Scanning film f**cking sucks. There’s really no other way to say it. It’s not “mildly uncomfortable,” or just “an annoying step of the process,” or even a “necessary evil.” It straight up f**king sucks, and we all know it. I’ve got five talking points to prove it, too.
It’s Not Fun or Interesting or Cool
Scanning film is the least interesting step in the film photography flow. Think about it; every other step of the photographic process is pretty cool, or at least interesting. When you take a picture, you’re freezing time with a camera, a device that is at once a feat of engineering and a symbol of history. When you develop film, you’re mixing up chemicals like a mad scientist and using all manner of beakers and tanks to make an image magically appear. And when you print, you’re playing God and throwing light through a cool looking enlarger to recreate a moment of time on paper. That’s pretty damn cool.
Scanning, on the other hand, is not cool. Scanners simply convert a photographic negative (or positive) into a digital file. It’s about as interesting as filing taxes or accounting, which is probably why most of us prefer to pay somebody else do it. Scanners themselves are hardly attractive devices. They’re boxy, monochrome, and just plain boring. Even the cream-of-the-crop Noritsu LS-600 is about as visually interesting as a late ’90s Toyota Camry, an equally effective but bland machine.
It’s an admittedly surface-level argument, but I think it’s a good place to start my complaining. It’s easy to find something enjoyable at every single stage of making an image on film, but conspicuously difficult to find pleasure in scanning. And at the end of the day, I’d much rather be out shooting a classic film camera than watching an Epson V550 gurgle its way through half a roll of film.
It’s Unnecessarily Confusing (and the Software is Terrible)
In an ideal world, scanning should be easy. It should be handled automatically by both the scanner and the scanning software, with room for minimal adjustment by the scanner. If changes need to be made, the software should be flexible enough for users to make adjustments and simple enough for the average photographer to understand. And just for comfort’s sake, these programs and scanners should be straightforward to use and designed with clarity in mind. And yet it’s rare to find a scanner or a scanning software that does any of those things today.
What we have instead is a field that is mired in strange unofficial rules that are developed in response to the failings of scanners, rules that nobody can seem to agree upon. To start, the raw capability of scanners are often wildly overstated by the manufacturers. Certain popular flatbed scanners which boast a max 12800 dpi only really get to that number through interpolation, which artificially creates extra pixels to increase the perceived resolution of an image, kind of like cutting a hard drug with a cheaper, even deadlier drug to lower prices. Perhaps this is an attempt to make up for the fact that flatbed scanners generally can’t resolve film grain (an essential quality to any film scanner), but it’s a terrible solution.
Because those companies can’t be trusted to report their product’s actual capabilities, forum warriors on the internet often recommend scanning negatives at the scanner’s “true” dpi, which is some depressing number like 6400 or 3200, a full half or three-quarters less the original reported dpi. What’s worse is that nobody can seem to agree on what resolution you should scan at because everybody has different scanners and is scanning different types of film and some scanners scan really slowly at 6400 and some people need to drop their kids off at soccer practice so they’re going to scan at 3200 because it’s faster and… Christ what a mess. This could all be avoided if manufacturers cut the crap and actually reported the true maximum dpi of their scanners and officially agreed upon best practices for scanning for different films and film formats.
Another confusing thing about scanners is that the programs used to scan are often poorly designed. Scanners come with a variety of different programs; Epson flatbeds come with Epson Scan, Plustek scanners come with Silverfast, and whoever objects to either of these programs inevitably ends up buying VueScan.
All three of these programs have their own weaknesses, but the main thing is that these programs don’t usually offer a simple, streamlined way to provide a pure scan of a negative. There’s usually some automatically programmed thing you have to turn off, some slider you have to push back every time to get to the one setting that really should have been there from the start. These programs also come bloated with image editing features that most people won’t use anyway, are slow to operate, don’t come with color profiles tailored for major color negative film stocks, and generally look and act like they belong to the Geocities and Angelfire era of the internet. Using scanning programs is easily the most infuriating part of scanning film, and the part that needs the most immediate improvement, if not a complete overhaul.
The Tech Is Outdated or Expensive, or Outdated AND Expensive
Most of my complaints up until now apply mostly to flatbed scanners and consumer-level 35mm scanners. Many might point to the professional-level lab scanners such as the Noritsu LS-600 and Pakon F135+ which can zip through a roll of film and spit out perfect scans in under five minutes. But these very machines illustrate two damning things about scanning; scanning tech is incredibly outdated and incredibly expensive.
Scanners like the Noritsu LS-600 and Pakon F135+ hail from the early 2000s, the last few years of film photography’s widespread popularity. They were used in film processing labs around the world for a number of years and then abandoned once those labs went out of business. Abandoned Noritsus, Pakons, Nikon Coolscans, and Fuji Frontiers found their way into the homes of enterprising film photographers who got the jump on today’s film photography revival and these photographers have since used these machines to good effect.
The issue is that it’s 2020, not 2001. Almost two full decades have passed and we’ve seen basically nothing better come from any of these companies, nor have we seen these old scanners bested by companies like Epson, Plustek, or Pacific Image, who still make scanners, I guess. None of them feature an efficient auto-feed mechanism that works as well, none of them reproduce colors as well, and very few can match the resolution those older lab scanners can provide. I was talking to James the other day about this, and while he said his consumer-level Plustek 8200 makes nice scans, he also has to sit there and waste an hour to scan a single roll of film. And that doesn’t include the fifteen minutes he spends working the images over in Lightroom afterward! This is nuts.
One could argue that consumer scanners shouldn’t be able to do the things that professional scanners can, but come on – these are professional machines from the early 2000s. This was an era when 256 megabytes were huge, the PDA was still a thing, and the Dave Matthews Band was still relevant. We’ve witnessed huge strides in consumer technology since then, but scanners have been left in the lurch. There’s simply no reason why these technologies can’t be streamlined and be made available to consumers today.
And those of us who want to hunt down an old pro lab scanner face a different obstacle – price. Due to scarcity, these machines carry astronomical price tags. Noritsu LS-600? $2000. Pakon F-135+? $1500, easy. Fujifilm Frontier SP-2000? $4000 and your firstborn child. These are machines that make Leica prices seem reasonable, and for incredibly outdated, used technology that’s super expensive to maintain (just ask my local lab on a night when he’s up to his shoulders in a machine replacing fifteen-hundred tiny springs). Calling this a bum deal would be an understatement – this is straight up highway robbery.
Scanners Suck So Bad People Would Rather Scan With A Digital Camera
The situation has gotten so bad that some photographers would rather MacGyver a DSLR or a mirrorless digital camera rig to scan their negatives. The DSLR method of scanning has become increasingly popular as the sensors can reliably resolve film grain and can go through a roll faster than most dedicated film scanners. All manner of different DIY solutions have popped up, from using an Amazon-sourced light table as a light source to repurposing old slide copy stands and macro lens attachments for accurate, flat focus. Nikon even came out with the ES-2 accessory, a purpose built slide copy attachment for the Nikon D850, in response to the widespread usage of digital cameras for scanning.
This is all well and good until we take a step back and look at the absurdity of the situation. Scanners and scanning software have fallen so far behind that we’ve resorted to jerry-rigging DSLRs, making our own Photoshop negative inversion scripts, and resorting to independently developed color profiles to make it all easier. We shouldn’t have to do this, especially considering that what is fueling the film renaissance is the sharing of film images by digital means, which keeps film scanner manufacturers in business.
Another issue with this method is that it assumes photographers have a DSLR or mirrorless camera to scan with. This might not be a problem for professionals and enthusiasts, but for beginners looking to try out film photography for themselves, this is almost as cost-prohibitive as buying one of those ancient scanners from the early 2000s. Imagine being a youngster who’s just learning how to take photographs using a film camera, falling in love with the medium, buying wholly into the “buy film not megapixels” mantra, and then being told to spend even more money on a digital camera anyway just to get acceptable scans. It’s a sham, plain and simple, and we shouldn’t have dug ourselves into this hole in the first place.
It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
I’ve been hinting at this in the last few points, but the most infuriating thing about scanning is that it really doesn’t have to be this difficult, confusing, and cost-prohibitive. To start, scanning programs can absolutely be developed to be better. If they can reliably find the minimum and maximum values on the histogram, offer plug-in style standardized color profiles for specific color negative films, and get an interface makeover that makes the program not look like it’s supposed to be run on Windows 98, scanning software might actually be worth buying. If scanners actually had a serviceable, quick auto-feed system a la the ancient Pakon F135+ and Noritsu LS-600, jerry-rigging a DSLR rig to scan suddenly looks less attractive. And if consumer scanners can do the bare minimum of resolving the grain of 35mm film reliably and quickly without fuss, we’d see a huge jump in the quality of film images across the board.
If all of these problems were fixed, it would also be easier to find some common ground on how to scan, and scan well. There still doesn’t exist a reliable, standardized resource on the web on how to scan properly and parse its strange jargon, but if the field wasn’t so plagued by inconsistency and hearsay then perhaps one of those resources could emerge. If scanning were made easier and more straightforward overall we’d be able to save a lot of shooters a lot of headaches.
Fortunately, there are some out there who have taken it upon themselves to try to improve the situation. Abe Fettig, the sole person behind the FilmLab app, has taken up the task of developing an app that allows regular phone cameras to scan film. The results aren’t as good as using a dedicated film scanner but the prospect of everybody owning a cheap, serviceable film scanner is an encouraging one. The folks at Negative Lab Pro have developed a more accurate way to invert color negative films in Lightroom, which is a huge step towards getting better color accuracy on C-41 while scanning at home.
Startups like Negative Supply have created premium solutions for digitizing film, albeit at prices which are pretty high. Cheaper products like Pixl-latr offer similar utility for an every-person price. But these products again require a digital camera…
Innovation in this space is encouraging, but it really shouldn’t be on just a couple of people to improve scanning. It needs to be on the companies who produce scanners, who actually have funds for R&D and manufacturing, to improve scanning wholesale. Until they decide to do that, scanning will continue to be the lamest, most annoying thing about film photography.
Do you hate scanning film? Let Josh know he’s not alone in the comments below.
Or have you discovered a fast, easy, and fun way to digitize your negatives? Share it with him, before he has a nervous breakdown. Help the guy out!
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Fascinating article Josh.
As a techie, I enjoy a challenge and this subject is the gift that keeps on giving. I have (started with) a Plustek 8100 and that seems to be the zenith of resolution overstatement. It’s also wholly manual, so 35mm requires constant attendance.
So I bought an Epson V850. The Epson and its Epson scan software is, at least, automatic. But the film holders are horrific and as you say, the list of colour profiles seems to be set for films no-one has seen.
So then I bought two (I bought a spare for parts) Nikon Coolscan 8000s.
Connecting them to my MacBook requires a usb-c to lightning adapter, a lightning to FireWire adapter and a FireWire cable. And then, because NikonScan only works on Windows XP I’m hosed. I can run XP on the Mac in a virtual machine, but it can’t see FireWire ports so I’m now onto VueScan.
Whilst it works, this is a horrific piece of software. The results are now simply great but only after I sent the main board from the Nikon away to have its FireWire interface chip replaced by a guy in a lock-up somewhere who does this using what remains of the world’s stock of the required silicon.
Don’t even get me started on the art of scanning 120 film using VueScan and the coolscan. You have to calculate the offset and measure the inter-image gap, so it can move from one negative to the next reasonably accurately. Why it can’t scan the strip and locate the images is beyond me.
Excuse the formatting here, I’m writing on my phone.