Digital Images From Film

Analog Film In A Digital World">Back in the dark ages before digital cameras, film was king. In the more than 100 years since the invention of roll film, an enormous, multi-billion dollar industry has evolved to cater to the needs of photographers. There is a staggering number of 35mm and Advanced Photo System (APS) film cameras in the world, and the odds are good that you own one or two of them yourself.

Many people are surprised to learn that it's possible to get very high-quality digital images from 35mm and APS film. In fact, a good quality digitized 35mm film image is often superior to the image from even the highest-quality consumer digital cameras.

Film images can be digitized using a device called a film scanner. Unlike the more common (and less expensive) flatbed scanners, film scanners are designed specifically to scan color negative and slide films. Most scanners feature an automatic film handling mechanism that enables you to scan several slides or negatives at once.

There are two ways to have your film images scanned: You can purchase a scanner and do it yourself, or you can take your film to a photo lab or camera store that offers a scanning service.

Why Film?

If the world is going digital, why would you want to work with film? Conventional cameras store images on film, which costs money to buy and process; most digital cameras store their images on reusable flash memory cards. Digital cameras are immediate; film has to be processed and printed (or processed and scanned) before you can see the images. Despite the drawbacks, many serious amateur and professional photographers prefer to work with scanned film images when there's no need for immediacy. Here are some of the reasons:

  • High-quality scanned film images have a higher resolution and better dynamic range than even the most expensive digital cameras. A typical $1,000, 4000 DPI film scanner can produce a 20-million (yes, that's twenty!) pixel image with 12 bits per pixel.
  • Shooting film enables photographers to work with their existing, familiar equipment. Shooting film gives photographers the option to work in both the digital and film worlds.
  • Equipment costs are much lower than comparable digital equipment, especially when you compare 35mm SLR cameras to their digital counterparts. For the price of a typical digital SLR camera, you can buy a high-end film SLR body and a high-quality film scanner and still have money left over. There's also a wider variety of cameras and lenses to choose from in the film world.
  • Digital cameras have a very short product life; film cameras have a 5-7 year product life. This means that film equipment holds its resale value, but digital gear depreciates very quickly.
  • Film is a better choice if you need to make large numbers of prints, because the film printing process is much faster and cheaper than the digital process. This will change as the price of digital printing services drops.

Digital Darkroom

Scanned film images are stored in the same JPEG and TIFF file formats as digital camera images, so photographers can use the same software tools to work with digital and scanned film images. For many photographers (myself included), the arrival of relatively inexpensive film scanners and high-quality ink jet and dye-sublimation printers has eliminated the need for a chemical darkroom with its hazardous and expensive chemicals and time-consuming printing process.

Instead of a chemical darkroom, photographers now work in a digital darkroom, where they can sit in a comfortable chair in a well-lit room instead of hunching over enlarging equipment in total darkness. The comfort and convenience are big improvements, but they're not the main attraction.

The digital darkroom gives photographers an enormous array of tools to manipulate images in ways that were time-consuming or downright impossible to do in a chemical darkroom. Photographers now have complete and consistent control over cropping, color balance, and tonal range. They also have a vast range of special effects at our fingertips, and can try those special effects on the screen before they commit them to paper. For the professional photographer, the move to the digital darkroom puts the photographer back in control of his or her own work. Because of the time and expense involved in the chemical printing process, most pros leave their film processing and printing to an outside lab.

The digital darkroom gives photographers the option to do some jobs in-house, which can be a lifesaver for jobs requiring fast turnaround, elaborate special effects, or both. For most amateur photographers, the digital darkroom is the only option. Chemical darkrooms require a large commitment in terms of space and expense. Color processing chemicals have a very short shelf life, and many people don't want hazardous chemicals in their houses. The digital darkroom is clean, quiet, and relatively inexpensive. Many photographers keep an archive of images stored on negatives or slide film. A film scanner gives new life to those old images. Many scanners include features to help restore images from dirty, scratched, or faded film.

Choosing A Film Scanner

Shopping for a film scanner can be very confusing. Although there are relatively few film scanners on the market, there are large price differences between them. There are two basic classes of scanners: desktop and drum.

Unless you have lots of money to spend ($4,000 and up), you can rule out high-end drum scanners. These very expensive scanners are designed primarily for graphic arts professionals who need the highest possible image quality for production-quality prepress and printing work.

Desktop scanners are more appropriate for use by amateur and professional photographers. These scanners typically use a CCD imaging chip to scan images from film. Prices range from about $100 to $1,500 for 35mm scanners and up to $2,800 for scanners that can handle 6-cm (2 1/4'') film. Unless you shoot 6-cm film or have a large archive of 6-cm negatives to scan, choose one of the 35mm models. Many first-time film scanner users are dismayed at the amount of time it takes to scan a frame of film. The time varies among different brands and models of scanners, and high-DPI scans take considerably longer than lower resolution scans. Plan to spend at least 2-3 minutes to select, scan, and save each image. Add another minute or so if you use the scanner's dust and scratch removal feature.

You encounter two key numbers when shopping for a scanner. The scanner's dots per inch (DPI) rating describes the scanner's maximum resolution. Typically, higher is better. The latest models on the market scan at 4000 DPI, which produces a 20-million pixel image from a 35mm film frame. 4000 DPI is overkill for most applications, so all scanners can also operate at a lower DPI rating.

The second number you're likely to see is the Dynamic Range rating, usually expressed as a number like 3.5. This number describes how many distinct levels of gray the scanner can detect. A higher number is better. There's no industry standard for rating dynamic range, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. The maximum dynamic range is of most concern to photographers who shoot slide film; the lower contrast levels recorded by color negative film don't push the envelope of dynamic range, anyway.

But there's also a third number you should know about. Some scanners create images with 8 bits per pixel. Because there are three color values (red, green, and blue) for each pixel, these scanners produce 24-bit images. A few scanners create 12 or 14 bits per pixel; the resulting images have 36 and 42 bits of information per pixel. Some photo editing programs can't handle images with more than 8 bits per pixel, but most newer programs can. The additional color information isn't strictly necessary. In fact, the human eye can't distinguish the difference between a 24- and 42-bit image, but the additional color information produces prints with more accurate colors.

Most scanners include film holders for both slides and film strips. Virtually all 35mm scanners can also accept 24mm APS film with an adapter. Some manufacturers include an APS adapter with the scanner, and others offer it as an extra-cost option.

Scanning on the Cheap: Flatbed Scanners

If you need to scan photographs but don't want to spend the money for a film scanner, you might want to consider a flatbed scanner. Prices of flatbed scanners have fallen through the floor in the past couple of years. Despite the bargain prices, most flatbed scanners can produce very good quality scans from color prints-as long as the print is clean and sharp.

A flatbed scanner can't produce the same high-quality images as a film scanner, but the quality is more than good enough for many uses. Flatbeds are very popular in families with kids, where they can be an invaluable tool for creating school projects.

Unlike film scanners, flatbed scanners are designed to scan images from printed objects like photographs and magazine pages. The scanner contains a light source underneath the document glass, very much like a photocopier. When you press the scan button, the scanner shines a light on the page to be scanned.

Unfortunately, you can't use a flatbed to scan negatives or slides because the light source is on the wrong side of the film. A few scanner manufacturers offer a special lid called a transparency adapter that replaces the scanner's top cover. The transparency adapter has a light source in it, enabling you to use the flatbed scanner to scan transparent media like slides and negatives.

Flatbed scanners are much less expensive than film scanners because they are simpler to build and because they sell in much larger quantities than film scanners. Expect to pay about $250 for a top-notch flatbed scanner with film scanning capabilities, and add about $100 for the transparency adapter.

So what do you get for 1/3 the price of a film scanner? You get an excellent flatbed scanner that does an okay but not great job on film. The image sensors in flatbed scanners can't provide the very high resolution needed to extract the finest detail out of film.

Typical flatbed scanner sensors operate at 1200 DPI, about a third the resolution of a 4000 DPI scanner. That doesn't sound like a lot of difference, so let's look at it another way. A 24×36mm film frame scanned at 4000 DPI produces a 21-megapixel image, and the same frame scanned at 1200 DPI produces a 1.9-megapixel image.

The film holders provided with most flatbed scanners are often difficult to use, and there's no way to scan more than one frame of film at a time. This isn't a big deal if you're only scanning a few negatives or slides at once, but you wouldn't want to use a flatbed to archive that shoebox full of slides you've been keeping all these years.

Images scanned on a flatbed with a transparency adapter can be very good, as long as you don't need a lot of resolution.

One very big plus for flatbed scanners is that they can typically handle very large film. For example, the Epson Perfection scanners can accept film up to 4"×5". High-resolution scanners for 4"×5" film cost $4,000 and up, so a flatbed is the only choice for many large format photographers. Fortunately, the large film size produces very large and detailed image files, even with a moderate 1200 DPI resolution.

Shooting Film for Scanning

You can use a film scanner to scan virtually any well-exposed negative or slide. But if you're shooting film specifically for scanning, there are a few things you can do to get better results:

  • As a rule, color negative film is easier to scan and produces scans with a smoother tonal range than slide films.
  • Negative film is cheaper to buy and process (if you don't have prints made) and is usually easier to find than slide film.
  • Some film manufacturers make color negative films (like Kodak's SUPRA 100 and 400 films) designed specifically for scanning.
  • Color slide films produce images with more contrast than negative films, and are a good choice when shooting subjects with relatively flat lighting.
  • Some color slide films (like Fuji Velvia and Kodak E100SW) have very saturated colors that are exaggerated even more when you scan them. These films are great for scenery and product photography, but be careful using these films to take pictures of people.