You Can Get Great 35mm Scans From a Cheap Flatbed Scanner: Follow These Tips

Every film photographer out there in this day and age eventually wants to have good scans of their negatives. While it's not difficult to get a great scan from medium format, 35mm present their own challenges. 

In this video, Kyle McDougall takes a vintage Epson 4990 flatbed scanner which is decades old to scan 35mm film. Granted, McDougall also has an old Nikon Coolscan 9000 which is widely known for being about as good as you possibly get short of scanning with drum scanner which is a much more tedious process. For the Epson 4990, McDougall provides a good roadmap for getting the most detail out of your scans really making them pretty comparable to what you'd get from much more expensive, newer scanners.

As you'll see from the final result, the Epson holds its own and truthfully, performed far better than I would have thought. Granted, this comes only after a significant amount of work is done to the image but still. Personally, I am in need of a way of scanning 4x5 and I have yet to come to terms with spending $1,150 on an Epson v850 — the only Epson flatbed that can be purchased new for scanning large format. As such, I've not previously considered buying a vintage scanner for this purpose but I sure am now. 

Do you have any experience using vintage scanners? What did you think of those scans compared with scans from more advanced scanners?

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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Neat video.

I'm still taking in how something that came out in 2005 (the scanner) is vintage.


for best results and high resolution I digitize the B&W negatives with a camera (Sony A7R II) and a macro lens or bellows and enlarger lens. As film holder I use the film holder from the Epson V700, that you can buy separate from the scanner. I get a perfect and reliable focus and stop down to f/11. For any higher resolution I just shoot parts of the image and stich afterwords, works great also for MF or 4x5. As light source I use a Kaiser slimlite plano.
For color it is not so easy but also for me a very good solution. I never trust the focus of my Epson V800 very much.
PS: besides getting any desired resolution it is so much faster for large scans, talking about seconds compared with waiting minutes for a large format scan.

I use both an Epson 4990 and a 4490 and am more than happy with the results from both.
The only but, and it's a big one, is that if you want to use these with a modern Mac you are out of luck.
The Epson Scan software just won't work with Big Sur and, Epson Scan 2, the latest iteration which does work on the Mac doesn't work with the older scanners.
Sure you can fork out more for Silverfast or Vuescan but I have never been able to get as good a scan out of either.
I have only just moved to a Macbook Air M1 after a lifetime using Windows and before that Gem, and have to say I love it, but Mac scanning options suck.
I have a windows laptop as old as the scanners so that has now become a dedicated scanning machine, not ideal but better than having to buy a new supported scanner.

Weirdly I have just begun the mammoth task of scanning my archive and the article is pretty timely, I'm mainly using the 4490 as I need to scan 4x5 plus it takes a lot more negatives in one go than the 4490 though the way it handles 120 is odd and much less intuitive than using the 4490.
Anyone interested in results can check out a website I have just built to share a daily shot, though the web shares are fairly low resolution so not indicative of what you can get when you push it, all the film on there so far is from a 4490.