November 7, 2002 / Winter 2002

Bringing Light to Film Scanners

Written by Michelle Pyle

If you feel you are in the dark about film/negative scanners, you are not alone. The majority of yearbook staffs are only familiar with digital cameras and flatbed scanners to generate or capture digital images, but the use of film scanners is on the rise. Film scanners come in several configurations and are more expensive than flatbed scanners and digital cameras, but prices are falling and quality is improving. Film scanners offer the ability to scan slides, filmstrips and film cartridges, and the results are impressive. What is the benefit of scanning film? The fewer generations, or processes, an image goes through, the better the image will appear.

Flatbed scanners involve three generations (or processes) — film to photographic print to digital image. Detail and quality are lost with each generation. Digital cameras involve just one generation, but this does not make them necessarily superior to film scanners.

Affordable digital cameras cannot compete with the resolution of 35mm film, at least not yet. Film scanners scan film, negatives and even film cartridges, at a resolution equal to or over 4000 dpi. On a normal 35mm digital camera, this equates to an image of over 5500 x 3500 pixels or about 20 megapixels that will produce an 18 in. x 22 in. printed image at 225 dpi. Digital camera companies are currently boasting three megapixel cameras that produce 8 in. x 10 in. printed images at 225 dpi. If an image does not need to be more than a single page bleed photo, the extra size is probably a waste.

Therefore, a film scanner can improve everything, including sharpness, contrast and color, and the final image size is much larger. Serious photographers with an investment in camera gear are somewhat reluctant to go digital because they have seen the lack of detail a digital camera can produce. Most professional photographers who have gone digital are using film scanners to get the best of both worlds.

Now, compare a film scanner to a flatbed scanner. Flatbed scanners are inexpensive and do a terrific job of digitizing printed photos. However, many yearbook staffs are using one-hour photo labs to get their film developed. Quality and color reproduction is probably inconsistent. With film scanners, the staff becomes the photo lab. The staff can ensure that color and quality will be consistent from roll to roll.

Do not be fooled by flatbed scanners with film and negative adapters. They might sound the same as a film scanner and the price looks better, but they do not work the same and the quality does not compare to that of a film scanner. So, save money and do not buy into the adapters for flatbed scanners. Flatbed scanners were developed to scan reflective, or hard copy images only, not transparencies.

Film scanners cannot keep up with the speed of a flatbed scanner. Flatbed scanners can scan a color image of 225 dpi in about 30 seconds. A film scanner scanning the same image could take up to two minutes. But, if you are spending a lot of time in Adobe Photoshop doing color or tonal correcting, retouching, resizing, and resaving the flatbed-scanned images, the extra time film scanners take may be worth it.

Film scanners can save you time in Photoshop because of the superior color and detail the scanner will produce. Adobe Photoshop is still needed to adjust color mode, resolution, and to save film-scanned images in the proper format.

Probably the biggest reason most people are not using film scanners is because of the cost. Film scanners can cost anywhere from $900-$15,000. Another reason may be limited access to film or negatives, or limited funds to buy them. Obtaining film and negatives will still mean photo developing by a professional or school dark room.

Film cartridge adapters are now available for most film scanners. This would eliminate the need for developing.

Finally, access to a dust free environment is important. Film scanners benefit from an immaculate surrounding. Dust and particles on film or not regularly cleaning the film scanner or the area around it will cause loss to the quality of an image.

Digital cameras, flatbed and film scanners all have their place. All three have great features and practicalities. A film scanner cannot take the place of a digital camera’s instant photography for those last minute shots. And a film scanner will never be able to scan hard copy ads, graphics or photographs that have no negatives. Both digital cameras and flatbed scanners have a leg up on film scanners because of their low cost and quick imaging.

Film scanners do cost more money and take more time to create a digital image. They are also very sensitive and are high maintenance. These are all things to consider before purchasing one. If quality is the highest priority, a film scanner may be the wisest choice.

Michelle Pyle