Digital Focus: The ABCs of Scanning Old Photos

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Feature: The ABCs of Scanning Old Photos

I'm a careful guy--but I'm not without my inconsistencies. On one hand, I have carefully organized my thousands of digital photos with keywords for easy reference in photo-organizer software on my PC. And I also keep a regular backup so they won't get lost in a hard disk disaster. On the other, I still have hundreds of important photos trapped in the real world: My sole copies of slides, prints, and negatives share shoe boxes in a back closet, where it would take me a week to find a specific photo if the need arose. And they're slowly, steadily degrading.

Of course, I don't plan to live this way forever. I have the technology in place to scan my old pictures; and I've already made digital copies of about a quarter of my collection. If you want to do the same, you should get your hands on a scanner that's up for the task. This week, let's take a look at what you need in a photo scanner.

Choosing the Right Equipment

When I bought my first scanner, I paid $600 to get a 300-dots-per-inch flatbed model that drove the sensor past the document three separate times to make a full-color scan. Scanning a snapshot was a 5-minute ordeal. My unit didn't come with any way to scan slides or negatives, and it required a SCSI adapter.

Times have changed: You can now pay less than $200 for a fast, high-quality flatbed scanner that connects to your PC's USB port. There are some great deals out there. Personally, I recommend the Epson Perfection 2400, an all-around excellent 2400-dpi scanner that I found for about $150 at PC World's Product Finder.

The trick, of course, is finding a flatbed that handles all the scanning jobs you might need. You can buy flatbeds with standard and oversized scanning beds, for instance. If you need to scan larger documents--such as 8.5 by 14 inches--you'll usually end up paying a lot more than for cheaper units with letter-size maximums. For example, Hewlett-Packard's Scanjet 8200 (a PC World Best Buy) has a legal-sized scanning bed, and costs more than $400.

For more top-rated scanners, see PC World's "Top Flatbed Scanners."

The Case For Film Scanners

So far, I've focused on flatbed scanners, with good reason: Flatbeds are convenient. They let you scan ordinary photos, and--with the help of a transparency adapter--can also handle slides and negatives. But flatbeds usually lack both the dynamic range and the resolution to give you truly professional results with slides and negatives. That's fine if you usually scan prints. Prints are large enough that 600 or 1200 dpi is usually more than enough resolution for any scanning job. And flatbeds have plenty of dynamic range for the limited color palette found in most commercially printed photos.

Flatbeds fall short, though, when scanning tiny slides and negatives that need more dpi to accurately reproduce. And there are colors locked in slides that a flatbed scanner simply can't reproduce. So if you have lots of prized transparencies, you may want to grab a film scanner instead.

On the downside, film scanners ratchet up the price tag. They start around $300 and can reach into the thousands. But what you get in exchange is professional quality scans. Nikon's Coolscan V, for instance, clocks in just under $600 and has a 4000-dpi scanning engine optimized for slides and negatives.

Of course, you needn't spend quite that much. For example, the Konica Minolta Dimage Scan Dual IV costs a more modest $275, making it one of the least expensive good-quality film scanners I've ever seen. (You can go to our Product Finder to check the latest prices.).

It's All in the Dynamic Range

As I mentioned earlier, film scanners deliver a wider dynamic range than flatbeds, which means they can discern more levels of brightness throughout the image. Scanners with a low dynamic range turn subtle shadows into blotchy clumps of mud.

The payoff is in far greater detail in the darker regions of your photos. With a flatbed at 2400 dpi, you'll get indistinct darkness with randomly colored digital noise. With a good-quality film scanner, though, you'll see nothing but finely detailed levels of black. Of course, the downside is that film scanners can't scan prints, so some people end up buying both a flatbed and a film scanner to get their old photos into the PC.

For more on scanners for photographers, see my previous article on this topic.

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