Considering digitizing your (parent’s) film archive with a flatbed scanner?
For those who have wondered about the practicality of scanning thousands of negatives with a flatbed scanner, read on. In this post I explore my three month journey scanning nearly half of my family’s negatives. Before going into the gory and technical details, let me first introduce some insights I have gleaned.
A Sociological Introduction.
In this post I explore my four month journey scanning 4000 out of approximately 10,000 negatives with an Epson flatbed scanner. As immense and daunting as that number sounds, its been a much more rewarding experience than I ever expected. If a picture is 1000 words, I’ve read an encyclopedia of my family clan. Being able to see these lost memories has taught me something of the importance of photography, not just as an art, but as a state of reality, of space and time. In Neal Stephenson’s “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O”, the authors underline how photography as a technology is able to capture a state of reality and suspend it throughout history. In the novel, this effect disrupted the ‘quantum equilibrium’ by severing connections between ‘strands’ (read: multiple universes). Though this doesn’t REALLY happen in our world, photographs still produce a similar effect. We’re able to use photographs to put ourselves into different situations to effectively view a situation from the time and place it happened. Although this isn’t a fair sampling technique, my mother serves as a good example of how this phenomenon works. After viewing an image for a few moments, photos she hasn’t seen in several years, she is able to comment on the exact day, temperature, and other details that, without the photo, weren’t as ready to recall from her memory.
As a sociologist, I am fascinated by this experience because it allows me to view someone’s life and their past decisions outside of my own frame of reference. Drawing from C.W. Mills, I can use these biographies to help inform my understandings of society, a social mindfulness of sorts. This act of mindfulness has altered my perspective on how I see the subjects in the photos I’ve been scanning. Because, as I’m putting myself in the shoes of those in the photos, I’m also exploring how they were interacting with others around them. To explain the social mindfulness, I’ll give a short example. When scanning the negatives I have found a few recurring patterns; Christmas trees and waterfalls. In my parent’s lives, one thing that remains a constant is their annual photos of Christmas trees at home and a waterfall near where they used to cottage. But do Christmas trees ever really change? And does a waterfall in the summer ever look much different from year to year? Mostly no. These two elements do not significantly change, yet remain a repeated focus from year to year. This pattern tells me that Christmas and Cottaging are important parts in their lives, and they capture these moments because they are the most meaningful to them. More than that, I know that they are used to provide ‘time stamps’ for photo albums. So perhaps my parents are traditionalists, and enjoy the comforts in similarity from year to year. Furthermore, the technology of film and photo archiving may have necessitated repeated photographs to ensure temporal accuracy. This is just one of the many patterns I have recognized that have helped me build a greater understanding of people in that time period and my parents overall!
Another interesting insight to pull from this is the state of time in our world. Being constrained to time, we have grown to understand it as part of our environment just as we understand the mountains or any other part of our environment. But what if we could imagine a world as God imagines it, or in the case of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”, as ‘aliens’ imagine it. That is, what if we saw the expanse of time like we see the beautiful rocky mountains (on a clear day). When time and space become as one, our actions are built into the landscape of time. Rather than fatalistically viewing this as a zero-sum game, we can use this exercise to connect with God’s plan for our lives in the expanse of time and space and become inspired with the work he has set out for us. Even though we don’t see time in this way, this thought experiment allows us to better examine our position in time and space, just as each negative slide is held in a very particular time and space.
My Scanning Experience!
Without further ado, I present the gory details of how this procedure began!
Film Scanning Equipment
I had altruistically (not to mention ignorantly) gifted my services as a Christmas gift to my parents two years ago. At that time I hadn’t given much thought as to what equipment I should use. In fact, I had assumed that I would be able to rent a professional level film scanner (like the Nikon Super CoolScan 5000) from Henry’s or Vistek, both of which don’t currently offer these. Forced to buy my own film scanner, I researched a lot online and discussed specifications with some helpful staff at Henrys. Although I really love the idea of digitizing photos with my DSLR (How do I scan negatives with my DSLR?), I also wanted the option to scan printed photos as well. Eventually, I decided on the Epson V600 for it’s incredible value. This flatbed scanner, falling in the grounds of an entry level photo scanner, has a 6400 dpi optical sensor and provides a colour density of 3.4 DMax; these features are comparable to all scanners in the sub $3000 range (Ken Rockwell’s more technical answer). In addition, it comes with hardware level ICE technology to reduce dust and scratches on the film (What is ICE?). Though higher quality than the more mobile Kodak Scanza equivalents, it does not provide the same depth as an Epson V850 or a dedicated film drum scanner. Still, the Epson V600 is an adequate choice and is able to produce comparable quality (albeit at lower speeds) at a fraction of the cost. (More in-depth review of the Epson V600)
“Eventually, I decided on the Epson V600 for it’s incredible value. This flatbed scanner, falling in the grounds of an entry level photo scanner, has a 6400 dpi optical sensor and provides a colour density of 3.4 DMax”
If you are also looking to scan your negative collection, you will have to choose a scanner based on your needs, time constraints and quality preferences. In this case, because I am patient and was willing to spend oodles of time replacing the 35 mm film tray on the bed of the scanner every 30 minutes, I found the quality and cost of the Epson V600 adequate. If you are thinking of following me down that road, read to the end to understand why that may or may not work for you. Spoiler! After three months of scanning for an hour or so each day, I am through 4000 of approximately 10,000 images. That equates to around 10 days of constant scanning.
Though the scanning process doesn’t require much prep-time on a day-to-day basis (yes, you will spend many days at this), there are some crucial storage, organization, and air quality considerations you are going to want to know about. These are: digital storage, air quality, organizational method, and your mental capacities.
Every photographer needs a secure storage and backup solution. If you are just archiving your (parent’s) film, don’t think you are excluded. Ideally, you should have (at least) three copies of your data. A working copy, a local backup, and an off-site backup.
Working Copy – your computer hard drive will suffice.
Local Backup – This should be a good condition external hard drive. You want to make sure that the hard drive is not continually plugged in, save for the scheduled backups you make. In my office, I used to run a RAID 1 setup with two 3TB hard drives but have opted for a standard single drive setup because of my own misconceptions regarding RAID 1 (Link 1, Link 2). If you have a fireproof box, place your local backup there.
Off-site backup – For an off-site backup you traditionally would do long-term updates (e.g. month to month) from a safety deposit box, or somewhere you could trust. Nowadays, with the decreasing prices of online storage, storing your photos on the cloud offers a convenient alternative to this option. For my setup, I run a semi-annual backup to Amazon’s glacier cloud storage. This material is meant for strict archiving purposes, and is contained on low-power servers that charge around $1 for my entire archiving purposes (my own stuff included!).
To maintain mirrored backups, I use Open Source program called FreeFileSync. It allows me to mirror between multiple drives and checks for corrupted files. For uploading to the cloud I use 7zip to create encrypted and password-protected yearly archives.
For archiving, I wanted to make sure I am using a photo format that could be accessed for years to come. Between .JPG and .TIF formats, the latter being an Adobe standard, I believe both will last the next several decades. For 99% of scans I chose to use .jpg and for the scans I wanted to add a special touch of editing, I scanned them in .tif. This is because .tif provides a lossless compression that ensures no image data is lost, and like a .psd document, stores versions of the image just in case you want to revert back to the original. On the other hand, .jpg uses lossy compression, which allows us to save images at a fraction of the size with similar results. Honestly, if you don’t plan on editing any images and are happy with how they are scanned in from the start, stick with .jpg, it’ll save you unnecessary storage space.
Another consideration that stems from file type is file size. If you are using .tif format, each 135 mm image scanned at 3200 dpi will equate to approximately 75MB of data. In comparison, the .jpg will end up around 8MB. If you don’t have a ton of space, perhaps .jpg is your best bet, but if you really want the flexibility of .tif, you may need to invest in a larger storage medium.
Air Quality and Cleaning Equipment
Before setting up your scanner and getting started, it is important to choose the right location. If you are in an area that is especially dusty, make an effort to reduce the dust by installing doors and a low-profile filtration device (Like this). Once you have selected a location and are ready to commence with your first scan, keep an air blower and a micro fiber cloth (shown below) on hand to wipe the negatives and glass bed before every scan. Even if you think the sensor is clean, there are cases in which I have scanned negatives with what looked to be a clean sensor and got a long green line going through the scanned image. In addition, the smallest of hairs or dust specs can have a large impact on your image, regardless of the ICE technology. (I’m talking to you, Oliver).
You are going to have to choose early on what type of organizational method you want to use when storing your negatives and this will depend on your unique circumstances. For me, I had three shoe boxes worth of negatives, stored in 300 packs of 25(ish). Because only some of these packs had names on them and I wasn’t able to date them myself (because I wasn’t born when the photos were shot!!) I created folder names from 1-150 (so far!) including other identifying information (dates, subjects, events) given in brackets. For example “156 (Cyprus lake, At home, Christopher)”. The advantage to my method is sourcing a re-scan of a negative someone wants enlarged and to ensure I don’t have repeat scans.
Not to patronize just anyone who thinks they have the guts to take on this project but I must warn you that this isn’t for the faint of heart. Although you will able to scan at a higher quality than the cheap Amazon options and you’ll save thousands of dollars compared to online negative scanning services, this task will require a lot of discipline to prioritize time from every day to scan some negatives. In my case, because I had a fair amount of time on my hands, I was able to scan around 150 negatives per day, all while working on other projects at the same time.
Start Scanning Your Negatives!
“If you take nothing else from my experience take this: prioritize scanning time. It doesn’t have to be more than 20 minutes per day of changing slides.”
Once you’re all set up to go, you can start scanning! Like this guy (other blog link), I quickly learned that this process was going to take a long time. After the first month, I hadn’t even finished one shoe box full of negatives. After I switched to scanning 110 film (see below), I slowed down even further. If you take nothing else from my experience take this: prioritize scanning time. It doesn’t have to be more than 20 minutes per day of changing slides. Over time you will thank yourself. Set the parameters and go!
Scanned images of 110, 126, and 135 mm film sizes:
Dots Per Inch (dpi)
DPI stands for dots per inch, and is often used in colloquial terms to signify PPI as well, which stands for pixels per inch. Though these are different measurements that have their own technical contexts, for the sake of simplicity, this post uses DPI unilaterally.
Tips for choosing the right DPI for your scan.
While a higher dpi may sound like it would produce a higher quality image, this is not entirely the case. Although film, being an analog medium, doesn’t have ‘pixels’ per se, it does have a certain number of lines per inch (LPI) that determines the definition and depth it can reproduce. Thus, scanning at a higher optical resolution than necessary may produce more noise and even scanning at a full “interpolated” resolution will not add any pixels to your image. Looking at those who have scanned film on the Epson V600, 3200-4800 dpi seems to be the sweet spot for 135 mm film.
According to camera experts, “you’d need a digital camera of about 87 x 2 = 175 MP to see every last detail that makes onto film.”Ken Rockwell
Following this logic, I decided to scan most of my 135 mm negatives at 3200 dpi and I scanned my 110 film at 4800. The 110 film was scanned at a higher resolution because the film is slightly smaller and the extra dpi didn’t seem to add any more grain than at a lower dpi. If in doubt, change the dpi and see for yourself!
Scanners and Enlargers
Borrowing from ScanTips.com, scanning negatives is a little like using an old fashioned negative enlarger.
Similar to the enlarger, the scanner shines light through the film to transfer an image onto another medium. For the enlarger, this is a physical medium, for the scanner, it is digital. DPI is the scanner’s control for the enlargement of the image. Thus, as you increase the DPI, the image size (resolution) becomes greater. For example, a 135 mm negative scanned at 3200 dpi 4437×2773 (12 megapixels) will equate to a 10×14 inch print (at 300dpi).
“As I quickly realized, if your goal is just to print and share 5×7 prints with family, you can get away with a much smaller dpi.”
If you want more information on the relation between scanning, film resolution, and pixel resolution, the following links provide a good introduction.
- Ken Rockwell: Film to Pixels, what counts? (Must read!!)
- Robert Giordano: Megapixel Breakdown
- Wayne Fulton: Scanning Tips
- Megapixel and File Size calculator
Scanning 110 and 126 mm Film
3D-Printed Option – If you have access to a 3D printer, try making something like this: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2328022
Amazon – If you’re a perfectionist or don’t have time to mill about cutting and printing these things, Amazon is always here to save you: https://www.amazon.ca/Film-Holder-Epson-V550-Scanners/dp/B00NPIRRD2
Make your own – 1. Using a 110 negative for reference, outline the exposed (photo) areas using a pen on black posterboard. 2. Cut out outlined squares. 3. Cut strip to fit in 135 mm film holder. Done!
Epson V600 Auto Adjustments
- Colour Adjustments
The colour adjustments are often helpful, but have a tendency to over saturate images. In some cases I kept the changes, but most times I decided to keep any changes for my own colour editing. Like I said earlier, if you want to edit images, you are better off using tif format and editing in Adobe light room or Photoshop.
- Back light Correction
This is a great tool to lighten the shadows in the images. You’d be surprised how much detail the Epson V600 can bring out without creating too much noise. If you are using this on heavily shadowed areas, try pairing it with the noise reduction tool.
An Aside About Silverfast
Other people (like these folks) have chosen to use Silverfast scanning software over the native Epson software. I had actually tried downloading the demo SE version but it was unable to run on my Windows 10 PC. For the price point ($100+) of the full version I can’t even understand how buying Silverfast would be worth it, especially given the solid performance (if tricky) of the Epson scan software. I may be proven wrong, but I’m happy with my success with the Epson software and will stick with it to the end.
Even though I’m not finished scanning yet, I have definitely learned a lot from this experience and am happy to pass anything useful along. As always, if you have anything to add or have questions about my workflow, leave a comment or message me on the Contact Me page.