by Thomas Watson
I’m composing this article using Google Docs. That means every space, letter, word, and sentence is being instantly saved in a data center, likely the one owned by Google in The Dalles, Oregon. This tool is made possible largely due to the fact that we humans have figured out how to convert data into electronic signals, and electronic signals travel at roughly the speed of light.
Animal Skin and Silver Halide
While you might be uninterested by the idea of text traveling through cables as signals, you should take interest in the fact that film and negatives do precisely the same thing. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to provide an overly simplistic definition of film scanning. Film scanning is nothing more than the conversion of highly processed animal skin (gelatin) and silver halide crystals into electronic signals. The job of a professional film scanner is to create electronic signals that carry as much of the information originally housed on your film as possible. Getting good information out of your film is the purpose of this article. Let’s make some electronic signals!
If you are as prone to distraction as I am, watch this video from 1958 showing film being manufactured in an old Kodak factory. It’s amazing.
Let’s begin by talking about the most important part of the scanning process, the scanner itself. Without spending dozens of hours compiling data that has already been compiled, my best guess is that 90 percent of the scanners on the market today are not rated to scan film properly. They are great with photographs and documents, but they were not made for film. Don’t buy them for film scanning. Instead, think about one of these:
(I am not an affiliate marketer for any of the scanners below, I’m just a guy who believes in scanning film properly.)
- Epson Perfection V550 Photo Flatbed Scanner – 6400 dpi x 9600 dpi
- Epson Expression 11000XL Graphic Arts Flatbed Scanner – 2400 dpi x 4
- Nikon Super Coolscan 9000-ed Multi-format Film Scanner
- Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 ED Film Scanner – 4000 dpi
- Plustek OpticFilm 120 Film Scanner – 5300 dpi
- Epson Perfection V750-M Pro Flatbed Scanner – 6400 dpi x 9600 dpi
- Epson Perfection V850 Pro Flatbed Scanner – 6400 dpi x 9600 dpi
- Pacific Image PowerSlide 5000
Don’t think of this list as even close to being comprehensive, it’s not. Do your own research on scanners—there is ample information to be had from a few Google queries. I highly recommend reading this article by Bjorn Peterson, “Scanning Film: A Buying Guide.” At Roots Family History, we use the Epson V750 for most of our film scanning. Beware of any product claiming to be a film scanner with a price tag below about $400. The Epson V550 is the lowest grade film scanner I would recommend that will still produce nice results. If you want to crank through a few thousand pieces of film, plan to spend between $500 and $2,000 on a decent scanner. As with any product, spend some good time reading reviews and requesting samples.
Side Note: Let’s not forget that you can scan film without a scanner. You can shoot it with a DSLR. If you are serious about setting up a scanner-less system, read this article by Bjorn Peterson called “Scanning without a Scanner: Digitizing Your Film with a DSLR.”
Tiny Particles of Earth
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by neglecting to clean your film and scanner properly. Slides, film, and negatives are very commonly coated with a thin layer of dust that needs to be blown or brushed off. Some film is dirty enough to justify cleaning it with some good antistatic emulsion cleaner and nonabrasive pads. While I could write an entire article on proper film cleaning, I’m just going to say this, if you scan dirty film, expect to see subpar results. Garbage in. Garbage out.
Ready, Get Set, Go!
So, your goal is to turn a physical piece of film into a digital file for storage and viewing. You’re going to do that by sending an electronic signal through a cable that connects a scanner to a PC or Mac. In order to achieve professional results, you’re going to want to familiarize yourself with your scanner’s software and take advantage of the histogram, tone, and resolution settings. We packed all the nitty-gritty details into the video below. Watch it, then go tackle your film digitization project!
I hope you discovered a few nuggets of wisdom that will help you scan your film properly! Don’t forget to add names and dates to your film by tagging your images.
Check out our blog for information about 8mm and 16mm film scanning.
Want to grill us with a tough technical question? Use the comment section below.
Thomas Watson is the cofounder and CEO of Roots Family History, a boutique shop based in Boise, Idaho, and Brooklyn, New York, devoted to preserving human history. Thomas has dedicated himself to finding accessible solutions for digitization, conservation, and preservation. If you thought of him as the Batman of media preservation, he probably wouldn’t object.
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