Negative Scanning Hardware
Entering the digital world

The negative storage

You need something better than an old shoebox to put your negatives. There are various options. At the time of writing one can purchase for less than £20, 100 sheets of Hama branded ring-bind-able storage paper that holds 7 rows of 6 frame wide cut 35mm negatives. Each sheet is enough for one roll. Unfortunately, the sheets are wider than an A4 binder and will not fit in a box file. Where, then to put the sheets? I was able to find a 4 D-ring A3 landscape binder that I cut down to the correct size. This is one of the many areas of film photography where improvisation is necessary and better than the alternatives.

Scanning Hardware Choices

Digitising your negatives presents perhaps the hardest challenge in this entire process. It is surprisingly difficult to get the best quality scans and there are trade offs you may not be aware of. Remember that this is an analog process and imperfections are inevitable. Strive to do the best you can with the time and equipment you have. You can always come back and re-digitise your best photos in the future.

Method Pros Cons
Flatbed scanner (e.g. Epson V700) 1. These seem to be popular with people
2. You can use this for other things too
1. Large and will require a desk
2. Requires a computer and special software
3. Slow scanning speed
Dedicated negative scanner (e.g. Pluestek 8200i) 1. Significantly smaller than a flatbed
2. Good quality
3. Can do things like dust and scratch correction
1. Can only scan 35mm negatives
2. Requires a computer and special software
3. Slow scanning speed
4. Not compatible with linux
Dedicated camera scanner (e.g. QPIX 14Mp) 1. Cheap although getting more expensive for some reason
2. Very quick to use
3. Does not require a computer
4. Some can run on batteries
1. Will not give you RAW output
2. Hard to keep the lens and plate clean
3. Lowest quality option
Digital camera with macro lens (e.g. Olympus XZ-1) 1. Very quick to use
2. Great quality output
3. Can give you RAW
4. Does not require a computer
1. Requires extensive research to find something suitable
2. Can be challenging to use consistently
3. Expensive unless you buy second hand
4. Can lead to image artifacts due to lens reflections
4. Requires a glass LED light box or tube negative holder

In my opinion, the flatbed scanner is a poor choice. Unless you happen to already have one, I wouldn’t consider purchasing a new one for the primary purpose of scanning your negatives. Reading the reviews, the image quality isn’t really that good.

A dedicated negative scanner is better, but is very slow and still requires a computer. I believe that these will the best quality. From what I have read, scanning a single frame at high quality can take three minutes. Unfortunately, as a linux user, these are not an option for me. I have not found one that will work with linux. I would be interested in these if they simply had an SD card slot and saved a generic RAW format, such as DNG and operated without a computer. Sadly for me, they do not appear to be evolving in that direction.

The dedicated camera-based scanners look like a block or mini tower. They have a small digital camera at one end and a backlit area at the other. You load up the negatives into a plastic tray and pass them through a slot. They simply take a photo of your negative. They tend to be of low quality but, surprisingly can produce good results quickly and easily. Unfortunately, these all appear to be ‘consumer grade’ and not aimed at the enthusiast. Were they to also support a generic RAW format such as DNG and offered better optics then I might be able to recommend them.

For some reason they are getting more expensive. One would have thought that there would be a healthy supply on the second hand market as people scan in historic negatives and then sell the unwanted scanner. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case and their price appears to now rival second hand digital cameras. Unless you can get a very good deal or are attracted by the convenience, then they too are a poor choice.

There does seem to be a good supply of very old negative scanning equipment. From what I have read, I would suggest avoiding these. You are very unlikely to be able to get it working firstly because of a lack of software, and secondly because of a lack of hardware (SCSI, anyone?).

In my opinion the best choice is undoubtedly a ‘proper’ digital camera with macro lens. Once found and adapted appropriately, these can produce outstanding results. Personally, I use an Olympus XZ-1 with a filter tube attached. A cokin filter ring with watercolour paper on the front makes a perfect adaptation for 35mm film scanning. When rested upon the negative placed on an A4 size glass LED lightbox, the negative exactly fills the frame. This is fortuitous. I did not plan this. I happened to have an XZ-1 from my digital photography days and after much research, I discovered it fit the bill perfectly. It offers RAW format and scans a negative in an instant, and does this without requiring a computer. This is perfect for me.

The internet offers various examples of how to adapt a digital camera to scan your negatives. They vary from lab-grade scientific rigs with DSLRs to cardboard tubes stuck on the end of a cheap camera with slots cut for your negatives. There is no one right way to do this and if you want to go with this idea, you are going to have to design something that works for you.

Lomography offer a little lightbox that helps you scan your negatives with your phone. This would be an excellent choice for someone who wants quick results online or maybe doesn’t even have a computer.

In my opinion, which is based on nothing but study, a secondhand Sony NEX 3 with a SEL30M35 macro lens represents the best price/performance ratio available today, assuming it can be adapted appropriately to take photos of negatives from a light source. Your scanning camera should support RAW format to allow the most control in your darkroom software. The advice I offer later about digital processing assumes that you have RAW files.

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James Burton on 04 August 2017