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 a useful, dedicated tool that will breathe new life into your film 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 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.
How Will You Be Using Your Scanner?
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 least expensive or the most 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.
For example: For medium format, make sure your scanner can accommodate 120 film.
If you're looking to archive your closet full of thousands of 35mm slides, look for a model that allows batch scanning of multiple originals with one command, to save time and effort.
What do you plan on doing with your scans? Are you looking to create simple digital versions of your old photos to share on social media, or are you an active large format photographer without a darkroom looking to produce large-scale, fine art prints?
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.
Other Factors to Consider
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: Your scanning goals will determine how high a resolution you need. If you want archival-quality scans or to create large prints from your negatives, you’ll need a scanner capable of scanning at 4,000 to 5,000 DPI. But if you’re just planning to look at the images on your computer, post them to social media, or make small prints, you only need a scanner capable of scanning at around 2,000 DPI.
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). A 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.
Entry-Level Film Scanners
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 is a popular entry-level scanner manufacturer, and its key entry in this genre is the F2D Titan 8-in-1 Film to Digital Converter. Capable of scanning many popular film formats, including 35mm strips, slides, and smaller film formats, this scanner uses a 20MP sensor for producing JPEGs in as little as three seconds per scan. It also has the convenient ability of stand-alone use, features a 4.3" LCD for previewing scans, and can save files to an internal memory bank or directly to SD memory cards. Similar, but updated to handle medium format 120 film and 127 film types as well, there is the F2D Saturn Film to Digital Converter, which borrows much of the Titan’s feature set and accommodates larger film formats.
And, for those working with moving pictures on film, Wolverine also has a pair of 8mm/Super 8 converters: the Film2Digital MovieMaker-PRO, which can output full HD 1080/20p movies, and the Reels2Digital MovieMaker, which can output HD 960 x 720/30p movies.
Along similar lines is the veho VFS-014-SF Smartfix, which is a 14MP scanner capable of working with 35mm strips, slides, 110, and 126 films. It’s also a stand-alone scanner, sports a 2.4" LCD, and has a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery for on-the-go use. The Kodak Mini Digital Film Scanner can handle 35mm, 126, and 110 film formats, has 14MP resolution, and 128MB of built-in memory, along with an SD card slot, for storing your scans. In the same league, but with a few more tricks up its sleeve, is the NovoScan 3-in-1 Scanner, from Braun. It, too, scans 35mm negatives and slides, at 5.1MP, but it has the added ability to scan prints up to 5 x 7"—perfect for digitizing family archives made up of film and prints.
Midrange Film Scanners
A midrange 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.
Pacific Image is another popular scanner manufacturer, whose models begin at the midrange, with the Prime Film XEs super edition, which allows you to record up to 10,000-dpi scans of your 35mm film strips or mounted slides with a 3.9 Dmax and 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.
Plustek also makes a trio of what could be described as midrange film scanners, each of which is designed to handle 35mm negative strips and mounted slides. Beginning with the OpticFilm 8100, this sleek model offers a 7200-dpi hardware resolution along with a 3.6 Dmax and 48-bit color depth. Fast scan speeds are possible, with full-resolution scans taking just under 2 minutes to perform, and half-res scans taking about 30 seconds to complete.
This scanner is also bundled with SilverFast SE Plus 8 software—a more advanced software option for greater control over color, exposure, contrast, and other image adjustments. 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 detect dust and scratches in scans more effectively, for instant removal using the iSRD function. Also, for both scanners, Silverfast SE Plus 8 also allows you to perform multiple-exposure scans for extended detail with less noise.
Rounding out Plustek's lineup 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.
High-End and Specialized Film Scanners
Closing our look at the range of options for digitizing your film is a look at the top end and some more niche models of dedicated film scanners, with options that represent the utmost in quality and capability. The first model that separates itself from the pack is the PowerSlide X, from Pacific Image. Dedicated to batch-scanning mounted 35mm slides, this scanner employs a slide magazine for scanning up to 50 slides at a time under a single command. The CCD sensor records imagery at up to 10,000 dpi with 48-bit color depth, and automated Magic Touch technology can be used to reduce dust and scratches, adjust color balance, and reduce the appearance of grain to cut down significantly on retouching time. Prior to loading up the 50-slide magazine, 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.
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 crop of "photo flatbed" scanners now can hold their own against many dedicated 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 new options for scanning large format sheet film.
Epson has been a leader in this genre of apt-performing flatbeds for film scanning, beginning with the Perfection V600. This mid-level film-scanning flatbed has a 2.7 x 9.5" transparency unit for scanning 35mm and 120 film formats using the included holders. 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. It also 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.
Moving up a degree in quality and versatility, Epson’s Perfection V850 is a popular option for achieving high-resolution, well-detailed scans of film up to 8 x 10" in format. This consumer-level flagship photo scanner offers 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 midtones. The Perfection V850 utilizes 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. It features a built-in 8 x 10" transparency unit and includes sets of film holders for scanning 35mm film strips, 35mm mounted slides, and 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, it is capable of batch scanning to automate a portion of the process and is compatible with an optional fluid mount tray for boosting the apparent sharpness of scans. Finally, the V850 also features an impressive software package comprising the robust SilverFast SE Plus 8 scanning application, as well as X-Rite i1Scanner for critical color profiling and ensured color consistency.
Epson also has a whole different beast for film scanning on flatbeds, the massive Expression 12000XL Photo, which features a separate, but included, 12.2 x 17.2" 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, making it ideal for graphic arts studios and other large-format reproduction needs.
Scanning without a Scanner
Finally, despite film’s increasing popularity, film scanner evolution seems to have plateaued (or at least dramatically slowed down), causing a unique discrepancy between renewed excitement to shoot film without a wide range of new and exciting tools with which to share and work with the images after they’ve been processed. One popular alternative to the film scanners mentioned above is to re-photograph your film using a mirrorless or DSLR camera in conjunction with a macro lens and a light table to gain a high-resolution digital version of your film negative or positive. There is a pair of articles on Explora—Scanning without a Scanner and The Franken-Scanner—that cover this topic in much greater detail. But in short, your current digital camera may be a perfect solution to digitizing your film if you’re willing to put in the added time and effort, compared to the relative ease of a dedicated scanner.
Let us know if you have any film scanner questions in the Comments section, below!