How To Get Better Scans From a Flatbed Scanner

Here are five different techniques that can be used to get better image quality out of your existing flatbed scanner.

Many photographers myself included have binders full of film negatives from earlier in their career and even though most discussions now focus around digital cameras there is a rising interest in still shooting film. Unfortunately, finding the best way to scan and utilize your film can be a challenge. 

Coming to you from photographer Nick Carver here is a video that takes a look at five ways that you can improve the quality of your scans and which one gives the best results. Most of these techniques can be applied to just about any flatbed scanner but Carver is demonstrating with the popular Epson V series scanner. 

There is no easy way to scan and digitize your film and slides these days and you often have to choose between expensive drum scans or poor quality single frame scanners out of China. The middle point between cost and quality has often been found with a flatbed scanner. Specifically, the Epson V600-V850 series. I have used several in the line-up and the ability to customize and use a third-party software as Carver has shown has really made the scanning quality of the Epson's a cost-effective way to get good quality for most use cases. 

Is there a technique not mentioned you've found success with? Or a scanner that you think provides better quality for a similar cost? Let us know in the comments. 

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David MacKenzie's picture

The Epson flatbeds are the best affordable option for medium and large format film like he scanned in the video. For 35mm, a used Minolta or Nikon film scanner from eBay will give much better detail, dynamic range, and color accuracy for a few hundred dollars.

michaeljin's picture

For 35mm get a macro lens and a Nikon ES-2.

michaeljin's picture

For the dust, you should ideally be working clean anyway (ICE doesn't at all work for B&W negatives). An anti-static brush helps somewhat. As for the color correction issue, there's a software called Negative Lab Pro that you should check out. It does color correction in a RAW workflow. I believe that VueScan can also work with RAW camera files.

The benefits of using a macro lens and a camera is less about speed and more about the benefits of shooting in RAW, being able to use techniques like HDR to get the most out of your film, and getting a higher megapixel count if you're using a high megapixel camera.

michaeljin's picture

For me scanning with a camera is about quality, not about speed. Given the fact that I shoot exclusively black and white film, it's all the same to me as far as dust removal is concerned since scanner software will not remove dust from black and white film anyway. I agree that working clean is a lot easier said than done, but once you get a good workflow down, it's really not THAT bad. If you clean your negative well enough to print in a darkroom, you can clean it well enough to scan.

As for getting the most out of your film, I would disagree that a 4000 DPI scan would get you the most possible resolution out of a 35mm negative. If you scan slower films like Pan F+, you'll find that there's more detail there than can be extracted from a conventional flatbed scanner or even most dedicated 35mm scanners. If you work with slower films, I think you might be surprised by how much detail can actually be held on some of those slower films even at 35mm. With fine grain film, like with digital cameras, usually your issue will be the lens resolution rather than the emulsion.

For 35mm film, a high resolution digital camera and a good macro lens will give you the best result short of drum scanning.

michaeljin's picture

Pretty much the way I see DSLR/MILC vs. Film Scanners (for 35mm):


Resolution: Depends on the DSLR/MILC, but high resolution models beat out Film Scanners..

Dynamic Range: DSLR/MILC

Speed of Scan: DSLR/MILC

Dust Removal: Film Scanner

Color Inversion: Pretty much a Draw since there's software available for both that makes this easy.

Post Processing Time: Film Scanner (They take care of the dust removal for you with color film.)

Post Processing Flexibility: Sort of a wash since you can get a RAW file from some Film Scanners with the right software. Otherwise, it's TIFF vs. RAW in which case RAW wins—particularly with the ability to do RAW HDR merges to put more information onto a single file.

Color Accuracy: I would suspect that Film Scanners with CCD sensors probably win here, but as I don't shoot color film anymore, I don't have much of an opinion here.

Overall Ease of Use: Film Scanners (Although you run into some quirks with older models with outdated connections/drivers.)

Batch Scanning: Film Scanners (DSLR/MILC is faster for any single scan, but it's a lot of work if you're trying to keep things clean whereas a lot of film scanners are "set it and forget it" in that they allow you to scan a bunch of frames at a time.)

Cost: Film Scanner (The point of diminishing returns hits a lot more quickly with film scanners than with DSLR/MILC+Lens combinations which makes a dedicated 35mm film scanner the better bang-for-your-buck.)

Support/Upkeep: DSLR/MILC (Mainly because most of the best 35mm Film Scanners are pretty old and long out of warranty.)


Now whether the added resolution and dynamic range will be meaningful is a personal decision. The resolution in particular makes little practical difference unless you're archiving or planning to print extremely large. I would argue that the dynamic range is a bigger issue since that tends to be a particular weak point with dedicated film scanners, as is dealing with very dense negatives.

Of course one very big benefit if you get something like the Epson V850 is that it opens up the possibility of scanning multiple film formats easily at high resolution. To do the same with a DSLR/MILC would require exponentially more work to hold the resolution advantage due to stitching as the negative size increases.

As for tests, if you're doing a lot of 35mm scanning, I would highly recommend that you rent a Nikon D850 and give it a shot for yourself (Don't use the built-in digitizing mode. Just shoot RAW.). If it's something you're planning to continue doing, I think it's at least worth exploring for yourself and seeing if the workflow and results make any sense for you. For me, it's definitely worth it, but that's probably because I don't really digitize entire rolls of film... If I had to do that, I'd definitely get a Noritsu or Fuji.

Damien Derouene's picture

You can also use a professional photo lab scanner such as the Noritsu LS-600. Speed and quality is way better than any consumer grade scanner. You can find one on the second market for $1500-$2000. Here is a test of the LS-600:

Levi Wedel's picture

Fine for bw but with color you are castrating the color, especially greens. Bayer sensors do not get the same color depth nor can they get accurate color from the limited information made available. Dedicated CCDs will get full color. That said, you might have a case for something with pixel shift like the A7RIII or a Hasselblad H5D-200c, etc.

michaeljin's picture

If you're concerned about color, you can always use Sigma's full-frame Foveon camera whenever it comes out. :) Those sensors produce some wonderful color and their weakness in low light doesn't apply here.

Levi Wedel's picture

They produce a richer color, but their color is broken. I had a DP2 and an SD1, both great cameras, though over time the limitations to their color become apparent. They have an interesting color character, but I wouldn't use them to digitize film. They also have a weird mottled pattern of red green noise that never really quite goes away even at low ISO. I am watching to see how the full-frame version performs though, despite that the latest incarnation of the Foveon design already doesn't seem as accurate as my SD1's design (the look seems duller, but I haven't actually tried one).

William Grant's picture

What software are you using with the FS4000? Looks good based on reviews, but I don't know is software will run on Windows 10 or if something better is available. Or if the plug-in provided will work with photoshop cc. Assuming it's 35mm film and slide (and APS) only

I inherited a large collection of slides and 35mm negatives (and prints and super8) when Mom passed away last year. Too much to afford shipping it to someone else (except maybe the super8). Some 120 negatives also (old brownie). Can't tell up front how much overlap there is between prints and source. Might be worth trying.

Sidney M's picture

I have some 70mm film negatives from the 60s. What scanner would be good for those ? Should I be looking at the Epson or investigating a DSLR method of capturing those ? Many thanks.