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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14 Comments

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.

Michael Jin's picture

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

You still have the problem of color correcting negatives and spotting dust. Camera scanning is obviously great for speed but is of course useless for such things, so much, if not all, of the time savings is lost compared to using a much slower film scanner. That needs to be considered when thinking of going down the camera scanning route. Even freshly developed film can have a lot of dust. Film is like a freaking magnet for dust and dirt.

Michael Jin'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.

Working clean is very much easier said than done with film. Film is too dust and dirt like fly paper is to flies. As I said, even freshly developed film will often need spotting for dust. Spotting is a very time consuming process and will likely cancel out, and much more, the time saved with using a camera to scan film.

I have no need for color correction software for negatives, as I already use a couple of dedicated film scanners, but that recommendation could be useful for those "scanning" with a camera.

Scanning with a camera is first and foremost about speed. It's essentially instant compared to using a scanner. That is objectively the greatest benefit of using a camera to scan. Besides, with the right film scanner and scanning software, you can do HDR type scans. At 4000 dpi, the resolution of most of the last dedicated film scanners, you'll also be getting most of what's on the film, which, lets face it, is not much to begin with with 35mm.

Michael Jin'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.

The difference in quality is tiny compared to scanning speed, which is why I said it is the foremost difference.

I mentioned dust removal because it can easily wipe away the huge amount of time saved scanning. It is something to consider and make someone opt for a dedicated film scanner that can address dust.

I’ve worked with very slow film, and still do. Outside of specialized b/w film with limited usage there really isn’t much more beyond competent 4000dpi scanners.

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

I haven’t seen any recent tests in support of camera scanning over a good dedicated films scanner, especially when considering the other factors I mentioned. Remember that most people are also not limiting themselves to b/w.

Michael Jin's picture

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

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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.)

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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.

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: http://www.gostreetphoto.com/noritsu-ls-600-film-scanner-review/

I looked into one of those once and I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the scans. Those formerly lab scanners were made to optimize speed over everything else. What I saw were odd pepper like noise artifacts in a light grid like pattern, seen mostly in darker areas, in *some* of the images with that scanner. That said, if one is not picky that could certainly work for smaller enlargements and a huge scanning project. It certainly has speed and resolution on its side, which is the main reason I looked into it.

"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."

Sure there is, at least for 35mm, but you have to buy an older camera manufacturer's scanner and pair it with excellent scanning software like Vuescan. Nikon, Minolta and Canon all made excellent dedicated film scanners. I own two CanonFS4000 film scanners, which was the last dedicated film scanner Canon made. They can be bought on eBay for around $200. It's a 4000 dpi scanner with optional infrared scanning for dust correction. It can batch scan strips of film and has the ability to fine tune focus.

Slow as molasses compared to taking a digital camera photo but an excellent and inexpensive film scanner for someone that doesn’t shoot a lot of film, or is very patient. The last of the Nikon’s were faster but they are also considerably more expensive and can be a hassle to maintain due to their propensity to gather dust in the optional path. The Canon FS4000 flies under the film scanner radar and is inexplicably almost unheard of and therefore almost never talked about and ultimately never recommended, making it a great deal.

I talked about it and recommended it numerous times ago on this site under a different screen name before I was banned for apparently hurting people's feelings.

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.

I use Vuescan, the Pro version. I've had Vuescan since it's early years, so it was much cheaper then. I get endless updates too with the Pro version. Yeah it will cost to buy the software but once you are done scanning you could sell the scanner for what you paid for it, and perhaps more, so the scanning software would be the only sunk cost, and of course could be used with any other scanner a user normally has, like a flatbed for documents. It's great scanning software just for that.

I see no reason why the FS4000 wouldnt work with Windows 10. The Vuescan software supports both the scanner and Windows 10.

What plug-in are you talking about? I'm not aware of Vuescan working as a plug-in. Are you talking about the Canon software and plug-in that came with the scanner? Personally I would avoid it because you get better results with Vuescan, especially for infrared dust correction, which is too aggressive with the Canon software. I don’t think the Canon software allows for manual focus tweaking and batch scanning either. The only positive I remember with the Canon software was that it was significantly faster.

Yes, the FS4000 is just APS and 35mm film, slide and negative. The APS scanning ability is unique amongst film scanners. I know of no other film scanner that can scan APS film cartridges. People normally crack them open to get at the film inside and then scan it on a flatbed.

How large is your collection of 35mm? That's the crucial question for any self-scanning project.

I lost my mom last year too. She made it to 90.

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.