How to Scan Film and Negatives like a Pro

November 15, 2016  - by 
How to Scan Film and Negatives like a Pro

by Thomas Watson

Electronic Signals

I’m composing this article using Google Docs. That means every space, letter, word, and sentence is being instantly saved in a data center, likely the one owned by Google in The Dalles, Oregon. This tool is made possible largely due to the fact that we humans have figured out how to convert data into electronic signals, and electronic signals travel at roughly the speed of light.

Animal Skin and Silver Halide

While you might be uninterested by the idea of text traveling through cables as signals, you should take interest in the fact that film and negatives do precisely the same thing. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to provide an overly simplistic definition of film scanning. Film scanning is nothing more than the conversion of highly processed animal skin (gelatin) and silver halide crystals into electronic signals. The job of a professional film scanner is to create electronic signals that carry as much of the information originally housed on your film as possible. Getting good information out of your film is the purpose of this article. Let’s make some electronic signals!

If you are as prone to distraction as I am, watch this video from 1958 showing film being manufactured in an old Kodak factory. It’s amazing.


Let’s begin by talking about the most important part of the scanning process, the scanner itself. Without spending dozens of hours compiling data that has already been compiled, my best guess is that 90 percent of the scanners on the market today are not rated to scan film properly. They are great with photographs and documents, but they were not made for film. Don’t buy them for film scanning. Instead, think about one of these:

(I am not an affiliate marketer for any of the scanners below, I’m just a guy who believes in scanning film properly.)

Don’t think of this list as even close to being comprehensive, it’s not. Do your own research on scanners—there is ample information to be had from a few Google queries. I highly recommend reading this article by Bjorn Peterson, “Scanning Film: A Buying Guide.” At Roots Family History, we use the Epson V750 for most of our film scanning. Beware of any product claiming to be a film scanner with a price tag below about $400. The Epson V550 is the lowest grade film scanner I would recommend that will still produce nice results. If you want to crank through a few thousand pieces of film, plan to spend between $500 and $2,000 on a decent scanner. As with any product, spend some good time reading reviews and requesting samples.

Side Note: Let’s not forget that you can scan film without a scanner. You can shoot it with a DSLR. If you are serious about setting up a scanner-less system, read this article by Bjorn Peterson called “Scanning without a Scanner: Digitizing Your Film with a DSLR.”

Tiny Particles of Earth

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by neglecting to clean your film and scanner properly. Slides, film, and negatives are very commonly coated with a thin layer of dust that needs to be blown or brushed off. Some film is dirty enough to justify cleaning it with some good antistatic emulsion cleaner and nonabrasive pads. While I could write an entire article on proper film cleaning, I’m just going to say this, if you scan dirty film, expect to see subpar results. Garbage in. Garbage out.

Ready, Get Set, Go!

So, your goal is to turn a physical piece of film into a digital file for storage and viewing. You’re going to do that by sending an electronic signal through a cable that connects a scanner to a PC or Mac. In order to achieve professional results, you’re going to want to familiarize yourself with your scanner’s software and take advantage of the histogram, tone, and resolution settings. We packed all the nitty-gritty details into the video below. Watch it, then go tackle your film digitization project!

I hope you discovered a few nuggets of wisdom that will help you scan your film properly! Don’t forget to add names and dates to your film by tagging your images.

Check out our blog for information about 8mm and 16mm film scanning.

Want to grill us with a tough technical question? Use the comment section below.

Thomas Watson is the cofounder and CEO of Roots Family History, a boutique shop based in Boise, Idaho, and Brooklyn, New York, devoted to preserving human history. Thomas has dedicated himself to finding accessible solutions for digitization, conservation, and preservation. If you thought of him as the Batman of media preservation, he probably wouldn’t object.


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Scanning Old Film Negatives

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  1. the Epson 550 is now the 600. I have been using it to scan photos, news article, certificates, negatives, and slides very well. There is a problem of the ABBY software interfering with Office but I have been using Office on an older computer and hoping to resolve the problem sometime. It had helped that I had viewed some Your Tube instructions first. I am very happy with the scanner and one of my favorite results turned out to be a picture that was taken in 1937 and I almost threw the negative away because it looked liked nothing was there. I turned out to be my grandmother, my parents and brother and sister, and my aunt and uncle and two of their children. I was not there because I was not even a gleam.

  2. I have slides from the 1940’s & 50’s on up to 1990’s, some of the are starting to spoil in the film itself.
    What is best way to digitize them?
    Thanks for your answer,

  3. Any suggestions on how to scan 35mm stereo slides? I have adapted a 35mm regular slide scanner, but it has registration problems and slow manual thoughput.

  4. Great article! I have a suggestion for those thinking about trying to scan old photos. I started a project to scan all the photos I own. Yep, must be about 1000+. First I divided them into decades and then as I went from decade to decade I divided them again to reflect the years of that decade so when they went into the computer they would be in some kind of chronological order. This is a big project so I will give you a couple of scanner tips to add. Buy a scanner that has an automatic feed option. I have a small Pandigital and it works perfectly for this. For the larger pictures I use my camera and copy them that way. I tried using a scanner that you had to open the lid with each photo and not only does that take way too long but that type of scanner can take any where from 10-15 seconds to scan a photo. That is way too long when dealing with large numbers of photos. The other tip I have is that after you have loaded an entire decade of photos use your editing program to clean each photo up. I had some really bad ones from back in the 50’s and 60’s and with just the enhance button in my photo editor they actually became very clear. And lastly, I found that some photo editor software can play havoc with downloading. If you find that your pictures are not showing up on the device you scanned to then try opening them with a different program. I found that my MS Explorer would not recognize the photos I had scanned in subsequent batches using the same SD Card even though I had deleted the previous photos. I learned the hard way that the SD card was fine and that it was the program. I switched to Photo Gallery and it worked out fine.
    Thanks again for the info and happy scanning!

  5. If you want the best scanning software available, have a look at VUESCAN – works with more than 3000 scanners.. certainly much better than most OEM software that comes with scanners

  6. What was the scanner at the top of this page with the man and girl scanning in pictures? And, how much does it cost to purchase?

    1. That is the scanner they use at most family history centers. Not sure what the model is but I think it is over $1000. Do you have a family history center nearby?

  7. Perhaps an expert could help me further.
    I use An Epson Perfection 4490 scanner, scanning photos at 1200 dpi., film more.
    My tip – Using Photoshop Elements, rotate, crop & clean up. Add a border and add notes in the margin (usually a person’s name). Many old photos
    have notes on the back. Scan the backs as well, Double the canvas size
    of the photo and add the backs alongside, This keeps the photo and information together and the end product can easily be cropped if the photo alone is desired, without losing resolution. Even the name & address of the photo shop and batch number can help sorting old photos. (This is very brief, examples can be sent).

  8. Thank you for the article that made me realize I should begin preserving and sharing the photos from my family’s history.
    My dad used his 35 mm camera and had slides made rather than printing pictures with negatives. What would is use to digitize slides? Thank you.

  9. interesting article. I use a Epson V850 pro that was purchased for fill in microfilm scanning and have so far not been impressed with the result. it seems unusually difficult to setup and make function for film. The result of microfilm scanning is less than ideal as resolution is pretty low for getting the details from film. It does work ok for film that contains pictures and glass plates (early film). but does not have resolution enough for microfilm or film that contains small text.

  10. Our family color slides are in hard plastic frames not cardboard. Is there a scanner which will accommodate this thickness or do we have to take all the slides out of the frames.

  11. Do you have any comment on the quality of things scanned on the Brother MFC-J870DW combo printer & scanner and fax? In your article, are you referring only to stand-alone scanners?
    Thanks for your article.