The aim of this article is to assist people with a large collection of negatives and slides to convert that to digital images. The process of scanning analog (film) images to digital (computer) images can be complex and daunting, and the technical details involved can also be challenging and off-putting. This two-part article will put the average film photographer in a position to scan their film based collection of images to computer.
I have been photographing various things and events for around 40 years. I would describe myself as a knowledgeable amateur photographer but by no means a semi-professional or a highly prolific photographer. Before switching completely to digital cameras around 10 years ago, I had accumulated a slide collection of some 10-15000 slides, about 10000 photographs taken on color negative film, and a much smaller collection on different types of black and white films.
The bulk of my “serious” photographs are in slide format, but a disproportionate number of the color negative photographs are of high emotional value. At some stage, I switched to color negative for family related pictures. My long ago objective was to retain the slide medium for my “important” pictures, but the shift to color negative made most of the negative color pictures important beyond the original intention. Simply put, with age I value the family color negative photographs more than the artistic slides.
For about 20 years I had the intention to digitize some, but preferably all, of my stored photographs. Initially, scanners that were available had limited capability. In an old article in Modern Photography, I came across a comparison of the analog film to digital images, where the key point for me was that a Kodachrome slide equated to a digital image of around 18 megapixels. Whether true or not, it set my expectation that a scanner needed to be able to extract about that level or detail to “justify” the switching of my “important” images from analog to digital format.
While I have used commercial scanning of slides to digital images, the current price of that for me locally is around US$2 per slide, for medium resolution TIF files, not what I wanted for archival storage, and given the number of analog images, a very costly solution.
My objective was and remains to digitize my collection of analog photographs of some 20 to 25 odd thousand individual frames, on both color negatives and color slides. Both the color negatives and slides are on a wide variety of brands of films and different types of films even of the same brand. I also have a smaller archive of black and white negatives, again on different types of film.
My research time and again came across the guideline to select one’s important or best photographs and only digitize that. This was not what I wanted to do; I wanted to scan all. My reason for this is that I found over time that sometimes an image that was not “the best” turns out to be important, for reasons that are difficult to anticipate. An additional complication is that color negative film cut into strips is virtually impossible to view and select unless one goes through a preview process in the scanning itself. By that stage, most of the work has been done, and you might as well scan every frame anyway as it would be faster than preview-judge-scan.
When I took “important” photographs long ago, I was very conscious of “archival” storage and retention of color. I will come back to how well I succeeded in this later but as part of my scanning I wanted to retain the “archival” nature of my images. This meant for me to scan color as accurate as possible, and to retain as fine (maximum) resolution as possible. Importantly, I did not want to commit to processing or storage formats that cannot be improved on later. In particular, my objective was to try and convert my pictures into a format that would be accessible for 30-50 years: In the back of my mind was that my Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides were expected to survive essentially unscathed for 30-50 years and I wanted to get the digital versions to survive that period as well.
On researching what options there were for achieving this objective, I came to the conclusion that the factors highlighted in Figure 1 interact and determine choices in each other. Options and choices one make in setting the objective regarding what should be digitized determines what hardware options for scanning one can consider. In turn hardware options, i.e. options in terms of scanners, determine software choices for the scanning itself. In turn, this implies choices of workflow, which in turns impact on what and how one scans. I will step through these factors, starting with the choices around the material to be scanned.
Material To Be Scanned
As discussed above, the task was scanning thousands of frames of color negative, B&W, as well as color slides, of a variety of film types. The color negative film was cut into four frame strips, with some into six-frame strips, filed in sleeves, and stored flat. The slides were 99% cut and mounted, in a wide variety of slide mounts, and filed in sleeves. A small minority were stored in display carousels or were cut into eight frame strips in filing sleeves. Slides were numbered individually with a code ending in a sequence number for the slide. I wanted to use this number as the file name for the scans in order to have the digital images directly corresponding to the analog images.
The volume of material to be scanned, the different formats (mounted slides, cut film strips) made me look for scanning hardware that was flexible and could do different forms of a batch scan, both slides and color negatives. Experience with a flatbed scanner capable of film scanning (a Canon F8400), made me realize that the volume of material to be scanned, required that some form of bulk scanning of both film strips and slides, was critical. The basic reason is time, with the scanning of a single frame coming down to at a minimum 1 minute of work, and more likely 2 minutes. The time implications of scanning my whole archive was a big concern, and a scanning solution not capable of some form of automated, bulk scanning was not going to work.
Hardware Enabling Scanning
I had been monitoring developments around scanners for a long time, and when Nikon released their scanners capable of scanning at 4000 dpi I calculated that my 18-megapixel target had become possible. There were only two problems, namely the cost of these scanners, and storage for the massive files.
In the last five years or so, computer disk storage has become truly massive and dropped in prices for individual users. While a lot of what I read on scanning in the past warned against the problem of storing a large number of massive files, computer disk storage have been cheap enough for storing tens of thousands of files large enough to capture essentially maximum detail from 35mm slides and negatives. This was a critical break through that enabled me to look again into scanning my analog photograph archive. As an aside, currently, being about half way through my scanning task, I estimate that I will use 2-3 2TB disks for the scanned files, plus a similar number of disks for back-up. There files are three files per scanned frame, a 160-180 MB RAW (RGBI) file, a 120-140 MB RGB TIF file, and a 15-17MB JPG file. More detail on this later.
Most recently, the availability of large amounts of online (cloud) storage for reasonable prices added an additional incentive. In particular, the unlimited option of Google Photos storage, and the 1TB free storage in Flickr are attractive options for storing lower resolution versions of scanned photographs (JPG format), while making them available to globe-spanning family members.
Just when storage was a “go” some years ago, I turned up at my favorite photographic supplier to buy my desired Nikon scanner. I was told that these had been off the market for more than ten years; clearly, I was behind the digitalization curve. Back to researching options. From endless online reading, it appeared that only some Minolta and the discontinued Nikon scanners would do what I wanted: A scanner capable of at least 4000 dpi optical resolution, with a bulk loader for batch scanning. This last requirement was critical for me given the volumes of scanning I intended doing. I ended up buying a Nikon Super Coolscan LS-5000 ED on eBay, as well as an SF-210 bulk slide scan loader, SA21 and MA21 film strip and slide adapters. I have also used the FH-3 film strip holder, which works in conjunction with the MA21 slide adapter to scan non-flat or damaged film strips. The cost of all this, including import duties and courier fees, was some $3700, with the scanner itself available for between $1800 and $2300 on eBay. I bought one that had just been serviced by Nikon, and it has worked without a hitch. New ones are available still from Scandig for around US$7000 (including Silverfast and SF210).
The cost of the scanning equipment (and software), though high, is still much lower (less than 20%) of the cost of having my slides scanned commercially. Additionally, I do not have a local option to scan color negatives in bulk. Hence this purchase was cost effective if I exclude the cost of my time for doing this.
The availability of the bulk slide loader SF-210 was a critical factor in my decision making to buy the Nikon Coolscan. Some Minolta scanners can scan from slide trays, but loading slide trays would have been slower for me than loading the SF-210 from my filed slides. The Nikon film strip adapter SA21 was the closest I could get to a “bulk” film scanner capable of dealing with cut negative film. Short of procuring a robot to take out and load individual film strips this appeared to be the best solution available or batch scanning negatives, but it is a compromise compared to batch scanning slides.
My need was for 35mm film scanning only, and hence I had not looked for at Nikon 9000, capable of large format film scanning as well. While there are a variety of Nikon scanners I researched, I had not researched the Minolta scanners in the same detail. My impression is that the Nikon scanners provide the best flexibility regarding the task I needed to do, given the volume and a variety of types and formats of film. The only thing is that they are now more expensive than when available new.
You may come to a different conclusion, but I would recommend getting a Nikon Coolscan LS 5000ED, plus SA21, MA21 and SF210 bulk slide loader, should you have a mix of mounted slides or cut film strips. The era in which there was a variety of scanners on offer for essential personal use is over and choices have become limited. This is one of the reasons you should seriously think about getting your analog images scanned now. In five or ten years from now, you will have fewer options for doing this than there are now: The world has moved on from analog film and scanning.
In the rest of this article, I will be referencing this Nikon Coolscan LS 5000ED scanner exclusively.
The Nikon scanner came with its own scanning software, Nikon Scan (version 4). By all accounts, this is competent software but only runs under Windows XP (and Mac). My computers are running Windows 7. One option was to run Nikon Scan in Windows XP, with XP run as a virtual machine under VMWare, something I have done for other software. This remains an option should one want to use Nikon Scan. I preferred to run under Windows 7, and from the reading I had done, SilverFast appeared to be the solution of choice. I did a lot of reading up on SilverFast and had more or less decided that that was the software that I was going to use when I registered that VueScan might be a better an option. I had been using VueScan for some years already, in order to run an older flatbed scanner under Windows 7. I had in fact purchased the Professional VueScan option for VueScan in order to do the slide and negative scanning with the flatbed scanner. I decided to try it to test the newly acquired Nikon Coolscan LS 5000, fully expecting the software to be inadequate and not up to the task, being several years old and costing a fraction of the “Professional” SilverFast scanning software.
I was seriously wrong in my biased views of VueScan. Within minutes of plugging in my Nikon LS-5000 scanner, I was scanning slides with moderate to excellent success regarding the results. “Moderate” as I had not adjusted or set any color or filter options, but excellent in terms of cleaning and repairing the damaged slides I was using for the tests. But the fact was it worked – I could scan, for a cost of $49 (the price for VueScan Professional at that time I bought it), spent several years ago.
The alternatives, SilverFast Archive Suite 8.8 and Ai Studio 8.8 are very expensive, at over US$450 and over $500 respectively, and is paid for and registered for every single scanner one wants to use. VueScan costs US$89.95 currently for a professional license, which can be run on up to 4 different computers per license, and is enabled for a very large number of scanners out of the box. While my original interest in VueScan was triggered because I already had it, i.e. price, I would now, having scanned thousands of images, choose it for its features, even if I had to pay substantially more. I will explain why I say this when I deal with the technical details of the scanning work flow below, but essentially the reasons relate to speed of scanning, where automated settings, combined with proper calibration, produce superb quality scanned images.
Features I had been looking for in a scanner included the ability to scan in infrared from scratches and dust correction on the film, and once I had such a scanner the scanning software needed to be able to use this effectively. All of SilverFast, Nikon Scan, and VueScan can do this. However, my experience of using the infrared clean feature of VueScan has been superb, including dust removal from Kodachrome slides. Nikon Scan cannot remove dust and scratches from Kodachrome slides, while VueScan does very well with Kodachrome, using the same Nikon scanner. Since I had lots of Kodachrome slides, this was an important feature for me. VueScan also does well with a silver halide based black and white films, something that is supposed to make the infrared based repair of damaged film useless. This dust removal feature of VueScan is a significant time saver, as I simply did not have to clean slides or negatives before scanning: Because of the manner in which they were stored (filed in sleeves), they accumulated very little dust, and what dust there was VueScan removed with a cleaning setting of “light”, leaving no discernible trace of the cleaning. This speeded up the ability to bulk load a batch of 40-50 slides without checking or cleaning individual slides of dust. Again, I had not expected VueScan to be so effective in this regard, and this ends up significantly aiding bulk scanning.
Another important software feature was the recovery of faded film colors. From research the advice was consistent: Do this in post scanning, using something like Photoshop. I noted that VueScan has such a feature, but did not expect much from it. I also did not know how faded my films and slides were, so did not attach a high value to this VueScan feature. Again I was significantly wrong. Just about every image (slide, color negative) had some to severe fading of colors. I had not realized how much these films, even in careful storage, had faded or exhibited significant color shifts. It is a problem I come back to when I discuss the settings to use for VueScan, but suffice to say that color fading and shifts are one of the biggest issues I had to deal with. It is also the biggest reason why you should scan your films now. I can hardly over-emphasize this part of my advice: I was shocked how my analog film images had deteriorated. I had 45-year-old Kodachrome color slides that required fading correction, and films as recent as ten year old Ektachrome slides that required color restoration. Refer to my boxed comment on films’ archival properties in my experience. But I repeat: Fading and damage to analog film are the biggest reason why you should scan your images to digital. While this was not part of my original reasoning for scanning my images, it is now a primary reason, in order to safe guard images that are important to me. While “bit rot” (the degradation of digital information), is a real problem, it is more easily dealt with than the inevitable degradation of analog film. (One deals with bit rot by using multiple back-ups, and rewriting (copying) the original data every few years to new media.)
In this context, I discovered that the restore-fading feature of VueScan work absolute wonders. While some software has different strengths of restoration one can select from, VueScan only has an on/off option for this. Suffice to say; this option is on practically 100% of the time. It works very, very well. I made comparisons to with Kodachrome slides where there was to me no discernible color fading and scanned with and without restore fading option. It appeared to me that when there is no fading, leaving the restore fading option on, did not change the color balance. However, when there was fading, leaving it off left me with noticeable color distortion. I did have literally 5-10 slides where selecting color fading distorted the original color balance, and I had to rescan the images (Figure 9). However, this was less than ten out of more than ten thousand. In all these cases there were already complex color and lighting in the slide, as is visible in the photograph in Figure 8 below. On average, well-exposed pictures selecting color fading works wonders in restoring fading and color shifts of the older film. It is truly a magical feature in its operation.
Why this feature of VueScan is so important, is that it deals automatically very well with a widespread problem in the analog film. I rate the fading of an analog film as a very big issue in scanning, and the ability to correct color fading automatically as a very important feature of the scanning software. If the scanning software does not deal well with this automatically, you will need time-consuming image correction to be done post-scanning in something like Photoshop or GIMP.
VueScan does not deal with color fading that is uneven in the original image. This is to be expected, and by the nature of this problem, automated correction of that kind of fading would be well-nigh impossible. I do not regard this is a failure of VueScan. Below (Figures 10 and 11) are two examples of such uneven fading, both from Kodak Porta NC160 color negative film, an absolute miserable film regarding its tendency for uneven color fading. The examples in Figures 10 and 11 are typical of what I experienced with Kodak Porta NC 160, even with the film less than ten years after development. It will take super special correction facilities to ferret out such unevenly shaped color casts for automatic correction. The only other film I had that exhibited this VueScan-defying color shift was Agfachrome (100 & 200 ISO). All other films I have showed uniform color fading which VueScan captured with the Fading Correction selected. I was not able to correct the type of problem in Figures 10 and 11 with the Restore Color option either, although on the fade-prone Agfachrome it often did work wonders (when there was uniform fading).
Please note again that these color casts appear to be fading related, and are not uniform over the whole image, in both distribution and hue. I have many thousands of images where VueScan on its automatic settings of fading correction did an admirable job of restoring fading which was more uniform over the whole image.
VueScan has another feature that I rate highly for its ability to speed up my scanning workflow. This is the “Profile” feature. Essentially, once you have all the settings set up, you can save all setting under a particular profile name. Up to 9 profiles can be saved, and can be rapidly loaded by pressing F1, F2, up to F9 keys on the keyboard. This allowed me to rapidly change settings depending on what film I used, or if I needed a different setting in scanning the same batch of slides. While I initially did not think much of this feature, it is a great time saver. You can download the profiles I used for color film, black and white film, as well as Kodachrome, Ektachrome and Fujichrome slide film from here. Note, however, as will be explained later, that these profiles are unique to my specific scanner, as they contain the specific color profiling that was done for my scanner. Your scanner may require a different color calibration profile. Given that, these profiles with giving you a starting point for the setting discussed below.
The last feature of VueScan that makes bulk scanning feasible is something called EXIF data. Digital photographers would know about this, the data stored in image files that identify where and when pictures were taken and with what camera, what settings, among others. For many of my analog photographs, I have such data, particularly the date, often the location, and almost inevitably the subject, particularly if it was of people. This information was written on the slide frames, and on the envelopes in which film strips were stored. For slides, I wrote down the film type, and that information is available on the film strips for negatives. Just having the scanned images, on not the original data appeared pointless; I wanted to and needed as much information as I could retrieve for each image to be preserved. My original intention was to use an Exif editor to add this data post-scanning. However, having tried this, I found that even with a good Exif editor, which allows one to apply data entered once to many images, this is a time-consuming process. In particular, it means that one has to access the originals again, once you have selected a particular batch of scanned images, to get this data. That is, scanning with separate Exif data entry is not a “handle once” process, the hall mark of a good workflow, any more.
In VueScan, one can enter (once) this data (date image taken, copyright holder/photographer name, and a free format comment or description line) and it will be recorded in the output image files, until you change the Exif data again. I found it much easier and faster regarding work flow, to enter this data for each batch of film or slides scanned in VueScan. In fact, I batched my images by Exif data. I would scan a batch that had the same Exif data, and when that changed loaded a new batch. For color negative films, the Exif data was normally the same for the whole film, but for slides it changed more frequently. The effort involved in adding Exif data post –scanning is significant, when taken as a percentage of the time it takes to scan one or a batch of images. While it slows down the scanning with VueScan, adding this data as part of the VueScan scanning process has proven to be the quickest way to capture and retain the descriptive data from the original analog images.
The issue of preserving whatever data one has about the original image, is a primary reason I feel the “scanning” of analog images by re-photographing them with a digital camera, is far less effective than people are claiming (e.g. “1000s per day” – Reference 9). While this approach does allow meaningful copies to be made of slides, it requires post “Scan” processing, and for negative to reverse color negatives and get rid of the film color mask. It then requires additional work to add the Exif data. VueScan makes it efficient to add this data as part of the scan process, with very little additional time required to access and add this data at the time of starting the scan. (Google “slide copying with digital camera” for lots of articles on this.)
When you consider alternatives for scanning analog film in bulk for archival purposes, the capture and preservation of “analog” information about the image(s) should receive special consideration.
Conclusion and recommendations
My research pointed me towards a Nikon Coolscan LS5000 ED scanner and accessories as the hardware I needed to deal with a large number and variety of slides and color negative films. They are still available, and service on these is still available. But they are increasing in price and will not remain available over the next few decades. My experience with mine makes me recommend it as a very good if not the best option for dealing with such bulk scanning.
My experience of VueScan makes me recommend its use without qualification for such bulk scanning with the Nikon scanner. As discussed above, it has features that make bulk scanning eminently feasible. While it also has features that allow tweaking of individual scans, these features were not of use to me as I only scanned a few slides to get the best out of that specific slide; most often, after the “best scan” effort, I used post scanning software (Nikon’s Capture NX2 in my case) to further adjust the image. It is VueScan’s ability to produce color corrected, damage corrected slides and negatives, properly EXIFed, in bulk (using properly set options), which makes it an unqualified recommendation for bulk scanning.
In the second part of the article, I describe in detail the settings used with VueScan to do the scanning. I also discuss problems I encountered and describe what I did to overcome this. The objective with the second part is to assist the reader to do bulk film scanning with VueScan, without having to acquire the detailed and complex knowledge that scanning entails. The amount and complexity of the knowledge underlying scanning are high, and can be a particular hurdle to someone who just wants their “images on the computer.” This how-to guide purposely suggests settings which help to do bulk scanning with good results, without requiring the user to know all the underlying complexity. However, be aware that VueScan has many powerful features that are not used directly in the bulk scanning, and to use them properly you will need a lot more background than is discussed here.