An Introduction To Film Scanning


Why Scan Film?

Scanning film allows photographers to continue to use film while having some of the benefits of digital technology. In this hybrid process, image capture is analogue and output is digital.

Why use a hybrid process? Why not just shoot film and print the images in the darkroom? There are several reasons one might want to replace the printing darkroom with a scanner, editing software, and printer.



In my case, I had to stop working in the darkroom because of poor health. Although my darkroom was well ventilated, and I took proper safety precautions, breathing the chemical fumes from the big open trays of print developer was causing respiratory problems for me. I have been in poor health all of my life; and did not need to add to my problems. I love shooting film, but I was not going to die for my art.



Repeatability is another reason to adopt a hybrid process. I earn part of my living selling my prints. Some of my more popular photographs have been selling over and over for 20 years. In the past, when I ran out of a particular print, or if I needed one in a different size to accommodate a collector’s request, I had to make new prints and make them match the previous prints. Even for an experienced printer, this is not easy if you want an exact match. Especially if the print required much dodging and burning (selective darkening or lightening of discrete parts of the image).

When you scan a negative or transparency, you edit the file in an image editor like Photoshop. You adjust the image’s contrast, brightness, and (for color photographs) color balance and saturation. You do any dodging and burning the image requires. You can crop, and correct perspective. Once you do all of these things, you save the file. That file has all of those adjustments saved within it, so you can make any number of absolutely identical prints from that file that you need. You can even open the file years later and print it.


Digital Display and Delivery

If you have a website to market your work, you need a digital image. You can, of course, scan prints if you do your printing in the darkroom. If you have scanned the film, you can use that file to make a web-sized image for your website. If you sell stock photographs, or you do commercial photography for clients who need a digital file, then the hybrid process allows you to continue to shoot film while selling your work in the modern digital world.


Photograph of an Indiana farm shot on Ilford FP4 film scannedwith a Nikon LS-8000ED film scanner.

A rural Indiana farm photographed on Ilford FP-4 Plus, developed in D-76 1+1 and scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED scanner using Vuescan.



Scanning Best Practices and Tech Tips


Keep Your Film and Scanner Clean

The key to film scanning is the film itself. The film should be in good physical condition. Free of scratches, dust, fingerprints, and creases. If you use a flatbed scanner, or a film scanner that uses a glass film carrier, the glass must also be free of dust, fingerprints, and scratches. These defects on the film or the scanner hardware will show up on your scans.

If the film is dusty, blow the dust off. If you use canned air for this, be aware that most canned air sold in the United States contains a bitter-smelling chemical to discourage idiots from inhaling the canned air’s propellant to get high. The problem with the ‘bitterant’ is that it will leave a residue on your film. If you use a scanner with a glass film holder or a glass platen (on flatbed scanners), then you’ll get this residue on the glass if you use the canned air to blow the dust off the scanner glass as well! Canned air without the bitterant is available through industrial supply companies. Here is the canned air that I use.


Image Quality Matters

The film must be properly exposed and developed. An underexposed negative will lack detail in dark tones, while an overexposed transparency will lack light tone detail. No editing heroics will restore this lost detail, no matter how good your scanner and scan technique.

I am often asked if there is any special developing technique for black and white film that will make the film scan better. In my experience, a properly exposed black and white negative that has been developed to a contrast level that would print well on grade 2 paper in the darkroom using a diffusion enlarger is also the best negative for scanning. In other words, there is no special technique. If it prints well in the darkroom, it’ll scan well.


Scanning Software

I use Vuescan to drive my scanner, a Nikon LS-8000ED. The software that Nikon supplied with the scanner (Nikon Scan) was always slow and buggy. It won’t work at all on modern Macs, and it requires a hack to make it work on modern Windows systems. This is a common problem with many older film scanners; manufacturers stop updating their software after discontinuing the hardware, and the software eventually stops working with later operating systems and computers.

Vuescan is a third-party scanning program that works with hundreds of scanner models, including many discontinued scanners like my seventeen year old Nikon scanner. Because it is continually updated, it works with current Mac and Windows operating systems on modern computer hardware.

The recommendations for scanner settings that I give later in this article are for Vuescan, but most of them should work similarly if you use your scanner manufacturer’s software.


Photograph of acarnival at night. Photographed on Ilford Delta 3200 developed in Tmax Developer and scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED film scanner.

A carnival at night, photographed on Ilford Delta 3200 at EI-1600 and developed in Kodak Tmax Developer. Scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED film scanner using Vuescan software.


The Ideal File

One of the most misunderstood aspects of film scanning concerns the way the scanned image should look. The scanner is designed to give a file that captures all of the tonal range in the original film. This means the file straight from the scanner will look too flat, needing more contrast.

This is especially true of scans from negatives. Film scanners are made to be able to capture the very wide density range of a color transparency. A transparency with a full tonal range will have some areas of clear or nearly clear film, and some areas that are almost completely opaque black.

Negatives, both color and black & white, have a much lower density range. The lightest tones on the film will be nearly clear (remember that light and dark are reversed on a negative, so the light areas on the film represent the darkest tones in the photograph), but the darkest parts of the film (representing the brightest tones in the photograph) will not be nearly as dark as the darkest parts of a transparency.

Because of the much lower density range of a negative, scans from negatives will be much lower in contrast than scans from transparencies. They’ll be so low in contrast that they’ll look flat, muddy, and lifeless. That’s ok! That means all the information in the film was captured in the scan. The image just needs to be edited to bring back the contrast. I use Photoshop for this, but you can use most image editing software.

Looking at the images that I see online from scanned B&W negatives, it seems that most photographers just accept the flat, lifeless, dull image that the un-edited scan provides. Some think that it is how its supposed to be, and some even think that editing the scans is somehow “wrong” or “cheating.” Others know how a black and white image should look, and they conclude that scanning sucks and that it is incapable of quality rendering. That couldn't be further from the truth.


Example #1

An un-edited scan of a black and white negative scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED scanner using Vuescan software. Photograph of a white brick house.

A scan of a black and white negative scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED film scanner, using Vuescan software.

This is the file straight from the scanner, with no editing applied. It is extremely flat and gray. It will need curves and levels adjustments in Photoshop to bring out the tonality we want from the image.


A black and white photograph of a white house,  scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED scanner and edited in Photoshop to bring out the full tonality of the image.

The final image, after using curves and levels adjustments. The photograph now shows a full tonal range.


Example #2

An un-edited scan of a black and white negative scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED scanner using Vuescan software. Photograph of old dolls in an abandoned house.

Once again, the image straight from the scanner is flat and gray.


A black and white photograph of old dolls in an abandoned house,  scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED scanner and edited in Photoshop to bring out the full tonality of the image.

The edited image has beautiful tonality and contrast.


Example #3

An un-edited scan of a color transparency, straight from the scanner. Scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED using Vuescan software.

This is a scan of a color slide, scanned with a Nikon LS-8000ED scanner using Vuescan software. This is the file straight from the scanner, with no editing.

The image is too low in contrast and needs a little color correction. The image is not nearly as flat as the scans of black and white negatives in the first two examples. This is because color transparencies have such a large density range.


A scan of a color transparency, after editing in Photoshop to increase contrast and correct color.

The final image, after editing in Photoshop. I increased contrast slightly, and warmed up the color balance slightly. Transparency scans require far less editing to produce the final image than do negative scans.


Recommended Scanner Settings

I have tutorials for Black and White Film Scanning, Color Negative Scanning, and Color Transparency Film Scanning that go into detail about the specific settings that you should use in your scan software. They're based upon Vuescan, but the basic settings I give should work in most other scanning software as well.





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©2023 Christopher Crawford