Monday, January 23, 2012

Scanning Film: Outsource It or Do It Yourself?

You may have been in the situation where you had a photo shoot and your film is ready to be developed, but you don’t just want prints and negatives. You want to be able to edit your photos on your computer, share them online, and be able to print them on your inkjet printer whenever you want. For all of these things, you will need digital scans.

When it comes to scanning your film, you have a few options. Each has their own price point and set of pro’s and cons.

scanning at home with a flat bed scanner


For at-home scanning:

You can just have your negatives developed (by yourself or by a lab) and then scan them at home. You can use a flatbed scanner with a negative light (usually LED) that will allow you to scan strips of negatives in usually any size from 8mm to 8x10”. Most flatbed scanners have low dynamic range (the amount of shades of gray from white to black). The higher the dynamic range, the more information or detail your scanner will be able to pull out of the shadows in your negative. The other flaw of most flatbeds is sharpness. Negatives must be held flat for the image to be scanned sharply and most of the film holders that come with flatbeds are flimsy and won’t hold a negative perfectly flat. There are third party film holders you can purchase that will make this a little better however. Flatbeds are usually the most inexpensive way to scan your film. Tip: It will also be handy to have a dust blower on hand, as you'll want your flatbed as clean as can be. Any dust on the negative or glass will show up on your scans.

Pictured: Nikon Super COOLSCAN 5000 ED  (35mm film & slide scanner)

Your next at-home option is to get a dedicated film scanner like a Nikon Coolscan (I recommend the Nikon Coolscan 4000- I love this scanner for 35mm), a Minolta Dimage, or an Imacon. These scanners are your best option for high quality at-home scans. These machines are set up for film-only and not for documents or prints like a flatbed is. Some film scanners just scan 35mm, but the higher-end models can also scan medium format (and sometimes large format) film sizes. Dedicated film scanners can scan entire rolls of film, a single slide, or a film strip. The better models include digital ICE to remove any dust and even multi-pass scans. In multi-pass scans, the negative is scanned several times, each time for a different highlight or shadow level so that you get a file that has all of the highlight and shadow detail in it. This feature increases scan time but creates the best scans. Depending on your DPI setting and multi-pass setting, a roll can be scanned anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour (multi-pass increases the scan time greatly).

At-home scanning takes time and effort. You will have to color correct and watch out for dust. If you are only shooting a few rolls of film here and there, or just want the ability to scan right away when you develop your rolls, then this option is great. If you're shooting a lot of work on film where a good chunk of it needs to be scanned in (such as a wedding photographer) however, then I would recommend considering outsourcing your scanning to a lab, or even have the lab develop and scan your film at the same time. If you are like me and have over 30 rolls a job to develop and scan, then this is a great time saver.

scanning process options, computer screen


For photo lab scans:

Having your lab scan your film is definitely time saving, but more costly than doing it yourself. With labs, you don’t have as many options as you would with doing it yourself, but you do still have options.

Most labs scan on one of two kinds of commercial scanners, a Fuji Frontier or a Noritsu. Both scanners are awesome but both have different ways of reading color and rendering sharpness. Some photographers prefer the Fuji for color and the Noritsu for black and white. Your best bet if you're planning on outsourcing a lot of scanning it is to send the same roll of film to a few different labs and then compare the results before you choose which lab as your go-to lab.

scanning at a pro photo lab


I have found that the machine the lab uses is not as important as the person doing the scanning however. The lab employe that is doing the scanning has more control over how your image will look then anyone else. A good lab will talk to you about how you want your film to be scanned, how much contrast you like, your color tone, etc. For example, do you want your images to look cool or warm? These are options a good lab will offer you.

Watch for labs that don’t color correct or watch for dust on your film. The scans you get back should be clean and free of dust. One dot of dust here and there is fine, but if you are getting dust all over your scans, find a new lab. The scans you get back should be good enough to blog or print. (This is of course when we are talking about professional photographic labs and not the scans you can get at your local drug store photo lab.) Having a good lab do your work will create a relationship and consistent end product for you and your clients.

Most labs offer two different sizes of film scans- 6 megapixels and 11 megapixels. Average cost at a good lab for the 6 megapixel range is $15 for a develop and scan at the same time. An 11 megapixel scan will cost more since it takes the lab’s machine longer to render the images.

Labs I personally recommend: Richard Photo Lab, North Coast Photo Lab, and The Finer Image Photo Lab (I use all three of these labs and get great work from them).

While labs may cost you more out of pocket, it can save you time and energy. And on the flip side, if you like to experiment with your film or have complete control, then purchasing your own scanner and doing it yourself is a great option. Which ever way you decide to go, the scanning features that you need to especially pay attention to (or ask about) are the scan size (file size), dynamic range (image shadow detail), and digital ICE (dust detection and removal).


* Find scanners for at-home scanning on KEH.com: Nikon Scanners and Minolta Scanners
* Click here for more places to buy and develop film



Contributor Bio:  Joseph Prezioso is a professional photographer who has been shooting for over twelve years and went from shooting film, to 100% digital, and then back to film again. He says, "By trade I am a wedding photographer, I shoot over 30 weddings a year and this year they were all on film. My career started as a newspaper photographer though. I was 16 and like Jimmy Olsen. I learned on the streets shooting next to veteran photographers for the AP and Boston Globe (I worked for some weeklies but I got to cover a lot of cool events that the big news guys covered too!). Film is something I have fallen in love with, its the medium I learned on. Film will always be something special to me. It feels more versatile and creative in my hands then when I am using digital."  

Prezioso's most recent book Fearless Photographer: Film in the Digital Era was released earlier this month. Check it out and stay tuned for an upcoming giveaway to win a copy!