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Articles: Scanning Negatives into the Digital Life

Only six years ago, 35mm negative and slide scanners were plentiful. All the major optical-electronics companies had multiple offerings for consumers and professionals. At that time digital photography was in its adolescence and, frankly, not as good as 35mm film output. Therefore, digitizing from film used to produce better pictures. Between then and now, digital photography has caught up with film and won people's hearts and minds.

For the last few years Nikon has been a long-time holdout with a full line of negative / slide scanners, but now even they are not upgrading their offerings. Nikon's decision is in line with what many other electronics companies have done--they no longer see film scanning as worth their efforts. Most people are not using film cameras now. Digital cameras are the new standard and are affordable and easy to use. If you are still using film, it is probably because you do not have a contemporary computer to manage your digital photos or have a huge investment in film-based systems.

Digital photography is great for your current and future photos, but what about the pictures of the past? Trying to digitize your family's photo history is a massive task--one that I have recently begun. As I started this process, I was shocked to learn that finding a quality, sub-$1,000 film scanner was going to be difficult. Many companies' products were discontinued, and most of the 35mm film scanners that were still available had not been updated in years. After a little searching I was delighted to learn that at least one company, Pacific Image Electronics, continues to care about film.

Finding a negative scanner is an essential part of a good digitizing project. Of course, it is predicated on you having access to a library of negatives or slides. Many families will have a common shoebox or drawer that houses all the film negatives. There are often dozens of paper pouches that contain a few prints and a sheet of negatives. It will be necessary to hunt down those pouches, or collect them from that relative of yours who keeps them all. It's preferable to use negatives for a digitizing project as opposed to just scanning the prints in a common flatbed scanner. Although scanning negatives provides a cleaner source image, it is not the main reason why negative scanning is so important. In most cases the prints you have left over in the envelope will be missing the best pictures. This is because when you get the film back from the development lab, people start taking their favorite pictures out of the set. Some end up in scrapbooks or frames; others just get mailed off. What you have left in the envelope are the blurry or less than perfect shots from the film roll. Your negatives will be the best starting point for archiving the quality pictures.

There is a seemingly endless choice of scanners available, but nearly all are flatbed or document scanners. Some flatbed scanners marketed as "photo" scanners will have adapters to take negative film strips or slides, but they are not geared for speedy batch scanning. Traditionally those scanners will use a plastic rack that holds one film strip or a few slides. First you must load the film correctly, then you have to position the plastic rack in exactly the right place. It is time-consuming and requires you to be in front of the computer during the process. In contrast, most negative scanners allow you to feed uncut rolls of film, or cut film strips, into the scanner. Select "scan all" and then just come back to load the next bit of film. When scanning hundreds of negatives, a dedicated film scanner is the only way to effectively manage your time. A project like this done on a flatbed scanner could easily become a full-time job.

Unfortunately, despite the usefulness of a film scanner, demand for this great tool has lessened. Most people who had an inclination to scan their large negative library have already bought their film scanners. Now the market has dried up and finding one from a typical scanner company is nearly impossible. Instead, those companies try to force you to buy their flatbed photo scanner. In contrast, Pacific Image Electronics (PIE) focuses on film scanning and does not offer a flatbed model. They have only been in the scanning business since the early 1990's, but were chartered with a focus on film scanning. PIE has continued to improve their scanning products, while other companies discontinue theirs. Recently PIE released a mid-range film scanner that is perfect for large batches of negative scanning. The PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 supports the scanning of nearly all forms of 35mm film. It has USB 2.0 and FireWire connectivity and is fully Mac compatible. Although USB is an option, FireWire is preferable for this kind of work. FireWire connectivity is a feature often reserved for professional scanners, indicating that the PF7250 is more pro than consumer in nature, but not in price. Since all modern Macs have FireWire but not all have USB 2.0, it is nice to have it available in a scanner.

Loading film into the PF7250 is straightforward. You place one end of the film strip in an opening on the side of the unit and it is sucked into the machine. The first frame is auto-positioned. The PF7250 then scans the film's density and focal range. Before you begin the scanning process, you can look through a small window on top of the scanning chamber to make sure that the first frame is actually in the correct position. This part of the process is akin to using a tricorder from the original Star Trek series. You hunch over a 2" view port and press alignment buttons off to its side, as a soft light illuminates your eyes. This is an optional step, but important for unattended scanning. The software doesn't use the OS X interface graphics. The application looks more like an OS 9 application, but it's functional and feature-packed. Most notable of its features is a library of film stock presets. From the presets you can select what film type you have, like Color Kodak 400, and the software will adjust to match the best scan setting.

Scratches and dust on film can set back a 35mm negative scanning project immensely. The images scanned will capture detail and magnify it. The PF7250 Pro scans up to 7200 DPI. At that level of detail, a speck of dust looks like freight truck. It is easy to waste hours with the Photoshop Healing tool, fixing every blemish scanned in. The PF7250 can use Kodak's Austin Development Center (KADC) Digital ICE 3™ technology to remove dust and scratches from every frame. The Digital ICE process uses inferred light to detect elements that are not part of the original image and those foreign elements are removed from the final image. The result is a clean image without any work on the user's part. I tested some of the oldest and most scratched negatives. The resulting image was near-perfect in clarity and looked better than the original prints from that same roll. My only complaint was how easy it is to leave the Digital ICE filter off accidentally. Each time you launch the scanning application, you have to enable the ICE filtering. The unfiltered images are glaringly marred. However, rescanning the group with Digital ICE was still faster than correcting the images later in Photoshop. That simple mistake on my part served as a perfect reminder of what a time-saver Digital ICE is for batch scanning.

Priced at around the cost of a G4 Mac mini, the PF7250 Pro is not an impulse purchase. It is an investment in creating a digital archive of your family's history that is recorded on 35mm film. Not everyone will have the need for such a specialized scanner, but for people with large amounts of film to scan, it is quite a deal. There are digitizing services that will scan your negatives and give you a CD with your images ready to import into iPhoto. Most services will charge 50 to 75 cents per frame for this service. At the per frame scanning price, you would only have to process 20 rolls of 36 exposure film to pay for the PF7250 Pro. So far I have scanned twice that and have not made a dent in the overall number of negatives needing to be scanned.

Even in the heyday of film scanners the PF7250 Pro would have been on the "A" list of scanners. Now, with so few film scanners available, the PF7250 is the only worthwhile option I have found in its price range. If you have ever had the intention of converting your old library of photos to the digital format, now is when you have to get started. It is unlikely to get cheaper or faster to convert your film. Soon film scanning will be considered a professional specialty, making it priced past the point of affordability for the home user. Don't wait like I did. Now is the time to preserve your photos.

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