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Version 1.1We don’t seem to have a resource on film scanners, so I thought I’d give one a go. Comments, suggestion, improvements welcome.
A “scanner” is a device that will convert your film photographs into digital form. There are two main approaches: the traditional scanner that moves a linear sensor relative to your film frame, and digital cameras that photograph the whole film frame at once.
In this thread, we’ll talk about the different kinds of scanners and techniques, and what they might best be used for, about the software you might use in conjunction with them, about special features of some scanners that might be useful, and about interfaces and incompatibilities. The thread is aimed at newcomers to the usual TPFC cohort of film enthusiasts, rather than professional labs or other advanced needs.
TLDR if you are only going to use 135 film and do need to scan at home, the conventional wisdom is that a dedicated scanner such as those from Plustek or Reflecta is the way to go. If you will use 120 or larger formats, the Epson Perfection series may be appropriate. In either use case, with a bit of DIY, a good quality digital camera and macro lens may allow you to skip the scanner altogether.
It’s worth remembering, that if you send off all your films to be processed and scanned, you may not need a film scanner of your own at all.
The bulk of this post describes the various different kinds of scanners. This is followed by separate posts for other sections, then commentary from various folk, mixed (at some point) with additional sections, which will be linked from here.
Section 1: Introduction
Section 2: Contents
Section 3: Different kinds of scanners
Section 4: Software supporting scanning
Section 5: Resolution
Section 6: Density, Dmax and why it's important
Section 7: Special features
Section 8: Digital camera scanning
Section 9: Comparing different scanning approaches (example)
Section 10: Scanning negatives on an ordinary flatbed scanner (example)
Section 11: Bit depth and file formats
Please help to correct and update this thread by posting corrections or additional information. Thanks.
3 Different kinds of scanners
There are a lot of different kinds of scanners out there, and you could probably divide them up in many different ways. Most film photographers still use traditional film scanners, though making digital photo “scans” is growing in popularity.
3.1 Film scanners
Most film photographers use scanners designed to scan film (d’oh!), that are connected to our computers, and driven by specialist software. There’s more about the software later. Roughly, I could divide these scanners into 3 different groups, of which only the first two are of direct interest to most film users: dedicated film scanners, flatbed film scanners, and professional scanners. There’s a separate section on scan resolution later, but it’s worth mentioning here that quoted figures for resolution are always wildly over-stated, and the true best resolution of any of these scanners is often around half the quoted figure.
Your software may be able to deliver “raw” files, that can be re-edited either in the same software at a later time, or in some cases through your image processing software (eg Photoshop ad competitors directly, or via plugins for Lightroom or Photoshop).
Dedicated film scanners for enthusiasts
These scanners are dedicated to film only, and do not have the ability to scan documents. Most of those currently available are from Plustek or Reflecta; you might find some older models such as the Konica Minolta Dimage models. Most of these scanners only scan 135 film (35mm), but a few scan 120 (both Plustek and Reflecta have rather expensive 120 models). Many of these scanners require you to physically move the film holder for each frame you scan, but some have motorised film transport eg the Reflecta RPS 10M and the Plustek 135.
.These scanners typically have better resolution than flatbed film scanners (see the section on resolution later). They also often have extra facilities such as multi-scans, multi-exposure scans, or an infra-red scan phase to detect and remove dust or scratch defects.
For my most recent 37-shot 135 film scanned on a Plustek 7500i, it seems scans took from 1 minute to 3 minutes per frame, and the whole film took 78 minutes to scan. I did typically two scans per frame, and didn’t use multi-exposure or infra-red.
Flatbed film scanners
These scanners will scan film or documents (or prints). They are widely used by people who want to scan 120 and/or 4x5 as well as (or instead of) 135. Probably the most widely used brand at the time of writing is the Epson Perfection series. There are also older scanners such as the Canoscan 9000F Mark II that also scan film.
If buying an Epson scanner, you should think carefully about the kind of film photography you do currently, or think you might get into in the future. The cheaper models in the range (V500, V600) will not scan 4x5 negatives, for example. It’s still possible to scan such negatives on these cheaper scanners, but you have to do it in two parts and then use software to stitch them together, quite a clumsy and difficult workflow. You’d need at least a V700 to scan 4x5. [What can scan 10x8?]
An advantage of some flatbed film scanners is that you put the film holder in place, and the software may allow you to scan all the frames on the strip without physically moving the film holder. Sometimes your software may be able to automatically scan all the frames in the holder.
I find the Epson film holders a bit flimsy and awkward to use, but others disagree and find them fine. The 135 film holders have no cross-bars, which has the disadvantage that they don’t hold the film as flat, but has the advantage that they can be used to scan other formats than the standard 24x36 mm frames (eg XPAN frames). If you can find a way of using 135 film in 120 holders, you can also scan the sprocket areas for that Holga/Lomo look.
On my Epson Perfection V500, I can only get 2 out of the 3 6x6 frames on a typical 120 film strip into the holder at once, which means removing the holder and physically adjusting the film strip after the first two scans. There are (expensive) 3rd party film holders (eg from BetterScanning, see later in Special Features) which avoid this issue (the BetterScanning 120 holder for the V550 supports 3 6x6 but not 3 6x7 negatives). I assume (but don’t know) that this problem doesn’t apply to the higher end scanners.
AFAIK none of these flatbed scanners has an infra-red capability, and there are said to be issues with the registration of multiple scans of the same image (compared to the dedicated scanners). I haven’t tried that capability so I don’t know. An option in this case might be to scan at double the required resolution and have your software reduce the size of the image before saving, which is said to produce a similar noise-reduction effect.
In this group I would include things like drum scanners, Hasselblad Flextight, or the scanners used by film labs such as the Fuji Frontier or Noritsu. Results can be much better than for scanners aimed at enthusiasts, with better hardware and software, but they are usually physically larger and much more expensive. I don’t really know anything about them, so this section will only get expanded if others can provide some content.
One impact of professional scanners used by labs, is that they make selections from the scan sizes available, and offer us a selection (usually as Small, Medium and Large), differently priced.
Filmdev's scan sizes vary depending on whether they use the Fuji Frontier or the Noritsu. For 135 the Frontier scan sizes available are:
Small 1818px x 1228px
Medium 2988px x 1972px
Large 4547px x 3047px
The small size is suitable for a 6x4" print at 300 dpi.
For 135 the Noritsu scan sizes available are:
Small 1545px x 1024px
Medium 3091px x 2048px
Large 6774px x 4492px
Here the small size requires less than 300 dpi for a 6x4" print. The medium and large sizes however are larger.
They don't quote sizes for 120 because of the variety of frame sizes (from 6x4.5 up to 6x9 and possibly beyond). Other labs will offer similar sizes, although it's worth noting that a few labs don't offer the small size at all, sometimes describing a size like Filmdev's Medium as Small.
3.2 Document scanners
A document scanner is usually a flatbed scanner, connected to your computer, like the recommended film scanners. The typical household all-in-one printer contains a document scanner. The key difference is that document scanners are not designed to scan negative and reversal film well; they do not have the light required to shine through the film.
It’s not necessarily impossible to scan, say, larger black and white negatives on such a scanner, and invert the images in software. The results will not be as good as with a proper film scanner, but may be adequate if you only have a few to scan. I’ll show an example in a later post.
Document-type scanners can make an excellent job of scanning prints, so if you make your prints in a darkroom, this could be a good approach to making them digital and sharing them. This also has the benefit that you can show any border effects you’ve deliberately added to your prints, or share prints like cyanotypes and lumen prints that might be made without the use of film. As you might see in a later post, textured prints can give less satisfactory results.
3.3 Scanning with your digital camera
Nowadays digital cameras have reached the point where they deliver resolution and quality to rival or better most scanners.
There are several threads on TP about “scanning” your film with a digital camera, the most recent being here https://www.talkphotography.co.uk/threads/scanning-120-film-with-a-digital-camera.705521/ . This is usually done with a DSLR or mirrorless ILC, but can be done with a quality compact as well. There's an expanded section on this here, and some examples done with a little Fuji X10 in a later post.
3.4 Stand-alone scanner
If you go searching for film scanners on t’internet, you may come across some relatively inexpensive devices, some from quite reputable names. They essentially comprise a small fixed resolution digital camera (they all used to be 5 Mpixel, but looks like 14 to 22 Mpixels now) set in a box with a light source and film holder mechanism above. A common feature of these devices is that they are not directly connected to your computer, instead they “scan” your film frame by taking an image of it, process it, and save it to a SD (or presumably other kinds of) card. AFAIK they are all for 135 film. They also contain some software for inverting scans of negatives to give a positive image. In essence these devices use the approach described above for scanning with your digital camera, but package it all up in one easy to use box.
On the plus side, they are very simple to use and extremely quick. When I first got one I scanned 3 rolls of film in the first evening.
On the negative side (sorry again), there is no flexibility in the inversion software, which is likely to give variable results with different colour negative film stocks. It would be possible to get round this by scanning all images as positives, and then performing the inversion after importing the images into your computer (see also digital camera scanning above). It appears they sometimes have an image area smaller than a 135 film frame, so all images are cropped.
In the case of the example I bought (from Veho, but several years ago), the inversion software was very poor, but much worse were the light leaks, which ruined a lot of the images. Luckily I was able to get my money back.
In general, we have not to date recommended these devices. However, modern versions may be better, so if anyone has real life experience of more recent models from respectable names (eg the Reflecta X7), please let us know.
Section 4: Software supporting scanning
Section 5: Resolution
Section 7: Special features
Section 8: Digital camera scanning
Section 9: Comparing different scanning approaches
Section 10: Scanning negatives on an ordinary flatbed scanner