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In the age where darkrooms are scarce yet film photography is seeing a resurgence in popularity, a scanner can be your best option for converting film originals to usable digital files for printing, sharing, and archiving. Whether you are an active film photographer or just have an archive of negatives and slides from the past, a film scanner is an incredible, dedicated tool that will breathe new life into your filmic originals.
Ranging from the most basic models for simply producing a web-shareable image to the top-of-the-line versions for creating large-scale, print-worthy files, all film scanners, in their most basic sense, perform the same function—using a light source to illuminate your film and an image sensor to record the details. Where scanners begin to vary from one another is the precision and sophistication of this process, along with the technologies used for recording. More than offering just an increase in resolution, higher-end scanners will also provide you with a longer dynamic range, higher Dmax, more accurate color balance, greater sharpness and, to put it simply—better, more realistic results. The ultimate goal of a scanner is to acquire as much information from the original as possible to give you latitude for further editing, retouching, and printing.
Scanners should also be chosen based on how you plan to use them. From entry-level options that only support basic scanning of 35mm film strips to high-end variants that scan numerous mounted slides in batches, the most expensive or the least expensive model is not always the right one for you. Consider the film format you plan on scanning most frequently, as well as the volume you intend to process, and the ultimate image quality you wish to achieve.
In addition to the scanners themselves, the software used to control the scanner is an important consideration. Many scanners come with a robust application that is capable of reaping all of the benefits afforded by the hardware, while other scanners support optional third-party programs to improve the overall performance. In the case of some entry-level models, as well as the top-quality scanners, proprietary drivers may compel you to rely on additional editing software to fine-tune your results.
Dust-reduction technologies will cut down on additional cleaning time of your photos after scanning. This should not prevent you from cleaning your negatives with a cloth, blower, or compressed air prior to scanning, regardless of how effective a dust-reduction feature claims to be.
Scanning resolution: Note how scanner manufacturers report theirs. The two most common variants are hardware resolution and optical resolution. While there is no standard on what either of these terms means, precisely, it is a safe assumption that hardware resolution involves some kind of interpolation to achieve the increased resolution the scanner is purported to provide, while optical resolution tends to stand for an un-interpolated product and a truer measurement of the scanning sensor's capabilities.
Color depth (or bit depth) are other numbers to consider when making comparisons. The higher the number is for these values, the better. Simply stated, color depth is measured in bits, and is usually presented as the summation of the three color channels of an image—red, green, and blue—so 16 bits per channel would read as 48-bit. The greater the number of bits per channel, the wider gamut of colors possible for creating more nuanced images with smoother gradations.
Dmax is a measurement of optical density and the amount of detail the scanner is capable of recording in the thinner parts of film (shadows in negatives or highlights in positives). The higher number represents a greater ability to reproduce detail in the deepest of shadows. Refer to our article on dynamic range for more information on Dmax.
For the most basic analog-to-digital conversions, a range of compact, entry-level models is available to perform the straightforward task of providing you with a digital file of your film for online sharing or printing. Designed to simplify the scanning process, these models tend to incorporate automated film handling and frame-recognition capabilities, along with auto exposure and color corrections. Typically quite affordable and compact in size, these scanners' merits lie in ease of use, stand-alone operation, speed, and convenience at the expense of resolution and control. They are typically intended for scanning 35mm film—either strips or mounted slides—or sometimes smaller formats, as well as an occasional 4 x 6" or 5 x 7" print.
Wolverine produces a trio of popular entry-level film scanners, each with the ability to generate 20MP files of 35mm and smaller film formats and operate in either a stand-alone or computer-connected manner. Available in bright green, the Super F2D 4-in-1 Film to Digital Converter supports scanning 35mm strips or mounted slides, 126, 110, and single frames of Super 8 film formats at up to 5472 x 3648-pixel resolution. Both auto and manual color and exposure control can be used, and scans can be previewed on the 2.4" color LCD monitor. Internal storage can hold up to 40 scans, or files can be saved directly to an SD/SDHC card or offloaded via USB 2.0 connection. For a bit more versatility, the Mighty F2D 7-in-1 Film to Digital Converter adds the ability to scan 127 and 8mm formats to the feature set, while maintaining the same series of controls and stand-alone operation. If you'd like to add prints to the mix of items to scan, the SNAP20 Digital Image Converter offers reflective scanning of photos and documents up to 5 x 7", as well as 35mm strips and mounted slides. Additionally, each of Wolverine's scanners is able to record imagery in five seconds or less, making them ideal for digitizing large archives of photos for online sharing.
Along similar lines, veho sports a pair of sleek scanners, the first of which features a truly tiny form factor. The 3.0MP Slide & Negative Film Scanner can scan 35mm strips, mounted slides, and 110 film at an 1120 dpi optical resolution. Scans are performed in approximately two seconds and a USB 2.0 connection powers the scanner and allows you to transfer files to a Mac or Windows machine. Similar in specifications, the Smartfix Slide and Negative to SD Card Scanner ups the scanning resolution of its little brother from 3MP to 5MP, and allows you to save your scans directly to an SD/SDHC card. A lithium-ion battery can be used to power this model, making it travel friendly for scanning archives away from home, and it also incorporates a 2.4" LCD into its design for previewing scans.
Pacific Image makes a pair of distinct box-shaped scanners, which are both stand-alone scanners capable of handling 35mm film at 2400 dpi and prints up to 4 x 6" at 560dpi. The ImageBox 9MP Stand-Alone Scanner features Magic Touch Dust and Scratch Removal, which will help to ensure cleaner-looking scans of older, potentially damaged film. A 2.7" LCD is featured in the design and its stand-alone operation lets you save scans to an SD/SDHC memory card. For something a bit more unique among the entry-level models, the ImageBox MF 4-in-1 Slide, Film & Photo Converter shares many of the same features and specs as the other ImageBox, and adds 120 film to the compatible film formats. Being able to scan your medium format negatives and transparencies can be a noticeable advantage for the casual Holga or Lomo photographer, albeit the maximum scanning resolution at this size is 560 dpi, making it best-suited for web sharing of your imagery. Losing the reflective scanning option and stand-alone operation, the PrimeFilm 7200, however, does gain a notable boost in resolution for scanning your 35mm negatives and slides. Up to 7200-dpi scans can be made, and Pacific Image's Magic Touch technology is used again to reduce the number of stray dust and scratches in your final image that might need additional retouching.
Closing out our look at some entry-level models is a device that you might be hard-pressed to even truly classify as a scanner; however, it is a unique tool for simply digitizing your film for quick online sharing. Lomography's Smartphone Film Scanner makes use of your smartphone, a dedicated iOS or Android app, and a AA battery-powered backlight to allow you to photograph your film and quickly achieve a usable, shareable image. The dedicated Lomoscanner app automatically converts negatives to positive imagery, allows you to stitch together panoramic photos, and can be used to animate movies frame by frame. The device's body holds the smartphone in place for accurate recording of the film and has a film-advance knob for faster switching between sequential frames to be scanned.
A mid-range film scanner differentiates itself through the use of higher-resolution sensors, for recording at greater dpi values, as well as an improved range of manual controls for fine-tuning the look of your scan. Models in this range also tend to include more sophisticated software applications, refined dust- and scratch-removal capabilities, and improved image quality and sharpness to support making larger print sizes, in addition to sharing your film photos online.
Continuing on from the Pacific Image models from the entry-level section, the two remaining models in the company’s lineup stand to suit an expanded range of end results. The PrimeFilm XE allows you to record up to 10,000-dpi scans of your 35mm film strips or mounted slides with 48-bit color depth input, for outputting 16-bit JPEGs or TIFFs. Multiple-pass scanning, also called multiple-exposure scanning, is featured in this model and uses several scanning passes over a single frame to gain more shadow and highlight details than a single scan can record—similar to HDR photography. Additionally, this scanner has Magic Touch Technology, to minimize dust and scratches for cleaner initial scans.
For larger jobs and scanning more frames of film in a session, the PrimeFilm XA takes much of the feature set of the XA and expands it for more versatility. The same 10,000-dpi hardware resolution is featured here, as well as support for 35mm strips and slides and 48-bit color input for 16-bit JPEG and TIFF output. The physical design of this scanner, however, incorporates an auto-feeder function that enables batch scanning of up to 40 frames in one go. This greatly reduces the amount of time you need to tend to the scanning, making it ideal for converting large batches of film to digital files. Additionally, this model features DNR (digital noise reduction) enhancement, for cleaner-looking scans, as well as autofocus to ensure a high degree of sharpness.
Both of these Pacific Image scanners also include a full copy of SilverFast SE scanning software, a robust application that affords you a wide range of controls over scanner function. This software lets you fine-tune scanning settings, color control, and manage dust and scratch reduction with finesse for more controllable output.
Plustek also makes a quartet of what could be described as mid-range film scanners, each of which is designed to handle 35mm negative strips and mounted slides. The newest of this bunch is the OpticFilm 135, which offers an optical resolution of 3600 dpi along with a Dmax of 3.4, and 48-bit color depth, to produce sharp scans with a wide color gamut and extended shadow detail. Motorized film handling permits batch-scanning multiple frames in one action and, with an active scanning area of 1.37 x 8.9" (35 x 226mm), panoramic images can be scanned, in addition to standard 24 x 36mm frames. Automatic film holder recognition also benefits switching between the various 35mm film formats. Full-resolution scans can be made in less than four minutes, while smaller, 600 dpi scans take just 40 seconds. The OpticFilm 135 is bundled with Plustek's Quickscan Plus software, which offers a variety of editing controls, as well as the ability to share finished images directly to social media sites.
Moving on to the 8000-series of scanners, the OpticFilm 8100 is a sleek, blue model offering 7200-dpi hardware resolution along with a 3.6 Dmax and 48-bit color depth. Faster speeds are available with this version, with full-resolution scans taking just under two minutes to perform, and half-res scans taking about 30 seconds to complete. This scanner is also bundled with SilverFast Multi-Exposure software, which helps to increase the apparent dynamic range of scans, as well as reduce distracting noise in the shadow areas.
A step up is the OpticFilm 8200i SE, which adds an infrared channel to the 7200-dpi hardware resolution, 3.6 Dmax, and 48-bit color of the 8100. The IR channel adds the ability for the included SilverFast SE software to more effectively detect dust and scratches in scans for instant removal using the iSRD function. This added software also allows you to perform multiple-exposure scans for extended detail with less noise, and apply automatic image corrections to fix color casts or other image defects.
Rounding out Plustek's lineup in this arena is the OpticFilm 8200i Ai, which features the same functionality as the 8200i SE, and adds a more robust software counterpart, SilverFast Ai Studio 8, as well as an included IT8 calibration target. In addition to a greater range of control features offered by the software, it most notably includes the Auto IT8 Calibration feature that works to ensure consistent and accurate color balance from your scanner with a two-minute routine calibration.
While not truly a film scanner in the sense of the aforementioned scanners, there are a select number of flatbed scanners available that incorporate a transparency unit for converting film originals to digital files. Previously lamented for their inability to resolve fine details and produce true blacks, a recent crop of "photo flatbed" scanners now can hold their own against many film scanners, and typically have the distinct advantage in allowing more versatility over the film format you are scanning, with most allowing you to scan medium format 120 film, and with a couple being the sole sub-$10k option for scanning large format sheet film.
Canon's CanoScan 9000F Mark II can scan 35mm film strips and mounted slides, as well as strips of 120 film at a high 9600-dpi resolution with 48-bit color depth. A unique infrared scanning channel, dubbed Fare Level 3, works to remove dust and scratches from imagery, as well as lessen the appearance of unwanted fading and grain. This scanner is bundled with Canon's own My Image Garden software, which provides control over scanning settings, the ability to perform some image enhancements, and even manage and organize your files.
Besides Canon's sole option in the category, Epson has a series of apt performing flatbeds for film scanning. Beginning with the Perfection V550, this entry-level film-scanning flatbed has a 2.7 x 9.5" transparency unit for scanning both 35mm and 120 film formats using the included holders. An optical resolution of 6400 dpi, along with 3.4 Dmax and 48-bit color input, avails high-resolution, well-articulated scans of negatives and positives, and DIGITAL ICE technology helps to reduce the appearance of dust and scratches from scans.
Featuring a similar set of core specifications as the V550, the Perfection V600 adds a couple of distinctions for more well-rounded scanning capabilities. Namely, the V600 includes ArcSoft PhotoStudio software for greater control over the look of your scans, as well as the ability to refine the look of imagery after the scanning process. The other key difference between the two scanners is the latter's ability to apply DIGITAL ICE corrections to film and reflective scans, for removing dust and scratches from scans of documents or prints up to 8.5 x 11.7" in size.
Moving up a degree in quality and versatility, Epson offers a pair of popular options for achieving high-resolution, well-detailed scans of film up to 8 x 10" in format. The Perfection V800 and Perfection V850 are the consumer-level flagship models of the company’s photo scanners, offering an impressive 6400-dpi optical resolution, 48-bit color depth, and 4.0 Dmax for increased detail in the darker regions of scans, as well as an extended tonal scale between shadows and mid-tones. Both of these scanners utilize a unique Dual Lens System and ReadyScan LED light source for intuitive switching between reflective and transparency scanning, as well as quick performance with virtually no warm-up times. Both scanners also feature a built-in 8 x 10" transparency unit and include film holders for scanning 35mm film strips, 35mm mounted slides, medium format 120 film strips, and a 4 x 5" sheet film holder, as well as a film area guide for scanning 8 x 10" sheet film directly on the glass bed of the scanner. Additionally, both models are capable of batch-scanning to automate a portion of the process and both are compatible with an optional fluid mount tray for boosting the apparent sharpness of scans.
The two scanners do differ in a handful of ways, however, with the V800 comprising the aforementioned specs and including a copy of SilverFast SE 8 software for refined control over the scanning process and the ability to edit and adjust imagery post-scan. The V850 steps it up a bit and incorporates a high-reflection mirror and anti-reflective optical coatings into the physical design for cleaner output with reduced distortion. This model also includes an additional set of the mentioned film holders, allowing you to scan your film and mount and prepare your next scan simultaneously. Finally, the V850 also features an upgraded software package comprising the more robust SilverFast SE Plus 8 scanning application, as well as X-Rite i1Scanner for critical color profiling and ensured color consistency.
Lastly, Epson also has a whole different beast for film scanning on flatbeds, the massive Expression 11000XL Photo Scanner, which notably features a separate, but included, 12.2 x 16.5" transparency unit for scanning ultra-large-format film, as well as multiple smaller formats in one go. This scanner offers 2400-dpi optical resolution, 48-bit color depth, and a 3.8 Dmax, and includes a series of film holders for scanning up to forty-eight 35mm frames, thirty 35mm mounted slides, eight sheets of 4 x 5" film, or six frames of 120 film in one pass. SilverFast Ai software is included with this model, along with an IT8 target for color consistency, and without the transparency unit in place, this scanner can also scan reflective media up to 12.2 x 17.2", making it ideal for graphic arts studios and other large-format reproduction needs.
Closing our look at the range of options for digitizing your film is a look at the top end of dedicated film scanners, with models that represent the utmost in quality and capability. The first model that separates itself from the pack is the PowerSlide 5000 CCD Slides Scanner from Pacific Image. Dedicated to batch-scanning mounted 35mm slides, this scanner utilizes a slide magazine for scanning up to 50 slides at a time under a single command. The CCD sensor records imagery at up to 5000 dpi with 48-bit color depth and a Dmax of 3.8, and automated Magic Touch technology can be used to reduce dust and scratches, adjust color balance, and reduce the appearance of grain to significantly cut down on retouching time. Prior to loading up the 50-slide magazine, of which extra trays are available for preloading several sets of slides at a time, a Quick Slide Viewer light box is also built into the exterior of the scanner, allowing you to preview individual slides prior to the scanning process. This is the ideal scanner for users looking to digitize expansive collections of slides in the most efficient manner.
In contrast from the slides scanner, Pacific Image also offers the PF120 Pro Multi-Format Film Scanner, which is focused on scan quality and versatility with the ability to handle up to medium format film. The 3-line CCD sensor affords 3200 dpi optical resolution, along with 48-bit color depth and a Dmax of 3.6, for scanning 35mm film strips, mounted slides, or 120/220 strips in formats up to 6 x 12cm. Additionally, Magic Touch automatic dust- and scratch-removal technology is featured here again, to reduce time needed to remove dust spots or scratches on your film.
Similarly, Plustek has its OpticFilm 120 Film Scanner, which, as its name would suggest, can scan multiple film formats up to 120 with a maximum scanning area of 6 x 12cm. The CCD pairs with an 8-element, 5-group lens, which together are capable of outputting scans with a maximum hardware resolution of 5300 dpi, a dynamic range measurement of 4.01 (or 4.8 Dmax), and 48-bit color depth. For versatility in handling your film, the OpticFilm 120's holders are pitch-adjustable for ensured film flatness when scanning larger 120 film, and they also can be sized to accommodate a variety of standard medium format aspect ratios, ranging from 6 x 4.5 to 6 x 12. One of the best perks of this scanner is its inclusion of SilverFast Ai Studio 8, which is the full-featured application that can make use of the scanner's infrared channel for removing dust and scratches, as well as multiple-pass scanning for extended dynamic range. This software also allows you to perform Auto IT8 calibration, make Selective Color Correction adjustments, generate and apply specific film profiles for various film stocks, and apply intelligent sharpening methods based on the grain structure of the specific film.
Topping out our look at film scanners is a pair of models from Hasselblad, which, without a doubt, are at the apogee in regard to quality and functionality. Distinct from all other models mentioned throughout this article, the Flextight X1 and Flextight X5 utilize several unique scanning technologies, most notable of which is the combination of a vertical method of scanning and a virtual drum mechanism. Rather than using flat, rigid film holders that move laterally throughout the machine, Flextight film holders are made from flexible metal, are registered with the scanner using a barcode, and magnetically connect with the scanner for simple, safe, and secure film handling. During the scanning process, the holder is pulled into the machine and bent taught around a drum to ensure the utmost in film flatness for sharper scans. This vertical process also makes use of a downward-facing CCD to create a glass-free optical path between the film and Rodenstock lens for improved clarity without the need to wet-mount your film as you would with a traditional drum scanner.
One other main distinction the Flextight scanners hold over other models is their ability to use a 3F file format, which essentially serves as a raw file format if you were to compare it to digital camera capture. This workflow makes one initial, primary scan of the original at a specified size and with the full 16-bit-per-channel color depth, and then saves it as a permanent preview scan from which you can make edits and adjustments without having to re-scan the original film each time. Also like a raw file, the 3F file embeds your action history within it, for repeating or building on previous edits, and then allows you to output a final working file as a TIFF each time you need to share or export your progress.
In regard to the core specifications, both the X1 and X5 feature a 3 x 8000 CCD sensor and have a Dmax of 4.6 for the X1 and 4.9 for the X5. The X1 has a maximum resolution of 6300 dpi for 35mm scans and the X5 goes up to 8000 dpi for the similar area; both scanners have reduced output resolutions of 3200 dpi for medium format and 2040 dpi for 4 x 5" film formats. The X1 supports working with film formats up to 120mm wide, while the X5 supports 100mm wide formats.
While the majority of the specifications are shared between the two machines, the X5 does have a range of additional capabilities that make it a speedier performer for those looking for higher-end productivity. Notably, the X5 allows you to scan reflective media (prints) in addition to transparencies and negatives, and also supports additional batch processing and slide feeder components for scanning multiple originals in one go. The X5 also has active cooling, to improve the signal-to-noise ratio for cleaner shadows, and a light condenser for hardware-based dust removal, as opposed to just the software-based dust removal of the X1. Lastly, the X5 is simply a faster machine, which can output scans at up to 300MB per minute versus the 60MB per minute of the X1.