Shooting film in 2020 is a little different from the pre-2000s analogue era. Though the cameras and chemistry haven’t changed much, modern workflows typically demand digitizing of all visual assets. Unfortunately, consumer scanning technology hasn’t had any truly benificial advances since its introduction decades ago, leaving us with just a few flawed methods.
This article will guide you through my two-year experience of working with what I think is one of the best choices out there for scanning 35mm film: Pacific Image PrimeFilm XA SE. Starting with a thorough comparison against other consumer-friendly options.
✪ Note: this is an extensive guide on film scanning with lots of tips on the process. You may find it helpful even if you don’t own or don’t plan to own a PrimeFilm XA scanner/VueScan software.
➜ First, a few samples with some grain detail blow-ups from the XA:
Scanning at home vs at the lab: is it worth the investment?
Your lab may charge you anywhere between $5 and $30 for a 35mm film scan, more if it’s on a drum machine. My shooting rate is currently about four rolls per month or about $50 on top of what I pay for processing at a mediocre scan quality. This makes PrimeFilm’s $500 price tag easily justifiable: the scanner “pays for itself” within a year or sooner. Of course, this means a few sleepless nights in front of a screen every month.
After my two years with XA, it’s starting to show wear. There are times when it would refuse to work, and I’d have to power it off and wait a few minutes. It now does weird things with film transport, though with no noticeable effect on the final image quality.
I call it a “budget” scanner for its advanced capabilities like manual focusing, built-in film transport/holder, and impressive 137-megapixel resolution at 48-bit colour. The $500 price tag may not be in your actual budget today, but if you shoot a lot of film and looking for high-quality digitizations, this scanner is likely to save you many dollars in lab fees.
If my scanner were to stop working today, it’d still be worth the investment. In fact, I can no longer imagine myself paying for this service — if that happens, I’d have to buy a new one.
Comparing dedicated 35mm scanners vs. flatbeds vs. DSLRs.
PrimeFilm, a dedicated film scanner, costs around $500, a decent flatbed could go for as much or more, and the entire DSLR scanning set up isn’t cheap either. For some, this may be the most significant one-time investment, which should hopefully last for years to come. Below is a summary of the key attributes to consider while making that costly choice.
Format. PrimeFilm XA can only scan 35mm film strips or framed slides in 3:2 format; no panoramas though half-frames are OK. Flatbed scanners can scan practically anything, so can digital cameras, provided you have the right accessories.
Speed. Dedicated film scanners and flatbeds take a long time to inch through each frame, with the highest-res setting taking up to five minutes just to get the data into the software. A DSLR with a macro lens, stand, and film holder can create a digital negative in under a second; however, one must also consider the setup time and the work required to invert and correct the colours.
Frame borders. Adding a bit of a film border to the image may give an aesthetic you desire, ensure that you’ve got 100% of your image digitized, or “prove” to your viewers that you haven’t cropped your shot. Whatever the reason may be, PrimeFilm is likely to disappoint when it comes to this. The best I could get is a sliver of an unexposed film on one or two sides, but nothing more. Most flatbed scanners (i.e. flatbed film holders) won’t leave any borders either unless you place your negative straight on the glass, which will leave you with Newton rings. DSLR scanning is the only method that can reliably get you those borders, even sprocket holes.
Feeding the film. A flat, dust-free film needs to be suspended in air or specialized oil to be scanned properly. DSLRs require film holders to keep your emulsion distortion-free in-place. Most of the ones I’ve seen are relatively easy to use and allow you to go through the entire roll without having to cut it. Flatbed scanners are perhaps the most annoying in this aspect as every five frames will have to be precision cut, carefully maneuvered into the plastic casing and placed under the glass. You will then likely have to tell your scanner which frames to scan first, next, and so forth. Most dedicated 35mm film scanners will force you to do the same, save some part of the hassle. Thankfully, PrimeFilm lets you feed your film directly into the scanner with options for batch scanning the entire roll at once — though I do not recommend doing that. You can even feed framed 35mm slides into PrimeFilm.
Scan resolution. PrimeFilm XA maxes out at 10,000 DPI, which can yield 137-megapixel scans, or images measuring about 14,370 by 9,566 pixels. This is huge. Most digital cameras today create 20~40-megapixel images which are dramatically less detailed. This resolution is comparable to drum scans, though the number alone won’t tell everything about the level of detail as there may be some interpolation and software magic involved to get to the 10K number. Still, it’s leaps and bounds beyond any affordable DSLR. Out of the 137MP files, no more than 20-30MP are usually considered actual image data, grain permitting. But unlike a pixel grid, film grain is interesting and diverse and thus you may consider that extra bit of information pleasing, telling, or fascinating.
CCD scanners do not have expensive lenses or sensors. They usually use cheap, low-res components. They generate more resolution as the image you receive is essentially a “quilt” of sorts, comprised of many individual “photographs.” It takes more time to create those “quilts,” yet they have more consistent focus and distortion levels across the entire frame while packing tons more data. There is, obviously, a lot more to scanning science than quilting, so I’d take this analogy with a grain of salt.
Dynamic range. PrimeFilm sports 48 bits per pixel plus 16 bits in the infrared channel to help reduce dust and scratches on colour emulsions. This is plenty, more than what any DSLR can offer.
Focus. Scanners, just like DSLRs, have to focus on the surface. An overwhelming majority of them, however, do not give any control over the fact. It’s been recommended (page 3) not to focus on the grain to “smooth out” the images back in the day, to match the “digital look.” Times have changed, however, and grain focus is now a strong preference for most. PrimeFilm XA lets you do that manually so you can choose your level of crunchiness. However, manual adjustments will have to be altered between different stocks as the thickness of emulsions varies.
Setup. Flatbeds are a bit cumbersome, DSLR rigs seem somewhat painful. Dedicated scanners like XA are reasonably easy to move around and require nothing other than a power source and a laptop nearby. I must add that PrimeFilm is a clumsy, ugly plastic box that could use a design overhaul.
Software. Epson scanner software is OK; I’ve heard some good things about Negative Lab Pro. Neither is perfect, but nothing is as bad as SilverFast that comes bundled with PrimeFilm. The developers who build and maintain it must hate their customers. It’s probably the ugliest piece of graphic interface you will ever see in 2020, it’s hard to control, and it’s eye-wateringly expensive if you’d like to get any (for the most part useless) “upgrades.” And if you need help, you won’t be able to support unless you pay up. Thankfully, the horrors can be avoided with a $100 VueScan package.
DSLRs don’t require specialized drivers and interface controls like scanners; because of that, newer tools like Negative Lab Pro can be used, so can VueScan. But that workflow isn’t painless either, as I’ve heard multiple complaints about the complexity of film inversion and colour science.
Build quality. PrimeFilm XA looks and feels cheap. If I were to compare it to a camera, it’d be a Vivitar IC 101 — a plastic garbage cam. Should this matter to you, a good digital camera with a sweet lens and a Negative Supply Film Carrier is what you want.
So which method/tool is right for you? Consider the poll I ran on Twitter, where over half of the participants said they chose DSLR scanning because they already have a digital camera. For me, the fact that I neither own a DSLR nor do I have a macro lens and the fact that I shoot 35mm film almost exclusively made the decision quite easy. Certainly, it helps to know that scanners can provide more resolution, though in practice I limit my files to 30-megapixels to save time and disk space.
ViewScan vs. SilverFast.
Not all scanners provide complete APIs that software vendors like VueScan can implement. PrimeFilm does, which gives the photographer a unique power over the digital rig’s interpretation of the analogue resources. Here, there’s an opportunity to make an exact, consistent inversion of all stocks by running a slide film through the scanner and ensuring that its colours match the original. You may not like the results as much, but I believe that this will help you learn more and become a better analogue photographer in a digital world… Thus, my strong recommendation is to spend an additional $100 on the VueScan package to replace SilverFast and decline all of SF’s offers for upgrades. Unless you’re 100% confident that SilverFast will offer you results VS can not.
To be fair, not everything about SilverFast is as atrocious as I might’ve led on earlier. In a way, SF is perfectly capable of delivering similar results to what ViewScan will provide and even has an improvement over VS in two areas. So let’s start with that.
Manual focus adjustment with PrimeFilm XA. If you shoot film cameras, you may appreciate manual focus more than most people holding a mobile device with a lens. There’s more control over the subject matter, a simpler interface, and all mistakes are yours: no machine gets to mess up your perfectly-composed shot. While scanning, you also get more control over your end-result with manual focus: smooth, digital-like gradients in extreme close-ups or crunchy crispness of distinct grain shapes. Don’t expect microscope-level clouds (page 17) for each dot, though, maybe 1² to 8² pixels per clump. ViewScan will require you to select a small part of your image with high contrast, scan it at full resolution, adjust the arbitrary focus value and repeat. SilverFast has a dedicated focus dialogue, a more convenient but not necessarily faster way of doing the same thing.
Automatic adjustments and profile presets. Though showing no particularly heinous flaws, SilverFast gradually becomes more and more annoying with increased use. Its usability issues include confusing, awkward controls and an absence of an override mechanism for built-in automation.
Image data manipulation controls. When you scan your film, a digital copy is created that differs in some ways from the original. The same is true for purely analogue workflows, as the print paper chemistry and the enlarger head’s optics distort the signal.
Digital processes also introduce distortions, random and intended, though they have the potential for more precision and fine-tuning; unfortunately, automation is typically easier to build into software than decent user controls.
Though SilverFast may have better automation than VueScan, its user controls are far behind and offer little or no opportunity to stop the software from altering each frame. And if there is a way, it is either hidden on purpose, a “premium” feature that costs more or a coaching session away that I have no intention of paying for. VS, on the other hand, has easy access to locking of exposure, colour inversion, and other settings to your exact preferences.
Not all scanners provide complete APIs that software vendors like VueScan can implement. PrimeFilm does, which gives the photographer a unique power over the digital rig’s interpretation of the analogue resources. Here, there’s an opportunity to make an exact, consistent inversion of all stocks by running a slide film through the scanner and ensuring that its colours match the original. You may not like the results as much, but I believe that this will help you learn more and become a better analogue photographer in a digital world.
Interface. VueScan isn’t perfect. It fails to load preferences completely, and it has annoying “did you know” pop-ups, which won’t stop happening no matter what on macOS 10.14.6. It also doesn’t have a good interface for manual scanner focus or film advance controls. But it works; in fact, I prefer to manipulate film advance and trigger scans from my PrimeFilm box with physical buttons.
✪ Note: I can only comment on VueScan and SilverFast interfaces for their latest versions, as of December 2020 on macOS Mojave 0.14.6. You may have a different experience.
SilverFast, on the other hand, is a disaster. It comes with a fifteen-year-old MacOS Tiger aesthetic. The copy and the layout are often ambiguous, and I feel like I’m forced to use the software that’s as old as some of my vintage film cameras. Minolta TC-1, for example, ceased production in 2005, the same year Tiger was released.
As a software engineer by profession, I surmise that the German manufacturer made a decision to build their own interface instead of using system APIs, perhaps to counter the early MacOS’ limitations. This decision has likely haunted LaserSoft Imaging as film sales declined and their resources for improvements diminished in the early 2010s. Instead of improving user experience, they focused on building driver support for new scanners and expensive upsells with superficial features.
What’s worse is that the easily preventable issues like the distracting dialogue boxes remain unchanged throughout the years of updates. I can’t even tell what the updates do, though LaserSoft does not fail to remind me that they are “free.”
Thus, my strong recommendation is to spend an additional $100 on the VueScan package to replace SilverFast and decline all of SF’s offers for upgrades. Unless you’re 100% confident that SilverFast will offer you results VS can not.
10MB JPEG files: saving time and disk space.
I used to own a PlusTec OpticFilm scanner a few years back. It gave high-resolution files, which took a lot of disk space and forever to scan. After moving to Thailand, I opted to have the lab scan my film: incredibly convenient. I loved not spending my time in front of a laptop peering at the screen as the data drips in and paying for external hard drives to store enormous uncompressed files.
When the time came to own a scanner again, I decided that time and disk space is more important than data integrity. The negatives will always be the master copy.
Today, I scan my film into 30~70MP JPEG files, which take up around 10MB of disk space each. This is an ideal compromise for the web, as many websites will limit upload size to 5-10MB. For print, there are plenty of pixels for up to 40 “on the long side at 300 DPI. The compression does take some detail away, but it’s not very noticeable unless you enlarge into something rather enormous.
The dynamic range of JPEG files is “fixed” in the sense that they won’t respond to exposure adjustments as well as RAW/TIFF files could. I’m OK with that as well, as I’ve learned that badly exposed photos are just that: missed opportunities. With over 15,000 scanned exposures on my drive, I’ve never really had to rescue any. Should there be one, I’d simply scan it again.
With my own scanner, I can now choose which photos to scan and which to skip. However, I reserve these choices for just the particularly unlucky sets as pre-scanning and deciding takes additional time and attention. I also don’t like the feeling of looking back at half-empty folders and wondering if I misjudged my work. It’s not uncommon to disregard blurry or “inadequate” at the time images and then realize that they are quite desirable in a different light.
Film scanning workflow: the setup.
I live in a small apartment with my wife. My “office” is half of the dining bar-table with some storage on the shelf, a couple of file cabinet drawers, and two ziplock bags of film in the freezer. It comes with a fantastic view, but there’s barely enough space, certainly not enough for a permanent scanning station. Thankfully, PrimeFilm takes up relatively little room and can be easily stoved away when not in use. All that’s needed for the task is the scanner, laptop, scissors, blower, and filing sleeves for the film.
The next step is to prepare a folder to drop the scans into. Over the years, I landed on a convention that goes like this:
Documents > Film > [year] > [month] > [film]-[camera] > [index].jpg
Note that for the [month], I write the date of the scan to simplify things. Though less accurate, this way, there’s no need to track the dates or range of dates, should you have had a roll that lasted months or shot in-between months. I also skip naming my scan files: though this would be good for searchability, I have no mind space for 5,000 (and growing) original titles. Perhaps you can do better. What I have started doing, though, is adding tags to the images, which I think have potential for future publication.
Film scanning workflow: handling film.
If you can’t handle your film by the edges without touching the emulsion, get nitrile gloves — don’t get cotton, it scratches film.
Workspace: the scanner accepts film on one side and pushes it to the other, which means that there needs to be additional space around your machine.
Which way to insert 35mm film into your film scanner? If your film has frame numbers or text markings, they need to appear not mirrored (upside-down is fine). Another way to tell is by the shinier surface, which should be facing the side pointing upwards when inserted into the scanner. Finally, you may examine your photos and see if any of them have text or places you recognize — they must appear not mirrored.
Aside from not being mirrored, the film’s image should be facing you, like a book you’re about to read. This typically means that the manufacturer’s markings on the film, like brand name and frame numbers, will appear upside-down.
Film scanning workflow: presetting focus, exposure, and colours.
There are unlimited possibilities here. You may not like my preferences, but they could be a good starting point. VueScan isn’t good at interpreting its own settings files, so it’s more helpful just to share the screenshots:
I’ve decided not to provide SilverFast defaults in this article as I do not recommend using that software.
Additionally, SilverFast has better out-of-the-box defaults; thus, this exercise isn’t as necessary to get started with it. I’m not just being spiteful.
Film scanning workflow: selecting frames and operating film transport on PrimeFilm XA.
While SilverFast, PrimeFilm, and even VueScan claim that you can do batch scanning, it is not reliable and thus not recommended. By the same token, while you could scan an entire roll without splicing it into five-frame segments, this isn’t recommended as your XA may exhibit issues doing this. And you would also be tasked with managing a pile of very delicate plastic on both sides of your scanner.
Scanning frame-by-frame gives you more control over framing. You may also pre-scan your frames to see if you want to skip a particular one altogether — I only do this for rolls that are particularly bad.
Though XA may seem it is capable of detecting frames, in reality, the scanner estimates them. This means that it blindly measures a typical frame width from the edge of the film inserted — hardly accurate.
The only way to adjust frame position is via the physical scanner controls. To do this, you should pre-scan the first frame of every film strip and adjust the position by lightly tapping the ⏮ and ⏭ buttons, then hitting the preview button again.
You should insert the film facing away from you, which typically means the film’s markings would appear upside-down. This way, you won’t get confused about which way is forward and which way is backward (these directions get reversed if you have your software flip the image for you).
Another way to think of this is to understand that the physical scanner control buttons will match the physical film strip’s transport direction. While the image preview, you may be seeing on your screen could be rotated 90° or 180°.
Film scanning workflow: archiving.
A digital file may not outlive your negative. Data corruption and loss are routine. So is data bloat, which makes finding your work amongst ever-multiplying files hard or impossible. Your film is the source of truth, though it too is at the losing odds with time. Keeping it in archival sleeves designed for the task, free of fingerprints and dust, is an essential practice. So is labelling and filing your scans though I must admit I’ve been slacking with the last one. My hope is to replicate my previous success of identifying the film by the images and comparing them against the scanned copies on my hard drive, which are much better organized.
At least, I can still tell when a roll starts and ends — which isn’t always easy with five-frame strip sleeves designed for folders as each such “page” only carries space for 35 frames. For context, I tend to keep 38-40 frames from each 35mm film roll.
There are options for pocket-like film strip sleeves, which will not fit in the folder but provide ample space to store 36+ frames. Though I would rather not store film rolled up in canisters as I suspect this facilitates scratches.
The future of film scanning.
What I’d like to see happen. An ideal film scanner would retain the capacity of a dedicated film scanner like PrimeFilm XA for resolution. Perhaps even exceed it with better definition. It would be compact, taking up no more space than a laptop. It would be well-built and a pleasure to use, for which I am willing to pay an equivalent of a new laptop. It would be modular; able to scan all or most film formats. It would have a workable batch scanning functionality and would be able to produce images as fast or faster than PrimeFilm XA. It would come with well-designed, well-engineered open-source software that gets regular updates. That software would have excellent defaults created by colour professionals who know how to work with film. The app will give full control to the user with a top-notch user interface or a developer-friendly API with a healthy builder community around it. And there will be multiple manufacturers making these offerings for us photographers to choose from.
What’s happening. Consumer-level film scanners are split into dedicated film machines for a particular format and flatbeds. Both range in build quality, but none feel like an expensive piece of gear like a MacBook (or whatever the PC alternative is for a top-level metal). Neither feels particularly natural to use, there is a lot of undesired automation, and the software they come with is either poorly designed or a proprietary black box. The high-end machines from the early days of digital publishing, to my limited knowledge, are counting their last days as their compatibility with modern computers fade. The only real innovation is in DSLR scanning, ranging from new software to modern film holders, though it comes with its downsides.
What may actually happen. If the pandemic and the looming economic and ecological crises do not curb the analogue photo renaissance, our community may further push the DSLR scanning. Perhaps this will create higher-res DSLR rigs, perhaps even dedicated camera-lens-holder-software packages, which will free us from the need to Frankenstein a scanner out of various components. I can’t be the only film shooter whose only digital camera is an outdated iPhone.