On scanning film

Alfred's Camera Page

This page is no longer actively maintained. (Pardon?)

For just over one hundred and fifty years, analog photography - the kind based on chemistry - went unbeaten in range of use as well as in price. No wonder, because in that time it was the only kind of photography available. But since about ten years, photography has been expanded by a whole new technical approach to the medium: digitization. Though it was a slow start at first, with fridge-size paintbox supercomputers and low-res "still video" cameras, the medium has taken a giant leap as computers advanced. Especially on the amateur market, people are currently rapidly exchanging their film-eating, expensive compact cameras for relatively cheap and easy to use digital cameras. And why not? Disk capacity costs nothing any more now that CD-R's are sold for less than a dollar a piece, and to consumers the facts that digital images are viewable faster than a polaroid, are high in quality and cost virtually nothing because film is made obsolete, add a lot of weight.

Personally I have a firm and somewhat optimistic Asimov-like belief in the Good of Technology. Perhaps it has something to do with my age. I see technology as a companion to mankind, not as a threat. of course I have my doubts too about things like the Internet and television and worldwide personal databases, but I believe that in general, technological advances are a good thing. And regardless of one's opinion, there's no escaping it anyway. The whole of the West is now online, with the rest of the world rapidly following. The Internet is working miracles for the way people interact and experience the world - this website, written by me in the confines of my own home, but available for all the world to query, is only one small example. But I digress. One aspect of technology is that there is no end to it, and that there will inevitably be a "next generation". At this moment in time, we've arrived at the point of the upgrading of photography. As more and more people are bound to their computers in more and more ways, what makes more sense than that they will inevitably want digital pictures to e-mail to their Net friends through their Hotmails, their ICQs and their Messengers? Can analog photography offer that? Sure it can - but you'll need a film scanner. And why buy a film scanner for big bucks when you can buy a shiny small digital camera for half the price?

I don't know, but I have a feeling I might belong to the last generation of photographers who learnt the business the hard way - in the darkroom. As a member of the high school darkroom - the only member mind you, until I finished school in july 2001 - I used to make lots of fine art prints in a small blinded chamber with a red plastic radio on loud in the background. And usually I liked it. I didn't like all of it, like the time and labour it took to get a certain picture printed just the way I wanted, or the fatigue after spending hours and hours in a cramped dark space, or the stress, or the chemicals I spilled over my shirt, but in general I had a ball. I loved to see the images come up out of the developer, and the excitement as I saw a perfect print drying in the buzzing hot air dryer. By developing my own b/w film and by doing all my prints by hand, I learned to appreciate the metier in a way that just isn't common any more. I learned to love grain, after first hating it, and then learned to hate it again. I learned to appreciate the strong points of medium format, and learned to scorn its weak ones. The darkroom work was dirty and often tiring, and not to mention expensive, but for learning, it was great.

All things come to an end though. In my case, my darkroom days were over in July 2001, when I graduated cum laude from high school. Since I didn't plan to give up photography, being my principle hobby, I had to look for an alternative. Going totally digital, by which I mean shooting with digital cameras, didn't make sense. First of all I have tons of analog cameras that I didn't feel like making obsolete, and secondly I have an aversion against digital photography. One of the aspects that I don't like is the fact that you don't have a silver master like you do with analog photography, and another is that I think digital photography tends to trivialise the art. It's probably a personal thing, but to make good pictures I have to have the feeling that I'm doing things "on the record". It shouldn't be too easy; I need to have the idea that what I'm doing is somehow definitive. That's also why I never waste or throw away film. With digital cameras there's none of that; all the gravity is gone, and is replaced by a nonchalant feeling of "if it isn't right now, we'll get it right in the next shot". Personally I can't work like that. Whatever happened to the decisive moment? To discipline, to the careful eye, to single-frame photographers like Weegee??? Autofocus killed it all. And now digital is going to kill it again. Analog for all eternity!

So to me, the decision wasn't that hard. I wanted to keep shooting analog, on real silver film, but I also wanted to feed my pictures into a computer, so that I could take advantage of a computer's unlimited possibilities when it comes to image enhancement and filing. Plus, I simply needed a way to view my pictures now that I couldn't make any prints any more. So - a film scanner it was.

of course I had a lot of initial doubts. A film scanner would mean my full conversion to digital photography, which was something I was nervous about. A film scanner would above all mean that I would only be able to view my images on a screen, because I didn't have a decent printer; and even if I had one, I knew I wouldn't want to make thirty-six prints per roll. I would be forever dependent on a computer as a viewing device, and I would have to kiss my knack-sharp silver bromide prints goodbye. The latter was already happening because I lost the darkroom, and I thought I could come to live with the former, because about the only time I ever looked at my old pictures, was when I happened to come across old scans somewhere in computer memory. Besides, there were always the negatives to return to, if I wanted to make an enlargement sometime.

In the end I went for a film scanner, but since I didn't, and still don't, have a large budget for things like that, I settled for a slightly down-market model: the Minolta Dîmage Scan Dual II USB. That's a 2820 DPI film scanner, theoretically capable of scanning a negative full-frame, but in practice the negative sled shields off about a millimeter or two on each edge of the negative. So you get an image demarcated by jagged white borders. The resolution is fine though for screen work (the larger the source image, the better the final resized image), and when you get to know some of the scanner's idiosyncrasies (more on them later), it's an agreeable machine.

My experience with scanning film

First of all, if you buy a film scanner to completely replace the printing chain, like I did, how is that going to work out? For me it works fine. I do miss hard copies, and I often don't like the fact that all I have to do with is a lousy unreachable image on a screen, but that's fairly easy to get over, once you imagine that you have an analog hard copy in the form of the negative. That is what sets film scans aside from usual digital photography. If you want to have an analog print done, you have a 25 million DPI original up your sleeve, which is comforting.

Digital from the get-go?

Secondly, after scanning in lots of new pictures, it came to mind that a film scanner is not so much useful for scanning in new work, as it is for scanning in archived pictures. New work could have been made digitally to begin with, but archived negatives are only available in analog form. To digitalise them, a film scanner is necessary, but to import new photos into a computer, a digital camera would have sufficed right away. Often when I scan in new rolls of film, it occurs to me that this scanning business has a huge lot of overhead - waiting for the film to be developed, manually loading the film sleds - when everything could have been so easy if only I had used a digital camera up front. But that's the choice I made. It is, however, a consideration for anybody wanting to get involved with film scanners.


Thirdly, there's quality. There is no doubt in my mind that a film scanner is the best way to acquire a digitised image from a film original. It's definitely better than scanning in prints, because prints have flaws themselves, let alone your average flatbed scanner. You entirely skip the printing chain, which means skipping a whole range of potential interferences and mishaps. Instead you work straight from the original, like publishers who prefer slides. What that means, is that a scanned image will usually contain much, much more density information than a print. Photo paper scales a negative's latitude down to its own rather poor latitude. Then a flatbed scanner will scale that latitude down even more. A film scanner will capture much more of the original print, both in the low key and high key areas. When processed well, a scan from a negative will yield a much better image than a print - in its confined realm that is, the computer screen. For web use though, there is nothing like it.


Fourth, there's practicality. I already mentioned that scanning film and optimizing the results in a paint program is laborious and time-consuming, and I will stress it again. Especially with a lower class scanner like mine, scanning in 36 colour exposures can literally last hours if it has to be full resolution. The time you spend on getting the image ready for viewing roughly depends on the retouche you have to apply to remove all the - usually abundant - dust specs, but it will usually range from anything between five minutes to five hours. Compared to having prints done by the local drugstore, that's a lot of overhead. Scanning film is not for bulk work, and it's not for those who shoot twenty rolls a week either. If, like me, you shoot about a roll a month, then you can take your time, and the work becomes manageable. Otherwise it's probably not worth your while. But if you're used to doing your own printing in a darkroom, then you'll notice that not only is scanning film slightly faster than setting up and using an entire darkroom, but it's also much, much cleaner and more convenient. All that messing around in the dark, it's all gone when you convert to the clean computer world.

Manipulation flexibility

Fifth, there's digital image manipulation. By that I don't mean the kind where you morph heads or alter parts of the image to mislead viewers, but more the kind of manipulation that you used to do in a darkroom but which never really turned out the way you wanted. On a computer it's possible to dodge, burn and mask with incredible flexibility. You can make precise masks, then fill them with gradients, and use that as an alpha channel for dodging the image, to name just one possibility. Skies can be darkened and faces lightened with incredible ease and flexibility.

I don't call thatinfringing a picture's integrity, because it's exactly the kind of thing people were doing in darkrooms for years, but now it's on a computer, and more precise than ever. I admit I was a bit reluctant at first to manipulate pictures, but now that I've acquired some Photoshop skill, I think there's nothing like it. For me it's all about the end result, and on a computer I've finally created the perfect prints I never really could in the darkroom.


Sixth, there's grain. Yes, grain. Grain can look great on a print, but when scanning film it can be a real bother. Its charm just doesn't come across on a computer screen. Grain often looks like random noise, which is really ugly. So for the best results qualitywise, it's best to use as grainless a film as possible, or scan in any grainy negatives at the highest resolution, and then scale them down using a nivellating resize algorithm like bilinear resampling.


Concluding, I'm pretty happy with my film scanner. It allows me to share my images with lots of people on easy distributed media like CD-ROMs (I made a CD-ROM of my Rome photos, which I handed out in class), and of course over the Internet. I can scan in all my best pictures to make a handsome digital portfolio. I can send new pictures over the globe in virtually no time, and the best thing is, there's always a hard copy as a back-up. Still, I do miss prints and the darkroom. For nice and grainy black and white fine art photography, there's nothing like a nice big print, with deep blacks and luscious fields of sharp grain. Whatever advantages a film scanner has: like e-books vs paper copies, it can't replace that analog romance.

How to create good colour scans

I don't know if all film scanners are like mine, but more often than not, when I try to scan in a colour image on my Minolta Dîmage Scan Dual II, the software completely misinterprets the image and filters colours totally wrong. For example, if a picture is dominantly blue, then the scan will turn out dominantly green. Although that can be corrected easily in Photoshop by adjusting the grey balance, that scan will never be as rich-toned as a negative that was scanned in well to begin with, because you always lose some information somewhere. But how to scan that negative correctly to start with? For colour photographs, this is my recipe. Usually there will be one or more images on a roll of colour film that will be pre-scanned neutrally or very close to neutral. Prescan that calibration negative, and press the AE LOCK button. That will secure the colour filtering data. Then eject the sled and swap the calibration negative for the frame that's giving you trouble. Then scan in that frame as usual, but with AE LOCK on. Voila, the scanner is fooled, and you have a well-scanned frame by using the near-neutral filterings for the calibration negative. Piece of cake once you know how. Then apply some slight tonal corrections in Photoshop through the grey balance adjustment (image>levels>adjust, and then the middle syringe; select it and click it on what you want to be precisely grey), and you're done.

It's important though that you use a calibration negative from the same film, because the colour and density of the orange masking layer will vary from film to film. What may count as a neutral frame for one roll, might well produce blueish results on another. For obvious reasons, the equal density is also important.

Another more laborious, but much better method is to scan in colour negatives as slides. Slides are scanned in "as is" by the scanner, without applying any corrections. If you scan in a colour negative as a slide, and then invert it, you'll end up with a light blue teinted positive image. I've found that that light blue wash can be very easily filtered out, leaving you with a much richer colour picture than would ever be possible through other methods. Go figure: in "color negative" mode, the scanner starts with correcting the same light blue image, after which you go on correcting it once more. Each correction step means a loss of image detail, so why not just skip one step? The disadvantages are that this method takes more work than a normal color negative scan, and that you don't have a decent preview image. The advantages are that you keep everything in your own hands, and that you skip the time-consuming prescanning run altogether.

Return to the front page