Digitizing Negatives at Home – a Comparison of Methods and Results (DSLR vs Flatbed vs Lab Scans)

Digitizing Negatives at Home – a Comparison of Methods and Results (DSLR vs Flatbed vs Lab Scans)

1800 1191 James Tocchio

As an active member of several online film photography communities, I’ve recently been seeing lots of questions from fellow photographers who are weighing various options for digitizing negatives at home. Given that I have been in the process of changing up my workflow and that I have at my disposal a flatbed scanner and a DSLR scanning setup, I thought I’d share my impressions and a couple of sample comparisons in the form of one 35mm and one 6×6 image in hopes that this can be a reference to answer some of these recurring questions.

[This guest post was written by Tony Huynh. Tony is a clinical pharmacist by day who relishes photography as a creative outlet that forces him to slow down, harness his creativity, and see the world in a different way. He also loves tinkering and enjoys all things mechanical, which makes analog cameras and the process of shooting, developing, and printing film the perfect marriage of his love of science and photography.]

Hardware and Software

Flatbed Scanning Setup :

DSLR Scanning Setup (photos of setup) :

Lab Scans :

Methodology Used

Scanning and processing methods:

    • Flatbed scans: Used SilverFast 8 SE, scanned as 300 ppi, 3200 dpi and exported as TIFFs. NegaFix was applied for the film stock (Kodak Tri-X) and images had auto-adjustments applied on pre-scan, but no further edits were done before export from SilverFast.
    • DSLR scans: negatives captured as RAW images at f/8. Camera focused on grain manually at 10x magnification using Live View. Fine-tuning of alignment and focusing of the setup accomplished with the aid of Vlad’s Test Target, which adapts the USAF 1951 resolution chart onto 35mm film in a manner that allows for evaluation of sharpness and focus across a 35mm frame.
    • 35mm negative captured as a single image. 6×6 medium format negative captured as six separate images which were stitched into a panorama before export from Lightroom as a DNG.
    • All post-processing for both flatbed and DSLR images was done through Photoshop using the lab scans as a reference to closely match all comparison images. Edits were primarily limited to dust removal, levels and curves adjustments, and smart sharpening. Lab scans did not receive additional processing after receipt from the lab.
    • 6×6 DSLR scan had to be resized to reduce the file size for uploading to the internet.

The Results

Click on the links below for full resolution images.

My impressions:

Image Quality – It should be obvious that the flatbed scans are significantly softer than both the DSLR scan and the lab scan, both of which are exceptionally sharp. The grain on the DSLR and lab scans is clearly visible, whereas on the flatbed scan it is very muddy and of poor quality when viewing at 100%. When comparing between just the DSLR and lab scans, I have a much harder time identifying any significant differences that I would attribute to the quality of the scans versus the quality and differences in the edits. The sharpening appears to be applied more heavily on the 35mm lab scan, and the whites have been clipped a bit on the 6×6 lab scan. At a normal viewing distance, though, I would say the flatbed scan is perfectly acceptable for 90%+ of use-cases.

Ease of “Scanning” – Without a doubt, the process of scanning with my DSLR is significantly faster than using the flatbed Epson V550. Not much needs to be explained here, but this also will be largely dependent on your individual setup. The hardest part of any DSLR or mirrorless scanning setup is providing a stable support for the camera that’s easily aligned, and then the next most crucial element is the masking of the negative to avoid stray light, which can reduce contrast or cause flare or reflections in the resultant image. Having a dedicated negative carrier and light source, as well as a sturdy “copy stand” of sorts eliminates much of this for me. Using the DSLR method I can “scan” a whole roll within minutes, whereas it can take me  approximately 10 minutes to scan one image with my flatbed.

Ease of Processing – I found the flatbed scans much more difficult to edit in post than the DSLR scans. This may come down to the fact that the flatbed scans have some adjustments applied by SilverFast versus working with unedited RAW files for the DSLR images, thus your results may vary and my results may have been different if I elected to not apply NegaFix or auto adjustments in SilverFast.

TL;DR:

    • DSLR/mirrorless scanning is much sharper than an entry-level flatbed for both 35mm and medium format, (can be) much more efficient, and is comparable in quality to lab scans. See our main image in full res here.
    • Cost of entry will most likely be higher with a DSLR/mirrorless, even excluding the camera body, though can be done more economically than my setup with a little creativity (possibly at the cost of efficiency).
    • Flatbed scanner results will likely be perfectly acceptable for most use-cases. Just make sure to set your expectations accordingly.

Comparison of 6×6 scans using Epson V550 with stock film holder + ScanTech ANR glass inserts scanned at different heights (distance of negative from scanner bed glass). “Stock” represents no height adjustment, followed by ~0.5mm incremental increases in height. Images are 100% crop of scans straight from Silverfast without any post-processing or adjustments applied.

A Note on Flatbed Sharpness

I had received some comments from a fellow photographer questioning the sharpness and focus of my particular Epson V550 scanner. They recommended that I do some testing to ensure that my scanner is in focus, out-of-the-box. While I did respond stating that my methods account for the general use-case of a flatbed printer by the mass consumers and that maybe only 1% of users would ever consider going so far as focus-testing their scanner (since it is not really designed to be adjusted), I decided to do little bit of additional testing with my V550 as requested, and for the sake of completeness.

Because the stock film holders of the Epson V550, unlike that of the V7XX and V8XX series, do not offer the ability to make height adjustments, I took the advice of another commenter and used sticky notes adhered to the underside corners of the stock film holder to achieve incremental height adjustments of ~0.5mm (as an FYI to those interested, it takes seven sticky notes to achieve a ~0.5mm height adjustment).

Here is a comparison image showing 100% crops of 4 different scans of the same 6×6 image at stock height versus raised from the scanner bed by ~0.5mm, ~1mm, and ~1.5mm. All scans were done in the same manner using SilverFast 8 SE without any adjustments or edits and exported as TIFFs.

In my opinion, there is no significantly discernable difference in sharpness across all scans, and further height adjustments are unlikely to change this, given the limited allowable space within the scanner bed with the lid closed and the fact that aftermarket products such as Betterscanning holders are designed to allow no more than 1mm of height adjustment, suggesting that further adjustments are unlikely to be considered necessary or beneficial. Users who have reported any differences in sharpness through adjustment of focus anecdotally have noted these results on V7XX and V8XX scanners, which have height-adjustable stock film holders and also advertise using a dual-lens system for optimal sharpness and focus for both prints and negatives.


Many thanks to Tony, who was kind enough to do this good work and to allow us to publish it here. Another article on converting color negatives digitally will be published next week. Look forward to that.


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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
12 comments
  • Why not mention the Plustek Opticfilm? Yes it’s more expensive but it can also be found used/refurbished and if you were already paying for lab scans it won’t take long to make up the difference. It’s also super sharp resolution (as sharp as lab scans) and only requires a usb outlet to start. I’ve been doing all my 35mm scans on a plustek with my laptop for the last year. I would estimate that I’ve saved about $400 this year AND the scans are better than the lab scans in terms of color accuracy and midtone levels. You can check my Instagram at @whatitfeltlike to see the results.

  • Right away, I thought the flatbed scan was the best (35mm of the pup). Its facial planes had more variegated shades, whereas the DSLR was all-white, and the lab was also, to my eye, offering less. I must be wrong!

    • Murray I thought the same thing until I looked at the full res photos of the husky, if you zoom into the white areas on his face you can see how soft the flatbed image is compared to the lab image.

  • When I get around to it, I am going to use the film holders from my Beseler enlarger. To digitize slides, I have a slide duplicator bellows system for my camera.

  • If you have camera that has a high-res shooting mode like some of the newer Olympus cameras, you can get ~80MP raw files of your negatives.

  • In the pup photo, to my eyes, the flatbed and DSLR scans are about equal with the lab scans being much softer, at least at web resolution

  • What a useful article — thank you for writing it. I’ve only recently started developing my own b/w which means I scan it myself on my Canon CanoScan 9000F MkII. I’ve wondered if I could get better performance with a DSLR setup and while I see here that the answer is probably yes in terms of initial sharpness, it will not be so much better as to have to lay out all that expense and have to store the copy stand and all.

  • For the DSLR gear, you could’ve used something way more decent, especially the lens. A $50 Vivitar lens?! C’monnn mannnn…

  • Your 6×6 scans from the V550 are terrible – is your scanner faulty? The scanner is capable of much, much better results than those. I would suggest replacing it or having it checked.

    Your post-processing leaves a lot to be desired, too, though strangely only on the V550 scans. The highlights on the french bulldog scans are completely blown out on the V550, but not on the DSLR scan. I can tell you. based on personal experience, that the scanner is able to capture much better highlight details than those shown here.

    If you wanted to be taken seriously, why not put equal effort in all methods? You can easily – and I mean easily- get much better results on 120 material from your V550 – much better than your DSLR scans.

  • Hi Federico,

    Thanks for your reply. Perhaps it’s possible that my V550 is performing suboptimally, but I was unable to verify this as I only have one V550 and no other flatbed scanners to compare to during my testing, thus the results from this scanner that are shown here are consistent with the output of this scanner that I’ve gotten since I’ve owned it. I’ve read mixed responses regarding the quality of V550 scans in particular from other members of the analog community who’ve seen the results of my testing. Some report similar findings of less-than-stellar results, while some report having good quality scans with acceptable sharpness. I took care during this specific test to ensure I was getting the best results possible out of my specific setup through the use of ANR glass to optimize film flatness, as well as fairly substantial testing of scanning both with emulsion facing up and down, as well as adjusting the height of the film plane relative to the scanner platen (as was evidenced in my post under “a note on flatbed sharpness.” Regardless of the changes in the testing of my specific flatbed, the results were clearly significantly worse in terms of sharpness when compared to the other methods upon viewing at full resolution.

    As my DSLR scan of the 6×6 negative was achieved via a 6-image panorama, the resolution I was able to achieve using my DSLR setup far exceeded that which the V550 is able to produce. If I had attempted a single image capture using my 20.2 megapixel crop sensor DSLR, I agree that the flatbed would provide a higher resolution image, which would likely be of benefit when attempting to make large prints.

    As far as the processing of the images after scanning, the methodology I utilized in my testing involved performing all post-processing within Photoshop in an effort to standardize the type and intensity of post-processing steps and separate them from the “scanning” process. Of course, this means I was working with TIFF files for the V550 scans and RAW files for the DSLR scans. The potential limitation here is the flexibility of the files themselves, though I will highlight here that edits were very limited and were made only to attempt to keep all three files (flatbed, DSLR, and lab scan) relatively close in terms of overall contrast. It is probably true that the results from the flatbed could be marginally better in terms of levels and contrast, but I disagree regarding the sharpness/resolution and ability of the V550 itself to produce better results than a lab scan or a DSLR scanning setup similar to the one used for this test.

    The V550 is an entry level film scanner that offers good quality for the price and for casual use (e.g., web viewing/sharing, small prints), but is quite limited in its adjustability when compared to higher-end scanners offered by Epson such as the V700 and V800 series scanners, which have a dual lens system and therefore are able to provide more critical focus and adjustability to optimize sharpness whether scanning film or prints.

    Every test is subject to some degree of limitation, and it is important to take that into consideration when viewing the results and extrapolating the conclusions for your individual use-case.

    • Dear Tony

      Thank you for your reply. Yes I would definitely swap your V550 with another device and take time learning to master, for instance, Vuescan raw files and the fundamentals of Photoshop histograms because your post-processing does not do justice AT ALL to what these flatbed scanners can do.

      No, the V550 is not ‘an entry level’ scanner for ‘casual use’. If used correctly, including ALL steps of the post-processing chain, it is capable of producing scans usable for exhibition-quality prints from medium format negatives. I know 20+ years drum scanner operators who do wonders with Epson flatbeds. You would not be able to distinguish those in a ABX blind test from those of your DSLR scanning setup, and you can achieve these results at a _much_ lower price point than a DSLR setup.

      If you don’t own a DSLR, you don’t *need* a DSLR (and the associated high financial outlet) to do great 120 film photography scans.

      Unless what you’re really looking for is another hobby after all 🙂

  • Hi Joe,

    Thanks for your reply. I would love to hear your thoughts and experience with DSLR scanning and if you have suggestions for a better lens for the purpose and/or results to share. I’ve no doubts there is room for improvement in my setup, but would argue that there are significant diminishing returns when it comes to investing in lenses for the sole purpose of digitizing film. Generally speaking, just about any dedicated macro lens (aka not a zoom lens with “macro” capability) is plenty suitable for the purpose, but incremental improvements can certainly be had when spending more. That said, one does not need all the amenities offered by modern day macro lenses such as image stabilization or auto-focus, as film negatives are not moving subjects and thus critical focus can be achieved simply by taking advantage of magnification through Live View or focus peaking and magnification with an EVF. In fact, the Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 is an exceptionally popular lens within the digitizing community and is virtually indistinguishable from the lens I used when stopped down to ~f/5.6 to f/11 (ideal apertures on full frame for digitizing film). I would argue the greater bottleneck in my particular setup would be my camera body, as it does not offer as much resolution as may be ideal for getting the most detail out of the negative (especially medium format when not stitching images). Anywhere between 24-45 megapixels tends to be the “sweet spot” for maximizing the resolution obtainable from a 35mm negative without running into the limits of diffraction that can be seen with ultra-high resolution sensors that are capable of capturing more detail than is contained within a single 35mm negative.

    There are those who will use enlarging lenses and specialized reproduction lenses that are designed to provide flat field images, and this would certainly be a step up from using even a dedicated macro lens which, while flat-field corrected to some degree, is still designed for capturing 3D objects in a spherical environment. But I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from feeling like it’s impossible to produce excellent results digitizing without spending a fortune on the latest and greatest macro lens, as that is far from reality.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio