If you began your love affair with photography back in the days of film, raise your hand. OK. Now raise your hand if you still have a darkroom in which you still print your slides and negatives. I thought so.*
*For those reading this at home you’ll have to take my word… not too many hands went up for the second request.
If you’ve long since decommissioned your darkroom, a box of doughnuts says you’re sitting on a trove of wonderful imagery that few people—including yourself—are likely to see anytime soon outside of its sleeved binders. The good news is that your currently moribund archives can be easily digitized and returned to active duty through the use of film scanners, which depending on your particular needs and budgetary restraints, are available for as little as $54.99 or as much as $24,995.00.
Regardless of their respective price tags, most scanners work on the same principle. A slide or negative is held flat in a frame, illuminated by a calibrated light source (usually an array of LEDs or a cold cathode lamp), 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 results of your efforts are greatly determined by the level of sophistication of the scanner and its optical system, and equally important, the abilities of the scanning software.
It’s worth noting there are many flatbed and all-in-one scanners that tout film-scanning abilities, but the truth of the matter is only the pricier and far more sophisticated models can do justice to 35mm slides and negatives. In a pinch, these inexpensive desktop wonders will suffice, but in terms of sharpness, dynamic range (how much detail exists between the brightest highlights and darkest shadows) and Dmax (the depth of shadow detail) most, if not all, of these entry level do-it-alls are best reserved for less critical web-related chores.
There are a number of flatbed scanners that are, in fact, capable of producing truly print-quality scans from 35mm slides and negatives, but only the priciest of them are capable of capturing anywhere near the detail and tonality of non-flatbed scanners that are strictly dedicated to scanning film.
Hardware and software aside, some of the attributes that determine the imaging abilities of film scanners (and correspondingly their price tags) 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 (OK), TIFF (better) or RAW (best).
The key to producing scans 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 offers more accurate color rendition and invariably cuts down on post-production tinkering.
Many film scanners—even some of the least expensive models—also offer a form of dust reduction, which as anyone who has printed from slides or negatives can tell you, can be a major chore to do 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!!!).
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.
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.
In addition to the scanning software that comes with your scanner, you also have the option of using third-party scanner software applications designed to work with most popular film scanners, many of which are extremely capable in their own right and in some cases, better than the software that came with the scanner.
Entry-Level Film Scanners (Under $100)
For basic analog-to-digital conversions there are a number of small desktop scanners that can turn your slides and negatives into JPEG or TIFF files that are more than suitable for online sharing and photo-quality prints from 4 x 6" to 8 x 10", depending on the resolving power of the scanner. In addition to film scanning, several models can also convert 4 x 6-inch prints into digital files, 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 room on your desk or workbench.
Pacific Image Memor-Ease Plus Scanner
The Pacific Image Memor-ease Plus is the least expensive of the scanners in this roundup. Designed to scan 35mm negatives and mounted 35mm slides, Pacific Image’s Memor-ease Plus (Mac and PC) can convert 35mm images into 1800 dpi digital files with little more than the press of a button, complete with automatic dust and scratch removal. The 5MP Memor-ease Plus contains no built-in memory or image preview screen and outputs all scans to your computer via a USB 2.0 cable for viewing, editing and storage.
Included with the scanner is a Quick Installation Guide, a Cyberview CS scanner driver CD, media holders for four mounted slides and a separate holder for a strip of six uncut negatives (or slides) and a USB 2.0 cable.
Wolverine SNaP 35mm Slides, Negatives and Photos to Digital Image Converter
The "SNaP" part of the Wolverine SNaP 35mm Slides, Negatives and Photos to Digital Image Converter’s name stands for slides, negatives and photos (as in prints), which is exactly what the Wolverine SNaP scans. Designed to convert mounted slides, cut filmstrips and prints (3 x 5", 4 x 6" and 5 x 7") into 10MB (interpolated) JPEG image files, the Wolverine SNaP is a stand-alone film scanner, and as such does not require a computer or software in order to convert your analog film and print originals into electronic image files.
Powered by your choice of AC or USB via your computer, the Wolverine SNaP features scan speeds under 5 seconds and can store your image files on the scanner’s 16MB of internal memory (up to ten scans) or on SD/SDHC memory cards using the SNaP’s built-in card slot.
VuPoint FC-C520-VP Scanner
A bit more advanced is the VuPoint FC-C520-VP, which features a 5MP imaging sensor and a 2.4-inch LCD for viewing your scans as they’re made. Designed for converting 35mm slides and negs into color or monochrome image files without the use of a computer, the VuPoint FC-C520-VP contains 32MB of internal memory and gives you the option of outputting your newly scanned files to SD/SDHC memory cards (up to 16GB). Other features found on the VuPoint FC-C520-VP (Mac and PC compatible) include automatic color balance and exposure control and the ability to display your scanned images on a TV or computer using the included cables.
Included with the VuPoint FC-C520-VP film scanner are a user’s manual, an AC adapter with USB cable, a video cable, an ArcSoft Photo Impression software CD (PC compatible only), film and slide holders and a brush for cleaning your slides and negatives before scanning them.
Wolverine 8 Mega Pixels Film to Digital Converter
Able to create 8MP scans from slides and negatives with the press of a button, not to mention without a computer or software, is the Wolverine 8 Mega Pixels Film to Digital Converter (Mac and PC). Powered by AC or via your computer’s USB port, the Wolverine 8 Mega Pixels film scanner takes less than 3 seconds to convert 35mm film to digital image files. Once scanned, images can be saved to the scanner’s internal memory or SD/SDHC memory cards.
For viewing the action, the scanner features a 2.4-inch color LCD. Included with the Wolverine 8 Mega Pixels Film to Digital Converter are holders for mounted slides and negative strips, a USB cable, an AC adapter, a cleaning stick and an operator’s manual.
Pacific Image ImageBox Scanner
Designed along the same lines (and with similar specs) as the Pacific Image Memor-ease Plus is the Pacific Image ImageBox. The big difference between the two is that the ImageBox also scans 4 x 6-inch prints, which adds a great measure of value in terms of bringing new life to your analog memories.
Like the Memor-ease Plus, the Pacific Image ImageBox (Mac and PC compatible) has separate holders for mounted slides and strips of negatives, but in this case, there’s also a slot on the rear top deck into which you can slip a 4 x 6-inch print. The scanner automatically recognizes the change from film to print and makes all further media adjustments automatically. Exposure and white balance controls are also handled automatically. All you have to do is press the button and sit back.
Included with Pacific Image’s ImageBox are a quick Installation Guide, a USB 2.0 cable, a scanner driver CD, a Cyberview CS software CD, a mounted slide holder, a negative holder and a 4 x 6-inch print holder.
Ion Slides 2 PC mkIII Slide and Film Scanner
Equally easy to set up and use is the plug-and-play Ion Slides 2 PC mkIII (Mac and PC), which like many scanners in this class, features a 5MP CMOS scanning sensor, a fixed-focus lens, automatic exposure and white balance control and one-touch functionality. The Ion Slides 2 PC mkIII scanner is powered via USB from your computer.
In addition to a filmstrip holder and a mounted slide holder, the Ion Slides 2 PC mkIII, which does not require drivers, also comes with a Rapid Slide holder that allows you to stack a roll’s worth of slides for “in-goes-the-new-slide-out-goes-the-old-slide” feeding through the scanner.
Included with each Ion Slides 2 PC mkIII scanner are holders for mounted slides, a negative roll feeder and a slide-stacking tray, a USB cable, a film cleaning brush, a quick-start guide and a software CD.
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 and 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, many of the following midrange film scanners can produce digital image files containing enough resolving power to produce photo-quality prints well beyond the threshold of 8 x 10-inch prints. And all of them pack more resolution than you’ll ever need for Internet applications.
Wolverine 14MP 35mm Slides and Negatives to Digital Image Converter
The Wolverine 14MP 35mm Slides and Negatives to Digital Image Converter (Mac and PC compatible) features 14MP of resolving power and under-three-second scanning times while retaining the plug-and-play ease of an entry level film scanner. Powered by a choice of AC or USB, courtesy of your computer, this scanner features a 2.4-inch color LCD for previewing your imagery and the ability to override the auto settings in order to control the brightness levels of the image being scanned.
Other features found on this scanner include a video out to TV connection (cable not included) and the ability to save scanned image files to the scanner’s internal memory of external SD/SDHC memory cards. Included with each Wolverine 14MP 35mm Slide and Negatives to Digital Image Converter are slide and negative holders, a USB power cable, an AC adapter (110V-220V), a film-cleaning stick and a manual.
Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Standalone Scanner
Pacific Image’s ImageBox 9MP Standalone Film 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-inch prints into digital image files. As its name implies, the Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Standalone film scanner 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 onto SD/SDHC memory cards (up to 32GB).
Other features found on the Pacific Image ImageBox 9MP Standalone Film 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 Standalone film scanner are negative and slide holders, a USB cable, a 5V, 1A DC adapter and a user manual.
Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250u Scanner
Pacific Image’s PrimeFilm 7250u 35mm negative and slide film scanner is designed to scan negatives and slides one at a time (16-bit A/D for 16-to-8-bit output) at up to a resolution of 7200 x 3600 dpi with a Dmax of up to 3.2. To minimize post production clean-up time, the PrimeFilm 7250u utilizes Kodak's Austin Development Center (KADC) Digital ICE for eliminating dust and scratches and optimizing color rendition and grain structure.
In addition to a copy of Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, the Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250u comes with CyberView X scanning software, which contains tools for optimizing the color, contrast and tonal parameters of the images being scanned for accurate, natural image reproduction. Also included with the PrimeFilm 7250u are copies of DigitalROC and DigitalGEM, which together allow you to tweak the elements of your originals to “like new,” or in some cases, better-than-new condition.
Plustek OpticFilm 7400 Scanner
The Plustek OpticFilm 7400 and its enhanced twins, the Plustek OpticFilm 7600i SE and Plustek OpticFilm 7600i Ai each offer a large measure of bang for your scanning bucks. The Plustek OpticFilm 7400 (PC and Mac), which according to the manufacturer is geared toward the amateur sector of the photography market, is capable of scanning 35mm slides and negatives at 3600 dpi for outputting high-quality prints in excess of 16 x 20" at 300 dpi. Not too shabby for an “amateur” film scanner.
Along with resolution, the Plustek OpticFilm 7400 offers Dmax densities of up to 3.6, which approximates the dynamic range of many popular films. For greater detail you can take advantage of SilverFast Multi-Exposure software that enables multiple passes of the film being scanned (think HDR), making it possible to expand the dynamic range even more.
For accurate color and tonal renditions the Plustek OpticFilm 7400 features built-in ICC profiles for positive and negative films, and to better ensure blemish-free image files, the OpticFilm 7400 also contains advanced electronic dust-removal technologies.
In addition to SilverFast scanning software, which has long been known as one of the best scanning applications on the market, the Plustek OpticFilm 7400 comes with Plustek QuickScan, SilverFast SEPlus, NewSoft Presto! PageManager and NewSoft Presto! ImageFolio.
Included with the Plustek OpticFilm 7400 are a padded carry/storage bag, negative and positive film holders, a Plustek Setup/Application CD-ROM, a SilverFast CD-ROM, a Quick Guide, a USB cable, and an AC power adapter.
Plustek OpticFilm 7600i SE Scanner
The Plustek OpticFilm 7600i SE, which is geared toward serious photo enthusiasts and professionals, has all of the features found in the Plustek OpticFilm 7400 but with the addition of a built in, hardware-based infrared imaging channel that works in conjunction of the included SilverFast iSRD software to detect and eliminate scratches and dust particles embedded in or sitting on the film surfaces.
Plustek OpticFilm 7600i Ai Scanner
Plustek’s OpticFilm 7600i Ai, which is Plustek’s full-blown professional 35mm film scanner, has all of the features of both the Plustek OpticFilm 7400 and Plustek OpticFilm 7600i SE but also includes an IT8 Calibration Target for creating custom ICC profiles based on the specific imaging characteristics of the scanner. In addition to the iSRD software, the Plustek OpticFilm 7600i Ai also includes SilverFast Ai Studio in place of SilverFast SEPlus; this upgraded software allows for greater image control and highly adjustable parameters to meet your needs.
The OpticFilm 7600i Ai can also be configured to scan slides and negatives for CMYK soft proofing, which for graphic designers and photographers preparing artwork for offset printing, is a desirable scanning option.
Both the Plustek OpticFilm 7600i SE and Plustek OpticFilm 7600i Ai come with a padded carry/storage bag, negative and positive film holders, a Plustek Setup/Application CD-ROM, a SilverFast CD-ROM, a Quick Guide, a USB cable and an AC power adapter.
Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 Scanner
Another notable midrange film scanner is the Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3, 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 Scanner
The Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 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.
For post scan image editing, the Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 comes bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements along with Magic Touch dust- and scratch-removal software, cleaning your film during the scanning process.
Pacific Image PrimeFilm120 Scanner
Pacific Image’s PrimeFilm 120 Scanner has many of the same high-performance features found on the Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000 Scanner, but in addition to 35mm slides and negatives, the Pacific Image PrimeFilm120 can also convert medium format (6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, 6 x 7, 6 x 9 and 6 x 12 cm) slides and negatives into high quality digital image files.
Featuring 48-bit A/D conversion (16-bits per channel), a 3-line CCD array, a Dmax of 3.6 and up to 3200 dpi optical resolution, the Pacific Image PrimeFilm120 can help you convert all of your 35mm and medium format slides and negatives for active duty in the Twenty-First Century.
To eliminate, or at the very least minimize the amount of time you spend retouching scratches and dust marks, the Pacific Image PrimeFilm 120 Scanner is bundled with Magic Touch dust- and scratch-removal technology, which addresses the problem during the scanning process.
Included with Pacific Image’s PrimeFilm 120 film scanner are copies of CyberView X and Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0, a printed user manual, a USB 2.0 cable, an AC adapter, a scanner driver CD and media holders for four framed slides up to 3.2 mm thick, a 35mm film holder for film strips with
up to 6 frames and a medium format film holder for 1-2 frames (6 x 4.5 cm), 1-2 frames (6 x 6 cm), 1 frame (6 x 7, 6 x 9, 6 x 12 cm).
Hasselblad Flextight X1
Like Hasselblad cameras, Hasselblad Flextight scanners are as good as it gets. Hasselblad’s Flextight X1 is designed to convert 35mm, medium format and 4 x 5-inch 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-inch 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.
In a bid to keep dust marks from mucking up your workflow, Hasselblad’s Flextight X1 utilizes the efforts of the scanner’s Flextouch dust-removal technologies.
Hasselblad Flextight X5
The Hasselblad Flextight X5 contains all of the top-shelf features found on the Flextight X1, but with the added advantages of quicker data-transfer speeds (up to 300MB per second), 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.
As you can see, 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 under one hundred.
If however, 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 you can afford. The payoff will be the satisfaction you get from watching high-quality prints of images, taken in another time and place, take on new lives.