Frustration of a Film Photographer in the Digital Age

  • It takes 2 minutes to scan a single BW 35mm negative on a traditional scanner at 2400dpi
  • It takes 7 minutes to scan a single BW 35mm negative on a traditional scanner at 4800dpi
  • Traditional scanners use “trays” and “adapters” which are not part of the scanner itself to hold negatives, this results in things that move and aren’t always aligned
  • There is no instant verification at low-res before moving on to high-res scanning on traditional scanners
  • Most “film scanners” are cheap crap that have more in common with a digital camera than a scanner. Film is analog and therefore requires optical projection to reach a desired result
  • Most independent film scanners assume colour negatives. BW negatives have color (shades of blue/green and yellow), but those colors are not intended to be seen in the finished product.
  • “Real” film scanners cost $1000-$5000


I enjoy film photography as an artistic hobby. It allows for more expression and limited options to trick or cheat one’s way out of problems in photography. In some ways film photography feels more “human” to me than any digital method ever has. The problem with this view is that I am in a digital age, which I eagerly embrace. I like the analog methods of recording an image, but I do not embrace the mess, difficulty or annoyance of printing photos to paper using traditional photographic printing methods. As a result of this combining of processes I find that my best option for handling my film is to scan it.

I have attempted to scan my film using a low-end “film scanner” and a standard Canon flatbed scanner with a film adapter unit. I was not impressed with the 5 megapixel images produced by the film scanner, but am quite happy with the output of the Canon flatbed, which ranges between about 7.1 MP for 2400dpi or 31MP for 4800dpi. The difficulty is that at 31 MP it takes 7 minutes to perform the scans and it is very difficult to get the scanner to output perfectly. The biggest issue is a gradient at the very bottom of each frame, which I can’t seem to get to go away. Despite these problems, the Canon scanner is currently my best option for taking on this process. I do find irony in using a Canon scanner to scan negatives produced on a Nikon camera.

Modern interpretations of the inexpensive film scanner that I had used in the past now have features like a built-in display and they function without special software. The screens are a nice touch, but I find those models tend to have the lowest reviews on Amazon for their technical abilities. I suspect those models are intended for an instant-gratification group of people who may simply enjoy digging through boxes of old negatives and reliving memories with friends and family and not for a serious photographer who wishes to save their work in a digital form. This brings me to another point. It is hard to tell what people are having problems with on these devices. People complain about color loss when scanning. First of all, I am not scanning color film. Second, Kodachrome and similar technologies do not have a very long life span and once the film begins to degrade (especially if it was developed commercially) then it begins to loose its vibrance. The bad reviews can be caused by bad film, not a bad scanner, which makes this process even harder.

One of the biggest problems I am having with determining what to do about this situation is looking at scanner specs I am told a lot of different size ratings (megapixels), but no one seems very willing to give me information in density (dots per inch). On a flatbed scanner the DPI is an interesting measure because there is a correlation between the output size and the density due to the physical size of the film frame.

For the moment it seems my best option is to keep working with the Canon flatbed scanner and attempt to be patient with it.