Lately I've cottoned to the film beat quite a bit here. I've written about Super 8 and about film stock options for analog photography, about the revival of Ektachrome, and about instant photography. I love it all, but I'm also aware of the fact that we very much live in the twenty-first century. We live on computers and we live online, and if photos don't exist in these spaces, they may as well not exist at all. So what can be done about getting photos taken on film, old or new, into a form fit for such a universe? Let's talk about film scanning.
Scan at the Lab
There are several different ways to go from exposed film to electronic image. The first is to simply hand your film over to a lab or scanning service that will do everything for you. This is the easiest way, but it has several downsides. For one thing, many lab scans aren't very good. If you're not paying a premium, you'll likely end up with a low-resolution scan that was exposed on "auto" through a commercial minilab. These can range from the acceptable to the utterly useless.
For a year or so, I have been getting scans from color negative film done this way. I've had ok scans from the majority of the films, but I also had several batches where one side was clearly darker than the other, and some where scans were completely out of focus while the negatives were sharp. Your mileage will vary. I treat such scans as proofs, and always re-scan images I want to actually do something with.
Better scanning services are more expensive, but results are also typically much better. Your images are loaded into professional-quality film scanners and often an actual human will sit in front of the screen to make sure your photos are captured. Whether you're sending in that box of Kodachromes auntie Ruth took on her Nikon F in the 1960s, or a few rolls of Fuji 400H from a recent wedding you shot, your work is done after you post or drop off the film. A good lab (check out, for example and in no particular order: Old School Photo Lab, The Darkroom and The Little Film Lab in the U.S., Canadian Film Lab in Canada, AG Photolab in the UK, or MeinFilmLab in Germany) will take care of everything for you, including color corrections to match a certain look you may have decided on.
If you want to scan yourself, there are many varieties and tiers of film scanners. Are quick scans of prints from a photo album all you're looking for? In that case, a smart phone and a scanning app, such as Google's PhotoScan may suffice.
For most internet uses, and for quite a few print and professional uses, a film flatbed scanner is both the easiest to use and the most economical option. Scanners like Epson's V600 (around $200) and V800 (under $700), or Canon's Canoscan 9000F (around $180) have proven to be quite popular and are routinely used by professional photographers and archives to scan images to create virtual contact prints or to put things on the internet, if not necessarily for exhibition-quality work. Prints as well as medium and large format images do considerably better on these scanners than small 35mm ones, but if you don't need your slides to become wall-to-ceiling prints they will still often look quite good.
For those stepping up to a dedicated film scanner, there aren't all that many options out there anymore if you want to buy new. There are several very good scanners people still use that are not made anymore (Nikon and Minolta, among others, produced very capable ones). If you are considering one of these, then be aware that support for both software and hardware may not be forthcoming.
Dedicated film scanners from makers like Plustek or Reflecta are good currently available options. They come in many editions, some only for 35mm film, some for 35mm and medium format, some with and some without IR scratch removal. Some come with professional quality software, others only with dumbed-down consumer software. Which one you end up choosing depends on your needs. Budget is certainly one consideration, so are included software, features, and portability (I bought a Plustek OpticFilm 8200i AI to use during a year when I was renting just a small room and had no real desk to work on, and later brought it home in my carry-on luggage without trouble).
Some photographers also swear by the method of photographing negatives or slides with a good DSLR and a macro lens. Since for many this doesn't require extra hardware it is certainly an attractive alternative. If you don't typically do macro photography, though, purchasing a lens and a stand will certainly be in order. Personally, I have never found this option appealing, despite the good results some get from it. The hassle of setting up and taking down such a contraption, in addition to the fact that it keeps at least one camera body and macro lens from other uses while set up is a factor to consider.
Whatever you do, don't get one of those little scanner towers you can sometimes find at electronics chains or the like for around $50. While they will create an image, it is not usually a very good one. If your film is only a little bit under- or overexposed (especially in the case of underexposed slides) your images will hardly have anything recognizable on them. That said, it's better than nothing. If you have one sitting in a closet somewhere then sure, give it a try. But don't assume that bad quality images have to do with your source material. With these cheap gadgets, they're almost always the scanner's fault.
Film scanners either come with the manufacturer's bundled software or with a specialized software package from a dedicated scanning software maker. Sometimes, you can choose between the two.
If you ended up with a scanner for which you don't like any included software options (or indeed are trying to resurrect an old scanner with a modern operating system), VueScan is a reasonably-priced and pretty much universal scanning option.
All of these applications have their cheerleaders and their detractors. The only way to figure out what works for you is to try them out yourself (I use EpsonScan on my Epson and Silverfast 8.8 on my dedicated 35mm scanner, having tried and decided against VueScan for my purposes).
You will usually better end results by not relying on any automatic functions, such as color correction, sharpening, or exposure control. There is, of course, a trade-off to be made between image quality and how long you need to work on any one image.
Dmax and Resolution
Two important considerations when buying a scanner are which resolution it can produce and how much dynamic range contained on a piece of film it can tease out.
Scanner manufacturers routinely fib about resolutions. There are differences about theoretical resolutions and what the scanner actually captures. Most of the time, the actual resolution you will get out of a scanner is much below the maximum given in the specs, sometimes by a factor of two or larger. If you don't know what you need, a scanner capable of producing a real (not just advertised) resolution of around or above 3,000 dpi is a good starting point.
Dmax means the density distinguishable on a scan. This is akin to dynamic range. Higher numbers are better. Flatbed scanners typically have values of just above 3, dedicated film scanners hover above 4, and very expensive professional scanners can reach 5 (The $25,000 Hasselblad Flextight X5 has a Dmax of 4.9). These numbers are also not necessarily truthful, but a scanner advertising a Dmax of 4.0 will likely be better than one boasting 3.2.
After all this you may wonder: what should I actually get? If you're unsure, my recommendation is always to purchase an affordable flatbed film scanner that can do both 35mm and medium format (like the aforementioned Epson V600 or Canoscan 9000F). Large format photographers obviously will have to make sure their 4x5 or larger negatives will also fit. There is of course much more to scanning: do you scan a negative as a negative and invert later, or do you let the scanning software do it? Do you scan as TIFF, as JPG or something else? Do you need full 48-bit color depth, or will 24 do? As with everything in photography, technology is only a part of the equation. Figuring out a workflow that works for you will enable you to get much better quality than simply hitting the auto scan button, no matter which scanner you use.
How do you scan your film? Are there any other entry-level options you like, or professional scanners you can recommend to those serious about getting film digitized?