Thursday, February 21, 2013

The NfN Guide To Scanning Negatives

Earlier this week I promised a "Quick Guide To Negative Scanning" and here it is. If you are not interested in negative scanning please feel free to skip this post altogether, it won't score high on entertainment value. If you are into negative scanning already, I apologise for the various shortcomings in this description : it is merely my way of doing things and better approaches may well be available. 

I tend to scan negatives because for most of my pre-digital life I developed my own black and white films and therefore had a full catalogue of negatives but just a patchy collection of prints. Even when I used outside processors to develop colour print films I would keep the negatives, and I also built up a substantial collection of colour slides. I haven't owned a slide projector for decades and therefore the only way to access the colour slides is by scanning them and turning them into digital images. You can also potentially get far better quality digital images by scanning the original negatives rather than scanning subsequent prints : but beware, you not only enlarge the quality, you also enlarge the dots and scratches. You may therefore need to spend some time digitally restoring some of your old images.

You could simply place the negative on a normal flat-bed scanner but the results will be very poor indeed because for negative (or positive slide) scanning to work properly you need the light to shine through the negative rather than just reflect off the surface. therefore you need a scanner that has a dedicated negative scanning function.

There are several of these on the market and they are not prohibitively expensive. I use an Epson Perfection V500 Photo Scanner which handles both 35mm negatives and slides and 6x6 negatives because I have a considerable collection of the latter. There are cheaper models in the Epson range than will just handle 35mm formats and these are perfectly adequate for most situations.

The negatives are positioned on the scanning surface using a plastic mount system. There is a light source built into the lid of the scanner that is positioned above the negatives when the lid is closed. Once the scanning process is started the light will track along the length of the negative strip giving you a high quality scan.

Negatives can be scanned in strips or individually. The software that comes with the Epson range allows you to expose and scan multiple negatives at a time - my scanner for example will scan 12 35mm negatives, or 4 35mm slides, or 2 6x6 negatives at one time. The scanning time will depend on the scale of the digital image you are intending to create.

If you are working with 35mm negatives or slides, the original size is, of course, rather small and therefore you need to build in an element of enlargement into the scanning process, otherwise your final digital image would be too small to manipulate. With 35mm negatives and slides I normally crank the resolution up to 2,400 dpi in order to have an image I can crop and manipulate once it is in a digital form.

You can do some basic editing and correcting on the scanning software itself, although you may prefer to do a fairly straight-forward scan and then do any corrections and adjustments using your favourite editing software. Be prepared for those dust particles and blemishes however, you will have scanned and enlarged them in the process and you will need to get rid of them by careful editing.

I hope this will be useful. If you have any follow-on questions, let me know and I will try my best to answer them. Let me finish with one of the images from the strip of 35mm negatives I used to illustrate this guide (it is the top negative in the first illustration).


  1. I have scanned hundreds of my old negs and slides using an Epson Dimage 35mm scanner, unfortunately it is specifically 35mm, no 6x6, so I cannot scan those. As you say, scanning prints is just not the same. As I still use film for a lot of b&w work, a scanner is an important part of my kit.

  2. Thanks for this Alan. I've been scanning old negatives on a regular flatbed scanner and think I'd do better with the 'right' equipment, plus there are some I haven't been able to do. I just need to work out a new desk arrangement that would create enough space for another machine :)

  3. Yes, that is all very helpful. I liked knowing that I need to crank up the resolution. I may give a try these next few days while we are snowbound in the prairie.

  4. Oh thanks Alan, I just bought a smaller Epson, and it doesn't have that feature. I have tossed many negatives already though. Still have about half dozen boxes of prints though. At one point I was making collages of photos, so I kept everything. It will be fun when I retire, I thought. Here I am 6 years post-retirement and still carting those boxes around whenever I move!

  5. Good the museum we have many glass negatives to scan..we have a board member that has a scanner but the museum really needs on of it's own. It is good to have a reccomendation of machines that work well:)

  6. I have just finished going through roughly 2,000 photographs and their negatives in our process of downsizing for our new home. The problem with traveling so much is that you accumulate an enormous number of photographs. I threw out all the negatives and kept about 200 photographs - perhaps more, because of my Flamborough collection. It was fun looking through them all again, but it's like trying to carry the world in your hip pocket to keep them all.

  7. Thanks for the detailed information, Alan. I'm always curious about how other bloggers produce their photo images.

    I have a few glass negatives and glass positives that were used in magic lanterns. Being too cheap to buy something, I made a light projector box out of white foam board that covered the scanner glass with a cutout for the glass slide. Affixed to the top was a hood that directed an LED flashlight to give the backlight. It worked for the negatives but was less good for the positives.

    For those I made another small box of foam board with an open top. On this the cutout was on one upright side and the top was covered with a diffuse fabric through which I directed the light from a desk lamp. Then with my digital camera mounted on a heavy metal block about 15 inches away I was able to take a High Def photo of the illuminated positive slide. It worked very well and I was able to make good corrections through Photoshop.

  8. I have an Epson Perfection V700 Photo scanner which also has a light lid, and I bought it specifically because of its slide scanning capabilities, although it was rather expensive.

    Silverlight is a very good programme for correcting those scratches and dust specks automatically.

  9. @BrettPayne How much did you pay for the v700 photo scanner? I've been getting my photos scanned with for years not knowing which kit was necessary to digitise photos on my own but this article has given me a great insight into the process

    1. The most recent version of this, the Epson V850 Pro, is currently $1,150 at B&H


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