs, or both. Budgetary issues aside, you should first determine your ultimate goal. If it’s simply a matter of creating digital picture files of negatives, slides, and possibly prints solely for viewing and sharing online, there are a number of options available in the two- to three-hundred dollar range, including a few for less than one hundred.
But if your goal is to create digital image files capable of producing sharp, high-definition prints with rich detail in the shadows, highlights, and all of the subtle tonal gradations between, you should strongly consider the best scanner your particular needs—and then some, even if it means saving up for a bit longer. The payoff will be the satisfaction you get from witnessing old media take on new life.